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The State of Nature: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?

April 16, 2011



How Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke were shaped by their experiences.

Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were among the theorists whose work was assigned reading for Political Science 101 students this term.  All three are social contract theorists, but they differed on several important issues, among them, their conception of the State of Nature.  Hobbes famously imagined it as a state of war, a struggle of all against all.  Hobbes would probably be in agreement with Martin Luther on the subject of war: “War is the greatest plague … Any scourge is preferable to it.”   For Hobbes, one fled the State of Nature in order to preserve one’s life.  Locke took a less negative view towards the State of Nature.  While he did feel that it was best to establish a social contract, for him the problem with the State of Nature was its inconvenience.  It was a matter of efficiency, not of life or death.  For Rousseau, however, the State of Nature was in fact preferable to the civilized order.  What Hobbes saw as a blessed escape, Rousseau perceived as a fall from grace.

It is interesting that three intelligent men who focused their energies on the same topic came up with such divergent interpretations.  Why did each of them feel the way that he did?  An analysis of the context in which each of these three theorists lived may provide us with some clues.  The defining event of Hobbes’ life was the English Civil War, a struggle that saw massive suffering and the devastation of his homeland – and the defeat of the side with which Hobbes was aligned.  For Hobbes, the breakdown of order was a horrible thing, to be avoided at all costs.  The other major European event of his era, The Thirty Years War, would have reinforced that view.  If this was what life was like when the social contract lapsed, then establishing a social contract would be a top priority, worth almost any sacrifice.  For Locke, the defining event of his life was another upset of the established order, the Glorious Revolution.  But, the Glorious Revolution was a brief and (largely) non-violent affair; indeed it has also been called the Bloodless Revolution.  Moreover, while Hobbes was aligned with the losing side to such an extent that he was forced to flee the country when the king was overthrown, Locke had his money on the winning horse.  For Locke, this brief disruption might have been an inconvenience, but he was better off when it was over and it did not cause much devastation.  Rousseau did not experience any significant war at all.  Instead, this Genevan in France contended with the problem of too much order.  The French government was repressive, and Rousseau saw his books banned or even burned by Royal authority, while he himself faced unpleasant government scrutiny

Considering the events that shaped the lives of these three theorists, it is not surprising that they came to take the stances which they did.  Hobbes saw massive suffering when the established order broke down, and as a result he argued that anything was preferable to the chaos that emerged in the absence of a strong central authority.  Rousseau, who struggled with government interference and never experienced a war in his life, idealized a state of affairs free from the governmental harassment that he faced.  Locke, whose life experiences fell somewhere between those two extremes, had a conception of the state of nature that was more moderate than either of the other two options.

What, then, does this do for our understanding of political theory?  It does not necessarily change one’s understanding of any of the three author’s texts as texts (although a concept of the context of a work’s production can at times prove helpful in understanding the work).  However, it does seem to show how, since all three of these theorists were divorced from the state of nature, with no experience of it, they based their description of the state of nature on what that they did experience – be it war or persecution by Royal authority – and therefore their ideas related to the state of nature should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.  This should also serve as a reminder that we should be cautious about making any claim that one thing or another is natural; after all, we are just as far separated from a true state of nature as any of these three theorists.

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