Our Modern State of Nature


What do we think of as the state of nature? Have you ever heard of it? Maybe it’s as primal as animals hunting for survival. Maybe it’s the drive to steal or murder. Or maybe when you call 911 and nothing happens.

Thomas Hobbes describes it as so, “the ‘natural condition of mankind’ is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a ‘war of all against all,’ in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is ‘nasty, brutish and short.'”

This is the basis for Hobbes’ Leviathan. In essence, an authoritarian regime that keeps human nature at bay to create a social contract for the betterment of mankind. I align myself to this view. I’m a Hobbesian at heart, but also a cautious optimist. I believe in the best of people, but prepare for the worst. I usually see that bad behavior as a reaction for self preservation or blow-back from personal suffering. That’s what I see in the world today. I see so much conflict and pain while also seeing a struggle for happiness.

The state of nature is always just at the cusp of our every day lives. In the last year or so I’ve been thinking of this topic almost daily. I think a lot of it has to do with the place I’m at in life coming out of college, entering the real world, etc. It’s been so frustrating to enter a place like Mason with so much understanding, communication, and acceptance and then immediately leave to a maelstrom of hard experiences.

When I came to Virginia I was in the midst of it already. I had a rough time in Oklahoma in just about every area of my life; academically, romantically, family-wise, financially, and politically. I worked hard and was dedicated to success in life. I was used to hardship. That’s all I knew. Community college was no different in that there was no real community. It only involved going to class and homework. But then Mason happened. I found my passion in conflict resolution and a community that was understanding and driven. It was probably the best experience of my life so far and has helped me grow in so many ways. There was a problem though; it wasn’t sustainable. It was a bubble.

No one lies to you that college isn’t the real world. They tell you all the time that you should take advantage of it while it lasts. But you don’t really understand. How could you? You are surrounded by thousands of people who think and act the same way. It IS real. But there’s a price tag each semester called tuition. That’s where it breaks down. You are literally paying for this experience, most of the time in loans for a date down the road. That’s where the difference between college and the real world lies. In college you can make mistakes and think whatever you’d like no matter how ludicrous it is. But outside of college everything has a price, even if it’s not in money. It’s competitive; there are a lot of people. It’s nasty, brutish, and sometimes short.

Herein lies our state of nature. Every day is a struggle for survival. Our whole society is built on the premise that it creates a better chance for our survival. That’s the premise of the Leviathan and the first natural law: self-preservation.

I think that’s where we get lost in it; how to go about self-preservation. Our knowledge has moved beyond massing resources for yourself or the mindset of “what is bad for you is good for me.” It turns out that what is good for you is also good for me. That cooperation and communication creates strength, progress, and productivity. All of those experiences in college weren’t worthless or unnecessary. They are the most valuable thing you have. They show what the world can be. That’s a fight for another day though, knowledge doesn’t change human nature.

My point is that our society is drenched in conflict. Whether it is the Paris attacks or structural violence. If a mother of four gets evicted from her apartment. If a kid has to sling drugs on a corner to eat. When someone gets shot because they had a nice house. When someone gets killed because they didn’t pay a debt. Or look at it even bigger–when a whole group of people are killed because another group thinks they were hurting their chances of survival. You can’t run away from it because it is people who cause it. But that doesn’t mean people are all bad, they do it because they want a decent life with some dignity. There are only so many resources and so many dangers. There’s no one to really blame in this situation.

Again, this isn’t always a bad thing. As you learn in S-CAR, conflict can be a force for good. It causes change, learning, and understanding. The key part is to transform a conflict from a violent, destructive one to something that creates a more positive and flourishing society. It’s a hard job but knowledge gets you there.

The modern state of nature uses our society. It’s a society that can institutionalize repression and discrimination. It’s a society that is made by people and represents the nature of people, both good and bad. The modern state of nature does not just break away to the root of ourselves in violence and pure animal instincts but uses societal tools and technologies for a new type of violence. You will be born in to this world assigned a value and a country. You will have obligations and contracts thrust upon you. All land and resources are owned and leased. Human nature thrives to fulfill its self interest to varying degrees.

This is what I believe. It’s how I feel. It’s how I think. It’s the result of what I see and what I’ve learned. It’s not a fairy tale story or Mad Max. It’s just what it is. There is the good and the bad. It’s a race for survival and happiness. To make purpose out of the time we have on this earth. In my mind we should carve out a space to do what makes us happy while creating a better place for others.

By peace we mean the capacity to transform conflicts with empathy, without violence, and creatively- a never-ending process.” – Johan Galtung


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