The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in philosophy these days, but every political philosopher must grapple with the history of the idea — a foundational conceit of modern Euro-American thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “contractualist” philosophers, often grouped together in syllabi and selected introductory texts, relied on the notion that humans once existed in an anarchic state predating civil society, and that this state might be re-discoverable in indigenous ways of life in the Americas. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philosophers and their political theories.
Unlike the Biblical garden of Eden, the state of nature was hardly perfect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw government as a necessary mediator for competing self-interests. The kinds of governments they theorized were vastly different from each other — one an absolute monarchy and the other a capitalist republic. But in each theorist’s pseudo-prehistory, early humans gave up their independence by making social contracts for protection and mutual interest. These “contracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the origin of governments.
Hobbes was the first major thinker to elaborate a version of this story, and his description of life before government is well-known: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful existence, humans would have sought out a powerful ruler to protect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could provide the protection people need. It was perhaps no coincidence that Hobbes worked for a king, his former student, Charles II, restored to the throne after the English Civil War that drove Hobbes to his authoritarian views, supposedly.
Despite his defense of divine power, Hobbes stood accused of atheism and blasphemy for, among other things, writing a secular justification for monarchy that was not based on revelation or the divine right of kings. Likewise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government was a forceful refutation of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of toleration were far more threatening to the state, which is why he published anonymously. In his Second Treatise, he laid out his version of the state of nature and the social contract — ideas drawn in part from travelogues written by early colonial adventurers.
Locke’s theory of government is also a theory of private property — the rightful source of political power, he believed — and who should own it. Decades later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, including a book titled The Social Contract, in opposition to the inequality of Hobbesian and Lockean states. Rousseau believed in human perfectibility and claimed that governments imposed a “general will” on individuals, repressing an essentially benevolent state of nature in which resources were shared.
Rousseau’s rejoinder to the myth of vicious savagery gave rise to another: that of the noble savage, an appealing image for the revolutionaries of late-18th century France and later utopian socialists tasked with the difficult project of imagining an alternative to political hierarchy. In social contract theory, the imagined way forward derives from an imagined precolonial past, more “moral fiction” than “historical fact,” as scholar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the mythical state of nature and the primary theorists of the social contract above.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness