What was Rousseau and Hobbes’ view of the ‘state of nature’?

Did Rousseau undermine Hobbes’ views on absolute rule?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who wrote at a time of great civil unrest and turbulence in his own country, his major works written in exile in France during the Enlish Civil War.

Hobbes’s described the “state of nature” in his tetralogy of books Leviathan in 1651 by undertaking a thought experiment – this was to mentally go back to a time in mankind’s history before there was civilisation, government, organised rule or civic duty. In such times, Hobbes surmised, life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’.

Hobbes considered the lack of civil authority would allow individuals complete freedom to follow their base desires, resulting in a perpetual state of conflict at individual and family level, where everyone would be forced to try and hold on to (or take from another) whatever meagre possessions they had. Under this regime no community activities such as farming, industry, or education would be possible, thus even rudimentary civilisation could not be founded. Hobbes believed that in nature people are free to take whatever action they want, which he perceived to be a recipe for anarchy. Any liberty an indiviual had, would be used in negative ways to despoil others until they themselves were despoiled.

This led Hobbes to formulate an idea which was ascribed to (but not used by himself) – the “social contract”, which set out the principles in which individuals would sacrifice or trade their innate liberties in return for safeguarding and protection from a strong ruler – a type of early day insurance or protection payment. This strong ruler would be sovereign (have supreme authority) and hence said to enjoy “absolute rule”. Under this system Hobbes believed the individual would enjoy more freedom.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a French writer and political theorist in the Enlightenment period and his works were thought to have inspired the philosophy and politics of the French Revolution. Rousseau rejected Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature, preferring the premise that if we were left to our natural uncivilised state, life would be more pleasant, though not advocate a return to this state, He believed that it is the very growth of civilisation that leads to negative consequences with regard to adverse emotions and lack of personal liberties.

Rousseau believed that growth in social development was directly proportional to the growth of negative emotions of envy, greed, pride and revenge. Society, he thought, provides a platform for self comparison and personal bench marking, which are the roots of injustice. Hence Rousseau proposed that these negative emotions were as a result of nurture not nature (the contrary to what Hobbes had believed). And sovereignty should only be sanctioned if it benefits all citizens uniformly, so by having a powerful leader, monarch or government produces a paradox in the equality of liberty, leading him to conclude that direct self government was the only way to achieve this end.

Rousseau’s argument hinges on the belief that mankind’s natural altruistic state allows a more harmonious existence and that more damage is done by surrendering our sovereignty to an absolute ruler through the necessity of inequity. One of Rousseau’s challenges to Hobbes’s view on absolutism was against his assertion that individuals consented to be ruled by someone with absolute power. He argued that if they were born into subjugation, for example into slavery, then they had no hope or concept of emancipation and freedom, and with this premise it follows that rulers cannot justify superiority through birthright. Furthermore, strength (whether physical or constitutional) does not infer legitimacy.

In a monarchical Christian society, divinity could be used as a counter argument in favour of absolute power, proposing that a King does not need the endorsement of his subjects when he has a divine right; but Rousseau dismissed this argument believing Kings could be fallible as well as good, instead he favoured natural law and a social contract. This social contract was based on preserving personal liberty through each individual giving his will to the general will – or the will of the people. Thus in his hypothesis, the sovereignty lies with the general (combined) will, and individual liberty is not relinquished or diminished. In short decisions are made by the people for the people, thus negating the need for absolute rule. Two caveats may be noted to this statement, firstly Rousseau believed that this idealised form of government could only work for small states such as his own city (Geneva), and secondly people should be “forced to be free” if they disagreed with the consensus. This appears to run counter many contemporary views of freedom, where any individual has the right to protest in a democratic society.

In conclusion, Rousseau rejected Hobbes’s description of the ‘state of nature’ with the premise that pre-civilisation life was on the whole was good and positive and he went on to undermine Hobbes’s defence of absolute rule by negating the need for a powerful ruler by promoting the idea that true sovereignty lies in the general will of the people.

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