Comparing and Contrasting Locke and Hobbes’ State of Nature
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.