The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






State of nature

"State of nature" is a term in political philosophy used to describe the hypothetical or empirical condition of humanity when or if government did not exist. Alternately, a state of nature is the condition before the rule of law comes into being. Some have thought that there was a time before any government, any official monopoly on the initiation of the use of violence, came into being. The concept of a state of nature is an integral part of social contract theories.


The concept of a state of nature was first positied by the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. Hobbes described the concept in the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes, meaning "the war of all against all."

What we know about the social behavior of indigenous peoples in undeveloped countries shows that that might be wrong in point of historical fact. It is very rare, indeed, that a group of people lacks anything like a government at all, even if the "government" consists only of tribal elders. That's why the state of nature is called a "useful fiction" or legal fiction. More complex governments with more fully developed social hierarchies come into being with the invention of agriculture, which implies more complex economies including markets and food storage facilities. These things require collective measures to operate and defend.

Hobbes does not base his argument on the historical existence of such a state.

Hobbes believed that human beings in the state of nature would behave "badly" towards one another ("badly" in the sense of the morality that we would commonly apply: but Hobbes argued that people had every right to defend themselves by whatever means, in the absence of order). Famously, he believed that such a state would lead to a "war of every man against every man" and make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes's negative view of human character was shaped at least in part by the Christian doctrines of original sin and total depravity; the Christian tradition is generally at one with Hobbes in supporting the need for government. However, Hobbes would strongly disagree with the Christian view of the innate, inherent, and inescapable sinfulness of human beings: in Hobbes's view, these problems are soluble by good government. As he incisively stated in its "De cive. Epistola dedicatoria", borrowing a well known aphorism from Plautus's Asinaria : "homo homini lupus" (man is wolf to man).

Hobbes's view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who affirmed instead that people in a state of nature would be born good; their bad habits are the products of civilization, and specifically social hierarchies, property, and markets. Rousseau's view underlines much of the Romantic period's political thinking, including the thought of Karl Marx.

This article is based originally on Larry's Text.


Let us return to nature.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way -- we must return to the beasts.
- Karl Popper

Last updated: 02-09-2005 04:15:01
Last updated: 05-02-2005 12:06:17