Thomas Hobbes' "State of Nature" in Daniel Defoe's "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &C.". Shedding a New Light on the Protagonist's 'Immoral' Actions

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

3. The State of Nature in Moll Flanders
3.1 A Predator-Dominated World
3.2 The Struggle for Self-Preservation
3.3 The Equilibrium of Threats

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

Natural law, throughout the seventeenth century, served as a touchstone for human beings as social and political animals, evolving into an ignitable mixture of moral and political doctrine and demanding the individual’s rights of self-preservation and self-defence (Novak 5). The Catholic thinker Jean Gerson used the term ‘state of nature’ in the fifteenth century, followed by Hugo Grotius in the first half of the seventeenth century (Sommerville 37), though according to Richard Tuck, Thomas Hobbes was the first to coin it (Tuck 135).

Hobbes defined “the state of meer Nature” (Hobbes 140) as a condition of constant competition, where every man fights the other and each individual is entitled to everything by nature. This environment is exclusively governed by the laws of nature, which are rather inherent principles designed to ensure self-preservation. In this world without written laws, there is no justice, and everyone lives in fear and mistrust of the others.

Born into the very same environment, in London’s notorious Newgate Prison, as the illegitimate daughter of a thief, Moll Flanders seeks for a way to escape social misery all her life. Throughout the narration, she faces significant challenges but, despite numerous setbacks, continuously manages to defy her fate. Her mother, being a convicted criminal, is exiled to America. As a young child, Moll is fostered by an old widow who teaches her various usful skills, including needlecraft. Shortly after, living in a wealthy household, she falls victim to seduction by the family’s oldest son. Deceived by him, Moll is forced to marry the younger son, who dies at an early age. Moll’s second husband, a linen draper, soon leaves England, fleeing from the law. She moves to Virginia with her third husband, only to discover eight years later that she married her half-brother. Abhored by this discovery, she returns home, subsequently becoming the mistress of a married man, but after a few years, he ends their relationship. Next, a married banker proposes to Moll. She agrees, at the same time putting him of, until the divorce is final and travels to the countryside, where she marries a wealthy gentleman in Lancashire. Both being poor and having tricked each other, the couple is forced to split and seek their fortunes independently. Moll returns just in time to marry the freshly divorced banker, who dies soon after their marriage. Being forced to live in poverty, she yields to the temptation of crime for a living. Although being a talented thief, she eventually is caught, thrown into prison, and setenced to death. There, she runs into her husband from Lancashire, who was arrested for robbery. Both of their sentences being reduced to exile, they are deported to America, where the tables turn: they thrive and accumulate a fortune. Years later, at the age of seventy, the wealthy and repentant couple returns to England, where Moll donates a part of her money to the less fortunate. This paper will shed light on the characters’ “state of meer Nature” (Hobbes 140) on a social level with particular focus on the protagonist: their world is dominated by predators, the characters constantly struggle for self-preservation, and, in this fight for appropriation of property to secure survival, are situated in an equilibrium of threats.

2. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

As stated by Thomas Hobbes, mankind lives in a “condition of meer Nature, [or] […] Warre of every man against every man [sic!]” (96), where men are unsociable (89) and equal “in the faculties of body, and mind” (86). Here, ‘equality’ means that, potentially, every man is capable of killing another; hence, that even the strongest can come to harm through the hands of the weakest (87), causing a symmetrical threat level (Engel 72). This fundamental equality of men creates an almost deadly competition for scant resources, hindering the development of cultural assets and achievements: “no Arts, no Letters, no Society” (Hobbes 89).

The driving force of men consists of the “ perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power [sic!]” (70), fuelling men’s natural aggressiveness and only ending in death, not for the sake of the pure accumulation of power, but motivated by the fear of loosing present means to live well without striving to acquire more (ibid). Man pursues this target best “by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men […], so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him”, which, according to Hobbes, is “generally allowed” (87f.).

Hobbes views the competition for power embedded in the nature of man as one of the principal causes of quarrel (88), deteriorating to contention, enmity, and war (70). In this condition of insecurity and conflict (Warrender 48), no limits are set to escalation (Nida-Rümelin 113). Without propriety and community guiding through uncertainty (Hobbes 171), everything is open for competition, and everyone has “a right to all things” (Warrender 59). Lacking dominion and property, there exists only one rule: “that to be every mans, that he can get; and for so long, as he can keep it [sic!]” (Hobbes 90). Hobbes calls this

Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto [sic!], (91)

the right of nature and the predominant maxim (Rembold 99) in “the state of meer Nature” (Hobbes 140), whereas the laws of nature are rather inherent principles designed to ensure self-preservation. But if every man exercises his right of nature by performing any act fit to further his preservation, the consequence will be a state of warfare, endangering the preservation of mankind (Sommerville 29). Furthermore, the absence of government, constitutional laws, and coercive force leaves men to be their own judges (Eggers 28). Hence, even good men cannot but hurt others at some point to protect their interests (Schröder 28). To be able to evolve further, mankind must put an end to that “constant state of war” (Lemos 20), in which no man meets his needs (Bühler 23) and lives a “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short [sic!]” life (Hobbes 89). A powerful tool on the path to overcome this state is man’s reason (90).

Hobbes considers reason one of “the Faculties of the mind” (32). As claimed by the author, men are neither born with reason, as they are with sense and memory, nor do they gain it, like prudence, by sheer experience. Reason can only be obtained by industry (35). Like curiosity, it is one of the characteristics distinguishing men from animals (42). Men’s passions are commonly more potent than reason. Their diversity forms the source for men’s greatest inequality (50), wherefore they all too often leave reason unused in their common life (37). Furthermore, Hobbes defines reason as a computational process in the sense of logical methodology, facilitating the control of activities of the human mind (Rembold 95):

In summe, in what matter soever there is place for addition and substraction, there also is place for Reason; and where these have no place, there Reason has nothing at all to do [sic!] (Hobbes 32).

Hence, reason teaches the laws of nature, 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, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved [sic!] (Hobbes 91).

Therefore, Hobbes is convinced that man has the potential of becoming a rational being, “since he has the capacity of apprehending the laws of nature by means of reason and acting in accordance with them” (Lemos 18). Subsequently, man will see the need of a “Common-wealth [sic!]” (Hobbes 117) and, guided by the laws of nature, abandon his right to all things and seek peace (92).

3. The State of Nature in Moll Flanders

This paper will examine, if Hobbes’ state of nature applies to the characters and, in particular, the protagonist. For this purpose it will be analysed, if they live in a predator-dominated world, where they are forced to constantly struggle for self-preservation, using all their means to be equal combatants in an equilibrium of threats.

3.1 A Predator-Dominated World

Moll lives in a world of predators, where women hold a subordinate role and are objectified, and men are granted a power they abuse, putting the victimised women in a state of nature (Scholz 85). As first-person narrator, the protagonist often uses the words “bait” or “snare” to describe her role in the world she lives in. She portrays Bath as “a Place of Gallantry enough; Expensive, and full of Snares” and poverty as “the worst of all Snares”, specifying that the fear of spinsterhood is a “Woman’s Snare” with necessity serving as “the common Bait”, tempting women into prostitution (James 212). Her birth into a prison and into a world dominated by men puts the protagonist at a disadvantage from the start. Being the daughter of a criminal imprisoned in Newgate, Moll is left in the position of “a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World [sic!]” (Defoe 10). In Colchester, being about three years old, she is fostered and educated by a nurse, aiming to bring the children up “as Mannerly and as Genteely, as if [they] had been at the Dancing School [sic!]” (11). At the age of eight, the magistrates, ordering her to work as a servant, officially objectify Moll. She panics, fearing punishment for her inadequate service and convinces the nurse to keep her for a while longer (12). Moll builds up a reputation for her good hand with the needle; hence, being able to provide for herself when she is denied public allowance (15). One of the ladies giving her work is so pleased with Moll that she offers to take her home for a week, with the purpose to see how Moll adapts to the lady’s daughters and to assess the young girl’s temper; hence, treating Moll like an animal available for adoption (16). This objectification of women is illustrated similarly by an incident Moll experiences when living in Bath. There, a gentleman tells her that he has returned his depressive wife into the hands of her relatives to avoid an accusation of negligence (88), treating her as an object that, once broken, can be abandoned.

After the nurse’s death, Moll stays in the lady’s household, where, over the years, she fuels a lot of heated discussions between the family members. During one of these arguments, a daughter of the house portrays society’s state:

Betty wants but one Thing, but she had as good want every Thing, for the Market is against our Sex just now; and if a young Woman have Beauty, Birth, Breeding, Wit, Sense, Manners, Modesty and all these to an Extream; yet if she have not Money, she’s no Body, she had as good want them all, for nothing but Money now recommends a Woman; the Men play the Game all into their own Hands [sic!] (19f.).

Thus, wealth will do without beauty; hence, the woman equipped with money, has “the better of “[her] Neighbours [sic!]” (20). As Denis Donoghue stated, a “good marriage” resembles a successful business transaction (Bensadon 53), and a man stating that he would marry a woman without money, as long as she possesses the afore mentioned characteristics (Defoe 19), is regarded lost (39).

The eldest son of the family demonstrates the objectification of women even more. Through him, Defoe illustrates a woman’s dilemma of allowing herself to be seduced before marriage, gaining either a fool for a husband or a knave for a lover (Novak 100). He lures Moll into sleeping with him, promising her marriage as soon as he receives his future inheritance. After his first “attack” (Defoe 21) on Moll, the eldest son finds another opportunity to trap her, after stalking his object of desire like predators hunt their prey (ibid). This second attack ends with him professing his love, immediately followed by giving her five Guineas and leaving her alone. When ending the attack by professing his love and paying her, the protagonist’s reaction to the money in her hands mirrors society’s values: “I WAS more confounded with the Money than I was before with Love, and began to be so elevated, that I scarce knew the Ground I stood on [sic!]” (22). According to Maximillian Novak, Moll is unable “to separate her desire for wealth” from her love for the eldest son (McMaster 338f.). His further promises to provide her with one hundred Guineas every year until their marriage shows that “their lovemaking is virtually an act of purchase”, with Moll as commodity (339). The efforts of men to deprive women of their virtue and; thus, acquire their ‘worth’ represented by their reified virginity, are perceived as natural urge (Scholz 85).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Thomas Hobbes' "State of Nature" in Daniel Defoe's "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &C.". Shedding a New Light on the Protagonist's 'Immoral' Actions
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Self-Conscious Commodities: Defoe's Women
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Defoe, women, state of nature, hobbes, survival, self-preservation, 18th century, eighteenth century
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Mona Baumann (Author), 2018, Thomas Hobbes' "State of Nature" in Daniel Defoe's "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &C.". Shedding a New Light on the Protagonist's 'Immoral' Actions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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