The Origin of the State of Nature Argument
We often attribute the origin of the state of nature argument to Hobbes, but it can be traced to thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Sophists in the 300’s BC, and is then mused on by other early philosophers.
It makes sense that the argument goes back to some of the first important recorded philosophers, as these philosophers tried to answer questions like “what is the ideal city-state?”, “what is the ideal government or class structure?”, and “what is the nature of man?”. To answer questions like these, it helps to think of humans before they entered into the first social contracts.
With the above said, it wasn’t just the Greeks who brought up the state of nature and social contract well before 16th and 17th century thinkers like Hobbes, Filmer, and Locke. Several European philosophers used early versions of the state of nature argument in their political theory.
Thomas Aquinas spoke on natural law in Summa Theologiae (I-IIae, 91, 1). Machiavelli, in Livy chapter CHAPTER XVI, asserts power arises from the citizenry. George Buchanan, in his Powers of the Crown of Scotland, makes a case similar to Machiavelli (discussed below). And generally, the argument continues in important works from Marx in the 1800’s to Rawls in modern times.
While none of the early theorists perhaps use the theory to the extent of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, their works merit examination none-the-less (especially for an origin story).
Simply, the important thing to grasp is that while we may look to Hobbes when talking about the state of nature, concepts like the ideal state, state of nature, and social contract and how they relate to ethics, justice, morality, fairness, and law goes far beyond the work of any on philosopher; it is rather just the core of political philosophy.
What is the state of nature? The state of nature is how humans lived before forming the first societies (“the city-state” and “civil government”). It is examined to better understand people’s natural and civil rights in civil society (the social contract).
TIP: Plato doesn’t muse all that much on the state of nature, but his Republic does discuss it while going into detail on the social contract and perfect state. So when looking for founders of the theory, both Aristotle, Plato, and their Sophist opposition are good places to look. The fact that they discussed the concept implies that its roots perhaps go back even further.
The State of Nature Aristotle Vs. The Sophists
Aristotle wrote on “the state of nature” in his 350 BC work Politics. He described the state as a naturally occurring social system where people form families (a barely self-sufficing entity). After the family unit, tribes form when several families unite to be somewhat self-sufficient. Finally “the state,” a fully self-sufficing entity, forms as a larger group. Each was a natural evolution of the desire to avoid loneliness and live efficiently in a state of peace. This was a rebuttal of the sophists’ argument that says that the state arose by convention as a product of arbitrary human convention, not physis or natural but nomos or normative convention.
He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state or anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place, there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female. – Aristotle’s Politics, where the first society and social contract is that of the family; then from there families form tribes; then tribes form city-states as a natural evolution (not a convention).
An Introduction to Aristotle’s Politics – A Macat Politics Analysis.
TIP: Socrates was Plato’s teacher; Plato, Aristotle’s teacher; and Aristotle, Alexander the Great’s teacher. Later George Buchanan taught a young Mary, Queen of Scots and then her son and future King James I of England/IV of Scotland. He taught the lessons of past philosophers including the Greeks like Aristotle and Romans like Livy. His knowledge of Livy was probably drawn directly from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livy in which he expresses a preference for a free republic of sovereign citizens.
READ: Aristotle Politics 350 BC.
The State of Nature James I vs. George Buchanan
Later, centuries after the Greeks and Romans, in the late 1500’s there was a conversation of sorts between James I of England / IV of Scotland (King of England, Scotland, and Ireland) and his tutor, the early liberal Protestant George Buchanan. Buchanan was known as one of the greatest minds of his time. He continued the conversation with an early version of the state of nature argument along with the interrelated social contract argument.
In this indirect discourse, Buchanan says the state of nature is firstly a state of peace and cooperation (like Aristotle) where it is just to overthrow a Tyrant (mirroring the future arguments Jefferson and Locke).
Meanwhile, James VI, in a letter to his son offered philosophical thoughts as a guidebook for future Princes. He advocated for the benevolent rule of a free monarchy (a liberal monarchy) via the Divine Right of Kings. He viewed God as the first father, society as patriarchal, and the Kings duty as that of a benevolent father.
Here we have the core of the debate that would color the Glorious Revolution, American Revolution, and French Revolution in the times of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
The Kings and Queens of England – King James I. What was the state of nature like, is the source of the power the people or the king, should we choose Protestantism or Catholicism, should we have a republic? All good questions that would be at the basis of all political discourse to come.
FACT: King James I of England can be credited with the modern Divine Right of King’s argument although it is likely he had help in penning his words.
MYTH: I’ve read that people have pointed to Buchanan as being a critic of Mary (see her legacy from Wikipedia for instance). However, a close reading of his 1579 treatise De Jure Regni apud Scotos, is clearly a book on “why it was ok to Kill the [alleged] Tyrant Lord Darnley, James’ father.” Very shortly into the book, he says, “For if they [the foreign critics of Scotland] abhor the wickedness of the first crime so greatly, how can they consistently censure the severity of the punishment? Or, if they are vexed that the Queen has been humiliated, they must approve the first [Darnley’s murder]. Choose, then, which of the two appears the more horrible: for neither they nor you, if you wish to be consistent, can praise or blame both.” The theme is that the source of political power is the people, that the king is bound by those conditions under which the supreme power was first committed to his hands, and that it is lawful to resist, even to punish, TYRANTS. The work is written for James I, Mary’s son and Buchanan taught both of them.
TIP: For some perspective Machiavelli, father of political science, wrote his masterwork Discourses on Livy in 1517 and Hobbes his in 1651 masterwork Leviathan where he states a preference for the absolute monarchy but not specifically the Divine Right of Kings.
READ: King James I‘s 1597-98 works 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). Buchanan’s 1579 work is worth reading as well, De jure regni apud Scotos (The Powers of the Crown of Scotland; or, a dialogue concerning the due privilege of government in the kingdom of Scotland).
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau: The State of Nature, and the Social Contract
As noted above, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have this same state of nature conversation indirectly (revolving around the same states England, Ireland, Scotland, France, and the American colonies) each taking a unique, but comparable, view.
Thus, the state of nature argument asks, “how was the state of nature?”, but to the end of “why do governments form?” and thus “what is the correct form of government?”, and “what natural rights do people have in terms of liberty, right, consent, and overthrowing tyrants?”.. and vitally, how can we prove this not with pure reason, but empirically.
Locke sides with Buchanan, Machiavelli, and Aristotle, Hobbes sides with James I, and the mixed-Republics born from the revolutions show that, in practice, that neither side won.
In other words, the state of nature argument is the foundation upon which social contract theory, and in many ways modern liberal republics, rest.
TIP: Many other social contract theorists from Montesquieu to Marx have added important elements to the conversation. See our page on social contract theory for more on other theorists. See our “what is the state of nature page?” to see a debate on whether the state of nature is “a state of war” or “a state of peace.”
TIP: Like Aristotle and Alexander or Buchanan and Mary and James, Hobbes’ work is at the heart of the events surrounding Cromwell’s revolution. When the Glorious Revolution of 1688 takes place, it is Locke at the heart of it. When the French Revolution takes place, a favorite text of the revolutionaries was Rousseau. America’s story likewise involves Madison’s influence Montesquieu and Jefferson’s influence Locke… and do we need to point out for Lenin it was Marx? It is nothing short of a mistake to underestimate the state of nature argument and its importance in modern society.
TIP: Shortly after the printing press was developed in the West, Europe (especially England, Scotland, and France) experienced a literary Enlightenment. This came in no small part from intelligentsia like Buchanan reading the Greeks; his works are essentially mirror images of Plato’s style. In this time, Protestantism also took hold due to the press. The ongoing struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, and liberalism and conservativism don’t begin with the European enlightenment. The Maritime Republics, the Roman Republic, the Golden Age in the Middle East, China, and India are all noteworthy. However, the modern conversation does start there. Thus, for our purposes, the state of nature argument began with Aristotle vs. Plato and then the sometimes forgotten James I vs. Buchanan.
- Major Themes of Sophistic Thought a. Nature and Convention
- George Buchanan
- the Divine Right of Kings
- The True Law of Free Monarchies
- Basilikon Doron
- De jure regni apud Scotoss
"Where Does the State of Nature Argument Come From?" is tagged with: Ethics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Liberty, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Social Contract Theory and the State of Nature, Theories