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What are the differences between Locke’s and Hobbes’ notions of the “state of nature”?

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  1. Introduction
  2. Two strongly divergent views of human nature
    1. Preliminary remarks on the concept of the state of nature
    2. A dissimilar account of the state of nature in its initial form: two different behavioral analyses
    3. The essence and the role of the law of nature in the state of nature also differ
    4. State of nature/state of war
  3. The opposed evolution of their state of nature leads to two different remedies
    1. Two dissimilar degrees of development
    2. A different exit from the state of nature
  4. Conclusion
  5. Bibliography

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are probably the most famous political thinkers of the 17th century. The generally accepted view asserts that these authors stood poles apart, the first one advocating an absolutist regime and the latter recommending a stable civil society where powers are separated. But their methodological demonstration follows the same pattern and Locke shares with Hobbes the same initial assumption: They indeed both suppose that the correct way to tackle questions about the grounds of political obligation is by performing a thought-experiment: the description of the state of nature. They thus imagine a state of nature where individuals live in abstraction from all political institutions and superior control. Hobbes first expressed his conception of the state of nature in his most famous political masterpiece, the Leviathan published in 1651. John Locke further explored it in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written in the wake of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688. Devoid of any ultimate moral values, the Hobbesian ?natural condition of mankind? seems to differ from the regulated state of nature guided by human Reason. And even if Locke's philosophy sometimes seems to be rooted in Hobbes' principles, we will see that their accounts of the imagined state of nature are sharply different. We'll thus try to compare Hobbes's and Locke's visions of the state of nature, regarding their nature, their essence, and their purpose regarding their conceptions of political power.

[...] Contrary to Hobbes', there is therefore no pre-given form of subordination in Locke's account of the state of nature. Hobbes evokes on his side that the only rights of nature belonging to individuals are animal impulses necessary and unavoidable in the struggle to survive. He recognizes a natural equality but thinks it pushes men to compete, willing to compare what they have and mimetically desire what they do not have. They have the same abilities, the same expectations, creating consequently an animalistic rivalry, enhanced by the fact that people do anything to preserve their own liberty or safety. [...]


[...] As stated by Hobbes himself: "Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is 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; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"[8]. [...]


[...] This vision goes back to the Stoics who believed that certain duties bind the people at all times and in all places. On the contrary, Hobbes introduces the radical new idea that the laws of nature are not moral laws at all; they are rather maxims of prudence for self-interested individuals who want to increase their chance of staying alive. And for Hobbes, these laws of nature will only take effect when are commanded by the sovereign, not in the natural state. [...]

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