Think about your life and the behaviour of the people around you, you towards them and them towards you. Would it change if there were to be no government? no laws? no protection?
This is a question asked by many philosophers, they are curious to know how humans would initially act in a ‘state of nature‘ – a time before all these social constructs, a time of pre-history. It is a hypothetical theory which aims to identify man’s true nature.
Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher, described the life of man as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. He believed that in a state of nature there would be chaos and basically it would embody what we would now describe as a ‘dog eat dog’ world, this would be the result of man’s inherent individualism and his quest for self-preservation, acting totally in self-interest.
In Hobbesian belief human existence is best described by the phrase ‘Bellum omnium contra omnes’, that is, the war of all against all! Hobbes has a very bitter and negative view of natural human traits, he believes due to greed and selfishness a society with no agreed bounds would lead to the survival of the fittest. In this society it would be wise and you would effectively be forced to lie, cheat and steal as it would be foolish to be peaceful in a world of chaos.
Chaos knows no injustice in a time before men have unified so the state of nature quickly turns into the state of war…
The only solution, Hobbes believes, is to have a tyrannous dictator. A king with absolute power so harsh and intimidating that the treasures of crime are not worth the punishments of being captured. Niccolo Machiavelli also explores this idea in ‘The Prince’, where he believes that a dictator or rather a prince, should be seen to be strong and severe in his actions against those who behave negatively against him as a means to keep order.
(However, it must be noted that Hobbes believes if you reside in a society which is completely peaceful, then you too should act peacefully)
The war of all against all:
While watching ‘The Dark Knight’ the other day, a situation concocted by the Joker arose, when two ferry’s full of 300 or so people (one full of convicts, the other full ordinary citizens) were issued an ultimatum by the Joker whereby they had the means of destroying the other ship, with a trigger, in order to survive. If neither ferry pulled the trigger, they would both be blown away.
This is a great example of Hobbes’ ‘the war of all against all’ as your only means to survive, is to kill.
Although, for those who have seen the film, you will know that neither ferry could bring themselves to press the trigger. So is Hobbes wrong? Anthony Ashley Cooper the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury would certainly say so. What happened in the film correlates very well with his reply to Hobbes, that in a state of nature humans would be neutral. We would make moral decisions based on our emotion of sympathy for others.
[In this blog post here you will find a similiar relation between the state of nature and the film ‘The Dark Knight’ – I HAD NOT SEEN THIS BLOG POST UNTIL AFTER WRITING MINE! I was watching the film with my brother when he mentioned that I could include it in my blog in some way which is why I wrote on this. Please do check out the blog I link, as it is focuses entirely on the film and matched different philosophers to different characters.]
On the opposing spectrum of thought we have Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an18th century philosopher, who believed humans to be inherently good- he attacks Hobbes’ view because he believes that Hobbes hasn’t shaved away long enough at our situation today to reveal the real state of nature . Rousseau believed that with the progression of human society, we see the degeneration of human goodness. As we strip away the thousands of years of human constructed society we begin to unearth the true nature of humans, the current corrupt and less moral man differs from the man in the state of nature- that what is known as the ‘noble savage’ (term derived from Roman philosophers Cicero & Lucretius) . The ‘noble savage’ is a neutral being who’s attributes consist of self-love and the ability to pity.
The idea of this ‘noble savage’ has been seen throughout history; from Enkidu in the ‘Epics of Gilgamesh’ to our modern-day animated cartoon of the man raised by animals ‘Tarzan’.
Of course both of these views have a large number of criticisms from a number of philosophers, as do most theories. It is up to you to decide what you believe, because we will never know.
(Ares is the armed gentleman in the first picture in this post. Ares was the Greek God of War and the son of Zeus. He represents the violent and brutal conduct of war and had Fear and Terror connected to his battle chariot)