Locke’s State of Nature and Stoicism

We’re all familiar with Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short.  Not a very pleasant place.  Everyone had a really big insatiable ego and there was nothing but war and strife.  There was no concept of morality.  Just selfish insatiable desires pitted against other selfish insatiable desires.  So Hobbes proposed that we pretty much need a very strong centralized monarchic state to check everyone’s giant egos.

John Locke had a nicer view.  John Locke believed that in a state of nature we were pre-law but we weren’t pre-moral.  In fact, people tended to work together within their communities and divided the land privately.  People would put their work into their private property and would flourish.  Unfortunately, property disputes would happen and wars would happen now and again in the state of nature.  So people came together and made government.  According to Locke, government was to secure our pre-state of nature rights to life, liberty, and property.  If government ever began to erode these securities, it became incumbent upon the people to dissolve their government and start over.

Notice the contrast here.  Hobbes’ government, you don’t really have the option of dissolving because the idea of human nature is so depraved that it’s absolutely important to keep the state as powerful as it can be to prevent the nasty state of nature happening.  In Locke’s idea though, the state of nature isn’t so bad so it’s actually worth the risk to dissolve a state if it becomes too powerful.  Hobbes might argue that it would be better to live in North Korea than to live in a state of nature.  Locke would severely disagree.

Enter the Stoics:  the Stoics had a pretty positive view of human nature.  Maybe even more optimistic than Locke’s.  They believed that humans were definitely moral in a state of nature.  In fact, using Hierocles’s Circles, you get the idea that self-love was very easily transferable to love of the offspring and family to love of the community to love of the society and finally to love of humankind.

Do the Stoics value life, liberty, and private property like Locke?  I think they do.  The Stoics not only believed your health, pursuit of pleasures, reputation were preferred indifferents but they also viewed wealth as a preferred indifferent.  This means that they were fine with wealth creation and acquisition.  The Stoics were perfectly in line with Locke in terms of believing mixing your labor into your property made it yours.  The Stoics would’ve been fine with markets as they existed.

But I would like to mention that Zeno’s Republic does kind of deviate a little bit from private property and limited governments.  Zeno had an ideal society of virtuous Stoics that had no currency and courts of law.  It’s not clear though that Zeno thought this was possible or just an ideal that might never be realized.  And it seemed to be only a place designed for Stoics, not a whole society of people with different philosophies.

Now, even though John Locke was right about limiting our government, it’s not clear if he would be outraged by the mixed economies of the USA, UK, France, and Germany of today.  Locke might actually be pleased to see that many people are still secured of their private property and can generally live their life’s pretty much how they see fit.  John Locke might’ve had a government way more limited than we have now but he might be pleased to see that even though a lot of wealth is taken from the rich, people, rich and poor alike,  still have their plot of land that they put work into and own or rent.

Just remember that when the government begins to erode the protections of life, liberty, and private property it might be incumbent upon you to end the government and the Stoics have your back.



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