Hobbes, the State of Nature, and the State of War


“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.” (Hobbes 1651)

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, State of War, State of Anarchy, Laws of nature, right of natureAlthough he never used the term, Thomas Hobbes argued that the state of nature is a state of war. He famously proclaimed that life within this state is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. (Hobbes 1651)

The importance of Hobbes being able to adequately prove that the state of nature is, in fact, a state of war arises from his overall political project; to justify an absolute sovereign.

If Hobbes cannot successfully prove that the state of nature is a state of war, then there is no adequate justification for an absolute sovereign. This essay will explore Hobbes’ idea that the state of nature is a state of war.

It finds that Hobbes may offer a convincing account of human nature and have some aspects right, however, there are many flaws in his arguments that need to be remedied in order to justify his political project of the absolute sovereign.


The Laws of Nature

Hobbes argues that the state of war arises from people’s right to nature which is foremost self-preservation. He outlines three fundamental laws of nature which he argued are discovered by reason and are there in order to achieve preservation for yourself.

  • The first law is that we should do what we can to seek peace.
  • The second is that we should limit our right of nature, provided that everyone else agrees to do the same.
  • The third is that we should keep our covenants.

State of Nature, State of War, Political Theory, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

The problem with the state of nature is that nobody can trust anybody and therefore, you cannot be certain that if you limit your right to nature that others will necessarily limit theirs.

In Hobbes’ view of human nature, all men are equal as far as the weakest is able to kill the strongest, and vice versa (e.g confederacy, assassination, etc). Within this state, every person is entitled to choose for himself what his needs are, what is owed to them, what is considered respectful, and also what is right for everyone else to do.

This person within the state of nature is able to act upon their desires and enforce what they see best onto other people. When disputes arise and there is no common authority to mitigate the conflict, we can see that the state of nature can very well become a state of war between opposing views.

The Absolute Sovereign and the Right of Nature

Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, State of Nature, State of War, Social Contract Theory, International Bestseller, Political TheoryHobbes’ idea of the absolute sovereign that is the basis of his book ‘’leviathan’ rests completely on the argument that the condition of anarchy (state of nature) is a condition of brutal and violent conflict. Within this state of nature, no person can trust another, with every person filled with uncertainty and insecurity.

The state of war arises from the right of nature which, “is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” (Hobbes 1651) To Hobbes, a right is a lack of restraint. A lack of restraint comes in physical and legal forms and a right is everything with no such barrier and is called positive freedom.

The laws of nature are designed to help us realize the right of nature which is discovered through reason, “A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found 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 by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.” (Hobbes 1651)

The laws are then set in place in order to preserve yourself. As noted earlier, the main laws of nature are; we should do what we can to seek peace; we should limit our right provided that everyone else will do so also; and that a person should keep their convents.

Contradictions with the Laws of Nature

Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, Political History, History and Theory, Thomas Hobbes Jean Hampton notes a conflict between the objectivist ethical position, which Hobbes laws represent, and Hobbes’ idea of human psychology. (Hampton 1985) She suggests that a better way to make Hobbes more consistent would be to abandon the laws altogether. (Hampton 1985)

This is because through Hobbes’ psychological framework humans are unable to do anything that they do not perceive to be in their best interest. If they cannot perceive the laws of nature to be in their best interest, then they are unable to act upon them, therefore, rendering the laws of nature unnecessary.

However, the contradiction between Hobbes laws of nature and Hobbes’ idea of human psychology isn’t the only problem facing his book ‘Leviathan’. There is a contradiction also between the main themes of the book; the idea that the state of nature is one of constant war, and the idea that people within this state will eventually be able to enact a sovereign under such conditions.


Contradictions Between the Establishment of an Absolute Sovereign and the State of Nature

Absolute Sovereign, Thomas Hobbes, Political Theory, State of Nature, Leviathan, Social Contract TheoryIn order for Hobbes to prove that the state of nature is a state of war and to prove the necessity of the absolute sovereign, he has to adequately show that humans are unable to make arrangements and keep co-operative agreements when they are in the state of nature.

The problem with Hobbes’ argument regarding the state of nature being a state of war is the inherent and obvious tension between the two major themes within Hobbes ‘Leviathan’. In Hobbes’ book, he argues that the state of nature is a state of war “of every man against every man”. (Hobbes 1651) However, the same people whom cannot trust each other or co-operate are somehow supposed to be able to agree, and maintain this agreement to create an absolute sovereign. The contract has to be founded on a convent where every person simultaneously agrees to limit their right of nature however, nobody is able to trust each other.

The problem is that nobody will ever make the first move to enact a sovereign if they perceive they can rationally benefit through voiding the convent (or cannot perceive their long-run benefit of keeping it). It is the same predicament many modern states face today. Treaties and mutual defense agreements between countries which are according to Hobbes, in the state of war with each other, are created and broken whenever it is perceived to be in their best interest.

State co-operation, Tit for tat, mutual Reliance, realism, Thomas Hobbes, Problems State of Nature, Reliance, IndependenceHowever, what we can learn from the modern states today is that mutual co-operation can be achieved in a tit-for-tat scenario. Mutual trust is built, even if just for the short-run, through reciprocity where each party will co-operate until the other defects.

As a person in the state of nature has continuously good encounters with reciprocity, they build trust. When they are perceived as trustworthy, others will want to reciprocate with them. This may be a simple basis for how people could agree to erect a sovereign, however, within Hobbes state of nature it is highly unlikely that somebody so trustworthy would live a long life.

This brings us back to the contradiction of how a possible sovereign could come about when long-term co-operation is almost impossible. A possible way could be through Hobbes argument for strengthening convents. He claims that there are two ways to strengthen convents; fear and pride. However in the state of nature, there is no just or unjust or good and bad, so pride seems to be eliminated because a person cannot have pride in his words, or subsequently, his actions. This leaves the only thing people in Hobbes state of nature seem to know, fear as a way to establish a sovereign. Although it is unclear to me how this could happen.

He claims that there are two ways to strengthen convents; fear and pride. However in the state of nature, there is no just or unjust or good and bad, so pride seems to be eliminated because a person cannot have pride in his words, or subsequently, his actions. This leaves the only thing people in Hobbes state of nature seem to know, fear as a way to establish a sovereign. Although it is unclear to me how this could happen.

Final Thoughts on Hobbes’ Conception of Human Nature

A main  assumption of Hobbes is that humans are prone to move towards violence at any sign of contempt, “For every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them in quiet is far enough to make them destroy each other), to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from others, by the example.” (Hobbes 1651)

In Hobbes’ conception of the state of nature, there is no just or unjust actions, only those that are done through the right of nature. This assumes that humans are pre-moral animals and that our morality is derived instead from the sovereign. He also argues that humans have a continuous desire for power, “…in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only after death”. (Hobbes 1651)

It could be that his assumption that we are prone to move to violence at any sign of contempt, along with our desire for power reinforce each other. This is because the act of undervaluing is a direct sign of our perceived power, and to be undervalued is to be dominated. When being dominated the desire for power only increases, reinforcing the need to retaliate and gain ‘glory’. Through this lens the state of nature may very well be a state of war, however, other social contract theories such as Rousseau would disagree.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Conception of Human Nature

RousseauJean-Jacques Rousseau, Political theory, Thomas Hobbes, State of Nature, Social Contract Theory, Inherently Good, Contending Theories, Man is by nature good  has a different conception of human nature. In his conception, human nature is inherently moral with humans having an innate built-in mechanism to not harm other humans. Rousseau’s main thesis is: man is naturally good, and anything that is not natural has corrupted us from the natural state, or “Man is by nature good . . . Men are depraved and perverted by society.” (Rousseau 1762)

This is essentially the complete opposite of Hobbes view which could be reframed as “Man is naturally bad, and anything that is not natural (an artificial sovereign, artificial citizens) has enlightened us from this naturally brutal state”. Several recent studies with social learning experiments seem to side with Rousseau, suggesting instead violence is a learned behavior, suggesting that the state of nature is not pre-moral at all, humans have a built-in innate mechanism to not harm other humans.

This means that the number of people that would actually resort the violence in the state of nature is relatively low, creating the grounds for co-operation and subsequently a sovereign and that conception of good and evil are as innate and inherent to us as our capacity to recognize and feel pain and pleasure.

It means that morality is inscribed by birth, ready to be constructed through our natural experiences. The idea that violence is learned, means that co-operation within the state of nature would be possible and conflict would be minimal because like any other animal, humans have a predisposition towards other humans.

In the state of nature Rousseau believes the man to be akin to a savage. Being a savage his actions are determined by his immediate needs; food, sexual satisfaction, and sleep, while he also only fears hunger and pain. Rousseau further argues that the savage is motivated by self-preservation (food, shelter, and sleep) and also by pity, (the savage is naturally affected by other human beings sufferance). This pity, which transforms to compassion, then is what binds human beings and acts as a sufficient force to restrain humans from harming other humans.

According to Rousseau these traits, the capacity for good and evil, yin and yang, are part of what makes us human and not merely animals. Thus, Rousseau believes that humans are driven by compassion, pity, and self-love and he views human nature as inherently good. This is a more accurate depiction of the ‘actual state of nature where co-operation is possible. This is because it mediates much of the conflict within the state of nature while allowing for the establishment of a sovereign.


State of War, Not Actual War?

Political Theory, War, State of Nature, Social Contract, Thomas Hobbes, nasty brutish and short, not actual war, LeviathanHobbes didn’t believe that the state of war consisted of constant actual fighting, but the constant fear that war could break out between two people at any time, “so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.” (Hobbes 1651) This creates the condition of insecurity and uncertainty.

Within this state there is the constant fear of war at any time with, “No arts; 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” (Hobbes 1651) Because there was no conception of property, anybody could come and take what they desired at any time. This leads to what Hobbes called “anticipation”, which is the basis for the forward-looking view of the pre-emptive strike.

A pre-emptive strike occurs because the state of nature engenders a state of uncertainty about how others will act and is also the main cause of why the state of nature is a state of war. Hobbes believed there were three causes of conflict, which led to the state of war.

Hobbes argues that there are three causes for conflict, “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.” (Hobbes 1651) He goes on to say, “The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation.” (Hobbes 1651)

He argues that within the state of nature war arises because of competition of resources people desire, “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” (Hobbes 1651) This is Hobbes competition argument where he assumes that resources that people desire are scarce, and when war arises because two people desire the same thing, it will inevitably lead to conflict.

Firstly, Hobbes has a very mechanical view of the universe. When he says desires he means in mechanical terms, a movement towards (desire) or away (aversion) of an object. This is because to Hobbes everything is a matter of motion. He also avoided explaining what kind of desires people typically have. This begs the open question of do people actually have conflicting desires?

If men and women are born at equal rates, there should not be a shortage of women. So, conflict over that would be minimal. While land is vast, so territory becomes a fluid commodity. While also if you have managed survive in the state of nature for some time, you should be self-sufficient, meaning you can sufficiently hunt for food and provide for yourself. So conflict over materials would also be mitigated.

Desires, State of Nature, State of War, Thomas Hobbes, Political Theory, Human Nature, Conflicting Desires, No Desires,

The question ultimately is; what kind of desires do people have. I could desire to see nothing more than somebody else’s self-preservation in order to sustain my own, and another person could desire me for their self-preservation and so on, which could also be the basis for founding a sovereign which is; a mutual dependence upon everyone, from the same desire of self-preservation. 


Hobbes argued that the state of nature is a state of war. There is, however, some problems with his argument. As noted above, there is not a clear picture of how, if Hobbes account is correct, the people are able to adequately establish an absolute sovereign. This is because nobody is able to trust anybody so convents are constantly broken. Another problem for people entering into a sovereign is that they are unable to perceive their long-term gain from the sovereign, breaking convents when it appears to be the rational decision.

There is another problem with Hobbes account of human nature in regards to humans innate mechanism to not harm other humans; our predisposition to pity and empathy. This means that if true, Hobbes justification for the absolute sovereign will not hold, and a sovereign that is absolute is unnecessary. This is because the amount of conflict then is the state of nature is relatively low, and co-operation is a possibility. I only got to cover one of Hobbes arguments for conflict; however, it is clear that people’s desires may vary two people do not necessarily have to come into conflict over the competition.

Rousseau seems to offer a better conception of human nature, with his line of thinking being able to provide an explanation for how a sovereign would come about in the absence of Hobbes’ state of nature. Overall, Hobbes may offer a convincing account of human nature and have some aspects right, however, ultimately there are many flaws in his arguments that need to be remedied.


Final Thoughts
A final view that was overlooked in this article is put forth by John Locke. Check out more about him in the video below!



Andrew Bailey, Samantha Brennan, Will Kymlicka, Jacob Levy, Alex Sager, And Clark Wolf, The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: From Plato to Nietzsche, (Canada Broadview Press, 2008).

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Rod Hay. McMaster University, 1651. 

Hampton, Jean. “Hobbes’s State of War .” Topoi. no. 1 (1985): 47-60. 10.1007/BF00138648 .

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Treatise on Education, 4, 1762, tr. Barbara Foxley, 1911. 


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