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From savage to suave

The Concept of ‘Nature’ in Seventeenth-Century Thought

A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.

Baruch Spinoza, 1677 Ethics, bk 4, prop.67.


In his anthropological peregrinations and explorations Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) hoped to encounter man in a state of nature. A daunting task for someone whose famous opening sentence in his Tristes Tropiques is: "Travel and travellers are two things I loathe and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions."

Tristes Tropiques, translated by John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), 17.

Lévi-Strauss might have hated travel but there was a time when adventurers embarked the seas on their barkentines to the ‘’hic sunt dracones”, i.e. the here be dragons. The Age of Exploration which is situated by historians between the early 15th century lasting through the 18th century had a surprising amount of Dutch cartographers like Johannes Ruysch (c 1466-1530), Joost Janszoon Bilhamer (1541-1590), Isaak de Graaff (1668-1743) and Johannes Janssonius (1588-1664). Europeans started to explore the world in search for knowledge, riches and new trading routes. It had a tremendous impact on the science of its days, especially the seventeenth century.

The seventeenth century ushered a plenitude of epistemological paradigm shifts affecting and influencing the landscape of knowledge, reflection and beliefs. The intellectual horizons were vastly expanded, scientific tectonic plate dynamics caused collisions and a treasure trove of gobsmacking philosophical systems came to fruition. This epoch that took place in Europe is known - though heavily contested among historians - as the Scientific Revolution.

This revolution of the mind was also manifested in political philosophy. Two protagonists of that period Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) expressed their views about the state of nature of man. The purpose of this essay is to forensically explore the overlap in the way these thinkers thought about the state of nature. I will initiate with briefly outlining how the state of nature is described in political philosophy. Then I will discuss how the state of nature was perceived by Hobbes. I will then further analyze how Spinoza thought about the state of nature. I will then discuss the convergences between the their ideas. I will end with a conclusion.

The state of nature in political theory

In political theory the state of nature expresses the representation of human existence prior to the formation of civil society. The state of nature, put in layman’s term, is a situation in which human beings have no government, no political institutions and no executive forces to protect them. The state of nature is an idealization and is discussed by different philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and David Hume (1711-1776). The two emblematic philosophers and political theorists who are the subject matter of our discussion Hobbes and Spinoza, inextricably entwined with their own socio-political context, proffered opinions about how man was before he was embedded in a social collective. They outlined how man left their feral way to become domesticated and socialized as a useful member of the society

The state of nature according Hobbes

Hobbes was born prematurely and he relates that his mother was terrorized by the approach of the Spanish Armada which was about to attack England. "Fear was my twin."2 This fear oozed and trickled down into his political theory. It is a significant theme both in his writings and musings, his life and his philosophical system. Leviathan, is known as Hobbes most influential work and is considered to be one of the most pivotal philosophical texts penned down during the seventeenth century. Leviathan is derived from a Hebrew word and alludes to the sea monster from Judaism. For Hobbes it constituted the ideal metaphor for the perfect government. Hobbes lived in a time of great change domestically, on our continent and globally. His Leviathan breathes the fear Hobbes experienced during the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s. In this work Hobbes displayed his genius and articulated a political philosophy which is studied, developed and discussed until this day.

Hobbes succinctly described human life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short.”3 Man in this natural condition was confronted by a cosmic loneliness. They dwelled in a state of equality, in the sense that any man could dominate others, either by strength or cunning. Human nature is prone to individual self-preservation. There was a constant fear of death. Competition and glory causes war between men. War and rampage were omnipresent, there was a „Krieg aller gegen alle“, a bellum omnium contra omnes. Insecurity and permanent threat was the norm in a normless world. It was a state in which no rule, no law, no dominion and no property existed. Fellow human beings were endowed with predatory killer instincts and a violent death was always lurking in the shadows. To survive in this ephemeral existence, where everyone tried to outsmart, outwit and outfight each other one constantly needed to be vigilant. It was a dog-eat-dog world, survival of the fittest in the most literal sense. Or to give it more cachet and rephrase this in Latin: Homo homini lupus, homo homini canis.

Unlike animals man becomes aware of his dystopian predicament and realizes that the only way to escape this situation is to build a civil society. He realizes that anything that he can gain will not benefit him if he loses his life. He has to give up his rights and subordinate himself to the commonwealth. Only when people will live together under a self-imposed force majeure cultural achievements, like the building of communities, the development of infrastructure, the collective accumulation of wealth, can be realized. For Hobbes, then, man in the state of nature must have a right to all, so he can willingly concede those rights so he can acquire rights through obligation, justice, the commonwealth, and contract. He argues that social unity and civil peace can best be achieved by the establishment through social contract. In his ideal commonwealth there is a sovereign power who is responsible for protecting the security of the commonwealth.

1 Claude Lévi-Srauss, Tristes Tropiques, translated by John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), 17.

2 Ralph Ross, Herbert W. Schneider and Theodore Waldman (eds.), Thomas Hobbes in His Time(University of Minnesota Press(1975),VII.

The state of nature according Spinoza

Spinoza was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardic origin. His ancestors fled from persecution in the Iberian peninsula, i.e. the Portuguese Inquisition (1536), and settled in the city of Amsterdam, known as tolerant an cosmopolitan center at that time. He was one of the main proponents and trailblazers of the Enlightenment. Along with René Descartes he was considered to be one of the leading philosophical figures of the Dutch Golden Age (1596-1650).

In his political philosophy concerning the state of nature Spinoza outlined remarkable similar ideas as Hobbes, so much so that he is called an eccentric Hobbesian.4 Spinoza, likewise as Hobbes, depicts a quite bleak and horrid picture of the state of nature. According to the Spinozist account the state of nature is a situation in which men's natural egoism and hostility to one another make their lives insecure, wretched, and brutal. This state of nature is entirely amoral and full of sadistic misanthropes. Every individual has the right to do whatever they please and is entitled to pursue their self-interest and that which they regard as conducive to their own good, without having any duty to others

If one wants to speak comprehensively about the concepts justice and injustice this can only be done in a civil society. The core concepts of justice and injustice make sense only in civil society, and in terms of obedience or disobedience to civil law they must be defined there. Human beings want to elevate themselves from the misery as endured in the state of nature, from this orgy of war and violence and the degradation of living like brutes. The rational pursuit of their self-interest leads the human species to contract to form a state which will restrain their behavior and curb the undisciplined manner in which they live as savages. The requisite clarity dawns upon human beings that to ensure civil peace they have to establish a set of conventions. They transpose their civil rights in the state of nature to move to a civil state. If they give up their rights in the state of nature they can transfer these rights to the state which on its turn can legislate, protect its citizens, provide for security and become a protective cocoon for human beings. A thousand flowers can then bloom and a hundred school of thoughts can then be born.

A fusions of horizons

There is little conceptual difference between the state of nature depicted by Hobbes and the state of nature canvassed by Spinoza. The related concept of the state of nature overlaps each other largely. The interconnectedness and parallels may be understood if we take into account that Spinoza was aware of the ideas of Hobbes. The inventory of books Spinoza owned at the time of his death contains De Cive, but did not have a single copy of Leviathan.5 This does not mean that Spinoza didn’t read Leviathan and was not conversant with the ideas it expounded. The timeline of the publication of Spinoza’s and Hobbes’s works leave open the possibility that Spinoza had access to Leviathan when composing the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. The works of Hobbes and Spinoza are intertwined and there are a lot of intellectual links and dots conjoining their works. Spinoza mentions the name of Hobbes several times in his writing, though without any reference to a specific Hobbesian title

Both thinkers focus their intellectual energies to ground a scientific treatment of politics on a fundamental principle of endeavor for self-preservation. They organize a theoretical role to a pre-political “state of nature”. Both thinkers ascribe a nearly unrestricted “right of nature” to human beings to do as they please in that state. Both maintain the commonwealth or state as a composite entity instituted through a contract in which its members transfer rights.

Spinoza shared the political paradigm of Hobbes. You can say that Spinoza tamed Leviathan, but didn’t kill it. He used the ideas of Hobbes as building blocks to further and proselytize his own ideas.

3 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, edited with an introduction and notes by Edwin Curley (Hackett Pulishing Company, Inc., Indinapolis & Cambridge, 1994), chapter XIII, section 9, p. 76.

4 Don Garett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, (Cambridge University Press 19996), 315


The conception of the state of nature and the transition to the state by Hobbes and Spinoza is quite similar. The state of nature is criticized by Hobbes and Spinoza. It is synonymous with war, amuck and mayhem. Secondly, this state of nature is characterized by a lack of justice. The law of the jungle, das Recht des Siegers, is prevalent. That is the reason why the transition to the state is perceived favorably by these two authors. One has to leave the state of nature to institute an impartial power capable of creating peace and prosperity for its citizens. It is the lesser of two evils for man who suffers from disorder, chaos, suffering, insecurity or bias in the state of nature.

Spinoza inculcates the ideas of Hobbes in his political theory carefully navigating his barkentine through the here be dragons, the here be sea monsters and the here be leviathans. And that makes Spinoza an eccentric Hobbesian.


-    Atsuko Fukoaka, The Sovereign and the Prophet, (Brill Leiden / Boston, Brill 2018).

-    Baruch Spinoza, Complete Works, translated by Samuel Shirley (Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis 2002).

-    Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, translated by John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961).

-    Don Garrett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, (Cambridge University Press 1996).

-    Ralph Ross, Herbert W. Schneider and Theodore Waldman (eds.), Thomas Hobbes in His Time (University Of Minnesota Press 1975).

-    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, edited with an introduction and notes by Edwin Curley
     (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis & Cambridge, 1994).

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