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Comparing and Contrasting Locke and Hobbes’ State of Nature

October 20, 2010

Locke and Hobbes are both famed political philosophers whose writings have been greatly influential in the development of modern political thought. In addition, the two are similar in that both refer to a “state of nature” in which man exists without government, and both speak of risks in this state. However, while both speak of the dangers of a state of nature, Hobbes is more pessimistic, whereas Locke speaks of the potential benefits. In addition, Hobbes speaks of states of nature theoretically, whereas Locke points out examples where they exist.

The common thread between Hobbes’ state of nature and Locke’s state of nature is that Hobbes and Locke both speak to the dangers of a state of nature.  Both men refer to men as being equal in this state; Hobbes states that “nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of mind and body…..the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Wootton, 158). Similarly, Locke describes the nature of nature as a “state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another” (Wootton, 288). Despite this equality, however, both men warn of the danger of the state of nature.  For Hobbes, the entire time that man is in a state of nature, he is in a state of war. He states that “if any two men cannot enjoy the same thing, they become enemies and in the way to their end….endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” (Wootton, 158). Locke too points out risks, saying that without the “law of nature” (further discussed in the next paragraph) everyone may execute decisions, leading to a state of war (Wootton, 290).  To summarize, both refer to the dangers of a state of nature, and describe states of war existing in the state of nature.

Despite these similarities between the two ideas, Locke and Hobbes’ state of nature do differ from one another. First, for Hobbes, the nature of nature is perpetually in a state of war.  According to Hobbes, the chief reason why men given up their authority to the sovereign is to seek peace, and avoid the “fear of death” (Wootton 160). By contrast, while Locke does speak of states of war as well, for him they are a subset of the state of nature, and not the entire equation. Locke specifically states that “men living together according to reason…is properly the state of nature. But force, upon the person of another…is the state of war” (Wootton,291). Thus, by this reasoning, Locke’s state of nature is a much kinder place than Hobbes’, where man’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Wootton 159). In addition, another difference between the theories of the two men is that Hobbes speaks hypothetically of states of nature, whereas Locke points out times when state of nature actually exists. Locke believes that all rulers are in a state of nature, and governors as well (Wootton, 290). The key difference between Locke and Hobbes in this area is the specifying of the existence of a state of nature, the greater negativity of Hobbes, and Locke’s use of examples in contrast to Hobbes’ hypotheticals.

In conclusion, while the states of nature of Hobbes and Locke have their similarities, they also have key difference. They are similar in that both men recognize the dangers within a state of nature, and they also both acknowledge the perfect equality of man in this state. Their theories differ, however, when it comes to the extent of the state of war, the more negative perspective of Hobbes on man’s natural state, and in their use of examples (or lack thereof).


Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print.

  1. Taylor Fields permalink
    October 21, 2010 1:41 PM

    We just did this activity in class. I think you are correct, but you miss a few key differences. Hobbes does believe man is in a constant state of war, but Locke does not because he believes that man follows natural law even in the state of nature. Regardless if man has the liberty to do something, he understands he has no right to harm someone, because this is established in a universal natural law. Locke’s state of nature is much more pleasant that Hobbes because of this established code, not because Locke is just a happier more optimistic person, but because he believes that humans inherently agree to a moral code.

  2. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    October 21, 2010 11:59 PM

    Today we discussed and contrasted both state of natures, although at first Locke’s state of nature may just seem one of inconvenience and not that unpleasant, later on, it does appear to in fact be unpleasant, due to the “noxious creatures”, which are individuals who act against reason and use unnecessary violence, and it is because of these individuals that Locke suggest we want to get out of the state of nature. Additionally, Locke’s theory does not star with an assumption of scarcity, Hobbes’s theory contradicts this.

  3. matteric9 permalink
    October 24, 2010 11:13 AM

    I do agree with you in the sense that Hobbes and Locke have a different view on the “state of nature.” However, I think a very important difference that you forgot to mention is the people in the state of nature. According to Locke, the people in the state of nature do not have to ask permission to act or depend on the will of others. In Hobbes’s state of nature, the people of the commonwealth give the sovereign the right to act on behalf of them.

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