The state of nature.

Understanding the State of Nature

The state of nature is the state humans lived in before forming the first societies. By examining the state of nature, we can better understand the implicit and explicit social contracts which govern societies.

Social structures become clearer if we look at the way people live in a state of nature, examine what natural rights and liberties they enjoyed, and see what natural threats they faced. We can understand why people form societies through this excercise as well as the purpose of government and whether a given civil law or leader is just and unjust.

From this concept the past social contract theorists have drawn two different conclusions that anthropology and archeology can back up:

  • The state of nature is a state of war (Hobbes).
  • The state of nature is a state of peace (Rousseau and Montesquieu).

We will explore these realist and idealist positions, the scientific data we do have, and the related dilemma below.

War & Human Nature: Crash Course World History 204. A good overview of the topic.

TIP: This page is part of series about the social contract. See an overview of social contract theory and the state of nature.

Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu. This video is good in content if not in visual quality.

Hobbes and the State of Nature.

Where Does the State of Nature Argument Originate?

Aristotle wrote about “the state of nature.” In his 350 BC work, Politics, he described the state as a naturally occurring social system where people form units of increasing self-sufficiency. Alone, families a barely self-sufficing entity When several families unite to form tribes they become somewhat self-sufficient. Finally “the state” is a larger union and a fully self-sufficing entity.[1]

In the late 1500’s,  James I of England / IV of Scotland, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland, had a discussion with his tutor, the somewhat radical liberal Protestant George Buchanan. Buchanan was known as one of the greatest minds of his time. Their debate ranged around an early version of the state of nature argument and the interrelated social contract argument.

Read more about Where Does the State of Nature Argument Come From?

Is the State of Nature the State of War, or the State of Peace?

Now that we know the origin story of the argument let’s focus on the major social contract theorists to describe the argument between the state of nature as a state of war or a state of peace.

There are two main theories on what the state of nature is like:[2][3]

The State of Nature is a State of War

  • Hobbes: The state of nature is “a war of all against all” (actually says: “Warre Of Every One Against Every One”), the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. “In Such A Warre, Nothing Is Unjust.” See Leviathan (1651) Chapter XIII (13).
  • Locke: Agrees with Hobbes, but says we have natural rights, including the right to life, liberty, property, and the consent to be governed. See Second Treatise of Government (1689) chapter 2.

Hobbes and Locke see man as naturally having a bad streak, and see government as that which protects individuals from individuals. The difference is Hobbes thinks leaders should have absolute power and Locke thinks they should have limited power.

TIP: Early political theorists who touch on Hobbes’ points include Aristotle‘s rivals the sophists. They thought that the state arose simply by convention.[4]King James I‘s 1597-98 wrote The True Law of Free Monarchies  (or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King and His Natural Subjects) and Basilikon Doron (His Majesties Instrvctions To His Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince). In these works, James presents down the Divine Right of King’s argument for the what might be the first time in modern discourse.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared

The State of Nature is a State of Peace

  • Rousseau: In the state of nature man is a peaceful, noble savage. Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. The most ancient society and the only natural one is the society of the family. This is the best example of a basic social contract. Another contract theorist, Sir Robert Filmer agreed but drew a different conclusion. See The Social Contract (1762) Book 1.
  • Montesquieu: The savages found in forests “tremble at the motion of a leaf, and fly from every shadow.” People aren’t naturally at war; they are naturally in “flight mode.” They fancy themselves too inferior to attack another. The idea of empire and dominion is so complex, and depends on so many other notions, that it could never be the first which occurred to the human understanding. See the Spirit of Laws (1748) Book 1.

Rousseau and Montesquieu see man as naturally good, and society and possessions as corrupting. Both believed that laws represent and protect the people’s natural goodness and their natural General Will.

TIP: Two other works that present the state of nature as a state of peace and cooperation are: Aristotle (Politcs 350 BC) and Buchanan’s 1579 work De jure regni apud Scotos (The Powers of the Crown in Scotland; or, A dialogue concerning the due privilege of government in the kingdom privilege of government in the kingdom of Scotland).

Montesquieu & Rousseau – A 206 Experience Workshop

These two differing theories leave us with a few questions:

  • Is man naturally good or bad?
  • Is the state of nature a state of war or peace?
  • Why do people form families, tribes, states, and governments?
  • How much power should leaders have, should this power be based on consent, and are there natural rights which should never be violated unless one violates the implicit social contract?
  • Is a leader’s power absolute? To what extent is a monarch’s power absolute? To what extent is it divine?
  • What is the difference between despotism, tyranny, and monarchy?
  • Is there an enforceable implicit social contract in the first place?

Is the State of Nature the State of War?

Hobbes said that the state of nature was a war of all-against-all. An absolute monarch ruling by Divine right may make more sense. Montesquieu and Rousseau argued the state of war doesn’t arise until after societies form. They believed that people have natural rights and are “the first estate.”

It is difficult to tell which of these thinkers are correct, as it’s been very roughly 7,000 years since the first proper societies formed during the Neolithic Revolution. It has been 5,000 years since people began writing things down. If we look around the world using archeological and anthropological data and factor in what we know, we can make some conjectures. We can’t look at people without families or tribes, but we can look at unconnected tribes who have avoided civilization. We can examine the most isolated tribes to see if they war, if they form families, if they are patriarchies, and if they have systems of reciprocity.[5][6]

15 Isolated Tribes Cut Off From Modern Society. A tribe is a rudimentary society, so this isn’t “a pure state of nature” still, as we can see, some war and some don’t. People are not very consistent. This gives weight to Hobbes’ theory as one bad apple spoils the bunch.

Did Hobbes Say “Bellum omnium contra omnes“?

First, let’s clarify what Hobbes meant when he said, “Bellum omnium contra omnes.” It translates from Latin as, “the war of all against all.” He says this in Latin in De Cive, but details the concept in Leviathan when he says “Warre Of Everyone Against Everyone.”

Is the State of Nature a War of All Against All?

Hobbes’ theory of the state of nature can be paraphrased as, “people are naturally good and bad, but because they are bad, the state of nature of nature is very bad.”

Hobbes wasn’t suggesting everyone was at war literally; he was only pointing out that some were. Thus, everyone lived in constant insecurity.

To Hobbes, a state of war is a state insecurity and uncertainty. It does not necessarily consist of actual fighting, but “a known disposition thereto, during which there is no assurance to the contrary” (ch. 13)[7]

Hobbes’ goal is to prove that absolute monarchy is needed based on the state of nature. Whether he does this or not is a matter of opinion, but we can clarify that the main theme is one of insecurity and uncertainty, not literal constant war. In this, he isn’t too far off from Montesquieu who himself is misunderstood often.

Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another… therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which neverthelesse they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, (which is principally their owne conservation, and sometimes their delectation only,) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other. – Hobbes

TIP: Locke doesn’t present an alternative theory. Instead he plays off Hobbes while coming to different conclusions.

…Because we are all equal and independent, no-one ought to harm anyone else in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… Wherever law ends, tyranny begins… the consent of the people… is the only lawful basis for government. – John Locke

Is the State of Nature the State of Peace?

Rousseau thought we only needed to look at the Native Americans to see that man was a “noble savage.” He never said those words exactly, although he described the concept. As soon as the Europeans brought mirrors, alcohol, money, and other vanities, the natives lost their pureness and were corrupted. Thus, he came to the conclusion that it was possessions and society that corrupted and that the goal of the social contract was not protection, but the preservation and fostering of man’s natural goodness. This would be man’s General Will if he could decipher it.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”… Our will is always for our own good, but we don’t always see what that is; the populace is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and then—but only then—it seems to will something bad. – Rousseau

TIP: Rousseau essentially sums up Montesquieu’s theory.

As soon as men enter into a state of society, they lose the sense of their weakness; equality ceases, and then commences the state of war… Better is it to say, that the government most conformable to nature is that which best agrees with the humour and disposition of the people in whose favour it is established.The strength of individuals cannot be united without a conjunction of all their wills. “The conjunction of those wills, is what we call the civil state.” – Montesquieu

Donald Kagan on War and Human Nature. A Yale classical historian discusses war and human nature.

What is the State of Nature?

Although I don’t have the weight of the great social contract theorists behind me to put my theory forward, I think there is only one conclusion to draw:

The state of nature is a state of both peace and fear. People are good and bad, and the groups they form are good and bad depending on factors of culture and environment.

We can consider people before societies, but it is hard to consider people before a family. A strong case can be made in either scenario that cooperation and competition both play key roles.

We can’t know any of this for sure, and the lost tribes we find run the gamut from good and bad, matriarchal to patriarchal, war-like to peaceful, etc. Perhaps it is best to draw wisdom from all the philosophers without adopting any of their points with too much zeal. This is I think exactly what Hume suggested. Montesquieu pointed this out in his forward when he asked the reader not to dismiss 20 years of work in one sitting. Rousseau implied it when he said, “I warn you that this chapter requires careful reading, and that I don’t have the skill to make myself clear to someone who won’t attend.”

Despite the fact that we can use our reason and the law to live in an advanced civilized society, if “some war” then, The Prisoner’s Dilemma tells us a lot of what we need to know about the purpose of government and the state of nature.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma


  1. Major Themes of Sophistic Thought a. Nature and Convention
  3. Social Contract Theory
  4. Aristotle’s Theory of the Origin of the State
  5. 10 Tribes That Avoided Modern Civilization
  6. Uncontacted peoples
  7. Why is the state of nature a state of war – PDF

"What is the State of Nature?" is tagged with: Evolution, Left–right Politics, Liberty, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Theories

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