The Transition from State of Nature to Civil Society

The study of the relationship between states and citizens is one of the fundamental concerns of political science. States want a maximum of authority and citizens want a maximum of liberty. But let me ask you a question: Would you likely to submit yourself easily to any kind of authority? Most people would say no. Abusing of authority can make you hateful. Thereby, some sort of compromise has to be made between a state and its citizens. A reasonable power should be made available to the state, and a reasonable liberty should be made available to citizens.

A state and its citizens are not opposed to each other; they are made to live together. Philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau gave free reign to their passion: the analysis of the human nature. They analyzed human social organization and nature of man/woman in society by comparing two major notions: the state of nature and civil society. The state of nature is a term used in contract social theories to describe the hypothetical condition that preceded civil society and government. Social contract theory implies that people give up sovereignty to a government in order to maintain social order through the role of Law.

People do not only obey the laws because they are afraid of punishment, but also because it is in every individual’s interest to obey them. Did these political philosophers share the same approach to power? Did they share the same intentions by legitimating the authority of governments over citizens? The difficulty in social contract theories is the transition from state of nature to civil society. This transition represents the true essence of the relationship between governments and citizens. How individuals are going to accept this use of power over them?

How the transition from state of nature to civil society would be then possible? A transition is by definition a movement from one state, or position to another. Transitions involve changes, but let me ask you a question again: Do you find change difficult? The answer would be most probably yes. Change is unknown; we cannot easily discern the outcomes. Change is challenging and uncertain. As Machiavelli once said,” to govern is to make to believe”. The aim of this paper will be to analyze the different mechanisms that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have created to ‘making people believe’.

We are going to analyze the different transitions from state of nature to civil society for Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. What represents the State of Nature for Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau? How the transition from State of Nature to civil society is represented for these different political philosophers? What legitimates the authority of governments over citizens? What is the purpose of creating laws? All these questions will be answered in this paper within three different parts. The first part will be about Hobbes and its mechanism, the second one will be about Locke, and finally the last one will be about Rousseau.

Hobbes’s transition from State of Nature to civil society is very difficult to understand. Hobbes analyzed human behaviors to find the ultimate solution to convince people to accept the authority of governments over them. The ability of analyzing is a very powerful tool towards manipulating people. Hobbes paints a bleak picture of the State of Nature. He describes it as being a state in which:” No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, Part I, Chapter 13).

Men struggle against each other to save their lives and possessions. The State of Nature is described as being chaotic, and consumed by fear. In his theory of social contract, Hobbes seems to voluntarily create a feeling of confusion. Indeed, he links chaos with desire: two states of mind that are completely opposed. When a person desires something, their sense of longing is excited by the enjoyment or the thought of the item. Desire can lead people to do whatever it takes to obtain their goal. To Hobbes, there is a strong correlation between chaos and desire.

He argues that individuals are always seeking for something in the chaotic state of nature:” Life it selfe but Motion, and can never be without desire”. He also states that an object “will eternally be in motion unless somewhat stays it. ” (Chap. IV, first part). Hobbes is afraid of desire because it can lead people to take actions. Desire creates a war “of every man against every man” (Leviathan, Chap. 12) Therefore, in civil society, individuals must forget desire. They must forget about the enjoyment provided by the satisfaction of self-interests.

Hobbes maintains that desire can destroy the destiny of Men:” if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” (Leviathan, Chapter 13). The transition to civil society is based on confusion. He uses the ‘language of persuasion’ to criticize desire that men are constantly feeling in the state of nature. Hobbes legitimates the authority of governments over citizens because of the equality in terms of strength and skills that exists among Men:” The weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others” (Leviathan, p163).

This natural equality leads men to mutual suspicion, and to rivalry. To Hobbes, power and control are the common goals for all men living in the State of Nature. Therefore, governments should be created to ensure security and order. Fear leads to a system in which the only purpose of Men would be to protect their lives: the “Right of Nature”. Fear creates stagnation, in which no possible progress and no possible future is possible for human society. Therefore, the only aim for any individual would be to protect his life without thinking of taking actions to improve the society in which he/she lives.

This will result in an infinite loop in which humankind will be trapped in. To Hobbes, actions are only useful when making the transition from the State of Nature to civil society. Motion and progress are made possible when living in a civil society; otherwise, people would have to live in a ‘frozen’ state: the State of Nature. Therefore, to Hobbes, the transition from State of Nature to civil society is based on the notion of motion. People are allowed to take actions in order to satisfy their needs if and only if they accept to live under the authority of a government.

Otherwise, if people refuse this authority they won’t be allowed to ‘move’. Hobbes’s theory of social contract is very ‘authoritarian’. His relationship to power is very strong. All the power must be concentrated in the hands of governments. But what was Hobbes’s solution to back up his ideas? Hobbes was very inclined to panic about law and order. Laws protect Hobbes’s mechanism of social contracting. Indeed, they are created to formalize the relationship between citizens and governments. Once they are created, citizens fully accept the authority of governments over them.

According to Hobbes, laws cannot be implemented without:” the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed”. (Leviathan, Part I, Chap. 1) Therefore, all individuals must respect a contract containing major laws and rules. Fear among men will disappear to create a new allowable one: the fear towards the government and its laws. By using confusion, Hobbes tempted to manipulate people. He tried to confuse people so that authority of governments over them is easily approved. We can say that there is a Machiavelli in Hobbes’s thoughts.

Hobbes would no doubt agree with Machiavelli concerning the true human nature. Hobbes’s transition from State of Nature to civil society is radical. This transition is not revocable. Locke imagined a similar method to that of Hobbes. He imagined an original State of Nature in which individuals rely upon their own strength, and then described our escape from this primitive state by entering into a social contract under which the state protects its citizens. Locke has a positive opinion of State of Nature.

He believes that men in the State of Nature are provided with a perfect freedom: “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions, and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man” (Second Treatise, Chapter 2). However, perfect freedom is not absolute. It is limited by the law of nature, and human reason. But how human reason has been created? We are all subjects of God, and are all living under His surveillance. Therefore, by respecting God’s authority, a natural moral code will emerge inside each individual.

Individuals can do whatever they want as it is morally permissible. The notion of justice and injustice will be defined by the moral code. Locke is trying to explain that without government and its regulation individuals could still be able to limit themselves. However, in his ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’, Locke explains the means of understanding moral truths that has strong political implications. Its specific focus is the separation of church and State. This absolute separation of power is at the center of Locke’s transition from state of nature to civil society. Locke argues that church shapes citizens’ minds with morality.

He condemns the action of controlling people’s minds: “The power of the government consists only in outward force: but true and saying religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind…And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force…” (A Letter Concerning Toleration) Locke does not share the same approach of motion like in Hobbes’s theory of social contract. Indeed, perfect freedom is not necessary linked with movements and actions. To Locke, there should be no interference between a moral entity and mind.

Perfect freedom means that nobody has the right to control your mind. Locke legitimates the authority of governments by arguing that the state exists not to enforce morality and to control minds, but to protect man’s rights from being violated by other men: “Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate… the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person” (A Letter Concerning Toleration).

Morality can lead people to make their own judgments without being controlled by any kind of authority. Judging will be a common feature among men. In his theory of social contract, Hobbes was afraid of desire because it leads to actions. In this case, Locke is afraid of the ability of individuals to judge because they will make their own justice. Individuals will harm each other, and will violate one of the major rights of nature which is the right to life. Locke’s relationship with power is very limited.

Individuals are not forced to accept authority, but it is more in a general will that people submit to the state. Locke’s transition is very different from Hobbes’s one. Indeed, in Hobbes’s theory of social contract individuals are obliged to submit to the authority of governments. However, in Locke’s one a government is only necessary to protect individuals from harming each other. Locke wants also to protect the second most important natural rights: the right to property. Laws are not written to protect governments from state of nature like in Hobbes’s theory of social contract.

To Locke, laws are created to protect natural rights:” For a man’s property is not at all secure, though there be good and equitable laws to set the bounds of it, between him and his fellow subjects, if he who commands those subjects, have power to take from any private man, what part he pleases of his property, and use and dispose of it as he thinks good”. (Second Treatise, Chapter 11). Therefore, the main purpose of a government is to preserve:” every man’s rights and property, by preserving him from the violence or injury of others, is for the good of the governed”. (Two Treatise of Government, Chapter 9).

He legitimates the authority of governments to protect natural rights. Rousseau’s theory of social contract is very different from Hobbes and Locke. He did not use ‘the language of persuasion’ like Hobbes; neither attempted to separate two entities like Locke. His analysis of humankind is very naive. Unlike Hobbes, and Locke, Rousseau did not begin his theory of social contract by criticizing the state of nature. He went the other way by arguing that civil society has corrupted Men. According to Rousseau, individuals in the state of nature would be like animals seeking to satisfy their primary needs: feeding, sexual satisfaction, and sleep.

To Rousseau, Men living in the state of nature are good, they are naive. By definition, naivety consists in showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality. Rousseau describes Men living in the state of nature as being motivated by pity:” an innate repugnance a fellow creature suffers” (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, page 73). This natural pity will give good reasons to individuals to not harm each other. Moreover, Rousseau describes the ‘animal man’ as being lonely, able to survive with no external help.

The transition from state of nature to civil society is based on a non-materialistic view of how individuals should live. Men living in the state of nature only need to satisfy their primary needs. No luxury is necessary. As we saw previously, Hobbes argued that motion and progress are made possible when living in a civil society; otherwise, people would have to live in the ‘frozen’ state of nature. Rousseau believed the opposite. He argued that progress has brought misfortune to the humankind, and that there is no chance to go back to that state: “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (Emile, introduction).

The elaboration of a form of association between men makes them lose their:” usual ferocity and sturdiness” (On the Inequality among Mankind, second part). This association will create jealousy and inequalities among Men. According to Rousseau, inequalities among Men are due to progress. In the state of nature, there is no law, right and no morality. In his theory of social contract, Locke argued that morality is shaped by the Church. On the contrary, Rousseau argued that men avoid harming each other thanks to their natural capacity to feel pain. He maintains that goodness has been corrupted.

Rousseau has put Men’s feelings at the center of his mechanism. Feelings cannot lie. In the state of nature, Men are described as animals, but still, they are all equal. This loss of goodness was a warning towards moving from the state of nature to civil society. Rousseau legitimates the authority of governments over citizens to create unity and equality. Unity consists in putting” his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Section 6).

Governments should serve all citizens, and not only the most powerful social class. They should govern according to the ‘General Will’. Therefore, equality is made possible through government’s action which has an “universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole” (The Social Contract, book 2, section 4). Rousseau’s relation to power is very strong. Governments must keep an eye on its population to prevent inequalities among Men. They must protect the unity among Men. Rousseau denounced private property.

As we saw previously, Locke legitimates the authority of governments over citizens to protect one of the major natural rights: the right to property. Rousseau on the contrary, argued that the possession of goods leads to inequalities among Men. Property and civil society have corrupted the ‘savage men’. The transition to the state creates laws that will protect men from division: “When the whole people decrees for the whole people, it is considering only itself; and if a relation is then formed, it is between two aspects of the entire object, without there being any division of the whole.

In that case the matter about which the decree is made is, like the decreeing will, general. This act is what I call a law"(The Theory of Social Contract, book 2, section 6). Therefore, laws help by keeping a perfect unity among Men. One cannot live in a civil society full of inequalities because by respecting its Laws we increase disparities among Men. Laws can be transgressed if and only if there is the presence of inequalities among Men. To sum up, the aim of this paper was to analyze the different transitions from state of nature to civil society for Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

We analyzed these transitions within three different subparts: the essence of the transitions, the legitimacy of governments to have authority over its citizens, and the purpose of creating Laws. All these political philosophers shared the same approach, but not the same mechanism. As we saw in the first part, Hobbes’s transition from state of nature to civil society is based on confusion. He legitimates the authority of governments over citizens because of the presence of fear among Men. In the second part, the transition to civil society, according to Locke, is used to stop the interference between moral entities and minds.

Nobody has the right to control people’s minds. Locke legitimates the authority of governments by arguing that the state exists not to enforce morality, but to protect man’s rights from being violated by other men. Governments have to protect people’s natural rights. And finally, we saw in the last part a total different theory of social contract. Indeed, the transition from state of nature to civil society is characterized by the loss of goodness inside men. Rousseau legitimates the authority of governments over citizens to create unity and equality. Laws according to Rousseau are written to protect unity among people.

These great political philosophers have imagined the ascent of Men from the state of nature to civil society. The magic and diversity of social contract theory stands in the different approaches to power for Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. They made huge efforts to put everything inside their mechanisms. Will Men be able to tackle all these changes? As we said in the introduction changes are difficult because they are uncertain. Nonetheless, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have challenged history by making the choice to radically change everything. Can we see this radical change as being one of the limits of social contract theory?

Would individuals give their consent at present day? The fact is that most citizens have little choice but to agree with social contract theory. Most of individuals find it difficult to live in another place far from their home lands, and it is practically impossible to find a place where there is anarchy.

References

  1. Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679. , (1996). Leviathan / Thomas Hobbes ; edited with an introduction by J. C. A. Gaskin.. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1996..
  2. Locke, John, 1632-1704. , (1988). Two treatises of government / John Locke.. 1st ed. : Whitefish, Mont.] : Kessinger Publishing, [between 1988 and 2005]..
  3. Locke, John, 1632-1704. , (1993). Of civil government : second treatise / john locke ; introd. By russell kirk.. 1st ed. e. g. England: e. g. Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1712-1778. , (1992). Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inegalite parmi les hommes / Rousseau ; commentaire d'Eric Zernik.. 1st ed. Paris: Hatier.
  5. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1712-1778. , (1997). The social contract and other later political writings / Rousseau ; edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch.. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.