The Nature of Man: Hobbesian and Lockean Perspectives

Social contract theory is one of the most important political philosophies in history. It asks about how legitimate and authorized political activity comes to be. Two of the most popular philosophers on the subject are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

At the center of this philosophy is the concept of the State of Nature- the way the world is before political activity exists. Herein lies many assumptions about the nature of humans, that when looked at through the backdrop of theological thought, reaps great correlations and knowledge to us.

Hobbes and Man's Nature

For Hobbes the state of nature is pure pandemonium. He saw that humans had an individual will that leads us to what we deem as good and worth pursuing. In this pursuit of acting on our will, we are destined to clash with the interests of others. We will go so far in pursuing our interests that we would even turn to the greatest force possible: killing one another.

Hobbes saw that the State of Nature was one where eminent conflict and war was always near between individuals. Hence political activity must be taken up so that this conflict can be resolved. Hobbes saw legal activity as a means to the end of establishing peace. Inside of this theory we see an assumption about man's nature. We see Hobbes is somehow seeing man as a fallen creature with the ability and disposition to do evil.

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Gen 3:22

The Bible speaks about man after the fall being sinful and being a slave to sin. Meaning that Hobbes nature of man is closely related to theological thoughts that Augustine and others agreed upon such as man being unable to not sin: non posse non peccare.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. Romans 5:12

Locke and Man's Nature

Looking towards Locke, we have another understanding of the state of nature. Locke saw that the state of nature was where humans lived in harmony and community. Each person has rights and property, including self-property of their bodies. This means that in the pursuit of our will and desires, we cannot infringe on the property and rights of others. Only when we do, we enter what he calls the state of war.

The state of war is more like the state of nature that Hobbes spoke of. It is in this context where Locke sees political activity is necessary. If we understand that we have rights, and some people infringe on them, how can we assure that they are punished correctly and keep the protection of our property? Without the political activity we are just going " an eye for an eye" towards everyone, and worse, we can legitimize the abuse of justice.

So Lockes' understanding of man is slightly distinct. He sees that we are relational beings who already live in peace and harmony. This state of nature is implying that law is used to preserve the peace as the natural state man has been given. This has undertones of the pre-fallen man. Locke sees that man always lived in peace as a result of being God's creation. And that even after the fall we have these inclinations in our hearts to live in peace.

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 1 John 3:11


I see both of these interpretations of man to be so enriching to the mind and heart. In Hobbes we are reminded that we all have sinned, and that with sin it is impossible to live in harmony. We need God's intervention. But in Locke we are reminded that before sin, we once did live in peace, and our hearts long for this reality of the Garden in our world.

We see that God did establish the law to create peace amongst the sinful Israelites, but none of that predates the first law God gave to Adam and Eve to preserve what He had given them in creation. When we look at political philosophy we should always be reminded of Him.

He has also set eternity in the human heart Eccl. 3:11