Tuesday, April 5, 2016

War of “every man against every man”: Thomas Hobbes and the state of nature

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said that the state of nature is a "war of every man against every man." Many have not wanted to believe it (even great democratic philosophers like John Locke), believing that even if men are better off with civil society, life before civil society wasn't all that terrible. "I'm not violent like that!" many say, taking their own aversion to violence as representative of everyone else. "Humanity by nature is peaceful!"

Thomas Hobbes

And even in the book where Hobbes himself made this statement, he acknowledged that "it may seem strange to some man ... that nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore ... desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience." Thus, he meets this challenge head-on with the following argument:

Picture from the first printing of Hobbes' book "Leviathan"

"Let him therefore consider with himself," Hobbes says, "when taking a journey, he ... seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws, and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries [that] shall be done him; what opinion he has ... of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?" (Source: "Leviathan," Chapter XIII, the subsection entitled "The incommodities of such a war")

Thomas Hobbes

Modern translation: When we go out into certain neighborhoods (particularly at night), we usually don't go alone, but prefer to have others with us. When we go to sleep at night, we lock our doors; and when we go to the supermarket, we lock our cars and take the keys with us. We install home security systems, password-protect our computers, and do any number of other things to protect ourselves - all in spite of laws and a police force designed to do the protecting for us. Do we not accuse humanity by such actions, as much as Hobbes did by his words?

Granted, we don't all have violent urges to harm our neighbors, nor is the war of all against all always fought with actual violence; but the threat of violence is always there - a continual cold war against the baser sort of man - and so, in a sense, that war is still going on.

Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, 1651 (the year "Leviathan" was published) - 
which ended the English Civil War

As far as the "hot wars" (or the wars with actual violence) are concerned, Hobbes himself says he believes that "it was never generally so, over all the world," but there are "many places, where they live so now." And "in all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independence, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms; and continual spies on their neighbors; which is a posture of war." (Source: "Leviathan," Chapter XIII, the subsection entitled "The incommodities of such a war") Thus, this "cold war" (as we might call it) is still going on; and as long as man is mortal, it shall remain so.

Soviet missile on launcher, used during the Cold War of the 20th century (a modern version of the state of nature)

Among the people influenced by Hobbes on this subject was James Madison, one of America's Founding Fathers. He wrote in the Federalist Papers that "In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in the state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger." (Source: Federalist No. 51) Thus, whatever his disagreements with Hobbes on other subjects, Madison clearly agreed with Hobbes on the state of nature.

James Madison

When it comes to the state of nature, I consider myself a Hobbesian; and for those who won't change their minds about this, I shall not endeavor further to persuade you; but content myself merely with correcting the misunderstandings about Hobbes, which have so long attended his work.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How Hobbes influenced the Founding Fathers

Actually, John Locke did influence the U. S. Declaration of Independence

In defense of John Locke: The need for private property

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