Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery – Summary

In this thirteenth chapter of the first part “Of Man”, Hobbes deals with the happiness and misery of entire mankind. He proposes that all men, by nature, are equal in the faculties of mind and body. The rest of his essay aims to elaborate this statement and the natural state man lives in, both of which form the foundation of Hobbes’ philosophy. Even if one man appears stronger in body and quicker in mind than the other; when we consider everything, such differences become insignificant and do not make one person superior to another. Therefore, physically and mentally everyone is equal. The weaker person can claim all those benefits which the stronger man can take, either slyly or by conspiring with others. However, the weaker is equally vulnerable to the risks. In other words, all people are essentially the same and none can exercise power over the other until he does so by his evil strategies.

Hobbes finds more equality in the faculty of mind than in the physical strength of men. Here, mental calibre does not mean the knowledge of literature, poetry, or science because such qualities are not inherent in everyone and cannot be acquired, as prudence can be. Prudence is wisdom, which can be attained through experience. So, in the equally available time everyone acquires the same amount of experience; an equal period of time allows equal experience and hence, equal wisdom. Although a person acknowledges another’s wits or eloquence and learning, he does not appreciate it as highly as his own. It may be because people see their wits up close and the other’s wit from a distance. This example proves equality among all people rather than inequality, because every man is satisfied with his share of intelligence.

This equality in their mental and physical abilities leads men to be diffident of each other. The moment they long to possess the same objects, they stand against each other as enemies. In order to serve his purpose, that is, to protect himself and sometimes for his pleasure only, man attempts to terminate or dominate the other. When an invader fears no harm from a man who has secured a better position than him; then the invader, plotting with other men, deprives that man, not only of what he has earned by his hard labour but also of his life and liberty. And then the invader comes into the same position of risk. Soon his enemies will dispossess him as well.

Reaching this point, man cannot save himself from the constant threat of death; therefore, he can preserve himself only through planning beforehand to master or control all of those who can be the probable cause of his death. This act of his is acceptable as long as he is acting to save himself. But there are many others who take pleasure in their conquests, even when their security is not at risk. Consequently, those who are happy to live within their boundaries until any threat unsettles them, cannot live safely for long by merely remaining defensive. Thus, adopting dangerous means to dominate others’ territories is also acceptable, if it’s for self-defence.

Interestingly, men are not happy but sad when they find no power to direct them and invoke a sense of fear in them. This is why, in company one wishes himself to be valued the most among his companions. Whenever he receives contemptuous or undervaluing remarks from his friend, he extorts the desired value and respect from his condemner by damaging him. This also sets an example for others. The term ‘extort’ – to procure something from others by unjust means – intensifies the cruelty man stoops to for his self-interests.

Hobbes marks three principal causes, innate in all men, which engender antipathy among them. These are competition, diffidence, and glory. Firstly, the competition or rivalry with others to possess more makes man at odds with others. To gain what he aspires for, violence is used by man to overpower the persons, wives, children and cattle – all the wealth -of his rival. Secondly, he attacks in order to secure himself and to defend his own possessions and family. Thirdly, tension arises when he finds his honour at stake. This is when either his persons or family members or his Nation or profession are humiliated.

This leads us to Hobbes’s most quoted and influential proposition “that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man against every man.” In the absence of a common power to govern man, he stays in a state of constant war. This war makes every man against every man. War does not mean only a fight in the battleground but a tendency to fight with others for various reasons, which exist not only for a day or two but for an extended period of time. Time in war is as important as in foul weather. Foul weather is not that which remains for a day or two but remains for many days, causing inconvenience. Likewise, a battle doesn’t define a war, but the consistent unrest one feels and the inclination to commence combat at any moment is also a state of war.

In such a situation, man’s life becomes pathetic. All those activities which assist man’s progress in life come to a halt during the war. Be it industry, culture or navigation; import by sea or architectural construction, everything loses significance and comes to an end. The worst result of such mutual hostility is continual fear of violent death. The life of man, for which he begins this enmity with others, becomes “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short.” What follows from this is that the state of war parallels the state of man’s nature. The state of war comprises the desire and intent to battle and man’s nature always provokes feelings of contention in him. Hence, man’s nature is in a continual state of war. All this reminds us of the frequent English civil wars which destroyed England’s peace and prosperity.

Some people find Hobbes’s philosophy about the nature of man strange and intolerable. These are the people who have never pondered over the nature of man ever and hence they find it unacceptable that man’s passions can persuade him to invade and destroy others. Such people can be convinced, as they also desire, of this bitter truth only through actual experience. Hobbes therefore asks such people to consider themselves first and examine their own actions, which will authenticate his philosophy and will also confirm human savagery. He asks a few fundamental questions such as: why does a man, while going on a journey, arm himself and wish to be well-accompanied? When he sleeps, why does he make sure to lock the doors? Even being in his own house, why does he lock his chests? The man knows that laws are there for his safety and the civil officers will take action if any injury is done to him. Despite knowing all this, what opinion does he have of his fellow beings which makes him arm himself? What does he think of his neighbours or citizens that he locks his doors, and what views does he hold of his own family members and servants when he locks his chests? Is all this not evidence of the constant threat man is living under? Does it not accuse mankind of being selfish and ambitious, as Hobbes’s philosophy intends to prove? But, as Hobbes further says, it is not the passions and desires to gain more and more which are accusable. Rather it is the nature of man itself. These emotions, though inherent in every man, are not sinful and should not be blamed. Nor should the actions led by these strong emotions be questioned. Actions are labelled as sin only when they appear to violate some established laws, and man cannot know such laws until they are ordained and most importantly, laws cannot be ordained without electing someone unanimously to make and enact them.

It may be asked where in the world could there be such a situation? It is not generally prevalent but there are still some places where people lead such a life. The savage people in America (in Hobbes’s time), in the absence of any governing power, are an example. These American savages acted only under the influence of natural lust for possession and thus lived in a brutish manner. From this we can assume the manner of life in a society void of a sovereign power to control its citizens’ self-interest and punish them for their superfluous conflicts with others. Even those who live under a peaceful government are forced to live a despicable life during a civil war. This is why Hobbes believes in the supremacy of the sovereign power.

Man is always not against another man but sovereign authorities like kings, in their jealousy of other kingdoms and kings, always have their eyes on the others’ riches. Their weapons ready; forts, guns and garrisons always ready to act on their frontiers, and the continual spying on their neighbouring kingdoms are nothing but a posture of war. During all this, they encourage the ordinary man to continue his work so that he doesn’t get depressed because of lack of liberty.

In this state of every man against every man, nothing is unjust. There is no place for what is right or wrong and what is just or unjust. When there is no common power, there is no law and in the absence of law, just or unjust cannot be judged. Justice and injustice do not exist in solitude; they link a man to the society he is a part of. It also follows from this that there is no sense of ownership and no concept of mine or his, domination and territory, when there is no legal authority. Everything belongs to everyman as long as he can get it and can maintain his possession over it.

However, as man is provoked by his nature and placed in this unhappy condition, there is a possibility of his coming out of it. It is his Passions and Reason which help him come out of it. The Passions which lead man to peace are his fear of death (which can be easily caused in war). And his Hope of fulfilling his desire to acquire necessities like food and shelter to live a commodious life through diligent labour inspires him to avoid war. Also, man’s Reason persuades him to accept Articles of Peace which are also known as Laws of Nature. These laws, which have been explained in the successive chapters, emphasise a general rule found out by reason; which proscribes man from doing that which is disastrous, not only for his life but others as well. This law requires a man to do that which preserves mankind.

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