How Locke and Hobbes Were Wrong: State of Nature

Much of modern political theory is a result of or a reaction to the theories of Locke and Hobbes and their individual views of both the state of nature and of the social contract. Although both men differed in their views of each of those topics, they share a commonality in that they missed key elements. Theirs was an idealist view of how community and government came into being. In their idealism, they missed key elements of reality.

In broad strokes, each envisioned a pre-government world where man either lived mostly in peace, following natural law (Locke) or in a constant state of war of all against all (Hobbes). Man eventually decided it was in his best interest to come together, in community, and to surrender rights to some form of government. Hobbes would say all rights were surrendered, locker argued only some. Hobbes would argue that man did this out of fear of his neighbor, Locke essentially that man saw this as the best way to preserve his rights to his property and prosperity. Hobbes was more Platonic in his view, Locke more Aristotelean. Both, Hobbes to a greater extent, abandoned key elements of philosophical thought going back to the Greeks. Both proposed something new and radical; idealist.

However, both abandoned a realist view of history, anthropology, and sociology in their theories of ‘man in nature’. Man has never existed in nature as an individual, alone with no authority, no structure, and just his senses and desires.

If one is inclined toward an evolutionary view of history and the rise of man, looking back we would find the first human-like creatures with intelligence and some form of capacity for reason were not so different from the primates that evolution would tell us these humanoids descended from. That is to say, they were social creatures built around family groups. The individuals in those groups were born into a social hierarchy and authority structure. The same sort of structure that existed for eons before, in that individual’s ancestors that were not humanoids at all but rather apes.

No individual ape ever contracted with other apes to form a group for protection, biology provided the template for the social order; the family. There was no instance of a Lockean state of nature with apes ‘monkeying’ around, eating bananas from their private property trees, such radical individualist would have been killed and never allowed the chance to procreate. There was never a case of all apes individually at war with all other apes in the Hobbesian view. Each ape was born into a social order, a social order that went back in one form or another as far as their mammalian ancestors existed. It developed over time, being traditional, it was learned, it was also inherited. It was never contracted. When the first humanoids arrived in the evolutionary story, they brought with them these traditions and learned behaviors and biological facts; the family group.

If one is inclined toward a literal interpretation of the Genesis story, again we find no instance where an individual man was without a structure and some authority over him. God created Adam and served as his sovereign. God created a mate for Adam, creating the family and gave Adam headship over the family. The entire Old Testament from Genesis to Kings is centered on the family group and tribes that derive from extended family. Never in the Biblical story did either a Hobbesian or Lockean state of nature exist.

It never existed in an evolutionary recount nor a Biblical view, Locke and Hobbes were working in the realm of idealism, not realism. Yet, their entire theories begin with the premise that the social contract exists because man previously lived in a state of nature. Somebody, somewhere, in their view, came together to contract for something better, to form community and then an authority to rule over that community. The fact is, humans have always had the foundational building block of community, the family, and authority that naturally resides in a parent over a child. Social order has existed throughout most of human history because of convention, tradition, and power derived from biologically inspired sociological facts – greybeards were stronger and wiser than youngsters and taught them the way. Families formed the core, family leaders became tribal leaders, and later kings – no social contract.

In the American story, our rights, laws, and traditions came from Britain. A nation that developed a constitution from what began as a simple monarchy. In the 1600’s ours was a British system, in the 1700s also, when the Constitution was ratified, we were still recipients of these British traditions. Ours was a combination of centuries of convention, tradition, subtle modifications and progressions. We were not founded, we were framed.

The implications of these errors are not insignificant. All of classical liberalism, all of the political theories that derive from that and have emerged to oppose it are based on or opposed to the fundamental errors that both Hobbes and Locke made. Thus, democracy, republicanism, and socialism all have inherent flaws. They either promote the idea of the individual or the community above that of the foundational building block of society for eons – the family. They downplay the importance of tradition, accidents of history, and received knowledge.

In the US, many of the framers of the Constitution understood the difference. The anti-federalist did not see a founding but rather a continuation of British traditions and ancient liberties. They understood the notion of sovereignty and knew full well that the British sovereign had relinquished sovereignty not to the Continental Congress but to thirteen free and independent states individually. They thus understood that the will of the people might only be expressed through their states in congress assembled.

The Federalist, had a pretty different idea, they used many of the words of Locke, but upon analysis, they were much more Hobbesian and Neoplatonic in their view. They feared a lack of control, they feared checks and balances – they wanted centralization, a Hobbsean Leviathan that operated under the rule of law, but a could also define and redefine what that law meant and what the limits of its own power were at will. The Federalists did not see America as a continuation of British traditions and ancient liberties – established through convention and sometimes accidents of history. They say themselves as founders of a nation based upon idealistic notions.

Their hubris combined with the error of Hobbes and Locke at the base of their thinking is what has brought America to this stage of absurdity.

Author: Barry

Southerner, father, husband, Christian and a retired Army field grade officer. Author of five books and of several papers and articles on ethics, culture, history, geopolitics and military affairs.

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