Thomas Hobbes’ and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s View of Human Nature

This article examines two influential historical theorists, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and their contrasting views of human nature and civilization.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is the father of physicalism who attempted to explain all phenomena in the universe by appeal to their physical properties. Hobbes is also remembered for his rather negative view of human nature being “red in tooth and claw.” According to Jeremy Stangroom and James Garvey,

“Thomas Hobbes was not optimistic about our ability to rub along nicely with each other in the absence of a visible power to act as a restraint on our natural passions” (1)

One of the major themes introduced in Hobbes’ book Leviathan (1651) is that human nature and will are essentially motivated by self-interest and greed. Persons, on this view, attempt to relieve themselves of their discomfort: if one feels hungry, for example, he will seek to relieve this discomfort through finding food to consume. The same can be said of discomfort brought on by tiredness, anxiety, fear, and so on. Seeking to relieve discomfort was Hobbes’ way of articulating freewill on a physicalist and mechanical worldview. There is, on this view, no such thing as absolute free will perhaps connected to the soul or the transcendent; rather, humans just seek various ways to relieve discomfort. Hobbes thus put much emphasis on the human being’s animalistic nature whose instincts are governed by basic desires. This led him to suggest that human existence without society would be one of a state of war and necessarily brutish and short,

“… no knowledge of the ace of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes claims that the only way to make existence better than this brutish alternative is through persons entering into “contracts”.

Contracts function to provide humans with a strong system of regulation that would also entail punitive measures to sustain a workable society. According to Hobbes’ view, society is that which essentially exists to civilize human beings. Moreover, because humans are afraid of death they have little choice but to seek peace with others. But peace is impossible in the absence of people restraining themselves from taking anything they are capable of possessing. Part of the social contract is therefore recognition that people must give up some sense of their freedom to coexist with others.

The social contract also requires that humans transfer their absolute right to freedom to a single entity in the form of a person or a group who is to use this power to ensure peace between members of society and their safety. Hobbes claimed that persons need to stick to this covenant if society is to function.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1768) famously argued that civilization has corrupted the inherent goodness of human beings, an insight that lies behind his promoting of a social contract.

Rousseau captured this notion in his “noble savage” referring to the pre-civilization people that were peaceful, solitary, and seeking to satisfy their immediate needs. These noble savages did not require civilization and its various encumbrances to live well. However, persons today find themselves living in the trappings of civilization or, as Rousseau puts it, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

According to Rousseau, it was the emergence of private property that ultimately killed the noble savage. Civil society soon emerged to regulate ownership, and from this there emerged inequality leading to jealousy, aggression, and competitiveness. Rousseau realizes that people do not have the option of returning to their former state as a noble savage, yet they have little choice but to keep at a distance moral degeneracy and the immoralities brought on by civilization. To keep degeneracy at bay, people would need to embrace the “general will.” Once people live together in groups they are no longer absolutely free and able to seek their selfish interests. However, people can maintain a sense of freedom by agreeing to a social contract by acknowledging each others’ existence in the group’s sovereign body.

Rousseau’s view of human nature is striking in comparison to some other theorists, notably Thomas Hobbes, who view human nature as corrupt and self-serving, and thus requiring civilization or “social contracts” to tame it. Whereas Hobbes saw the necessity of civilization being in its ability to tame the corrupted nature of man, Rousseau saw how civilization is what ultimately produced the corrupted nature of man. Rousseau’s view also puts him well within the Romantic paradigm that emphasized nature and the humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.

Some thinkers have shared concerns over Rousseau’s view of the social contract. One criticism is that it could entail fascism in that it valorizes the group rather than the individual. There are also questions around the practicality and difficulty of people putting aside their own personal interests in favor of the common good. This is not something many people seem inclined to do.

References and Recommended Readings

  1. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought. London: Hachette UK. p. 249, 257-259.

Russell, James. 2007. A Brief Guide to Philosophy Classics. London: Robinson. p. 24-26


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