17th Century

The 17th Century was an active time for philosophy, spawning what have come to be considered some of the field’s best minds and contributions.

Two of these, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, sought to explain the natural order of human society and man’s natural behavior and motivation in life. Despite living and working in the same era, these two men constructed very different and yet related theories regarding this “State of Nature.”Hobbes bases his beliefs on the central concept that that humans are above all else selfish creatures interested primarily in their own benefit and well-being. He argues that in any setting, be it individual or social, man will always choose the course of action from which he will most benefit, regardless of any larger consequences.

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True, humans are rational creatures capable of problem solving and using logic to predict results, but to Hobbes these faculties are used only in determining the best possible result of a range of given choices, allowing man to determine the path to his greatest benefit.Given this basic postulate, Hobbes goes on to theorize that the natural order of humanity is a dog-eat-dog state of constant insecurity and fear, in which all men pose a threat to one another and no sense of trust is possible. He contests that the only way to escape this brutish state is for man to use his ability to reason and create civilization, agreeing to live with one another in a peaceful state governed by law, with an established authority empowered to enforce those laws. It is only by recognizing this necessity and realizing his benefit from it that man can rise above his naturally chaotic State of Nature and live in peace.

John Locke views mankind’s natural state as an unhindered liberty in which mankind can choose his own destiny without government or established laws, but not without moral guidance- which Locke defines as being granted by God and inherent to man’s basic nature. He contests that this God-given moral base prevents man from harming one another when in his true State of Nature. It is only when mankind breaks Gods natural laws by violating his code of morality- either by stealing from another or attempting to impose his will on another man in order to make him a slave, that conflict can naturally occur.To Locke, the definition of personal property plays a major role in the basis of his theory.

In order to “own” something, man must combine his own personal labor with materials he has garnered from nature. In other words, to own a plot of land, man must work it by farming- and to own a tool, man must personally make that tool using elements found in his environment. It is only by personally exerting effort that humanity can lay claim to material things. Therefore, simply buying goods does not constitute ownership of those goods, according to Locke. Given this key principle, John Locke theorizes that the only benefit man gains by forming organized societies is to collectively provide a moral environment for raising children, and to establish a centralized power base in order to punish those that break moral laws.

Obvious differences exist between these two views on the State of Nature. To Thomas Hobbes, man is a brutish creature with a complete disregard for moral right and wrong where his best personal interests are concerned. John Locke’s view is the exact opposite, where man is inherently moral and concerned only with maintaining his just way of life and protecting his loved ones and property. Hobbes’ State of Nature is deplorable and to be avoided by mankind at all costs, while Locke’s is a sort of ideal that can be considered preferable when society begins to degrade. The key difference between these two theories is their concept of morality, which Hobbes considers to be a product of society, and Locke considers to be the basis of society.Despite all their differences, Hobbes and Locke do agree on one basic principle- that mankind is driven to develop societies for his benefit, and that a centralized form of government and power is a positive force that can provide mankind with protection and security.

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