Home » Early Modern Philosophy » Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Five States of Nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan

Gregory B. Sadler


In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develops a constellation of notions of considerable conceptual refinement and of lasting rhetorical power. These notions coalesce at their most central point, the ‘state of nature.’ An overly simplistic view of the Hobbesian state of nature forms part of what may be called a standard reading of Leviathan.  This interpretation is prevalent in scholarship engaging Hobbes’s thought and doctrine not for its own sake, but in order to provide a contrast against other thinkers, to fit Hobbes into a broader schema of intellectual trends, tradition, or movements, or to diagnose Hobbes and his thought as the precursor of something particularly unsavory arising specifically in modernity.  Pedagogical uses of Hobbes also typically rely upon (and in the process perpetuate) that reading.  Such interpretations can also be found in scholarship engaging Hobbes in more focused and systematic ways, since studying other portions of Hobbes’s thought is rendered easier and less messy by ignoring ambiguities and puzzles arising when the state of nature is understood in relation to other notions intimately connected with it [1].

My central contention in this paper is that closer attention to Hobbes’s text allows discernment of at least five conceptually distinct ‘states of nature.’ The first of these represents the one the standard reading relies on. I argue that to Hobbes the most important of these states of nature is the fifth, i.e. factional strife leading to breakdown or disintegration of already existing but flawed civil society.  The first state of nature is revealed as a powerful rhetorical construct that does not hold up under scrutiny, but which does not thereby tumble down the remaining edifice of Hobbes’s thought.  Instead, the reverse happens: the heuristic utility of the rhetorical construct is sustained, and enabled to do its work, by the rest of the argumentative and descriptive Hobbesian edifice, the remainder of Leviathan’s first two books.

The primary motivation of Hobbes’s theory as a whole is, by producing what he views as the first genuinely scientific moral and political philosophy, diagnosing and remedying causes and effects of factional strife in already existing and imperfect commonwealths [2]. His goal is not to adequately and realistically describe the state of pre-political or pre-social humankind, nor a historical transition from a pure state of nature to that of civil society.  Rather, he is concerned primarily to illuminate sources of, and solutions to, moral disagreement, escalation of claims and conflicts, in short, breakdown of order. This requires radical reexamination of human nature, production of a new comprehensive theory of human nature, moral norms, and civil society, and advocacy of fundamental transformation of contemporary social institutions, structures, and arrangements in line with the theory.

What follows consists in exegetical development of a typology of five states of nature distinguishable in the text of Leviathan:

  1. A rhetorical construct ‘state of nature’ as war of all against all, lacking any institutions of civilization and civil society;
  2. Historically existent ‘state(s) of nature’ in pre-political societies, where family, patron-client, clan, or tribal structures are in conflict with each other;
  3. Historically existent ‘state(s) of nature’ within established civil societies where, despite establishment and enforcement of laws, citizens remain in a mistrustful condition vis-à-vis each other, i.e. concerned about criminality;
  4. The historically existent ‘state of nature’ governing foreign relations, i.e. the condition of states in relation to each other;
  5. Historically existent and possible ‘state(s)’ of nature that culminate in civil war with the breakdown of civil society through factionalization.

I focus specifically and exclusively on Leviathan in part to keep the study of a manageable size, and in part because Leviathan is a highly systematic and mature presentation of Hobbes’ doctrine, in which each of these states of nature are adequately developed.

1. The Standard Reading State of Nature as Rhetorical Construct

Though filled out considerably by discussions in ch.10, 11, 17, and 18, the most general traits of the archetypical state of nature can all be found in chs.13 and 14 of Leviathan.  First and foremost is that the ‘condition of mere nature’ (EW, p.124) [3] is a condition of always potential (and in many cases actual) conflict between all rational agents, in which ‘every man is an enemy to every man,’ (EW, p.113), a ‘condition or war of every one against every one’ (EW, p.117), or ‘of every man against every man’ (EW p.115, p.124), summed up later in a word, ‘anarchy’ (EW, p.343).  So long as there is the ‘known disposition’ (EW, p.113) to conflict, i.e. the disposition of one subject to engage in conflict with a subject evaluating whether the first has such a disposition, ‘during all time when there is no assurance to the contrary’ (EW, p.113), they exist in a state of war. When they are not in this condition – i.e. when one subject can have assurances that another subject will not engage in conflict – they are in a state of peace.

Practically speaking, such assurances require that the subjects have ‘a common power to keep them in awe’ (EW, p.113), or as he will later say, ‘a common power set over them both, with right and force to compel performance” (EW, p.124) of covenants, ‘to constrain those who would otherwise violate their faith’ (EW, p.125). Once such a common power is in place, human subjects have left the state of nature.  Out of fear of this sovereign, but also fear of returning to the state of nature, they recognize and abide both by personal and specific agreements made with each other, and by more impersonal, general, and fundamental agreements with one other encapsulated in the Hobbesian laws of nature.

There are several other essential traits to the state of nature as Hobbes describes it.  It is a condition in which there are no agreed upon, mutually recognized and abided by, moral norms, referents of moral terminology, rules of inference or premises of moral reasoning and judgement.  It is also a primitive condition lacking all but a few amenities and improvements of civilization and common life.  The Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ is thus represented as a condition anomic, amoral, and asocial.

Of course when Hobbes’s most vivid descriptions of this state are interpreted as claims about actual human conditions (not to mention correlated to the very conditions of the possibility of his own development, articulation, and publication of his theory), deep running conceptual inconsistencies emerge.  One might dismiss (or at least problematize) Hobbes’s moral philosophy on this account.  As an alternative interpretation, if one reinterprets this Hobbesian state of nature as a rhetorical construct [4], and then reads Leviathan as counterposing civil society to actually existing, more determinate states of nature, which are not entirely pure states of nature, Hobbes’ theory thereby assumes greater overall coherence, and the extent and detail of discussions in Leviathan become more intelligible.

Examining Hobbes’s further remarks about the standard reading state of nature(henceforth called the ‘rhetorical state of nature’ or ‘RSN’), reveals the other four states of nature.  To focus in on one example, focusing upon the RSN’s complete asociality, Hobbes depicts it as taken to its extreme in this famous passage whose conclusion is perhaps Hobbes’s most oft-quoted text:

In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time; no arts, no letters; no society; and what is more, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (EW, p.113).

Development of these arts or technologies would be precluded by war of all against all, a state of constant insecurity and conflict, lacking any interpersonal or social grouping or association.  But does Hobbes actually believe this extreme condition exists?  He concedes ‘there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against the other’ (EW, p.115). His discussions of ways of honoring and dishonoring in ch.10, religious beliefs and ceremonies used in institution of commonwealths in ch.12, and the very reasons for conflict in ch.13 all presuppose some level and some products of civilization.  In a situation of total asociality, it would seem impossible for most desires central within Hobbes’ anthropology even to be conceived.  Some are those which tend to lead out of the state of nature, to civil society, desires for  ‘ease, and sensual delight’ (EW, p.86), ‘knowledge, and arts of peace’ (EW, p.87), ‘such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by industry to obtain them’ (EW, p.116). Others play central roles in Hobbes’s very account of conflict, not least the ‘general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death’ (EW, pp.85-6), particularized in competition for ‘riches, honor, command, or other power,’ ‘praise’ (EW, p.86), or the desire to seize the goods of others.

Notice, too, that within ch.13, after sketching the RSN its starkest contours and diagnosing its essential causes in the three fundamental motives of conflict, the only argumentative support Hobbes gives is to direct the reader’s consideration precisely to all four of the actual states of nature picked out and discussed here.

First, he notes that, even in civil society, ‘when he knows there be laws, and public officers, armed, to revenge, all injuries shall be done to him,’ one takes precautions not to be harmed by fellow members of one’s own commonwealth, ‘accus[ing] mankind by his actions, as I do by my words’ (EW, p.114).

Second, Hobbes admits that he ‘believes [such a time or condition of war as this] was never generally so over all the world,’ but argues that native Americans ‘except the government of small families, that concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all’ (EW, p.114).

Third, he suggests that factional strife and ensuing breakdown of the fabric of society allows us to picture the RSN. ‘[I]t may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common power to fear; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government, use to degenerate into, in a civil war’ (EW, pp.114-5).

Fourth, he appeals to the example of international relations, claiming, not entirely implausibly that sovereign political entities, ‘because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed one another […] a posture of war’ (EW, p.115).

2. Families in the State of Nature and in the Commonwealth

A more realistic (and historically existent) state of nature is the stateless condition in which main agents of conflict are larger and more complex than individual human beings. Hobbes explicitly characterizes at least some agents in a state of war as possessing households, ‘wives, children,’ which some will attempt to seize and others will have to defend, preemptively if necessary.  The types of communities and interpersonal relationships arising and existing within a pre-political state of nature extend beyond simply couples with children, however, to encompass extended family members, servants, clients, and even friends [5]. In ch.10, the specific modes of relationships discussed extend beyond the simply conflictual ones presented in ch.13, to include an extensive listing of modes of honoring and dishonoring. It is worth pointing out that many of these relations are found outside of, and prior to, political commonwealths.  These allow human beings to be bound together in relationships, more or less stable, ‘congeal[ed] into peace,’ to use Preston King’s felicitious expression (1974, p.190) [6], but since they remain based on the plays and structures of human passions, relationships are liable to dissolution.  Insofar as they remain stable and reliable, they modify our picture of the Hobbesian state of nature, no longer then the anomic, amoral, and asocial RSN, but rather a condition in which there exist human agencies of unequal power and complexity.

Within these agencies, assuming forms ranging from small families, powerful families with servants and clients, robber bands, clans and tribes, or even religious communities, there will be mutual association, some sorts of deliberation, rule and obedience, ways of preventing, adjudicating and reconciling intergroup conflicts, as well as some generally recognized moral codes and distinctions.  These may not be (and in existing groups, will not be) entirely coherent, unambiguous, systematically worked out in their entirety, and group members will be subject to desires and temptations of Hobbesian human beings.  But, within these groups, one is seemingly better off than other inhabitants of this state of nature, individual human beings lacking group membership, faced not just with other agents similar to them in structure of both motivation and power, but also with these relatively more powerful groups.

This state of nature is not a pure one, and several interesting tensions mark Hobbes’s discussions of this pre-political state.  The first tension is that even outside of a particular group, the state of nature has turned out not to be an entirely anomic, amoral, and asocial war of every individual against every other individual. The second one is that while describing the pre-political state of nature Hobbes invokes groups at various points, and yet these groups are themselves structured, in terms of authority and power exercised within them, like smaller commonwealths.  Furthermore, his discussions of dominion and commonwealth by acquisition and his insistence on the essential identity of commonwealths by institution and by acquisition suggest that certain political communities develop out of one pre-political group’s successful hegemony and domination. The third tension is that the pre-political family continues on with a legitimate place in civil society, as an institution incorporated within the commonwealth. But at the same time, families, particularly powerful or prestigious ones, remain one main potential source for factional strife.

The historically existent pre-political state of nature is not as much of a moral vacuum as the RSN.  Admittedly, aside from the laws of nature, which are not really effective or even particularly well understood before being institutionalized in a commonwealth (and in Hobbes’s view, are still not well understood and articulated even in existing commonwealths) [7], and aside from the basic prudential and passional structures of human beings which generally lead them into conflict, one would be hard pressed to find anything like a natural morality discernible by all or even most people. Hobbes does make remarks suggesting that some moral values or distinctions exist and are recognized outside of as well as within particular groups in this state of nature.

One of these is his discussion of the ‘laws of honor; that is, to abstain from cruelty, leaving to men their lives, and instruments of husbandry,’ recognized and followed by ‘small families,’ who ‘rob and spoil one another’ (EW, p.154).  Another arises from his discussions of religion, whose ‘first seeds and principles […] are only an opinion of a deity, and powers invisible, and supernatural; that can never be so abolished out of human nature. . .’ (EW, p.105).  For all of his suspicion of religion’s capacities to foment conflict, and his advocacy of state domestication of religion, Hobbes nevertheless recognizes that in the state of nature, religion offers possibilities for maintaining some level of concord, at least for some people.  In general, it is ‘fear of the consequence of breaking their word’ (EW, p.128). that brings people to observe covenants.  This fear can be of ‘the power of spirits invisible,’ which ‘is in every man, his own religion, which hath place in the nature of man before civil society’ (EW, p.129). Accordingly, Hobbes writes: ‘before the time of civil society, or in the interruption thereof by war, there is nothing that can strengthen a covenant of peace agreed upon, against the temptations of avarice, ambition, lust, or other strong desire, but the fear of that invisible power, which they every one worship as God; and fear as a revenger of their perfidy’ (EW, p.129).

Raymond Polin frames this well by pointing out that the real problem in any Hobbesian state of nature is not that it is an amoral condition, i.e. lacking in any moral norms whatsoever, but rather that there exist too many moralities placed into competition with each other.

We see that there is a morality which could be called ‘natural’, or rather, an infinity of natural moralities, since there are just as many as there are men living for seeking ends inscribed in their passions, in their desires, towards the indefinite felicity that each pursues by ways that are his own. We cannot say, however, that there is no morality; there is, actually, so many moralities as there are men and ways of living one’s life. . . (1981, p.216).

Turning now to the second tension, it must be noted that Hobbes does express a rather jaundiced view of familial relations, treating them for the most part in terms of power, hierarchy, and dominion. One parent has dominion over the child, most likely over the other parent, and establishes a chain of dominion over generations. ‘He that hath the dominion over the child, hath dominion also over the children of the child; and over their children’s children’ (EW, p.188). A like line of reasoning establishes similar dominion over servants. ‘The master of a servant, is master also of all he hath, and may exact the use thereof; that is to say, of his goods, of his labor, of his servants, and of his children, as often as he shall think fit.  For he holdeth his life of his master, by covenant of obedience; that is, of owning, and authorizing whatsoever the master shall do’ (EW, p.190).

In cases Hobbes discusses, the condition of servitude generally stems from someone who is conquered by another agreeing to submit to and serve the conqueror out of fear.  Lacking this agreement, one who has been subjugated has ‘no obligation at all; but may break their bonds, or the prison; and kill or carry away captive their master, justly’ (EW, p.190). Once submission has been made, and ‘the victor has trusted [the servant] with his corporal liberty’ (EW, p.190), the relationship of master and servant becomes instituted. This could also be extended to cases where a person, for economic motives or motives of identifying themselves with a prestigious superior, willingly chooses to become a servant of a more powerful person. Presumably, Hobbes would also regard traditional patron-client relations as something analogous to servitude.

Agents in an actual state of nature could range from small families, little more than a couple and their children, to households comprising extended families with their own associated families of servants and clients, to groupings as large as segmented clans or tribes.  So long as there is some principle of ordering and hierarchy, Hobbes is willing to grant that ‘a great family if it be not part of some commonwealth, it is of itself, as to the rights of sovereignty, a little monarchy.’ The only caveat he introduces is: ‘yet a family is not properly a commonwealth, unless it be of that power by its own number, or by other opportunities, as not to be subdued without the hazard of war’ (EW, p.191). The second fundamental motive for conflict will actually cause leaders of these groups to strive to extend their power, ‘by force, or by wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him’ (EW, p.111). In this state of nature, any group following out this logic of conflict successfully enough, while managing to preserve internal order, will in fact terminate the state of nature, transforming the social landscape into a genuine commonwealth by acquisition.

In the state of civil society, with the exception of a ruling dynasty, the family remains a central though subordinate institution, one of the ‘private bodies, regular and lawful’ (EW, p.221) and it retains its hierarchical structure, for its status as regular derives precisely from the members being ‘united in one person representative.’ The family, or more properly speaking, household (since it can include not only servants, but also subordinate families of servants), in particular, the representative head of the family, gives up some of the freedoms and rights the family would possess in the state of nature, and correlatively, the order of the family is actually strengthened by being integrated within the commonwealth.

In the well functioning Hobbesian commonwealth, there is an analogy between family authority and sovereign authority, family and commonwealth, and at the same time, the family structure is integrated within and supports the state, rather than threatening and weakening it by presenting itself as a rival authority or by attempting to take over rule of the state. Yet, the Hobbesian household, remains a potential source for factions.  Accordingly, he advises: ‘if a private man entertain more servants, than the government of his estate, and lawful employment he has for them requires, it is faction and unlawful’ (EW, p.224). Observing that ‘in nations not thoroughly civilized, several numerous families have lived in continual hostility, and invaded one another with private forces’ (EW, p.224), Hobbes’s judgement is that either they were in commonwealths, and therefore were acting unjustly, essentially engaging in faction, or ‘they had no commonwealth,’ so that they remained in an actually existing pre-political state of nature.

3. Criminality within the Commonwealth

Even in existing commonwealths, where there are laws and mechanisms of enforcement, so long as they cannot entirely trust each other, and in cases where enforcement might not be able to preserve rights to the extent one deems necessary, citizens remain in something analogous to the state of nature.  While relying on the state, when traveling they attempt to independently guarantee security by arms and numbers, and when at home through security devices (EW, p.114). Hobbes argues locked chests evince unwillingness to entirely trust one’s own children and servants (EW, p.114). He also argues for citizens’ rights to self-defense against criminal actions in civil society, on the basis that “no man is supposed bound by covenant, not to resist violence” (EW, p. 297).

Certain paradoxes or inconsistencies appear at first glance involved in Hobbes’s views. It seems strange that people should inhabit civil society, and yet still remain, as potential criminals, in a state of nature in relation to each other, since the prime purpose of Hobbesian civil society is precisely to supply a bulwark against the state of nature.  In a functioning civil society, the laws and sovereign authority can do this in most cases, keeping the majority of citizens who might be tempted to engage in crime from doing so, but Hobbes gives no reason to assume that crime would cease altogether. To the contrary, he writes: ‘As for the passions of hate, lust, ambition, and covetousness, what crimes they are apt to produce, is so obvious to every man’s experience and understanding, as there needeth nothing to be said of them’ (EW, p.284). Properly understanding and addressing crime and punishments, the subject matters of ch.27 and 28, is an integral component of the work of the sovereign in maintaining the social contract, and observance of the laws of nature and the civil law, which as Hobbes maintains ‘contain each other, and are of equal extent (EW, p.253).

The laws of nature specify requirements for common social life that, if not met, inevitably set a person at odds with others and introduce the dynamic of distrust, hostility, conflict and violence, escalating uncontrollably if unchecked, comprising the state of war.  When one is a member of a commonwealth, in which other members do observe the laws, and in which there is a sovereign authority, it is unreasonable for one to violate them. Although Hobbes implies that violating any of the laws of nature is criminal, since ‘injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, iniquity, acceptation of persons, and the rest,’ the vices of character corresponding to breaking specific laws, ‘can never be made lawful’ (EW, p.145), the third and tenth, for one set of reasons, and the sixth and seventh for another set, are particularly important.

The third law, ‘that men perform their covenants made,’ in which, Hobbes writes, ‘consisteth the fountain and original of justice’ (EW, p.130) is violated by any lawbreaking. Were it to be commonly violated in actuality, or even if citizens were to lose confidence it would be in the main respected, civil society would become impossible. Still, there is a type of unreasonable, or deficiently rational, person, the ‘Fool’ who acknowledges that people make covenants, and that ‘breach of them may be called injustice, and the observance of them justice,’ but who nevertheless considers it reasonable for him to violate them if it benefits him. The tenth law, ‘that […] no man require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest’ (EW, p.141) similarly expresses a moral norm violated by criminality.  Later, summarizing the totality of the laws, Hobbes sets his finger on the essential nature of criminality in a commonwealth:  ‘he that having sufficient security, that others shall observe the same laws towards him, observes them not himself, seeketh not peace, but war; and consequently the destruction of his nature by violence’ (EW, p.145).

This consequence raises another important aspect, addressed by the sixth and seventh laws, ‘upon caution of a future time, a man ought to pardon the offenses past of them that repenting desire it’ (EW, p.139), and ‘that in revenges […] men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow’ (EW, p.126), respectively. When observed and enforced, these restrain the responses of law-abiding citizens to criminality from moving towards the limitless conflict of the state of war. Hobbes does, as mentioned above, acknowledge a right to self-defense, extending to prudential preparations to resist or deter crime, but in civil society, the state and not private citizens has the right and duty to punish criminals, for the purpose of ‘disposing the delinquent, or (by his example) other men, to obey the laws’ (EW, p.299). Even though criminality introduces the state of war into the heart of civil society, responses to it cannot be permitted to reproduce its intensity of conflict, particularly the second fundamental motive of conflict, ‘anticipation,’ by which, in order to prevent or punish aggression, every person has the right to ‘do whatsoever he thought necessary to his own preservation; subduing, hurting, or killing any man in order thereunto’ (EW, p.298). Instead, this right is given entirely to the sovereign to ‘do whatsoever he shall think necessary to be done, both beforehand, for the preserving of peace and security […] and when peace and security are lost, for the recovery of the same’ (EW, p.164).

 4. The State of Nature in International Relations

If the state of nature can be found nowhere else, Hobbes argues, it exists in the relations between sovereign political communities, i.e., states, and in relations between states and external non-state agents. This is not, however, a “pure state of nature,” in that actual and potential conflict is between communities which themselves are not anomic, amoral, and asocial, but rather involve considerable cooperation and coordination between members.  Political communities, like pre-political communities, contain the potential of conflict arising between its constituent members. If and when conflict breaks out within the commonwealth, this does not immediately produce the RSN, however, but rather one of the other actual states of nature discussed here, criminality, faction, or independent families or clans.  Hobbes indicates another vital difference, namely that in this state of nature, where the agents maintain ‘the posture of war […] because they uphold thereby, the industry of their subjects, there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the liberty of particular men’ (EW, p.115).

Dwelling overlong on Hobbes’s theory of international relations, on which a sizable literature exists, is unnecessary.  Simply pointing out a few main features is sufficient here.  First, aside from the important difference that the agents involved may vary considerably in power, there are homomorphisms between foreign relations and the RSN that justify regarding it as the closest approximation to the RSN. The three fundamental motives of conflict, competition, diffidence or anticipation, and glory or vanity, can be operative and self-perpetuating in interstate relations, and Hobbes’ theory of human motivations, reasoning, and the passions, along with his view of the sovereign as representing, bearing, and directing the wills of the members of the commonwealth, allows interstate relations to be understood by analogy to interpersonal relations.

One interpreter, George Kateb, goes so far as to claim that “international relations. . .is a permanent condition, and it is the real referent of the thirteenth chapter” (1989, p.380) [8]. Hobbes provides one particularly explicit example of this analogy: “Cities and kingdoms […] enlarge their own dominions, upon all pretenses of danger, and fear of invasion, or assistance that may be given to invades, endeavor as much as they can, to subdue, or weaken their neighbors, by open force, and secret arts, for want of other caution, justly; and are remembered for it in after ages with honor” (EW, p.154).

A second feature is that commonwealths are analogous to individual human beings in the state of nature in that they can also exercise prudential restraint over their natural passions leading towards conflict.  In his discussion of the ‘diseases’ a commonwealth is subject to, he includes Bulimia, ‘the insatiable appetite […] of enlarging dominion, with the incurable wounds thereby many times received from the enemy,’ and ‘Wens, of united conquests, which are many times a burden, and with less danger lost, than kept’ (EW, p.321). And, although Hobbes declares that ‘the Law of Nations, and the Law of Nature are the same thing’ (EW, p.342), so that sovereigns, representing their commonwealths stand in relation to each other as do individual people in the RSN, his statement that the law of nature ‘dictateth […] to the consciences of sovereign princes and sovereign assemblies; there being no court of natural justice, but in the conscience only’ (EW, p.342),  does hold out prospects for international cooperation structured by the other laws of nature, this requiring, however, establishing some greater sovereign power over the states, one capable of compelling obedience to the laws and thereby ending conflict.

A third and last feature important to note is that, despite the analogies between international relations and the RSN, state agents and individual agents, the actual condition is not only that of potential or actual conflict among states, within which potential conflicts among individuals are contained, but also potential or actual conflict between states and non-state agents, including individuals, either belonging to a state (which could trigger conflict with that state) or not, as well as larger non-state communities.  Hobbes argues that ‘all men that are not subjects, are either enemies, or else they have ceased being so, by some precedent covenants.  But against enemies, whom the commonwealth judgeth capable to do them hurt, it is lawful by the original right of nature to make war’ (EW, p.305). Accordingly, inflicting harm on innocent people who are not members of a particular commonwealth, ‘if it be for the benefit of the commonwealth, and without violation of any former covenant’ (EW, p.305), is not wrong in his view.

5. Factional Strife and the Return to the State of Nature

The formation of factions and ensuing factional strife represents the last actual Hobbesian state of nature, in many respects the most dangerous and deleterious one, and the one to which the most discussion and thought is given in Leviathan. Significant portions of the text, particularly ch.17, 18, 22, and 29, explicitly discuss ways in which faction arises and how it may be prevented. Many of the discussions in other sections are implicitly oriented by this end, precisely because Hobbes’ intended audience is not people in a pure state of nature, but rather those inhabiting already existing commonwealths, ‘imperfect, and apt to relapse into disorder,’ a condition he aims to remedy by supplying ‘principles of reason […] found out, by industrious meditation, to make their constitution (excepting by external violence) everlasting’ [9]. These principles are, of course, the laws of nature, but consist also in the detailed and systematic discussions comprising Leviathan’s entire second book.

Potential sources and motives of factions are practically limitless, and even to attempt a comprehensive summary of those Hobbes explicitly treats is a project beyond the scope of this paper.  Just to mention a few, there are ‘factions for kindred […] for government of religion, as papists, Protestants, etc., or of state, as patricians and plebians […] and of aristocraticals and democraticals’ (EW, p.224) They can arise from any motives of human conflict which are permitted freer room for the development of their passional logic than is prudent: ambition, fear, honor and dishonor, avarice, hatred, envy, anger, even, as noted earlier, indignation over criminality.  Polin expresses the problem:

What is specific to man tends to irritate and to set itself at odds with living in a community, whether it be reason, in the name of which each claims to uncover the faults or errors of those governing and clings to destructive critique, or whether it be language, since speech is a factor of sedition and faction, or whether it be even leisure […] which provides time for occupying oneself about glory and for speculating about the just and the unjust. (1981, p.190)

Factions by their very nature aim at contestation, conflict, and the extension of the power of those engaging in them. This is either at the expense primarily of other subjects or groups of subjects (including other factions, against which a new faction can be organized) but also thereby at the expense of the sovereign authority, or directly at the expense of the sovereign authority and thereby also at the expense of all those who rely upon it to keep the peace. Put in another way, every faction involves a breach of the social contract, a violation of at least one of the law of nature and denial of the supreme authority and power of the sovereign.

By the time that factions have begun to emerge, and subjects enter into conflict with each other, social existence is already veering towards the state of nature [10]. As Hobbes writes, specifically in reference to the likely unfavorable reception of his own political theory:

[T]he most sudden, and rough busling in of some new truth, that can be, does never break the peace, but only sometimes awake the war.  For those men that are so remissly governed, that they dare take up arms, to defend, or introduce an opinion, are still in war; and their condition not peace, but only a cessation of arms for fear of one another; and they live as it were, in the precincts of battle constantly (EW, pp.164-5).

Opinions and doctrines are in fact deeply involved in development of factions, and Hobbes stresses repeatedly that in a stable commonwealth, the sovereign authority must properly educate the citizenry, and exercise control over the climate and content of publicly presented opinion.  The sources of factions work analogously to those of ‘every crime,’ which stems from ‘some defect in the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of passions’ (EW, p.279), and the detailed discussions in ch. 27 illuminate the (in Hobbes’ view, incorrect) practical reasoning entering into factional strife. In ch.18, 29, and 30, he outlines what particular doctrines need to be taught, and which need to be combated, in order to preserve the commonwealth.  In ch.17, ‘on the Liberty of Subjects’ Hobbes waxes strongly against specific doctrines and writers supplying in his view erroneous and noxious views on liberty, in particular Aristotle and Cicero.

One prime example of Hobbes’s approach is his treatment of natural laws’ relations to civil laws, and their interpretation. Not only is the sovereign authority accorded the sole right and duty of making and enforcing civil laws that institutionalize natural laws, the sovereign and its ministers alone are authorized to interpret laws.  Particularly interesting are the potential interpreters who Hobbes rejects.  He thinks that ‘considering there be very few, perhaps none, that in some cases are not blinded by self-love, or some other passion, [the natural law] is now become of all laws the most obscure; and has consequently the greatest need of able interpreters’ (EW, p.262). To leave interpretation of the laws, right and wrong, justice and injustice, up to individual subjects, and to allow them to contest the sovereign’s interpretation, paves the way for uncertainty, partiality, and discord. Further complicating things are the ready supply of doctrines and teachers giving their own interpretations of these matters. Hobbes insists: ‘[T]he interpretation of the laws of nature, in a commonwealth, dependeth not on the books of moral philosophy,’ and even includes his own work, concluding that ‘[t]he authority of writers, without the authority of the commonwealth, maketh not their opinions law, be they never so true’ (EW, p.263).

Hobbes repeatedly stresses that factional strife risks casting the entire commonwealth back into the state of nature, and invokes its starkest form, the war of all against all, as one of only two alternatives at several key points in Leviathan, discussions in which he particularly wishes to stress both the need for a irresistible and uncriticizable sovereign authority, and the requirement of abiding by the laws of nature discoverable by reason.  For instance, ‘if the essential rights of sovereignty […] be taken away, the commonwealth is thereby dissolved, and every man returneth into the condition, and calamity of a war with every other man (which is the greatest evil that can happen in this life)’ (EW, p.323). The consequences of lacking sovereign authority and a functioning commonwealth ‘is perpetual war of every man against his neighbor’ (EW, p.195). And, following Greek and Roman conceptions of liberty culminates in a condition ‘which every man should have, if there were no civil laws, nor commonwealth at all […] For as among masterless men, there is also perpetual war, of every man against his neighbor; no inheritance, to transmit to the son, nor to expect from the father; no propriety of good or land; no security; but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man’ (EW, p.201).

These characterizations of factional strife’s end-points are easily identifiable as the RSN. The actual state of a factionalized civil society, however, in which the sovereign becomes unable to preserve its position as well as the social order, a society eventually falling into civil war, is no more a pure state of nature than are the other three actual states of nature discussed earlier. It is true that, once the social fabric has been rent, there are greater incentives and opportunities for factions to undergo internal factional strife, for principled or opportunistic betrayals, power-plays, even splintering. Hobbes sets his finger on this by noting that factions are leagues, and that ‘[a] league being a connexion of men by covenants, if there be no power given to any one man, or assembly […] to compel them to performance, is so long only valid, as there ariseth no just cause of distrust’ (EW, p.223). The dissolution of society would have to proceed very far in order to arrive at a pure Hobbesian state of nature. Presumably before that, however, the factionalized society would either have become prey to another commonwealth, or one faction would succeed in dominating the others and establishing a new commonwealth by acquisition, or the society would regress entirely to the pre-political state of nature of competing family, patron-client, clan, or tribal groups.

Although Hobbes does not say this in so many words, factional strife has yet greater potential for generating and perpetuating misery than the natural condition of humanity in the RSN, for two reasons. First, factions in a civil society draw upon many more resources, both material and intellectual or spiritual, for engaging in conflict with each other. Correspondingly, there is more at stake, and more to be sacrificed or lost in a civil war than in a war of all against all. Second, by virtue of belonging to a society which becomes a field of contestation and conflict, the members of factions inevitably still share much in common with each other, a common though perhaps ambiguous, overdetermined, and incoherent moral vocabulary, sets of values, even ideals. This aspect makes civil wars even more bitter than those fought against external opponents. It also highlights a key feature of factional strife.

Faction involves something determinately different from simply a return to a pre-political state of nature or a the RSN, since its goal is not to destroy a civil society, but rather to accord and appropriate to oneself or one’s group more a larger share of power, resources, prestige, public space for promotion of favored opinions, desired actions or policies, or even autonomy than is fair, or prudently allowable by the sovereign authority. It may even extend to attempting to take over rule of the commonwealth, as for example when the sovereign is an assembly, “and a number of men, part of the assembly, without authority, consult a part, to contrive the guidance of the rest” (EW, p.223). But, in every case (a possible exception being genuine anarchists) factional strife is carried out in the hope that there remains something substantial left to gain and enjoy once conflict has passed. This hope in turn reflects the fact that the condition of faction, the most dangerous Hobbesian state of nature, is not, and does not assume, a pure war of all against all.

Author’s Notes

[1] This is the case, e.g. for the literature interpreting Hobbes largely through rational choice theory and games theory, which includes among its most important proponents and texts: Gauthier (1962); Kavka (1986); Hampton (1986).  For critical discussion of this literature, cf. Curley (1990); Boonin-Vail (1994); Slomp and La Manna (1996); Lloyd (1998).

[2] I have suggested elsewhere that the central aim of Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy is to address the ‘imperfect condition of all existing commonwealths. . . not by providing the intellectual framework for a radically new social contract and establishment of sovereign authority, but by providing a new perfect and scientific understanding and arrangement of existing civil society and sovereign authority through the resources of the imperfect civil society’ (2006, p.90.) Cf. also Sadler (2009).

[3] All references to Hobbes’ Leviathan are from Molesworth’s edition, and are cited henceforth as EW.

[4] A considerable literature exists on Hobbes and the ambivalences and ambiguities of his relationship with rhetoric.  For representative discussions and bibliography, cf. Johnston (1986), Sorrell (1990), Skinner (1996), and Nauta (2002). Ch.3 of Strauss (1952) is invaluable as well.

[5] Two Hobbes-interpreters who have given considerable attention to the role and scope of  families in Hobbes’ thought recognize differing degrees of organization, size, and types of order and relationships in the Hobbesian families.  Preston King, regarding the ‘patrilocal’ family as the essential type, notes that ‘[i]t does and does not include slaves, (1974, p.179), and grants that ‘[t]he family, as a concrete, corporate unit, impliedly entails every conceivable method of creating orders among individuals’ (1974, p.180). Phillip Abbott (1981) argues for a typology of three different kinds of families, which he labels: 1) the empty shell patriarchal family; 2) group marriage; 3) the autistic family.  Abbott correctly accords priority to the first type.

[6] Edwin Curley, attempting to preserve the Hobbesian state of nature in order to discuss recent game- and rational choice- theoretical interpretations of Hobbes, concedes: ‘It is neither definitive of this condition, nor […] a   necessary consequence of it, that people should have no affective ties to any other people and no form of social organization at all, or that they should not cooperate with one another to some extent.’ He concludes that such an interpretation “requires us not to take the famous phrase ‘war of all against all’ quite literally, and to qualify the equally famous claim that the life of man in the state of nature is ‘solitary, nasty, brutish, and short’ (p.175).  Notice, though, that making such concessions and modifications, however, already moves us from the pure RSN into one of the other states of nature distinguished here, which should then be informed by Hobbes’s numerous discussions of those conditions.

[7] On the paradox this produces and a possible resolution of this paradox, cf. Sadler (2006) For several criticisms and counter-responses, cf. Rhonheimer, Sadler, and  Zuckert (2007). Oakeshot (1991) also articulates and discusses a similar problematic and rightly resists temptations to simplify away the paradoxical and perhaps ultimately incoherent basic elements of Hobbes’s texts.

[8] Kateb also observes: ‘The supreme irony is that Hobbes encourages nations to be what he warns individuals not to be: activist uncontented and ambitious. Even an unremitting concern for reputation (that is, for honor or prestige) is encouraged because reputation is power.’ (1989, p.380).

[9] The final sentence of Book II indicates one intended audience: ‘I recover some hope, that one time or another, this writing of mine, may fall into the hands of a sovereign, who will consider it himself […] without the help of any interested, or envious interpreter; and by the exercise of entire sovereignty, in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation, into the utility of practice,’ (EW, p.358). Hobbes must address many other readers, however, so as to convince them of the reasonableness and necessity of supporting such a project. Cf. also Cooper (2007).

[10] Stephen Daniel offers the intriguing suggestions that, Hobbes’s ‘discussion of men in the state of nature has two purposes.  First, it is meant to give a description of men considered apart from civil society, not apart from human society.  Secondly, it is meant to highlight the fact that the sociable inclinations of man and the human tendencies to develop “arts of peace” are much too undependable to ground a political science.’  He concludes that the state of nature is ‘the description of man as citizen, idealized in an abstraction from the civil or governmental structure of civil society,’ and that ‘the mere war of all against all describes men’s civil relations apart from government, not their social relations’ (1980, p.210).

Factional strife, on such a view, emerges in and intensifies a condition in which the governmental structure does not sufficiently dominate civil society and social relations.  Accepting Daniel’s suggestions would allow a reply to Alasdair MacIntyre’s criticism that: ‘To use the word social is to be reminded of one of the oddest of Hobbes’ confusions, that he appears not to distinguish the state and society, to make political authority not dependent on the prior existence of, but constitutive of social life’ (1998, p.134).  The Hobbesian state can be distinguished from the civil society which it dominates and integrates, and Hobbesian political authority is to some degree constitutive of social life, in that it modifies some institutions and social relations and institutes, and creates and maintains the conditions for the possibility, of others.  On this issue cf. also Boyd (2001).

Works Cited

Abbott, Phillip. (1981) The Three Families of Thomas Hobbes. The Review of Politics. 43 (2).

Boonin-Vail, David. (1994) Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boyd, Richard. (2001) Thomas Hobbes and the Perils of Pluralism. The Journal of Politics 63 (2).

Cooper, Julie E. (2007) Thomas Hobbes on the Political Theorist’s Vocation. The Historical Journal 50 (3).

Curley, Edwin. (1990) Reflections on Hobbes: Recent Work on His Moral and Political Philosophy. Journal of Philosophical Research 15.

Daniel, Stephen. (1980) Civility and Sociability: Hobbes on Man and Citizen. Journal of the History of Philosophy 18.

Gauthier, David. (1962) The Logic of Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hampton, Jean. (1986) Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1839). Leviathan. William Molesworth, ed. The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, vol. 3. London: John Bohn.

Johnston, David (1986). The Rhetoric of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes and the Political of Cultural Transformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kateb, George. (1989) Hobbes and the Irrationality of Politics. Political Theory. 17 (3).

Kavka, Gregory. (1986) Hobbesian Moral Norms and Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

King, Preston. (1974) The Ideology of Order. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Lloyd, Sharon A. (1998) Contemporary Uses of Hobbes’ Political Philosophy in Jules L. Coleman and Christopher W. Marris, eds. Rational Commitment and Social Justice: Essays for Gregory Kavka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1998) A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century 2nd ed.  London: Routledge.

Nauta, Lodi. (2002) Hobbes the Pessimist?  Continuity of Hobbes’ Views on Reason and Eloquence Between The Elements of Law and Leviathan. British Journal for The History of Philosophy. 10 (1).

Oakeshot Michael. (1991) The Moral Life in the Writings of Thomas Hobbes in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Polin, Raymond. (1981) Hobbes, Dieu, et les homes. Paris: Presses Unversitaires de France.

Rhonheimer, Martin, Gregory B. Sadler, and Michael Zuckert. (2007) Forum: Hobbes on Laws of Nature and Moral Norms. Acta Philosophica 17 (1).

Sadler, Gregory (2006) The Laws of Nature as Moral Norms in Hobbes’ LeviathanActa Philosophica. 15 (1)

—-, Reason as Danger and Remedy for the Modern Subject in Hobbes’ Leviathan. Philosophy and Social Criticism 35 (9)

Skinner, Quentin. (1996) Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slomp, Gabriella and Manfredi M. A. La Manna. (1996) Hobbes, Harsanyi and the Edge of the Abyss.  Canadian Journal of Political Science 29 (1).

Sorrell, Tom. (1990) Hobbes’ Persuasive Civil Science. The Philosophical Quarterly. 40 (160).

Strauss, Leo. (1952) The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and its Genesis. Trans. Elsa M. Sinclair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press).


  1. […] journal The Oxford Philosopher has recently published my article Five States of Nature in Hobbes’ Leviathan.  If you’re wondering how there could be five, rather than just the one “state of […]

  2. Neo-Pelagius says:

    Reblogged this on Blinded by the Darkness and commented:
    Accessible and timely piece on Hobbes’ States! of nature … it is important to note the context within which Hobbes was writing … The British Isles were, to say the least, in a state of flux at the time and factionalism was rife (‘The World urned Upside Down’ by Christopher Hill will give you one perspective) … I also get the feeling that Hobbes’ ideas were clearly listened to by the sovereign, and the English monarchy was saved for better or for worse, which is not often the case today.

    Is there a hint of subsidiarity over federalism going on here also?

  3. I found this article really clarifying, not just of Hobbes but of Locke as well. I still need to digest it, but found it really helpful as far as I was able to grasp on a first reading.

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