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Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, And The State Of Nature And The Act Of Men

Hobbes, Rousseau, and The State of Nature


Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality both offer contrasting theories about how men act in the state of nature. Hobbes’ theory is based on upon the idea that human nature is naturally competitive and violent while Rousseau’s is based upon the idea of man being naive. Rousseau’s view is a more accurate portrayal of man in a state of nature as man would not naturally turn violent against each other as Hobbes suggests.

Hobbes’ View

Hobbes’ view on man in a state of nature is one that is competitive and violent. Hobbes states “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing. which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 3). Hobbes is stating that when two men in a state of nature both want to acquire the same thing, they will naturally turn to enemies, which will lead to them trying to destroy one another.

Hobbes believes that in a state of nature, there is no law and therefore no justice. Hobbes implies that a state of nature is a war of “every man against every man” (Hobbes 5). Elaborating on this idea of war, Hobbes states that “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice” (Hobbes 5). Every man can do whatever he pleases to whoever he pleases and can acquire whatever he desires for as long as he can keep it.

Hobbes believes that there are three main causes of disputes – “First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory” (Hobbes 3). Hobbes believes that want to fight in order to gain, to ensure their safeness, and obtain glory. Men will use violence to obtain another man’s possessions as well as to defend themselves and obtain glory.

In a state of nature, Hobbes refers to the right of nature as “the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature” (Hobbes 5). A man can use all of his abilities in any way his judgement compels him to do so. Men can act however they wish within their own reasoning. This also goes right along with Hobbes belief that “every man has a right to everything, even to one another’s body” (Hobbes 6).

For Hobbes, being in a state of nature gives man every right to act however he feels is necessary to obtain anything he feels. Nothing is off limits to any man so long as he is acting within his own limitations.

Rousseau’s View

Rousseau believes that, in a state of nature, man would not immediately have any knowledge of good or bad as he states that “men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations with one another, could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious” (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 5). If man was to be put in a state of nature, he would not be able to determine what’s good or bad, meaning that he would have no set morals and no set way of making decisions.

Building off of his beliefs that man would not immediately have any knowledge of good or bad, Rousseau states that “Man’s first feeling was that of his own existence, and his first care that of self-preservation” (Rousseau 10). Man’s first goal in a complete state of nature is surviving.

Rousseau argues “that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contribute the preservation of the whole species” (Rousseau 7). Men are naturally compassionate to one another as they do not naturally want to bring harm to those around them.

Rousseau believes that there are two kinds of inequality among man – “natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul and […] moral or political inequality” (Rousseau 3). The natural inequality is inequality that will always exist. In a complete state of nature, political inequality won’t exist, but natural inequality will still be there.

For Rousseau, being in a state of nature will lead a man to act through compassion and self-preservation. Man is unsure of the differences between good and bad and cannot immediately have any set morals.

Comparing/Contrasting Rousseau and Hobbes

While in a state of nature, Hobbes believes that man will act competitively and violent to obtain what he wants while Rousseau believes that man will naturally act through compassion and the need for self-preservation. Rousseau believes that it is the civil society that had made man wicked as he states “as every man punished the contempt shown him by others, in proportion to his opinion of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel. This is precisely the state reached by most of the savage nations known to us” (Rousseau 14). This statement contrasts with Hobbes in that Hobbes believes that men are naturally cruel to each other in order to obtain possessions, safety, and glory. Hobbes believes that a civil society is what stops man from believing that all men had the right to all things as he states “For before constitution of sovereign power, as hath already been shown, all men had right to all things, which necessarily causeth war” (Hobbes 12).

Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ views are similar in that neither of them believes that laws exist in a state of nature. They differ in the idea in the sense that Hobbes’ believes that civil society causes men to not be as competitive and violent while Rousseau believes that civil society is what causes men to become cruel to one another.

Rousseau’s view can be seen as naive in that it assumes that man in a state of nature is neither good nor bad and has no moral relations with one another. Hobbes believes that men will naturally compete with one another to obtain the same things and this competition will undoubtedly lead to violence. Hobbes’ view can be seen as generally lacking emotions and only using reasoning which is in contrast to Rousseau’s view which is strongly based on human emotions.

Why Rousseau’s View is More Convincing

Hobbes’ views suggest that man is naturally wicked. His views suggest that men who desire the same thing will become enemies as they compete to attain it. Hobbes portrays human nature in way such that man is naturally competitive and violent because he does not know virtue. Rousseau denounces this view by stating “Hobbes had seen clearly the defects of all the modern definitions of natural right: but the consequences which he deduces from his own show that he understands it in an equally false sense” (Rousseau 6).

Rousseau denounces Hobbes view on human nature by describing man in a state of nature being driven by compassion and surviving rather than competition and violence. Rousseau believes that Hobbes completely disregarded the idea of self-preservation by saying “There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation” (Rousseau 6). Hobbes was never concerned with the idea that man would have to provide for himself and survive when discussing man in the state of nature. Hobbes immediately started discussing how men would want to compete with each other rather than learn to survive themselves.

Similar to man immediately competing with one another to in order to gain what they desired, Hobbes believed that man would naturally turn violent against one another to gain possessions and glory and that this would only be stopped once a civil society was created. Rousseau believes that men in a state of nature are compassionate as this emotion comes natural to man and serves to preserve the species as a whole. Rousseau’s argument is more convincing since if what Hobbes says was true, men would constantly fight each other which would damage the species as a whole and make it hard for it to prosper and survive. Rousseau’s idea of man in a state of nature is one that makes it so that the human species is better able to survive and prosper.


Hobbes argues that the only way for man to get rid of their natural desire to compete with one another and commit acts of violence is to establish a civil society. Hobbes states that “The final cause […] of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths” (Hobbes 8). His wretched portrayal of man in a state of nature is a great example of why governments are needed in the first place.

Though he does a great job of portraying why governing bodies are needed due to his violent portrayal of man in a state of nature, he fails to adequately address some of the basic ideas of human nature as Rousseau did when he discusses the idea of man and self-preservation.


Both Hobbes and Rousseau offer differing theories on how men act in the state of nature. Hobbes views that man is naturally violent and competitive are not as convincing as Rousseau’s views that man is naturally compassionate and driven by self-preservation.

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