Friday, July 31, 2009


This text discusses various interpretations of the state of nature from the perspectives of political philosophers and social critiques. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau write in detail their interpretation of the state of nature. Marx offers more of a social critique rooting his conclusions through a historical progression. John Stuart Mill writes about embracing the state of nature in order to preserve our individual rights and Mary Wolstencraft outspokenly critiques Rousseau's misogynistic epitaph of the noble savage.

Hobbes and Locke create a fictitious world, the state of nature, in order to imagine humanity's existence prior to the imposition of government. Hobbes, primarily an individualist, believes that the Commonwealth is necessary in order to limit the chaotic tendencies of the state of nature. This reflects his perception of humanity living in conditions of perpetual conflict while still in the state of nature. Conversely, Locke argues for a government opposing absolutism. His argumentation roots itself in his description of human beings in his state of nature; a natural freedom permitting each individual to do as they see fit with themselves and their possessions outside of any regulatory body or persons.

Both of their descriptions of the appropriate style of government focus a great deal on property, justice and patriarchy. Moreover, Hobbes and Locke declare that the advantages of civilization are not possible without government. Consequently, they note the differences between civil freedom and natural freedom. Civil freedom is our ability to gain the arts, education, ethics, logic and reason as a result of the institutions of government. Natural freedom is our ability to freely choose as per the whims of our desires and wants.

Rousseau continues this dialogue. However, his philosophical argumentation of the state of nature and government follow a different path. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau argues that political authority is not found in nature. Rather the imposition of political authority and its institutions were done by force. Force is a physical manifestation of strength and is not found in the state of nature. Rousseau's natural state paints a picture of a noble savage, people living together peacefully. The only form of authority found in nature is that of preservation and the tie between child and father. He describes, “The oldest of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family; yet children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need him for their preservation.” (Rousseau, 1968, p.50). As such, Rousseau sees humanity forming a social pact when the obstacles in the state of nature are so great, that each man does not possess the individual strength to preserve themselves. (Rousseau, 1968, p.59)

The bonding of naturally free individuals into a civilization is the foundation of Rousseau's perception of individual rights; there are none. He sees civilization as a collective limiting private rights. In this idea, Rousseau somewhat resembles Hobbes. They both see the civil body as an entity that limits the excesses of the state of nature. However, Hobbes believes that an absolute authority over people must exercise its strength only to the degree of limiting the chaotic excesses of the state of nature. For Rousseau, those excesses are individual rights. He explains, “[...] for if rights were left to individuals, in the absence of any higher authority to judge between them and the public, each individual, being his own judge in some causes, would soon demand to be his own judge in all; and in this way the state of nature would be kept in being, and the association inevitably become either tyrannical or void.” (Rousseau, 1968, p.60)

Rousseau's idea of a civil society rest upon a communal framework working toward the greater good. He notes that in the state of nature, we are physically free individuals. However, it is only upon the implementation of the social contract that rationality and morality can flourish. Consequently, by relinquishing our physical freedom in the state of nature, we are able to shuck the husks of impulses and possessions, gaining property and civil liberty through civil society. Rousseau elaborates, “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and the absolute right to anything that tempts him and that he can take; what he gains by the social contract is civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and we must distinguish also between possession, which is based only on force or 'the right of the first occupant', and property, which must rest on legal title.” (Rousseau, 1968, p.65). Therefore, like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau agrees that the sovereign state affords us protection. However, he also believes that the sovereign affords us our capacity to reason and use morale judgement. Thus, we are not individuals reaching our full potential unless we participate in the greater collective of civil society.

Continuing along the dialogue of a communal society, we must focus our attention on an industrial era social thinker, Karl Marx. Rather then putting forth a model of social organization founding itself on a fictitious state of nature, Marx sees the current state of society dividing itself into two classes, the capitalist bourgeoisie and the worker proletariat. For him, social history traces itself through a series of class struggles, oppressors and the oppressed (Marx, 1998). Rousseau states that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” (Rousseau, 1968, p.49) and Marx proclaims, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” (Marx, 1998, p.77). Both of these social critiques see the liberty of humanity stemming from a strong collective.

Marx's social critique focuses primarily on a political and economical mode of analysis. The perpetual class struggle enslaving the average man cements itself in a superstructure duality of ideology and mode of production. By way of example we can use love and marriage. Love is the ideology, the faith necessary to promote marriage, the mode of production. Religion plays a similar role; numbing the masses into a belief that there is a better world then here and thus accepting the harsh living conditions of the present as a natural state (Marxists, 2005, para.5). Marx labels this illusionary belief as false-consciousness; a state of mind imposing itself on humanity thus forbidding people from seeing reality. Consequently, we are enslaving ourselves voluntarily.

With people believing that the current social landscape roots itself in veritas, the working slaves continue to toil, producing more wealth for the oppressing class. Industrial society bestows upon the bourgeoisie the ability to produce goods at a scale never before seen through mankind's history. Therefore, the sale of the product, minus the marginal costs of materials and the minimum wage, permitting the proletariat some form of basic subsistence, equals surplus value. Surplus value is the profit resting upon the back of the working class. Consequently, wage-labour produces capital, not property. The bourgeoisie can dictate their profit by scaling their cost of labour up or down. The less you pay for labour, the more profit you acquire. However, for the proletariat, this translates into a form of slavery. Robbing them of their right to property and convincing them that it is acceptable by way of false-consciousness, is one of the many powers of capitalism.

Endemic to this economic system are forms of alienation. Marx highlights four types of alienation: products of labour, process of production, species-being and self. Summarizing, alienation is a social construct the keeps humanity segregated from our natural state. Indeed, Marx does echo, though faint, the fictitious state of nature of his predecessors. Jonathan Wolff in his book, Why Read Marx Today?, offers an excellent description of alienation. He describes alienation as a four spoke umbrella consisting of alienation from the product, from the process of production, from our own species and from our own self. The first is the capitalist production mechanics that distance the worker from the objects he produces, permitting no control over its usage or sale. As well, the proletariat alienates himself from the process of production. This second spoke of alienation describes the process by which the worker lose their skills and reduces themselves to nothing but minuscule robots repeating mindless tasks with little to no knowledge of their place in the scheme of things. Alienating our selves from our own species is a two prong attack. First, we distance ourselves from our social relations. We see ourselves as individuals consuming the fruits of production rather then a cooperative spanning the entire globe building upon past knowledge and current technologies. Second, it is the removal of our natural, free production. Outside of capitalism, humans “[...] produce in accordance with their will and consciousness [...]” (Wolff, 2003, p.35). Conversely, our current state of production is a tormenting chore accomplishing itself in a monotonous mechanical fashion. This type of alienation oozes into the final piece of the puzzle, alienation from self. This is an expression of our tunnel vision. It illustrates that we think of ourselves as individuals who get jobs, earn money and then spend it at various stores. However, the pursuit of our self-interest is impossible without some form of community. In other words, “we use our species-life as a means to individual life.” (Wolff, 2003, p.37).

Marx believes that social emancipation, freedom of all people, accomplishes itself through a communal system that destroys capitalism, a regime of alienation. Moreover, he goes on to note that the emancipation of people can only see fruition through a revolution spearheading itself by the working class, the proletariat. The intelligentsia and artisans can think and dream of a Utopian society but cannot implement the new society. In his Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx writes, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (Marxists, 2002, para.11). The proletariat must be the nucleus of the revolution in order to doff their chains of slavery and don the halo of freedom. It is through this revolutionary conflict that the working class will grasp the potential of their true strength and see their natural communal interdependence.

Standing in opposition to a collective organization of society is John Stuart Mill. Rather then advocating a heavy foot of government controlling individual will, he promotes individual rights as the guarantee of our civil liberty. Earlier forms of government perceive civic liberty stemming from the protection of society from the state of nature. Progressing forward in time, Mill notes that a democratic republic is the most preferable form of government (Mill, 1985). However, plaguing this system is the will of the masses imposing itself on the minority; tyranny of the majority. Mill elaborates, “Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself.” (Mill, 1985, p.63). Therefore, in order to secure civil liberty, individual rights must find protection and security within the current government.

Perhaps a rebuke at Marx, John Stuart Mill takes a stab at communal property while simultaneously defending freedom of speech. He writes, “An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.” (Mill, 1985, p.119). Mill is claiming that an individual should be free to do anything so long as their actions do not directly or indirectly bring harm to another individual. Freedom is our ability to chose and experiment. Our author believes that our progression as a species comes from our own experimentation. As we are fallible beings, we must test to come to conclusions. Thus our assertions are products of inductive and deductive logic, the father of the contemporary scientific method. Therefore, in order for advancement as a whole, we must be free to express our opinions and then perform our actions without the heavy foot of government restricting our movements.

Mill observes human nature as a biological entity, a life form requiring food and mobility to grow. Stagnation causes atrophy, a weakening of life itself. In order to grow and expand, the life form must be free to exercise all of its faculties. Our ability to perceive, judge, deduce, logically reason and draw moral conclusions comes only through practise, our choice making capacity (Mill, 1985). Mill highlights, “The mental and moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used. [...] Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all side, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” (Mill, 1985, p.122 – 123) Conversely, authors such as Hobbes see human nature from a structural perspective; a machine with specific motivators instigating movement.

Firmly standing in opposition to Rousseau is Wollstencraft. Like Mill, she believes in individual rights. Specifically, she sees an individual acquiring liberty and freedom through education. Denying women their right to knowledge damages the whole society. Wollstencraft believes, “[...] that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, then they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society.” (Wollstencraft, 1996, p.21).
She notes that women currently linger in a sedentary life, weakening their entire being and cramping their growth. Stagnation of one of the sexes is against the state of nature, knowledge is equal to both genders in a natural existence. Consequently, women “[...] ought to endeavour to acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the same means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of half being [...]” (Wollstencraft, 1996, p.38). Lack of education breeds ignorance and tyrants capitalize upon the opportunity stemming from this deficit. Wollstencraft believes that this inequality is the source of the subjugation of women. Conversely, education allows for the body to gain strength and the subsequent expansion of the mind; strangling the key ingredient of powerful tyrants, which is blind obedience. (Wollstencraft, 1996)

The majority of the state of nature theorists, see the age prior to civilization as a time of divine existence; lacking only in the luxuries put forth by civilization. This assumption is commonly the foundation of the logic of limiting individual liberty. Wollstencraft notes that such a concept is lunacy. Eloquently, she explains, “That the society is formed in the wisest manner, whose constitution is founded on the nature of man, strikes, in the abstract, every thinking being so forcibly, that it looks like presumption to endeavour to bring forward proofs; though proof must be brought, or the strong hold of prescription will never be forced by reason; yet to urge prescription as an argument to justify the depriving men (or women) of their natural rights, is one of the absurd sophisms which daily insult common sense.” (Wollstencraft, 1996, p.12). She maintains that it is the lack of a good national education interest which keeps society on the edge of absolute ignorance. Teaching women from birth that they are weaker and subservient to men as well as ensuring that men believe to be superior in virtuous faculties, perpetuates the general will to acquiesce to the fables preaching a natural sanctity to patriarchy. This idea is similar to Marx's concept of false-consciousness. A grimoire of false beliefs that impose themselves through the puppetry of the upper classes onto the ignorant minds of the working class.

Earlier understandings of the state of nature influence authors of political philosophy. They either provide a target for a rebuke or ideas to build upon. From Hobbes to Wolstencraft we can see the fictitious concept of the state of nature providing a platform for an argument. Marx, though more subtle, uses his theories of alienation in reference to humanity's distancing from the state of nature. Our other authors' argumentation orbiting the sphere of the state of nature is easier to decipher.


Marx, Karl & Engels Frederick. (1998). The Communist Manifesto A Modern Edition.
New York: Verso

Marxists Internet Archive. (2005, February). Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's
Philosophy of Right 1844. Paris: Karl Marx. Retrieved July 30, 2009, from

Marxists Internet Archive. (2002). Theses On Feuerbach. Brussels: Karl Marx. Retrieved July 30,
2009, from <>

Mill, John Stuart. (1985). On Liberty. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1968). The Social Contract. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd.
Wolff, Jonathan. (2003). Why Read Marx Today?. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

Wolstencraft, Mary. (1996). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Dover Publications Inc.

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