“The state of nature” in John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A critical analysis and comparison in consideration of their social and historical background

Term Paper, 2012

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3




Important stages of Locke’s life and the historical context

Locke’s state of nature

Important stages of Hobbes’ life and the historical context

Hobbes’ state of nature

Important stages of Rousseau’s life and the historical context

Rousseau’s state in comparison to Hobbes and Locke




John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and their political theories and ideologies had an immense influence on the shaping of European or even western governmental systems and society. All three of them lived in completely different environments and under other circumstances. However their contributions towards state-formation and government seem to start all on a similar basis – the state of nature. Even though the base seems similar, their individual progressions are directed towards different and, in a certain context even, opposing governmental systems. Whereas Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan represents the absolute authoritarian monarch, Locke integrates the common plebes into his liberalist theory of a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy and the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau are directed towards an “extreme democracy on something like the Greek city-state model”[1].

This paper discusses the basis of the theories of Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau – the state of nature, which is used by all three of them as a methodical entity to create their social contract theories[2]. I will first introduce each philosopher and the political context he lived in as well as the different states of nature on which the philosophers based their theories on. I will then compare the states with each other and point out relations and dissimilarities. In my conclusion I will come back to the hypothesis that the three different states have dissimilar intentions and aim towards different governmental systems.

Important stages of Locke’s life and the historical context

John Locke was born in August 28, 1632, in Somerset, not far from Bristol in England. His family was wealthy. Its wealth allowed Locke to have a sufficient income from family estates later.

Due to his father’s association with Popham (since 1645 Member of Parliament for Bath, and had sufficient influence to recommend boys for places at Westminster School), Locke entered Westminster School in 1647. He received a scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford in 1652 where he studied medicine, philosophy and chemistry.

In 1664 Locke held an address to the college which shows that his political view until this point of time was very traditional and authoritarian, as he agreed on the statement that Kings were the good and the people the beasts. Iván Szelényi (2009) called the young Locke a Hobbesian.[3]

After the execution of Charles I and the temporary abolishment of monarchy by the government with Cromwell as the “lord protector” of England, the political situation in the Kingdom had become very instable due to a struggle between the military and the parliament. Locke endorsed the reestablishment of the monarchy in 1658 because it promised that the long period of instability had ended and turned into a strong, authoritarian government again. After having seen this political instability for a very long time of his youth and young adulthood, his conclusion was obviously that any kind of split or shared power can’t function as a strong governmental system.

The turning point in Locke’s life or rather in his mindset occurred in 1666 when he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury, and became his advisor, secretary and surgeon.[4] He lived in Cooper’s house from 1667. In the same year his “Essay on Toleration” was published in which Locke breaks away from Hobbes ideologies of a strong monarchical system and even defends the right to dissent. Locke meeting Shaftesbury can be considered to be one of the reasons for Locke’s drastic turn from the conservatism of Hobbes towards a liberal, revolutionary idea of a constitutional government[5].

After the “Exclusion Bill” was passed by the Parliament in 1679 – addressing the exclusion of the Catholic brother of King Charles II from the throne – the King dismissed the Parliament and regained absolute authority.

In the following six years the level of political turmoil increased immensely. Shaftesbury had died in exile in 1883 and the Catholic James Stuart became King James II in 1685. The turmoil reached its boiling point in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, where the opposing parties Tory and Whig allied against King James and overthrew him. William of Orange then became King in the first constitutional monarchy of England.

Locke returned from exile in the Netherlands in 1690, after having spent seven years of his life there. After the revolution Locke became commissioner for appeals and trade since he was now on the “right” side. Before his death in 1704 he became an internationally renowned intellectual figure and moved in the most influential political circles in England.

The fact that Locke spent four years in exile in France (1675-1679) as well as seven years in the Netherlands (1683-1690) contributes to the assumption that Locke might have been involved in revolutionary actions against the English throne and that he therefore also gave way to the outcome of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.[6]

The historical and political context of Locke’s before the revolution was very instable and hostile, which has to be taken into consideration when discussing Locke’s ideas of government. Thomas (Thomas, 1995) even speaks of a “modern police state [which] had […] been deployed” [7] and which might have been the reason for Locke to publish many of his works anonymously.

Locke’s state of nature

Human beings are God’s property because God created them. Due to this assumption they do not have the right to destroy themselves but have to fulfill their highest duty: the survival of the species and the individual.

Locke discusses his idea of the state of nature in the Second Treatise of Government (1690). According to Locke there are only two stable conditions for a political organization: the state of nature and the civil society. The state of nature in Locke’s theory represents the beginning of a process in which a state for a liberal, constitutional government is formed. Locke regards the state of nature as a state of total freedom and equality, bound by the law of nature. In order to be able to understand the further discussion on the state of nature, it is essential to understand Locke’s idea of the law of nature.

Locke claims a fundamental law of nature as the basis of his natural law theory. He postulates that “[t]he fundamental law of nature being that all, as much as may be, should be preserved”[8]. This means that a “law of nature grants to all persons access to the earth and its fruits for their sustenance” [9]. This fundamental law of nature provides a basic for a human living condition in a way that it states that no one can be denied the right to sustain himself on earth. Every other law of nature is a derivation of the fundamental law of nature. Since the latter is justified through reason, God and universality, all further laws that are derived from the fundamental law of nature “(…) can be rationally justified on the basis of the fundamental law of nature”[10].

The term ‘natural law’ or ‘law of nature’ in Locke refers to normative laws which guide the society and which are universal, i.e. they don’t display how the society and the individual are but rather how they should be. The normative aspect goes hand in hand with universality. Since the ‘law of nature’ is not specific in regards to values and beliefs, it “applies to all persons at all times and in all places”[11].

A. John Simmons[12] sees the intention of Locke’s moral theory in “(…) a kind of rule-consequentialism, with the preservation of mankind serving as the ‘ultimate end’ to be advanced”. Therefore, the goal of Locke’s theory is the preservation of mankind and he justifies this with God’s will of being the “products of [his] workmanship”[13] and therefore having the duty to exist as long as God wants us to. It also infers that humans don’t have the right to harm anyone else except as a form of defense or punishment.

Both Hobbes and Locke agree on the fact that there is a need to execute the natural laws and Locke does this by granting the natural right to every individual. It is therefore the duty for every man to practice the execution of the law of nature:

“[T]he execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: […] EVERY MAN HATH A RIGHT TO PUNISH THE OFFENDER, AND BE EXECUTIONER OF THE LAW OF NATURE [14].

Natural rights can be considered rights of self-ownership. They protect my individual life. If I interfere in the natural rights of another person, I act against the law of nature and therefore against my own reasonability and the will of God. From these natural rights, property rights and others can be logically derived; they are then called ‘particular’ natural rights.[15]

How can this now be integrated into a theory of the state of nature?

Locke knows that political authority as it exists entails a moral inequality that is due to the authority which is exercised by the governing political institution. According to Thomas (Thomas, 1995) Locke wants to show how a justifiable inequality, which is represented in a governing institution, can be explained, “starting out from a position of moral equality”[16].

The state of nature is a free entity in which no positive law exists; it is free from any form of government. In the state of nature every individual is on one’s own – or rather leased from God but able to judge about himself and others. It is to everyone to protect his or her property and to secure the personal preservation.

In the state of nature every individual is seen as equal to every other individual. Class differences, as they were strongly implemented in the English society of Locke’s time, are not apparent. Everybody has the same “set of natural rights[17] and everybody also knows about this set of rights, as it is “known by reason”[18] and every individual has reason. The problem that occurs here now is arbitrariness, even though Locke argues against this arbitrariness by saying that “calm reason and conscious dictate[s]”[19] the degree of punishment which the individual can impose onto the violator. This, however, still doesn’t practically limit the executive power of the individual about other individuals. This second-order natural right also does not guarantee an objective sentence for the perpetrator. Since there is no convention about the degree of punishment that is deployed on the culprit, an arbitrary judgment by the individual might be inadequate; however, there would not even be a possibility to define inadequacy because of the lack of an objective judicial institution.

Locke’s idea of the government is a logical consequence of the state of nature. Every right that a government has must have been existent in the state of nature since a government only acquires its legitimation and power from the base, which is the people.[20]

The arbitrary judgments in the state of nature, as well as the scarcity of resources and therefore competition on these resources which represent power, inevitably lead to a state of war of everyone against everyone.

According to Locke natural rights of the first order cannot be alienated from an individual, whereas natural rights of the second order can be transferred to an institution which then has the obligation to execute these rights:

“IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and controul of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”[21]


[1] (Lowe, 2005)

[2] Cf. (Lowe, 2005) p. 163: None of the three thinkers considered the state of nature an actual historical condition; it was rather used as a base to create a social contract theory.

[3] Syelényi, Iván. Lecture at Yale University: Lo>

[4] Cooper, eventhough being an aristocrat, was very revolutionary and participated in both parliamentary forces against King Charles I in 1644 as well as parliamentary interactions to undermine the Catholics (Test Act in 1673 and the “Exclusion Bill” in 1679). (Thomas, 1995) p. 3

[5] Cf. (Laslett, 1960) p. 27, see also (Milton, 1994)

[6] (Thomas, 1995) p. 3,4

[7] (Thomas, 1995) p. 6

[8] (Locke, Hume, & Rousseau, 1948) Lo>

[9] (Thomas, 1995) p. 17

[10] (Thomas, 1995) p. 16

[11] (Thomas, 1995) p. 16

[12] (Simmons, 1992) p. 50

[13] (Thomas, 1995) p. 17

[14] (Locke J. , 1980 (1690)) II. 7,8

[15] Cf. (Thomas, 1995)

[16] (Thomas, 1995) p. 20

[17] (Thomas, 1995) p. 20

[18] (Thomas, 1995) p. 20

[19] (Locke J. , 1980 (1690)) II. 8

[20] Cf. (Thomas, 1995) p. 22

[21] (Locke J. , 1980 (1690)) II. 123

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“The state of nature” in John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A critical analysis and comparison in consideration of their social and historical background
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
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john, locke, thomas, hobbes, jean-jacques, rousseau
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Thomas Hühne (Author), 2012, “The state of nature” in John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/209611


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