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Hobbes vs. Rousseau


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Which do you think has a more plausible theory about human nature, Hobbes or Rousseau? Defend your answer.

Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were 17th and 18th century philosophers with similar, yet contrasting theories about human nature. Hobbes’ theory is based upon the assumption that human nature is naturally competitive and violent; while Rousseau’s theory about the state of ‘natural man’ is one living in harmony with nature and in a better situation than what he was seeing throughout his life in Europe. Hobbes has been criticised because of his overly cynical view of human nature, whereas Rousseau has been criticised because of his naïve view of human nature. In this essay I will show that although both theories have their flaws, Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ is a very idealistic notion and undermines his argument more than Hobbes’ ‘natural man’. Therefore, Hobbes has the more plausible theory about human nature.

Hobbes’ theory is based on the notion of ‘individualism’: that society can ‘only be explained in terms of the individuals comprising it.’ Consequently, he claimed that we are all selfish and concerned only with our own self-preservation even if it comes at the cost of others. This would result in conflict, and eventually descent into a ‘State of War’. Self-interest was based upon the theory of ‘psychological egoism’, where the motivation for all actions is benefit for oneself. Even altruistic actions could be explained in this manner because, according to Hobbes’ theory, our primary desire is self-preservation and in other’s misfortune one’s own plight is foreseen, therefore providing motivation to act in this seemingly unselfish manner. This ‘materialist’ point of view conflicts with philosophers such as Plato, who felt that there was definite conflict between reason and desires on the level of decision making; whereas Hobbes views materialistic desire as the motivation for all actions while reason provides the best possible way to fulfill these desires. Overall, Hobbes has a rather negative view about human nature, in that without an ‘absolute sovereign’ to control our desires we will live in a constant ‘State of War’, which is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Rousseau’s theory contrasted with that of Hobbes, as he thought human nature is largely good. Society is the corrupting force that transforms ‘natural man’ into the self-obsessed beast illustrated by Hobbes. Rousseau does not deny that Hobbes’ account of the ‘State of Nature’ is correct, just that Hobbes did not define the ‘State of Nature’ correctly. For Rousseau, the ‘State of Nature’ is much more than just a removal of government, it is the removal of all ‘cultural clothes’ including beliefs, language and even an understanding of ourselves. At this level of development Rousseau believed that self-love and pity are the only sentiments that remain in our nature; that we are solitary, and have no desire for power because there would be nobody to have power over. Therefore Rousseau’s view of human nature is very positive compared to Hobbes’, and that any negative aspects of human nature are the result of interaction with society.

Problems with Hobbes’ theory appear at the foundations of his argument: are we really individuals uninfluenced by society? Post-modernist Philosophy, Theology and Sociology have tended to view relationships with others, social-roles and the existence of ‘many selves’ as important factors in how we view ourselves. If relationships with others were important to us then would we really ‘take advantage of others to advance our own cause’? This does bring Hobbes’ whole argument into doubt because it relies so heavily on humans being naturally self-interested and aggressive.

However, the doubt of ‘individualism’ as the basis of a critique of Hobbes can also be applied to Rousseau, and undermines his argument to an even greater extent. If we have a natural inclination to live in a society then Rousseau’s claim that ‘we might have avoided nearly all of them [problems caused by society] if only we had adhered to the simple, unchanging and solitary way of life that nature ordained for us’ becomes unfounded, and his whole theory of ‘the natural man’ as being in a better situation than that of a ‘civilised man’ into doubt.

Rousseau’s theory becomes even more implausible than Hobbes’ in his analysis of ‘natural man’. It can be argued, along the lines adopted by Sociologists, that without cultural clothes is there really a human nature at all? Language has long been identified as a particular trait that has separated humanity from other animals. If humans living in Rousseau’s ‘State of Nature’ have no language then can they really be called humans at all? In Hobbes’ theory this problem is avoided as Hobbes strips society only of its government and justice, (which are linked because justice is the fulfillment of the government’s will) which is a very plausible situation and one which can be applied to international relations in today’s world to some extent. However, if the creatures described by Rousseau in the ‘State of Nature’ are not necessarily human how can a plausible theory of human nature be constructed, and how can Rousseau claim that society corrupts humans if there is no starting point to compare their corrupt state with?

Moreover, if humans are so naturally good then how could society (a sum of humans in Rousseau’s theory) be so corrupting and bad? Rousseau’s assertion that throughout the course of human history, development has ‘improved human understanding, while at the same time depraving the species, and making man wicked by making him sociable’ is unfounded because it does not take into account the positive aspects of co-operation within a society. These aspects are identified by Hobbes, who bemoans the absence of industry, farming, navigation, building, knowledge and arts in the ‘State of Nature’ because nobody can trust anyone else . This is much more logical than Rousseau’s theory that society has a bad influence by installing the notions of virtue and vice into the human mind, which eventually corrupts all and enslaves them within society.

Rousseau has been accused of ‘armchair anthropology’, as there is little evidence to support his ‘State of Nature’, and even doubt about the reasoning through which he arrives at such a peaceful conclusion. If Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ is compared to an animal, because ‘he’ exhibits no language, understanding of ‘himself’ or beliefs, then it would be expected that animals would be living together peacefully as they have not been subjected to the ‘corruption of society’. However evidence would show that the opposite is true, and that in a ‘State of Nature’ animals are very territorial and very aggressive towards each other – a situation resembling Hobbes’ theory far more than that of Rousseau. It is therefore incredibly naïve to expect that ‘natural men’ would live peacefully with each other and far more likely that they would be concerned with self-preservation and taking advantage of others to benefit themselves.

Although both theories definitely have their flaws, Hobbes being very cynical in his view of human nature and Rousseau being very naïve, it is obvious that Rousseau has created an idealistic ‘State of Nature’ which is not only impractical in its creation, but also clearly unfounded in its belief that humans are naturally peaceful beings, and it is society which corrupts them. Hobbes’ rather violent and potentially cynical ‘State of Nature’ and his analysis of human nature as a whole is therefore much more realistic. The violent nature of his theory is more evident in the examples of ‘natural states’ we see today, whether they are in the animal kingdom or in turbulent international relations.


Barash, David. Ideas of Human Nature: from the Bhagavad Gita to Sociobiology, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1998.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: introduction by A. D. Lindsay, J. M. Dent, London, 1934.
Manicas, Peter T. The Death of the State, Capricorn Books, New York, 1974.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: with introduction and notes by Maurice Cranston, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1984.
Trigg, Roger. Ideas of Human Nature, Blackwell, Oxford, 1988.