Hobbes Philosophy Essay

1. Major Political Writings

Hobbes wrote several versions of his political philosophy, including The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (also under the titles Human Nature and De Corpore Politico) published in 1650, De Cive (1642) published in English as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society in 1651, the English Leviathan published in 1651, and its Latin revision in 1668. Others of his works are also important in understanding his political philosophy, especially his history of the English Civil War, Behemoth (published 1679), De Corpore (1655), De Homine (1658), Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (1681), and The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance (1656). All of Hobbes's major writings are collected in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by Sir William Molesworth (11 volumes, London 1839–45), and Thomae Hobbes Opera Philosophica Quae Latina Scripsit Omnia, also edited by Molesworth (5 volumes; London, 1839–45). Oxford University Press has undertaken a projected 26 volume collection of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes. So far 3 volumes are available: De Cive (edited by Howard Warrender), The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes (edited by Noel Malcolm), and Writings on Common Law and Hereditary Right (edited by Alan Cromartie and Quentin Skinner). Recently Noel Malcolm has published a three volume edition of Leviathan, which places the English text side by side with Hobbes's later Latin version of it. Readers new to Hobbes should begin with Leviathan, being sure to read Parts Three and Four, as well as the more familiar and often excerpted Parts One and Two. There are many fine overviews of Hobbes's normative philosophy, some of which are listed in the following selected bibliography of secondary works.

2. The Philosophical Project

Hobbes sought to discover rational principles for the construction of a civil polity that would not be subject to destruction from within. Having lived through the period of political disintegration culminating in the English Civil War, he came to the view that the burdens of even the most oppressive government are “scarce sensible, in respect of the miseries, and horrible calamities, that accompany a Civill Warre”. Because virtually any government would be better than a civil war, and, according to Hobbes's analysis, all but absolute governments are systematically prone to dissolution into civil war, people ought to submit themselves to an absolute political authority. Continued stability will require that they also refrain from the sorts of actions that might undermine such a regime. For example, subjects should not dispute the sovereign power and under no circumstances should they rebel. In general, Hobbes aimed to demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between political obedience and peace.

3. The State of Nature

To establish these conclusions, Hobbes invites us to consider what life would be like in a state of nature, that is, a condition without government. Perhaps we would imagine that people might fare best in such a state, where each decides for herself how to act, and is judge, jury and executioner in her own case whenever disputes arise—and that at any rate, this state is the appropriate baseline against which to judge the justifiability of political arrangements. Hobbes terms this situation “the condition of mere nature”, a state of perfectly private judgment, in which there is no agency with recognized authority to arbitrate disputes and effective power to enforce its decisions.

Hobbes's near descendant, John Locke, insisted in his Second Treatise of Government that the state of nature was indeed to be preferred to subjection to the arbitrary power of an absolute sovereign. But Hobbes famously argued that such a “dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge” would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends. There would be “no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” If this is the state of nature, people have strong reasons to avoid it, which can be done only by submitting to some mutually recognized public authority, for “so long a man is in the condition of mere nature, (which is a condition of war,) as private appetite is the measure of good and evill.”

Although many readers have criticized Hobbes's state of nature as unduly pessimistic, he constructs it from a number of individually plausible empirical and normative assumptions. He assumes that people are sufficiently similar in their mental and physical attributes that no one is invulnerable nor can expect to be able to dominate the others. Hobbes assumes that people generally “shun death”, and that the desire to preserve their own lives is very strong in most people. While people have local affections, their benevolence is limited, and they have a tendency to partiality. Concerned that others should agree with their own high opinions of themselves, people are sensitive to slights. They make evaluative judgments, but often use seemingly impersonal terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to stand for their own personal preferences. They are curious about the causes of events, and anxious about their futures; according to Hobbes, these characteristics incline people to adopt religious beliefs, although the content of those beliefs will differ depending upon the sort of religious education one has happened to receive.

With respect to normative assumptions, Hobbes ascribes to each person in the state of nature a liberty right to preserve herself, which he terms “the right of nature”. This is the right to do whatever one sincerely judges needful for one's preservation; yet because it is at least possible that virtually anything might be judged necessary for one's preservation, this theoretically limited right of nature becomes in practice an unlimited right to potentially anything, or, as Hobbes puts it, a right “to all things”. Hobbes further assumes as a principle of practical rationality, that people should adopt what they see to be the necessary means to their most important ends.

4. The State of Nature Is a State of War

Taken together, these plausible descriptive and normative assumptions yield a state of nature potentially fraught with divisive struggle. The right of each to all things invites serious conflict, especially if there is competition for resources, as there will surely be over at least scarce goods such as the most desirable lands, spouses, etc. People will quite naturally fear that others may (citing the right of nature) invade them, and may rationally plan to strike first as an anticipatory defense. Moreover, that minority of prideful or “vain-glorious” persons who take pleasure in exercising power over others will naturally elicit preemptive defensive responses from others. Conflict will be further fueled by disagreement in religious views, in moral judgments, and over matters as mundane as what goods one actually needs, and what respect one properly merits. Hobbes imagines a state of nature in which each person is free to decide for herself what she needs, what she's owed, what's respectful, right, pious, prudent, and also free to decide all of these questions for the behavior of everyone else as well, and to act on her judgments as she thinks best, enforcing her views where she can. In this situation where there is no common authority to resolve these many and serious disputes, we can easily imagine with Hobbes that the state of nature would become a “state of war”, even worse, a war of “all against all”.

5. Further Questions About the State of Nature

In response to the natural question whether humanity ever was generally in any such state of nature, Hobbes gives three examples of putative states of nature. First, he notes that all sovereigns are in this state with respect to one another. This claim has made Hobbes the representative example of a “realist” in international relations. Second, he opined that many now civilized peoples were formerly in that state, and some few peoples—“the savage people in many places of America” (Leviathan, XIII), for instance—were still to his day in the state of nature. Third and most significantly, Hobbes asserts that the state of nature will be easily recognized by those whose formerly peaceful states have collapsed into civil war. While the state of nature's condition of perfectly private judgment is an abstraction, something resembling it too closely for comfort remains a perpetually present possibility, to be feared, and avoided.

Do the other assumptions of Hobbes's philosophy license the existence of this imagined state of isolated individuals pursuing their private judgments? Probably not, since, as feminist critics among others have noted, children are by Hobbes's theory assumed to have undertaken an obligation of obedience to their parents in exchange for nurturing, and so the primitive units in the state of nature will include families ordered by internal obligations, as well as individuals. The bonds of affection, sexual affinity, and friendship—as well as of clan membership and shared religious belief—may further decrease the accuracy of any purely individualistic model of the state of nature. This concession need not impugn Hobbes's analysis of conflict in the state of nature, since it may turn out that competition, diffidence and glory-seeking are disastrous sources of conflicts among small groups just as much as they are among individuals. Still, commentators seeking to answer the question how precisely we should understand Hobbes's state of nature are investigating the degree to which Hobbes imagines that to be a condition of interaction among isolated individuals.

Another important open question is that of what, exactly, it is about human beings that makes it the case (supposing Hobbes is right) that our communal life is prone to disaster when we are left to interact according only to our own individual judgments. Perhaps, while people do wish to act for their own best long-term interest, they are shortsighted, and so indulge their current interests without properly considering the effects of their current behavior on their long-term interest. This would be a type of failure of rationality. Alternatively, it may be that people in the state of nature are fully rational, but are trapped in a situation that makes it individually rational for each to act in a way that is sub-optimal for all, perhaps finding themselves in the familiar ‘prisoner's dilemma’ of game theory. Or again, it may be that Hobbes's state of nature would be peaceful but for the presence of persons (just a few, or perhaps all, to some degree) whose passions overrule their calmer judgments; who are prideful, spiteful, partial, envious, jealous, and in other ways prone to behave in ways that lead to war. Such an account would understand irrational human passions to be the source of conflict. Which, if any, of these accounts adequately answers to Hobbes's text is a matter of continuing debate among Hobbes scholars. Game theorists have been particularly active in these debates, experimenting with different models for the state of nature and the conflict it engenders.

6. The Laws of Nature

Hobbes argues that the state of nature is a miserable state of war in which none of our important human ends are reliably realizable. Happily, human nature also provides resources to escape this miserable condition. Hobbes argues that each of us, as a rational being, can see that a war of all against all is inimical to the satisfaction of her interests, and so can agree that “peace is good, and therefore also the way or means of peace are good”. Humans will recognize as imperatives the injunction to seek peace, and to do those things necessary to secure it, when they can do so safely. Hobbes calls these practical imperatives “Lawes of Nature”, the sum of which is not to treat others in ways we would not have them treat us. These “precepts”, “conclusions” or “theorems” of reason are “eternal and immutable”, always commanding our assent even when they may not safely be acted upon. They forbid many familiar vices such as iniquity, cruelty, and ingratitude. Although commentators do not agree on whether these laws should be regarded as mere precepts of prudence, or rather as divine commands, or moral imperatives of some other sort, all agree that Hobbes understands them to direct people to submit to political authority. They tell us to seek peace with willing others by laying down part of our “right to all things”, by mutually covenanting to submit to the authority of a sovereign, and further direct us to keep that covenant establishing sovereignty.

7. Establishing Sovereign Authority

When people mutually covenant each to the others to obey a common authority, they have established what Hobbes calls “sovereignty by institution”. When, threatened by a conqueror, they covenant for protection by promising obedience, they have established “sovereignty by acquisition”. These are equally legitimate ways of establishing sovereignty, according to Hobbes, and their underlying motivation is the same—namely fear—whether of one's fellows or of a conqueror. The social covenant involves both the renunciation or transfer of right and the authorization of the sovereign power. Political legitimacy depends not on how a government came to power, but only on whether it can effectively protect those who have consented to obey it; political obligation ends when protection ceases.

8. Absolutism

Although Hobbes offered some mild pragmatic grounds for preferring monarchy to other forms of government, his main concern was to argue that effective government—whatever its form—must have absolute authority. Its powers must be neither divided nor limited. The powers of legislation, adjudication, enforcement, taxation, war-making (and the less familiar right of control of normative doctrine) are connected in such a way that a loss of one may thwart effective exercise of the rest; for example, legislation without interpretation and enforcement will not serve to regulate conduct. Only a government that possesses all of what Hobbes terms the “essential rights of sovereignty” can be reliably effective, since where partial sets of these rights are held by different bodies that disagree in their judgments as to what is to be done, paralysis of effective government, or degeneration into a civil war to settle their dispute, may occur.

Similarly, to impose limitation on the authority of the government is to invite irresoluble disputes over whether it has overstepped those limits. If each person is to decide for herself whether the government should be obeyed, factional disagreement—and war to settle the issue, or at least paralysis of effective government—are quite possible. To refer resolution of the question to some further authority, itself also limited and so open to challenge for overstepping its bounds, would be to initiate an infinite regress of non-authoritative ‘authorities’ (where the buck never stops). To refer it to a further authority itself unlimited, would be just to relocate the seat of absolute sovereignty, a position entirely consistent with Hobbes's insistence on absolutism. To avoid the horrible prospect of governmental collapse and return to the state of nature, people should treat their sovereign as having absolute authority.

9. The Limits of Political Obligation

While Hobbes insists that we should regard our governments as having absolute authority, he reserves to subjects the liberty of disobeying some of their government's commands. He argues that subjects retain a right of self-defense against the sovereign power, giving them the right to disobey or resist when their lives are in danger. He also gives them seemingly broad resistance rights in cases in which their families or even their honor are at stake. These exceptions have understandably intrigued those who study Hobbes. His ascription of apparently inalienable rights—what he calls the “true liberties of subjects”—seems incompatible with his defense of absolute sovereignty. Moreover, if the sovereign's failure to provide adequate protection to subjects extinguishes their obligation to obey, and if it is left to each subject to judge for herself the adequacy of that protection, it seems that people have never really exited the fearsome state of nature. This aspect of Hobbes's political philosophy has been hotly debated ever since Hobbes's time. Bishop Bramhall, one of Hobbes's contemporaries, famously accused Leviathan of being a “Rebell's Catechism.” More recently, some commentators have argued that Hobbes's discussion of the limits of political obligation is the Achilles' heel of his theory. It is not clear whether or not this charge can stand up to scrutiny, but it will surely be the subject of much continued discussion.

10. Religion and Social Instability

The last crucial aspect of Hobbes's political philosophy is his treatment of religion. Hobbes progressively expands his discussion of Christian religion in each revision of his political philosophy, until it comes in Leviathan to comprise roughly half the book. There is no settled consensus on how Hobbes understands the significance of religion within his political theory. Some commentators have argued that Hobbes is trying to demonstrate to his readers the compatibility of his political theory with core Christian commitments, since it may seem that Christians' religious duties forbid their affording the sort of absolute obedience to their governors which Hobbes's theory requires of them. Others have doubted the sincerity of his professed Christianity, arguing that by the use of irony or other subtle rhetorical devices, Hobbes sought to undermine his readers' religious beliefs. Howsoever his intentions are properly understood, Hobbes's obvious concern with the power of religious belief is a fact that interpreters of his political philosophy must seek to explain.

11. Hobbes on Women and the Family

Scholars are increasingly interested in how Hobbes thought of the status of women, and of the family. Hobbes was one of the earliest western philosophers to count women as persons when devising a social contract among persons. He insists on the equality of all people, very explicitly including women. People are equal because they are all subject to domination, and all potentially capable of dominating others. No person is so strong as to be invulnerable to attack while sleeping by the concerted efforts of others, nor is any so strong as to be assured of dominating all others.

In this relevant sense, women are naturally equal to men. They are equally naturally free, meaning that their consent is required before they will be under the authority of anyone else. In this, Hobbes's claims stand in stark contrast to many prevailing views of the time, according to which women were born inferior to and subordinate to men. Sir Robert Filmer, who later served as the target of John Locke's First Treatise of Government, is a well-known proponent of this view, which he calls patriarchalism. Explicitly rejecting the patriarchalist view as well as Salic law, Hobbes maintains that women can be sovereigns; authority for him is “neither male nor female”. He also argues for natural maternal right: in the state of nature, dominion over children is naturally the mother's. He witnesses the Amazons.

In seeming contrast to this egalitarian foundation, Hobbes spoke of the commonwealth in patriarchal language. In the move from the state of nature to civil society, families are described as “fathers”, “servants”, and “children”, seemingly obliterating mothers from the picture entirely. Hobbes justifies this way of talking by saying that it is fathers not mothers who have founded societies. As true as that is, it is easy to see how there is a lively debate between those who emphasize the potentially feminist or egalitarian aspects of Hobbes's thought and those who emphasize his ultimate exclusion of women. Such debates raise the question: To what extent are the patriarchal claims Hobbes makes integral to his overall theory, if indeed they are integral at all?


The secondary literature on Hobbes's moral and political philosophy (not to speak of his entire body of work) is vast, appearing across many disciplines and in many languages. The following is a narrow selection of fairly recent works by philosophers, political theorists, and intellectual historians, available in English, on main areas of inquiry in Hobbes's moral and political thought. Very helpful for further reference is the critical bibliography of Hobbes scholarship to 1990 contained in Zagorin, P., 1990, “Hobbes on Our Mind”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 51(2).


  • Hobbes Studies is an annually published journal devoted to scholarly research on all aspects of Hobbes's work.


  • Brown, K.C. (ed.), 1965, Hobbes Studies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, contains important papers by A.E. Taylor, J.W. N. Watkins, Howard Warrender, and John Plamenatz, among others.
  • Caws, P. (ed.), 1989, The Causes of Quarrell: Essays on Peace, War, and Thomas Hobbes, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Dietz, M. (ed.), 1990, Thomas Hobbes and Political Theory, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
  • Dyzenhaus, D. and T. Poole (eds.), 2013, Hobbes and the Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Finkelstein, C. (ed.), 2005, Hobbes on Law, Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Hirschmann, N. and J. Wright (eds.), 2012, Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Lloyd, S.A. (ed.), 2001, “Special Issue on Recent Work on the Moral and Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 82 (3&4).
  • –––, 2012, Hobbes Today: Insights for the 21st Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2013, The Bloomsbury Companion to Hobbes, London: Bloomsbury.
  • Rogers, G.A.J. and A. Ryan (eds.), 1988, Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Rogers, G.A.J. (ed.), 1995, Leviathan: Contemporary Responses to the Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Bristol: Thoemmes Press.
  • Rogers, G.A.J. and T. Sorell (eds.), 2000, Hobbes and History. London: Routledge.
  • Shaver, R. (ed.), 1999, Hobbes, Hanover: Dartmouth Press.
  • Sorell, T. (ed.), 1996, The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sorell, T., and L. Foisneau (eds.), 2004, Leviathan after 350 years, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sorell, T. and G.A.J. Rogers (eds.), 2000, Hobbes and History, London: Routledge.
  • Springboard, P. (ed.), 2007, The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes's Leviathan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Books and Articles

  • Abizadeh, A., 2011, “Hobbes on the Causes of War: A Disagreement Theory”, American Political Science Review, 105 (2): 298–315.
  • Armitage, D., 2007, “Hobbes and the foundations of modern international thought”, in Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ashcraft, R., 1971, “Hobbes's Natural Man: A Study in Ideology Formation”, Journal of Politics, 33: 1076–1117.
  • –––, 2010, “Slavery Discourse before the Restoration: The Barbary Coast, Justinian's Digest, and Hobbes's Political Theory”, History of European Ideas, 36 (2): 412–418.
  • Baumgold, D., 1988, Hobbes's Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bobbio, N., 1993, Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Boonin-Vail, D., 1994, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Collins, J., 2005, The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Curley, E., 1988, “I durst not write so boldly: or how to read Hobbes' theological-political treatise”, E. Giancotti (ed.), Proceedings of the Conference on Hobbes and Spinoza, Urbino.
  • –––, 1994, “Introduction to Hobbes's Leviathan”, Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, E. Curley (ed.), Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Curran, E., 2006, “Can Rights Curb the Hobbesian Sovereign? The Full Right to Self-preservation, Duties of Sovereignty and the Limitations of Hohfeld”, Law and Philosophy, 25: 243–265.
  • –––, 2007, Reclaiming the Rights of Hobbesian Subjects, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • –––, 2013, “An Immodest Proposal: Hobbes Rather than Locke Provides a Forerunner for Modern Rights Theory”, Law and Philosophy, 32 (4): 515–538.
  • Darwall, S., 1995. The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’, 1640–1740, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • ––– 2000, “Normativity and Projection in Hobbes's Leviathan”, The Philosophical Review, 109 (3): 313–347.
  • Ewin, R.E., 1991, Virtues and Rights: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Finn, S., 2006, Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Natural Philosophy, London: Continuum Press.
  • Flathman, R., 1993, Thomas Hobbes: Skepticism, Individuality, and Chastened Politics, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Gauthier, D., 1969, The Logic of ‘Leviathan’: the Moral and political Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gert, B., 1967, “Hobbes and psychological egoism”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 28: 503–520.
  • ––– 1978, “Introduction to Man and Citizen”, Man and Citizen, B. Gert, (ed.), New York: Humanities Press.
  • ––– 1988, “The law of nature and the moral law”, Hobbes Studies, 1: 26–44.
  • Goldsmith, M. M., 1966, Hobbes's Science of Politics, New York: Columbia University Press
  • Hampton, J., 1986, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Herbert, G., 1989, Thomas Hobbes: The Unity of Scientific and Moral Wisdom, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Hoekstra, K., 1999, “Nothing to Declare: Hobbes and the Advocate of Injustice”, Political Theory, 27 (2): 230–235.
  • –––, 2003, “Hobbes on Law, Nature and Reason”, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 41 (1): 111–120.
  • –––, 2006, “The End of Philosophy”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 106: 25–62.
  • –––, 2007, “A lion in the house: Hobbes and democracy” in Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2013, “Early Modern Absolutism and Constitutionalism”, Cardozo Law Review, 34 (3): 1079–1098.
  • Hood, E.C., 1964. The Divine Politics of Thomas Hobbes, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Johnston, D., 1986, The Rhetoric of ‘Leviathan’: Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Cultural Transformation, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kapust, Daniel J. and Brandon P. Turner, 2013, “Democratical Gentlemen and the Lust for Mastery: Status, Ambition, and the Language of Liberty in Hobbes's Political Thought”, Political Theory, 41 (4): 648–675.
  • Kavka, G., 1986, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kramer, M., 1997, Hobbes and the Paradox of Political Origins, New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Krom, M., 2011, The Limits of Reason in Hobbes's Commonwealth, New York: Continuum Press.
  • LeBuffe, M., 2003, “Hobbes on the Origin of Obligation”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 11 (1): 15–39.
  • Lloyd, S.A., 1992, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes's 'Leviathan': the Power of Mind over Matter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1998, “Contemporary Uses of Hobbes's political philosophy”, in Rational Commitment and Social Justice: Essays for Gregory Kavka, J. Coleman and C. Morris (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2009, Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Macpherson, C.B., 1962, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 1968, “Introduction”, Leviathan, C.B. Macpherson, (ed.), London: Penguin.
  • Malcolm, N., 2002, Aspects of Hobbes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Martel, J., 2007, Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Martinich, A.P., 1992, The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1995, A Hobbes Dictionary, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • –––, 1999, Hobbes: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridg University Press.
  • –––, 2005, Hobbes, New York: Routledge.
  • –––, 2011, “The Sovereign in the Political Thought of Hanfeizi and Thomas Hobbes”, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 38 (1): 64–72.
  • May, L., 2013, Limiting Leviathan: Hobbes on Law and International Affairs, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McClure, C.S., 2013, “War, Madness, and Death: The Paradox of Honor in Hobbes's Leviathan”, The Journal of Politics, 76 (1): 114–125.
  • Moehler, M., 2009, “Why Hobbes' State of Nature is Best Modeled by an Assurance Game”, Utilitas, 21 (3): 297–326.
  • Moloney, P., 2011, “Hobbes, Savagery, and International Anarchy”, American Political Science Review, 105 (1): 189–204.
  • Murphy, M., 2000, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 82: 36–61.
  • Nagel, T., 1959, “Hobbes's Concept of Obligation”, Philosophical Review, 68: 68–83.
  • Oakeshott, M., 1975. Hobbes on Civil Association, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Olsthoorn, J., 2013, “Why Justice and Injustice Have No Place Outside the Hobbesian State”, European Journal of Political Theory.
  • –––, 2013, “Hobbes Account of Distributive Justice as Equity”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21 (1): 13–33.
  • Peacock, M., 2010, “Obligation and Advantage in Hobbes' Leviathan”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 40 (3): 433–458.
  • Petit, P., 2008, Made With Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind, and Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Raphael, D. D., 1977, Hobbes: Morals and Politics, London: Routledge Press.
  • Ryan, A., 1986, “A More Tolerant Hobbes?”, S. Mendus, (ed.), Justifying Toleration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shelton, G., 1992, Morality and Sovereignty in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Schneewind, J.B., 1997, The Invention of Autonomy: History of Modern Moral Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schwitzgebel, E., 2007, “Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau”, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 24 (2): 147–168.
  • Skinner, Q., 1996, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2002, Visions of Politics Volume 3: Hobbes and Civil Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2005, “Hobbes on Representation”, European Journal of Philosophy, 13 (2): 155–184.
  • –––, 2008, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Slomp, G., 2000. Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Glory, New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Sommerville, J., 1992, Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context, London: Macmillan.
  • Sorell, T., 1986, Hobbes, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • –––, 2006, “Hobbes on Trade, Consumption, and International Order”, Monist, 89 (2): 245–258.
  • Springborg, P., 2011, “Hobbes's Fool the Insipiens, and the Tyrant-King”, Political Theory 39 (1): 85-111.
  • Sreedhar, S., 2008, “Defending the Hobbesian Right of Self-Defense”, Political Theory, 36 (6): 781-802.
  • –––, 2010, Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2012, “Hobbes on ‘The Woman Question’”, Philosophy Compass, 7 (11): 772–781.
  • Strauss, L., 1936, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: its Basis and Genesis, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sussmann, N., 2010, “How Many Commonwealths can Leviathan Swallow? Covenant, Sovereign, and People in Hobbes's Political Theory”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 18 (4): 575–596.
  • Tralau, J., 2011, “Hobbes Contra Liberty of Conscience”, Political Theory, 39 (1): 58–84.
  • Tuck, R., 1979, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1989, Hobbes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 1991, “Introduction”, Leviathan, R. Tuck, (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1993, Philosophy and Government 1572–1651, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Van Mill, D., 2001, Liberty, Rationality, and Agency in Hobbes's Leviathan, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Venezia, L., 2013, “Hobbes' Two Accounts of Law and the Structure of Reasons for Political Obedience”, European Journal of Political Theory.
  • Warrender, H., 1957, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: his Theory of Obligation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Watkins, J.W.N., 1965, Hobbes's System of Ideas, London: Hutchison and Co.
  • Zagorin, P., 2009, Hobbes and the Law of Nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Discuss the Characteristics of Locke’s Man in the State of Nature and Thereafter Compare or Contrast them with the Characteristics Described by any other Republican Theorist

The State of Nature is a useful philosophical model which allows social contract theorists to present their understanding of human nature and offer a justification for the erection of government. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes have both submitted competing versions of such a state in Two Treatises of Government and Leviathan respectively, and they arrive at very different conclusions. An evaluation of their conception of pre-societal man accounts in large part for the divergence in their views on what form a Commonwealth should assume and what powers it should be endowed with. This essay will analyze Locke’s man in the state of nature and subsequently juxtapose it with Hobbes’ in an effort to shed light on the differences between two of the great 17th century thinkers.

Locke uses the state of nature as the starting point for his second, and most salient, Treatise. This is a condition where there is for men “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.” From this very first sentence, it is evident that Locke follows in the Natural Law tradition which states that men inherently have a moral sense which restricts them from engaging in certain acts. By virtue of being children of God, we know what is right and wrong and by extension what is lawful, and we can therefore resolve conflicts fairly consistently. As a result, for Locke, the state of nature is not a state of License because man “has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it.” Reason teaches us that we ought not to harm one another in life, health, liberty or possessions, and that in fact we have an active obligation to others, much as Cicero had earlier contended. At the same time, we all have “a right to punish the transgressors of [the Law of Nature]” and as such we are all executioners of natural law. However, man is disposed to be partial in his own case and therefore act as a biased judge. This is indeed one of the great shortcomings in Locke’s state of nature. The other two failings are the absence of protection of property rights and the inclusion of irrationals. Nevertheless, it is crucial that man has united even in the absence of government. In all, such a state is inconvenient for man, but not altogether corrupt, and it is characterized by tolerance, reason and equality.

By contrast, Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature is far grimmer. He rejects that man has an innate and inviolable moral compass directing his actions, and suggests instead that man is but a bundle of passions and that he behaves on the basis of desires and aversions. This quintessentially materialistic and prudential reading of the human condition is radical in the history of political thought and is certainly in disagreement with Cicero and Locke. Self-interest is the dominant theme in Hobbes’ man, as his ultimate objective is to secure as many pleasures as possible (the ultimate one being self-preservation) and to avoid pain and aversions (most importantly a violent death) with no regard for others. We have no conception of right and wrong – we need a namer of terms to dictate this to us. The state of nature is therefore not immoral, but rather amoral. There is no justice or property, only rational egoism. We use scientific reasoning, the deduction through ‘if/then’ experience, to achieve the greatest utility, yet we can never be safe to enjoy it. In this lawless, pre-societal condition, there is license and absolute positive liberty. Here, “every man has a Right to every thing; even one anothers body. And therefore, as long as this naturall Right of every man endureth, there can be no security to any man.” Men quarrel mainly as a result of Competition, Diffidence and Glory and force and fraud are the two cardinal ‘virtues’. In fact, such a condition rapidly degenerates into a “warre of every man against every man” where one’s life is ultimately “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” While Hobbes employs Laws of Nature in his argumentation, they are not ubiquitously binding, but apply only when one’s life is secure. In principle, we are all inclined to abide by them, but in practice the need for self-preservation takes precedence. Hobbes must therefore not be confused for a Natural Law theorist. Man, because of his natural equality, is not secure in the state of nature and he is in fact not achieving his potential. Unlike in Locke, we are unable to form a civil society and we remain a collection of individual, irreconcilable, wills. We require a third party to unite our wills. The state of nature is thus a dangerous, uncooperative place and we are eager to escape it.

These divergent representations of the state of nature naturally produce different justifications for the erection of government and accord different functions and powers to the state. Locke believes that man escapes the state of nature in search of an impartial umpire to apply the law of nature and to protect one’s estate. In entering Political Society, therefore, man forfeits only his Executive Power of the Law of Nature, not his life, liberty or property. We agree with other men to join and unite into a community for comfortable, safe and peaceable living. Seeing as we are already capable of uniting our wills, we do not require an omnipotent Sovereign to be our representer. Instead, we simply need someone who can maintain, not create, the law. The law is merely the enforcement of the law of nature and we, as members of the society, must approve them. Locke argues that rights come from laws, while obligations come from nature. This creates a fiduciary power, accountable to the people, that rests on majoritarian popular consent. Law, rather than force, is the basis for government, and peace is not desirable at any and all costs. Locke clarifies that rebellion is permissible when the government subverts the ends for which it is established, and indicates that is it possible that someone is better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the state of nature before electing a new government. As a further safeguard to protect the people, Locke implements a separation of powers. For Locke, an absolute monarch that can violate the law of nature is not able to elevate the people above the state of nature. It appears that he is advancing a minimalist form of government with most of the activity occurring in the market place. Locke’s pre-societal man, endowed with an understanding of the law of nature, does not need a powerful government to educate him and keep him in check. Instead, he needs a reliable bureaucratic mechanism to responsibly apply the law in accordance with popular will.

Conversely, the Hobbesian man could never survive in such an institutional setup. Hobbes’ reading of human nature would not allow anything but a coercive government, because without it, we would simply disregard the laws of nature and apply our right of nature. For Hobbes, like Machiavelli, persuasion alone is insufficient to oblige men to perform their obligations. We consequently transfer the securing of our right of nature and the capacity of self-government to a Sovereign and voluntarily subject ourselves to positive legislation. “The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Commonwealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” We essentially say to each other “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner,” and in this fashion, a multitude of men are made one person by co-authoring the acts of their Representer. The state creates civil society. By virtue of authoring the actions of the Sovereign, we adopt them as our own and can therefore offer no resistance, since that we would be going against our own will and would be irrational. Any abuse of power is simple the price of peace. A Sovereign can now enact legislation that forbids acting upon one’s Passions (which in themselves do not constitute a sin) insofar as they injure or disadvantage someone else. This will allow subjects to follow the Laws of Nature, which they are inclined to do even in the State of Warre. Unlike with Locke, the Sovereign makes the laws with the intention of enforcing the contracts we made with one another and punishing non-performance. Force, not law, is the basis for government. This is a paternalistic system geared at protecting the state and ensuring peace and stability. There is no separation of powers: the Sovereign controls civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Our freedom lies only where the law has nothing to say (ie, negative liberty). Unlike with Locke, we have no obligations, and law only limits our rights. Cooperation would lead to chaos – what we have instead is a negative Golden Rule. Because of our passions, our lack of a moral sense and our self-interest, we cannot ensure our survival with anything short of an all-powerful Sovereign who will lay down the law and (hopefully) work for the Common Good as he interprets it.

From the above analysis, it is manifest that Locke and Hobbes disagree on very core questions on human nature. One sees man as fundamentally good with an innate morality while the other sees man as a self-interested and unrestrained creature. These initial assessments have ponderable implications on the form of government each theorist recommends and lead to further disputes. Locke believes that the arrangement should protect the people and be subservient to it, Hobbes believes the state deserves protection. Locke wants its functions limited to the essentials, Hobbes wants as far-reaching powers as possible for his Leviathan. Locke views the law as a means of enforcing the dictates of nature, Hobbes views it as a means of enforcing contracts. Locke considers government as a vehicle for maintaining human nature, Hobbes regards it as a means for counteracting it. These positions are entirely irreconcilable. However, each thinker is internally consistent, and the form of government proposed is the logical conclusion of his pre-societal man. In classifying today’s world, it appears that we have adopted a more Hobbesian attitude, with the state being more of a master and less of a judge.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

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