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The state of nature and the genesis of commonwealths in Hobbes's political philosophy

Thomas John Fryc, University of Massachusetts Amherst


A careful reading of Hobbes' philosophical writings reveals that this author forwards no fewer than three distinct conceptions of the pre-political situation which he labels "the natural condition of humankind," or "the state of nature." By examining the relevant passages from The Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan, Hobbes' three principal works of political philosophy, I demonstrate that Hobbes' state of nature should not be interpreted as a single invariant concept but rather as a series of three distinct heuristic or expository models. Further, I claim that distinctions between Hobbes' various conceptions of the state of nature reflect differing background assumptions concerning such factors as the prevailing degree of group stability and the level of abstractness with which representative human beings are characterized. After establishing this framework, I examine why Hobbes chose to include three distinct conceptions of the state of nature within his writings, and explore the relationship which appears to obtain among these three conceptions. I next examine the manner by which each of Hobbes' three types of commonwealth, namely commonwealth by institution, commonwealth by preservation and commonwealth by acquisition, can be understood to arise from each of Hobbes' three conceptions of the state of nature. In this section, I focus my analysis upon the transitions which occur when the unencumbered and isolated individuals who inhabit the state of nature (in its various forms) enter into the social contract by "transferring" their respective rights of nature to the sovereign of their incipient commonwealth. Moreover, I examine Hobbes' explanation of why each subject incurs an obligation to obey his sovereign's decrees and I address the apparent difficulty of maintaining the subjects' allegiance to their sovereign in light of Hobbes' portrayal of human beings as passionate and predominantly self-serving creatures. I conclude by arguing that given Hobbes' characterization of humans as passionate and predominantly self-serving creatures, one can probably not expect commonwealths to arise in the manner that Hobbes describes, and one can certainly not expect such commonwealths, if established, to endure for any substantial period of time.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science

Recommended Citation

Fryc, Thomas John, "The state of nature and the genesis of commonwealths in Hobbes's political philosophy" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809332.