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The State of Nature: Where Does Personality Fall?

November 8, 2010
We’ve spent a great deal of time in Political Science 101 exploring the proverbial state of nature–that is, the period in time before humans came to their senses and decided to organize a government.  Although Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rosseau have extremely different views on how mankind operated before government, all three of these political philosophers agree upon the fact that man was, at one point, a natural beast.

Hobbes’ idea of man in the state of nature is arguably the ugliest of the three aforementioned philosophers.  Hobbes believed that man, in the state of nature was cold and brutal.  He believed man to have lived in a state of persistent fear with no camaraderie, waiting to kill or be killed.  The Hobbesian state of nature is, for lack of a better term, a dog-eat-dog world.

Locke’s state of nature is a bit cozier.  According to Locke, humans in the state of nature (for the most part) knew the difference between wrong and right.  Locke states in The Second Treatise of Government that all men are created equal by God, and before government is formed, they are capable of working together to maintain basic peace.  Although violence is likely to occur in this state of nature, it is usually punished by the majority of people in that state of nature.

Unlike Locke, Rosseau ignored the biblical account of human development when concocting his idea of the state of nature.  Rosseau’s account of the state of nature is possibly more animalistic than Hobbes’.  Rosseau imagined man in a state of nature as a lone creature with no knowledge of good or evil.  Man in Rosseau’s state of nature is a simple-minded animal cheerfully sustaining his own life.  Rosseau states that shortly after humans comes into contact with each other, they begin to compare themselves to one another, and are pulled out of the state of nature.

Let’s recap on our three different natural human prototypes.  Hobbes presents us with a cold brute; Locke with an assertive, level-headed team player; and Rosseau with a happy, borderline-enlightened wanderer.  Each of these three philosophers assert that every human, before the development of government, matched his specific archetype.  My question is this: who’s to say that all three of these achetypes didn’t exist at once?

More than “nature,” I feel that  personality is responsible for these three different models.  In my opinion, it makes more sense for mankind to develop when a meek wanderer meets a brute in the wilderness, rather than when a brute meets another brute.  When two of Hobbes’ muscular Cro-Magnons meet in the woods, they fight over a piece of food.  One wins, one loses, mankind remains stagnant.  When one of Hobbes’ muscular Cro-Magnons meets one of Locke’s level-headed  team players in the wilderness, they strike a deal to split food, both parties benefiting in the end.  They learn from each other and mankind progresses rather than remaining in one place

Personality must play a role in the state of nature, simply because humans are not all the same. Our vastly differing genetic makeup prevents us from all being the same man or woman in the state of nature.  Look at a stereotypical high school movie setting–think The Breakfast Club. You have the bully.  The bully is hulking, angry, and only interested in himself.  Sounds like Hobbes’ guy, to me.  But who does the bully pick on when he’s surrounded entirely by other Hobbesian bullies?  Throw the school’s dodge-ball target into the mix, and everything changes.  All of a sudden, a naturally intelligent, scrawny fellow has to think his way out of getting his lunch money stolen.  Enter Locke’s all-American quarterback stage right with a gaggle of his friends–the dynamic changes once again.  The personalities of human beings are not solely nurtured by society–we have natural predispositions to act certain ways based on our psychological and physical makeup, and we must have had those same predispositions and personalities before government was formed.
4 Comments
  1. Jessie Altman permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:32 AM

    I think that discussing personality in these philosophers’ state of nature is interesting. However, I don’t necessarily agree with what you are saying. I would not say that personality is responsible for creating these different models of nature. I agree that every man in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau’s state of nature would have varying personalities but I do not think that would change their state’s of nature. In Hobbes state of nature every man needs to be able to defend himself against the rest of the population. Regardless of whether a man is kind-hearted or not, if someone threatens you an instant self preservation response will kick in. In Locke’s state of nature even though there is more camaraderie, he says that violence is likely to occur. And if someone with a brutish personality threatened another man, Locke states that the majority would most likely punish him. So while I do agree that there are different personalities in the state of nature, I do not think that would change any of the aforementioned philosophers’ theories.

  2. mbhilton permalink
    November 8, 2010 1:03 PM

    It’s something to consider. If you think about it you have a valid point. I’ve been thinking for a while now that all the social contract theorists theories came from what they saw and felt in the society that they lived in. And it has been shown that the earliest humans we have records of were social creatures so any theories of what came before that can only be conjecture.

  3. Kali permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:25 PM

    I think, mbhilton, has come the closest to the truth. Neanderthal lived together in close family and tribe settings. Although they were limited in expressing themselves with language it is clear that they were capable of art. Even then personality and self-expression was a part of life. Before them we have only a few specimens of our earliest ancestors. There is no way of knowing how those before Neanderthal lived, unless we look today at the animal kingdom. Apes and monkeys live together in close family groups as well. By studying them scientists have discovered even they have personalities that vary through the group. Social structures are also apparent. I agree with the point that it is probable that these theorists were seeing the world through their own perspective of it. That is why the three differ so much. Their personalities and life experiences lead them to conclusions, however their conclusions can not be based at all on fact, only their own views. I don’t think early humans had a concept of right and wrong, only what was best for their survival. If one of them put the survival of the group in jeopardy, it is likely that one would have found themselves no longer a part of the group.

  4. jonbon113 permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:50 PM

    I think that at one point all three personalities would have existed, but I will challenge the notion as not being the true state of nature since it presupposes certain events. When you state that a brute meeting a brute would result in stagnation because one would win the food force and the other would lose, I do not think that stagnation would logically follow. If the losing brute always died, then yes stagnation would occur. But this is not necessarily the case. The losing brute may lose, escape, and learn from his mistakes in dealing with other brute. To assume that everyone was brutes, however, presupposes that there must have always been a shortage of food. This is not the case. Let us then consider a “mixer.” When a brute meets a team leader, whose to say that the brute would not just kill the leader or overpower him? They do not always have to make a deal and deal is not always synonymous with progress. A deal may be just as stagnant as losers always dying. However, whoever loses may adopt the other’s personality since it seems to be the winning personality. Thus, the first personality adopted is changed in reaction to a new situation. What I mean to say with all this is that the Hobbesian natural man may have derived from a particular situation involving a scarcity of food and supplies, whereas the savage man of Rousseau and Locke enjoyed relative comfort, albeit the Lockean one enjoyed a more societal calmness (theoretically) compared to the individualized savage of Rousseau. Then, did these personalities comingle and then mix and match depending on which ones worked in resulting situations. Thus, with all the different situations to encounter, it is possible that all these personalities came to be and existed as reactionary. As certain savages were forced to adopt certain personalities, resulting generations were raised with these lessons in mind, and the whole concept of personality became an issue of nurture and not nature (genetics). Therefore, i push the argument further by stating that all three states of nature described are not founded on man’s true nature. They are founded on his adopted personality in response to external stigma ie other men and the environment. I conclude by saying that ‘state of nature’ is not reflective of man’s nature other than to say that he is a beast of perpetual adaptation.

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