Comparing Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau: The State of Nature and Social Contract Perspectives


The state of nature is a philosophical concept that explores the hypothetical condition of humanity in the absence of any form of government or social organization. It serves as a theoretical backdrop to understand how individuals might have lived and interacted before the establishment of civil society. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, three influential thinkers from different periods, each offered their unique interpretations of the state of nature. This essay aims to delve into their respective perspectives, analyze their differences, and highlight the implications of their ideas on political theory and social contract.

Hobbes’ Conception of the State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes, in his seminal work “Leviathan” (1651), described the state of nature as a state of perpetual war and chaos. According to Hobbes, in the absence of a governing authority, individuals would naturally pursue their self-interests, leading to a condition he famously referred to as the “war of all against all.” In this state, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short,” with individuals competing for limited resources, security, and dominance over others (Hobbes, 1651).

For Hobbes, the state of nature represented a state of anarchy, where there were no enforceable laws or rules to regulate human behavior. In this context, everyone had the natural right to preserve their own lives and protect their interests, even if it meant using force or violence against others. Hobbes believed that rational individuals would recognize the necessity of escaping this anarchic state by voluntarily surrendering some of their freedoms to a supreme authority, establishing a social contract that would lead to the creation of a strong and absolute government—the Leviathan.

Locke’s Conception of the State of Nature

John Locke, in his influential work “Two Treatises of Government” (1689), presented a more optimistic view of the state of nature compared to Hobbes. According to Locke, the state of nature was a state of perfect freedom and equality, where individuals enjoyed natural rights to life, liberty, and property (Locke, 1689). Unlike Hobbes, Locke did not believe that the state of nature necessarily led to chaos and violence. Instead, he argued that individuals had the inherent capacity to reason and follow natural laws.

In the state of nature, everyone had the right to protect their life, liberty, and property, and individuals were expected to punish those who violated these rights. However, Locke acknowledged that conflicts could arise in the absence of a centralized authority to impartially adjudicate disputes. He believed that the state of nature lacked an effective and unbiased system of justice, leading individuals to come together and establish a civil society through a social contract. The primary purpose of this contract was to secure the natural rights of individuals and create a limited government that derived its authority from the consent of the governed.

Rousseau’s Conception of the State of Nature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his influential work “The Social Contract” (1762), presented a contrasting view of the state of nature compared to both Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau viewed the state of nature as a peaceful and harmonious existence, where humans lived in primitive simplicity, free from the corruptions of society (Rousseau, 1762). In his view, it was the emergence of private property and the development of inequality that disrupted this idyllic state and led to social ills.

Rousseau argued that in the state of nature, individuals were self-sufficient and lacked the vices associated with civilization. There was no concept of property ownership or social distinctions, and people lived in mutual cooperation and harmony. However, with the advent of agriculture and the establishment of property rights, inequalities emerged, leading to the rise of governments and the exploitation of the weak by the powerful.

According to Rousseau, the social contract was meant to address the problem of inequality and restore freedom and justice. He proposed a collective social contract that aimed to create a society governed by the “general will” of the people. This general will was not to be confused with the mere sum of individual wills but rather represented what was in the best interest of the community as a whole. In this way, Rousseau sought to reconcile individual freedom with the common good.

Comparative Analysis

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau’s conceptions of the state of nature diverged significantly, with Hobbes emphasizing the necessity of a strong, centralized authority, Locke advocating for a limited government based on the consent of the governed, and Rousseau proposing a collective social contract that aimed to restore equality and harmony.

Hobbes and Locke both believed that the state of nature was a hypothetical construct, a thought experiment to illustrate the origin of political authority and the need for government. In contrast, Rousseau presented a more romanticized view of the state of nature, considering it as a historical reality before the advent of organized society.

While Hobbes and Locke viewed human nature in a somewhat pessimistic light, with Hobbes emphasizing self-interest and competition and Locke highlighting the potential for conflict, Rousseau saw human nature as inherently good and cooperative before the corrupting influence of societal structures.

Another key difference lies in their views on the social contract. For Hobbes, the social contract was an agreement among individuals to surrender their natural liberties to a sovereign authority for the sake of security and order. Locke, on the other hand, saw the social contract as an agreement to protect natural rights, primarily focusing on life, liberty, and property. Rousseau’s social contract, as mentioned earlier, aimed to create a society based on the general will, which he believed would promote the common good and safeguard individual freedom.

Implications on Political Theory

The contrasting views of the state of nature and the social contract put forth by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have profound implications on political theory and the role of government in society.

Hobbes’ theory justifies a strong and centralized government with absolute authority to maintain law and order. His Leviathan represents an all-powerful entity that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, ensuring that individuals do not resort to violence to resolve conflicts. While this form of government may safeguard against the chaos of the state of nature, it also raises concerns about potential abuses of power and lack of individual freedoms.

Locke’s theory, on the other hand, advocates for limited government, based on the idea that its authority derives from the consent of the governed. The primary purpose of this government is to protect the natural rights of individuals, and if it fails to do so, the people have the right to revolt and establish a new government. This concept laid the groundwork for liberal democracies, emphasizing individual rights and the idea of accountable and representative government.

Rousseau’s theory challenges the legitimacy of private property and social inequality, seeking to create a society guided by the collective will of the people. However, critics argue that his vision of the general will might suppress individual liberties and lead to majoritarian tyranny.


In conclusion, the state of nature serves as a theoretical concept to understand humanity’s pre-political condition and the motivations for establishing civil society. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau offered distinct perspectives on the state of nature, reflecting their differing beliefs about human nature and the role of government. Hobbes’ pessimistic view led him to advocate for an absolute government to restrain human instincts, while Locke’s optimism informed his vision of a limited government based on consent and the protection of individual rights. Rousseau’s romanticized state of nature inspired his call for a collective social contract that aimed to restore equality and harmony.

The debates between these influential thinkers have had far-reaching consequences on political theory and continue to influence modern governance. Hobbes’ theory has been used to justify authoritarian regimes, where a strong central authority suppresses individual freedoms to maintain order and stability. Locke’s ideas, on the other hand, have played a crucial role in shaping the foundation of liberal democracies. Rousseau’s concept of the general will has sparked debates about the balance between individual liberties and the collective good.

Understanding the nuances and implications of their theories provides valuable insights into the complexities of political philosophy and governance, and it challenges us to reflect on the role of government in securing individual liberties while promoting the common good in contemporary societies.


Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. London: Andrew Crooke.

Locke, J. (1689). Two Treatises of Government. London: Awnsham Churchill.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1762). The Social Contract. London: G. D. and J. Robinson.