Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

6. Politics: the state of nature

Despite the inconsistency in individual value judgments over time, and between the value judgments of different people at the same time, Hobbes thinks that there are some evils that are so large, and that interfere so markedly with everyone’s pursuit of happiness, that practically no-one would knowingly pursue a course of action that resulted in them. War is such an evil, and Hobbes thinks he can show that if everyone makes themselves their own judge of what to pursue in the name of happiness, everyone will be involved in war. His argument to this conclusion is at the same time an argument for people to be guided by a judgment other than their own about what is best for them, the judgment of an existing civil power if they live in an existing commonwealth, the judgment of an as-yet-to-be designated civil power if they live outside any commonwealth.

The argument for the inevitability of war starts with assumptions about what is useful to the achievement of any goal. What is useful, no matter what good is being pursued, no matter whether the good is real or merely apparent, is power – that is, present means to future ends. ‘Power’ covers the physical capacities of individual agents, and also friends, riches and reputation. Not only is power in any form useful, but there can never be, according to Hobbes, too much power at the disposal of an agent in the nature of things. The reason is not that each agent naturally has an insatiable hunger for power, but that each agent is in competition with other agents for other goods, and any advantage one competitor temporarily has over another can, in principle, be overcome. The naturally strong can be toppled by a number of weak people who join forces; the man who has no enemies can be made into an object of hate with a well-judged campaign of character assassination; the wealthy can be robbed or swindled of their riches, and so on. Not only is it useful to acquire more and more power, but people cannot be blamed for doing so if all that organizes their activity in life is the pursuit of felicity.

Felicity is continual success in one’s undertakings, whatever they may be. If what one undertakes is to do down one’s competitors, then any means that helps to achieve it will be permissible. Or if, as is more likely, one aims at something else, doing down one’s competitors can still often promote one’s goal. Even the moderate man who wants only a small share of the good life can have reason to resort to foul means if he thinks he will lose everything by playing fair with rivals. And he cannot be sure he does not risk losing everything if he plays fair. In general, the goal of felicity requires one to try to get an advantage and keep it. Disabling others is a means of keeping the advantage; the outright elimination of competitors is even surer. Because these facts can be discovered by everyone, everyone who pursues felicity must bargain for severe insecurity and even worry about survival. Struggling for survival is far removed from felicity, but the pursuit of felicity, no holds barred, can quickly turn into a struggle for survival. Or to put it Hobbes’ way, in the state of nature, people who pursue felicity are in a condition of war.

The argument does not depend on the idea that every human being is naturally selfish. It is true that in De cive Hobbes paints an unflattering picture of ordinary human behaviour, emphasizing the tendency of people to look out for themselves, to say one thing to other people’s faces and another thing behind their backs, the tendency to think very well of their own opinions, but poorly of the views of others, and to fight over trivialities. This is all ordinary human behaviour, but it is not the behaviour of absolutely every human being. That it is so ordinary is enough, in Hobbes’ view, to overturn the Aristotelian idea that human beings are by nature fit for society, but he is not claiming that human beings are uniform, or that their behaviour is uniformly antisocial. Hobbes recognizes a variety of temperaments in human beings, and his state of nature encompasses the vainglorious as well as the moderate. The vainglorious will seek to dispossess others because having more than anyone else is an end in itself. Moderates will go on to the attack because they want only a little and fear that the greedy will take even that. Others again will be at odds because they want something that cannot be shared. Whatever the cause, the general effect will be insecurity, and with insecurity goes many unattractive things – not only feelings of fear, but loss of society, loss of production, loss of technology, loss of art, loss of everything that enables human beings to rise above a life of bare subsistence and savagery. Life in the state of war is, in Hobbes’ famous phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

Is there no such thing as virtue to keep people from pursuing felicity ruthlessly? Hobbes thinks that precepts enjoining the moral virtues – what he calls ‘the laws of nature’ – are discoverable even in the state of nature, but people are not morally obliged to act on them if they run the risk of dying as a result: the most basic law of nature is to preserve oneself, and there is an inalienable ‘right of nature’ to be one’s own judge of how to secure one’s own preservation and wellbeing. This right may be laid down in the interest of self-preservation, but never at the cost of self-preservation. So if one has reason to think that others will take advantage of one’s keeping agreements, or of showing gratitude, of not being judge in one’s own cause, of being forgiving and so on through the rest of the virtues, one is not obliged to behave in those ways. One is not obliged to act in a way which will advertise one’s vulnerability to the unscrupulous. It is enough that one is willing to behave virtuously if it is not too dangerous.

Citing this article:
Sorell, Tom. Politics: the state of nature. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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