The relationship between nature, the state and individuals is a complex one; political philosophers have been studying these relationships ever since the dawn of time, with the goal being to determine the best way in which the people relate to nature. Based on the ideas of philosopher John Locke, the state does not have the ability to infringe upon the right of people to determine their own destiny; he believes that mankind’s best state is to bring the best parts of their natural instincts into society, collecting together into a “state of perfect freedom.” Conversely, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that mankind was at its best in its natural state, behaving like an animal and worrying only about its individual needs – the introduction of society makes them into monsters with unequal relationships to each other. These two philosophies are distinctly different, going under two wildly different notions about the influence of nature in a person’s life. Between these two philosophers, a complex understanding of the relationship between man and the natural order can be found, as well as the consequences of evil due to nature.
Locke on Natural Law
John Locke’s ideas are heavily linked with right-libertarianism: in typical liberalism and libertarianism, a small government is the road to a great civilization; individual liberty and free will is valued more than anything else, and people must be permitted to look after their own interests. Free market capitalism as it stands today is often derived from this principle, since it is conceived that the idea of a free market would permit individuals to achieve their dreams based on their will and resources. John Locke was often said to be the Father of Classical Liberalism, and thought that individuals received the right to their property through the labor they went through to receive their goods and properties.
Locke has centered his political philosophy on the theory he has on natural law. Nevertheless, natural law did not exclusively come out of the arguments of Locke alone. Way before the theories of Locke have flourished, natural law came into conception as one that pertains to the prevalence of truths on morality applicable to people around the world, notwithstanding cultural differences or differences in the places where they live in. Thus, an early comparison of laws came into being – one that is between natural law and conventional law. Whereas natural law applies to all humans around the world, conventional law is one that exists exclusively within places where its stipulations apply.
The difference between natural law and divine law is another high point of interest in the study of laws. Divine law is different from natural law in that it refers to the belief in a higher being – for example, God in Christianity, and the teachings it has set forth through various messengers, all of which constituting sets of laws. Reason provides for the potency of natural law as it applies to all people, while divine law attributes a higher being or a supernatural entity as its source. Divine law, therefore, could not apply to those who do not believe in the higher being of a particular religion, or to those who have not received relevant revelations. In the case of the Christian tradition, scholars from the 17th century have started to question the authority of the 10 Commandments granted to Moses. Locke, among many other scholars from said period, argued against the universal applicability of the 10 Commandments by asserting that those only apply to people particular places – in this case, Israel. Moreover, Locke himself has defended the role of a higher being – God in the case of Christianity, in natural law. God, therefore, may exist in natural law, as long as it confines itself within the bounds of reason.
Locke claimed that the state, instead of the people, must have total control over their lives. Essentially he argues that people are given equal rights provided to them by the state of nature; this is “a state of perfect freedom of acting and disposing of their own possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature.” Locke believes in an idea called the state of nature, where individuals do not possess the ability to tell others what to do. At the same time, Locke does not believe this gives men permission to act as they would like: “"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it." This relationship between the state and law of nature helps to primarily showcase Locke’s ideas; the state is an empire created by a combination of these two aspects of nature, forming a society where no one is oppressed or taken advantage of, but individuals are not under the control of any exterior force.
Many of Locke’s ideas on the world around him stem from his inspirations, primarily the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes talks about the idea of regulated thoughts - a repeated pattern of action that comes from certain distinct causes and is a way to get a desired effect. Our notions are self-regulated when we utilize them to determine the ways in which we interact or relate with others: we may say one thing to get the right effect in another. This conversation is achieved through words and reasoning combined; we reason causes and effects related to our wants and desires, and then convey them through verbal communication in order to make someone else understand. When it comes to his notions of communication in a society, there is a fight between the laws and rights of nature of all individuals. People have the right, or the liberty, to do everything they might to fight off death and protect their interests; at the same time, in order to communicate with a group of other humans, they must choose to give up thse rights of nature in some way to permit other people to have a combined feeling of civilization. This is called the social contract theory, where a group of individuals see that they will not be able to simply follow their urges, since that might damage the society in which they live. The social contract theory offers a good compromise between Marxism and libertarianism; though humans are free to seek out their interests, they will not do it at the expense of others, or while violating the social contract.
Relating to that, Locke’s ideas are somewhat different from Hobbes; he believes in the social contract, stating that individiausl will just decide to be good to each other so that they can be permitted the freedoms and privileges that living in an organized society would offer, which then creates the state. However, unlike Hobbes’ idea that there should be complete authority, Locke thinks there is a desire for total freedom under law. According to Locke, the government is given its “just powers from the consent of the governed”; because of that, the people supply the government with power. Locke believes it is definitely possible for the government to not act according to natural law, but tyranny can occur when there is “the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”
One of the biggest parts of Locke’s arguments is its reasonable ideas as it holds up on the surface; everyone is allowed to do what they wish, on the condition that they do not do anything to take advantage of that power. At the same time, when there is no civilization made be man, as opposed to the state of nature, no method exists to enforce the law of nature. Typically, the law would be broken, and this typically occurs in the libertarian worldview. Locke’s fairly arrogant idea that people do not require regulation because of nonspecific promises that they will not harm anyone else. The social contract only goes up to a certain point, and makes huge presumptions about the capacity for individuals to not take advantage of others; regulation of some sort has to be created to stop these abuses from happening (while also enforcing the social contract).
Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality
According to Rousseau, there are two kinds of inequality – natural and ethical. With natural inequality, there is a distinct difference between the physical strength of each man, as according to the law of nature. However, Rousseau does not concern himself with this kind of inequality; he is much more concerned with moral inequities that occur as a result of society. According to Rousseau, moral inequality is a consequence of civilization, leading to the disparities in economic wealth and societal power between men. This type of inequality is simply a symptom of a functioning civil society, and is often found within them. Rousseau believes that man, in his “natural state,” lives in isolation and is allowed to be free to explore the wants and needs that he has as an individual. When individuals congregate into a society, however, this is where the strong are able to prey on the weak, the rich on the poor, etc.
Rousseau’s idea of the origin of society directly links the creation of civilization with oppression and power inequality:
“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
In this scenario, Rousseau describes the natural man, exploring what he calls the theodicy of self-love. According to Rousseau, the natural man is defined both by his love of the self, which is non-destructive, as well as his compassion for others; these things allow mankind to survive within nature. He believes that man is essentially little better than an animal; taking a dim view of Hobbes’ idea of the fear of death being a motivator for action, he thinks man should be free of those kinds of existential concerns, “self-preservation being his chief and almost sole concern”. Unlike civilized man, “the only goods he recognizes in the universe are food, a female and sleep,” breaking man down to his most base instincts and needs for survival and comfort – once the greater complexities and motivations of civilization are introduced, man is given ways of having power over each other.
There are ways in which Rousseau’s natural man differs from an animal – mostly, they relate to the capacity for free will and choice, called “free-agency”. That being said, despite this free will, man acts as “a being that always acts in accordance with certain and invariable principles,” making Rousseau’s assertions somewhat contradictory. According to Rousseau, man has the ability to perfect itself, improving the physical state of himself and his environment in order to become better at survival. Given how often men encounter other men, Rousseau argues that our ability to perfect ourselves, forcing us to relate instead to others and learn how to survive and bargain with society. Instead of the pure kind of self-love Rousseau means us to strive for, our self-preservation is driven by envy and pride; we no longer want to be the best people we can be. Instead, we simply need to be better than those around us, a consequence of living in a society that Rousseau strongly disfavors.
Rousseau firmly believes in man as a ‘noble savage,’ meant to be a self-sufficient individual who does not need others to survive and thrive:
“Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their inmost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic's ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else. By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality.”
The “beginning of evil” came as a result of setting up property, as previously mentioned, as this created arbitrary and socially constructed rules to be more destructive to each other – by placing intrinsic value on this land, men became more rooted and competitive, as one had to have the most value by having the most land. This also led to conditions where men were given metrics by which to compare each other, leading to negativity and jealousy when they were found wanting.
Comparing Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas of the state of nature and natural law, one can see fundamental differences in how they relate the relationship between man and nature. For Rousseau, man in his natural state is allowed the greatest freedom of all – independence and the inability to be exploited by his fellow man. With the creation of civilization, a trick has been pulled on mankind, according to Rousseau – this trick allows these systemic inequalities to occur. Locke, on the other hand, believes the law of nature is alive and well within society, and has no moral compass – the point of civilization is to benefit from its advantages, giving up the chaos of nature for the security of modernity.
Much of Locke’s and Rousseau’s points of contention relate directly to the relationship of men with government and society; Locke believes that the state of nature is an equalizing force in civilization, leaving society to emulate it. The laws of government are then folded into the laws of nature, Locke believing that the right to property is an inalienable natural right. This is in direct contrast to Rousseau, who believes that property as a concept is a civilizing force that is immoral and dehumanizing. Locke believes that labor is a natural way to establish property for a person, and something that must be protected; Rousseau, meanwhile, believes that the noble savage of man is naturally idle, and so he would not value labor as a means of establishing power or property.
The question of morals as they relate to the state of nature differ with both Locke and Rousseau. In the case of Locke, the state of nature is inherently moral; to act according to your nature is of the highest good. Social relationships and civil morality are entirely constructed by man, and so Locke feels there is no real need to be loyal to those laws if they do not consent to them. It is up to man to decide whether or not the laws are moral; at the same time, Rousseau believes that these laws are inherently immoral and in violation of the natural good. Rousseau believes that nature should come first when evaluating morality; instead of looking at whether laws can be made natural, like with Locke, Rousseau believes that nature cannot be made into law. Civil society in any form is anathema to the ideas of the natural man, and so should not be evaluated. The social contract, for Rousseau, involves the agreement to behave according to the general will, while Locke’s notion of the social contract involves the abiding of man to the laws set up by the civilizations they live in. This is still a separate notion from the state of nature, however.
The biggest difference between Locke and Rousseau is that Locke believes that a society, if created according to the laws of nature, can be a just and good one; Rousseau believes the idea of civilization is anathema to man’s natural state, making any aspect of civilization (including the ownership of property) firmly and patently against the natural order. Rousseau’s theodicy of self-love cancels out any sense of competition and animosity against one’s fellow man, as the natural man focuses on himself alone; Locke believes that man can be advantaged by modern society, as long as he brings natural laws like private property into the civilized world. These two philosophers have decidedly opposing views, insofar as Locke thinks the civilized world can include natural law and Rousseau does not. Given the severely entrenched nature of civilization in human history and life, it is easy to see how Rousseau’s philosophy can seem cynical; Locke’s perspective is much more willing to work within the confines of society that have been established.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Awnsham Churchill, 1689.
Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford University Press), 2010.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.