Critical Appraisal Of The State Of Nature And Political Right In Thomas Hobbes

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 1.1            THE STATE OF NATURE

 The notion that man is a creature equipped from birth for society is a view implicit in Plato and expressly formulated by Aristotle in the genesis of his politics.

Man is by nature, a political animal. Anyone who by his nature and not simply by ill-luck has no state is either too bad or too good, either sub-human or super- human[1]

Thomas Hobbes regards the assumption that man is by nature political animal as false. In his view, man became a political animal only after the institution of the civil society. The period prior to the civil society is what Locke, Rousseau as well as Hobbes called ‘the state of nature’ – the apolitical state of man. In the hypothetical state of nature, there lacks a central and sovereign power. Life in this state is unrest, misery, constant fear, war, and insecurity and is ruled by egoistic law of self- preservation. This is because in this state, all men are equal and equally have the right to whatever they consider necessary for their survival.  On this Hobbes notes:

The right of nature is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself… and consequently of doing any thing which in his own judgment and he shall conceive to be the aptest means there unto.[2]

Equality here means simply that anyone is capable of hunting his weak neighbour and taking what he thinks he needs for his own protection.

In Hobbes’ state of nature, there exists the survival of the fittest for instance, a physically strong man could overcome the physically weak and take what belongs to the weak, but the weak could by his intelligence gain advantage over the strong by joining forces with those in the same danger with him. Therefore, a lack in one aspect could be compensated with some other thing. We have to note also that the right of all to all that prevails in this state does not mean that one man has a right whereas others have corresponding duties.    The word right in the state of nature is man’s freedom:

To do what he would, and against whom he thought fit and to possesses use and enjoy all that he would or could get”. [3]


Hobbes later identified three reasons for the disorder and quarrels: he says

In the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First is competition, secondly, difference, and thirdly, glory”.[4] Hobbes said that the first makes meaning for gain, the second, for safety, and the third for reputation. Hobbes asserted that before the formation of civil society and sovereignty, men were in continuous state of war with each other. This situation he technically called ‘the threat of war’. And war here does not necessarily imply battle (fighting) but portrays the situation where man lives in continual fear, and insecurity. One sees his neighbour as a threat to his existence and obstruction to his well-being.

There is no common power ipso facto, no rules, no morality and justice, personal and selfish inclination was the principle that governed all actions. Everyone feels he is entitled to every thing. Ownership is effective only in so far as no stronger person has interrupted. And because man is constantly in want, he tries to eliminate the other. The continuous conflict of desire remains the order of the day.


The situation is precisely that of war of all against all. There exist a continual fear and danger of violent death, all individual deciding how best to survive this anarchy and disorder. Hence:

“There is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain; no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea. No commodious building, no instrument of moving and removing such things as required much force. No account of time, no art, 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”.[5]


Hobbes held that it was man’s continuous desire for power, honour and fame that result in the disorderliness in the state of nature. Thus he writes;

I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after the power, that cease the only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot assure the power and means to live well which he hath present without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is, that kings whose power is greatest, turn their endeavour to the assuring it at home by laws or abroad by war”.[6]

Rousseau, one of the political philosophers held that man is naturally good; but was corrupted by contemporary society of man. He further believed that it was competition and lust for private property that was responsible for this corruption. He equally believes in the essential goodness and sympathetic nature of man. For him, state of nature is of idyllic happiness since man is free being who enjoys equality.

Locke on his own part has a very optimistic view of the Human nature. For him,

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind… that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions”.[7]

Nevertheless, the state of nature as proposed by Hobbes is not a historical fact. Rather it is a situation that obtains in lawless society. The central questions how can man agree to form society since they are according to Hobbes, antisocial, politically and culturally apart. To fight these societal maladies, Hobbes found out what he referred to as natural law (Lex naturals). These laws will urge them to organize themselves into civil society.


Natural law dates from the time of rational creation. It does not vary according to time but remains unchangeable, because it is written in the hearts of all men, right from birth as the scripture held it. Hobbes in his political philosophy saw natural law as:

A precept or general rule founded out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that which he thniketh it may be best preserved.[8]

Nature takes the second position after the eternal law as a source of law. There are mainly three sources of law: namely God, Nature and Sovereignty. It is from these that we derive the eternal, natural and civil laws respectively. Naturally, law is a divine will discovered in nature by man through the dictates of reason, while the civil law is the law made in accordance with the rule of nature by one who has the command over others. The natural law, therefore, is the dictates of right reason. Men discovered that they must lay aside the right of nature in order to preserve their lives. None of these laws is man-made rather they are discovered by human reason which already exist from the very nature of individual existence. They are laws which man cannot change or influence, but can only conform and abide by.

Hobbes described the condition of man before civil society as a state of equality between individual freemen.  Everyman has the right to all things he desired. The condition was described by Hobbes as war of all against all, hence the condition of man becoming wolf to man. It is through nature that each man knows that he has to protect himself.  Everyman quarrels. So the need to protect his natural right of self-preservation that leads men to form a civil society. The laws of nature are those rules that rational man must accept, if he were conscious of his horrible predicament in the state of nature, where men are selfish. To answer the question how men move from the state of nature to form social state, Hobbes deduced nineteen other natural laws from the fundamental right of self- preservation.   Among these laws, deduced by Hobbes, only three of these laws will be discussed here. The first of these laws states that: Everyman ought to endevour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek all helps and advantage of war”.[9]    From the above quotation, we can see that it contains the first and the fundamental law of nature; which is to seek peace and follow it. It also contains the natural right, which we can by all means protect and defend ourselves. Political Right

The second law of nature by which we are urged to endeavour peace, this law states;

That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contended with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself”.[10]

 It is from the compromise arising from the second law of nature that made it possible for men to come together and form a social society. This is because if everyman holds his natural right, they return to their former condition, that is, condition before civil society. The second laws also held that man has to lay down his right on the condition that others will do the same because he will make himself prey to others if they refuse to lay down theirs. Right is laid aside, either by simply renouncing it or by transferring it to another. Men are bound not to hinder those they have entrusted their right from exercising them. If they eventually go contrary to that, they have committed injustice or injury. This mutual transferring of right is that which men call “CONTRACT”. Political Right

From that law of nature, by which we are obliged to transfer right to another, such rights as being retained, hinder the peace of mankind, there followeth a third law of nature which is, “that man perform their covenants made.” Without which covenants are in vain but empty words, and the right of all men to all things remaining, we are still in the condition of war. This law of nature constitutes the foundation and origin of justice. To break the covenant made is unjust and the definition of injustice is no other than non-performance of convent. But because covenants is a mutual trust, where there is a fear of non performance, on either part…. are invalid, therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some cohesive power to compel men equally to performance of their covenants, by terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant.

Natural law according to Hobbes binds in conscience, and still maintains that all men have an obligation to obey the natural law in a state of nature. And it is obeying the natural laws that made it possible for the mutual transferring of rights, and man forming political society. Political Right

[1] Aristotle; The Politics, (Great Britain: Penguin Bks. Ltd, 1981), p.59 Political Right

[2] T. Hobbes; English works(ed) Willian moles worth, London John Rohm, Igbo, p. 116 Political Right

[3] S.E. Stumpf; Philosophy: History and problems, (U.S.A: Mc Graw- Hill Inc, 1983), p. 223. Political Right

[4] T. Hobbes; Leviathan (ed) by C.B.Macpherson (Great Britain: Penguin Bks, 1968), p. 185. Political Right

[5] Ibid. p 186.Political Right

[6] Ibid. p. 167 Political Right

[7] J. Locke, Two Treatise Of Civil Government, (London: Dent, 1970), p. 119.  Political Right

[8] A. Appadorai, The substance of politics, (Delhi: Oxford University press, 1975), p.27. Political Right

[9] F., Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 5, pt. 1. (New York: Image Bks, 1964),  p.  45

[10] Ibid. p. 45. Political Right

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