In Chronicle 176 I spoke of Hobbes’s infamous picture of the “state of nature” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as the beginning of the originary anthropological thinking that defines the Enlightenment. For the first time, a scene of origin for human society was formulated in strictly human terms.

Yet Hobbes’s authoritarian solution to the mimetic rivalry he observes so sharply has received little support from the political thinkers who have succeeded him. Those such as Joseph de Maistre who, like Hobbes, support the sovereign’s absolute power tend to found it on a divine, not to say sacrificial, basis rather than deriving it from a strictly anthropological model. Hobbes’s jaundiced view of natural man makes him the bad boy of the Enlightenment, just as Machiavelli was the bad boy of the Renaissance–the one cynically revealing the means of power, the other just as cynically theorizing its necessity.

Where Hobbes is incisive, Locke is prudently ambiguous; where Hobbes is rigorous, Locke is pragmatic. Hence, to quote Peter Laslett‘s introduction to the latter’s Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge, 1960):

[Hobbes] was the greatest of all the meta-political writers, those who refine and analyse political language and elaborate axioms into axiologies. For this reason his influence on thought about politics has been enormous, but his purchase over what men do politically has been negligible…. (89-90)

[Two Treatises] contained just that ingredient which Leviathan lacked–policy; statement of guidance of what men will accept, respond to and pursue . . . (91)

In keeping with these comments, Locke’s state of nature is very different from Hobbes’s: its affirmation of humanity’s originary non-conflictivity is the direct ancestor of Rousseau’s more elaborate and anthropologically grounded attempts to demonstrate that “man is good, men are bad.” Locke’s enormous influence on the theory and practice of liberal democracy demonstrates that his vision of our originary state is not only more flattering to us than Hobbes’s but more politically pragmatic. On Hobbes’s anthropology could be built only tyranny; as Laslett points out (90), Hobbes’s failure as a political (as opposed to a philosophical) “realist” is revealed by the fact that he actually thought Leviathan would serve, as Locke’s Treatises in fact would, as a basis for political action.


My intellectual instincts draw me to Hobbes as the great early modern exponent of the anthropology of mediated desire. In Hobbes’s model, men are naturally in a state of mimetic crisis from which they are spared only by renouncing their sovereignty to a central authority. The sharpness of Hobbes’s vision of mimetic rivalry and violence is unsurpassed before the nineteenth century. Hobbes sees human relations as dominated by an unceasing rivalry in which appetite and its satisfaction play no independent role and value is conferred entirely by relative supremacy–that is, where the political wholly dominates the economic. Hobbes is well aware that the possession of language that sets us apart from the animals is directly correlated with the instability of any natural hierarchy; it is because we represent our social context to ourselves that we cannot abide finding ourselves in an inferior position and that we are consequently obliged to strike first even if we would sincerely prefer not to fight at all. Hobbes’s state of nature is one great game of Prisoners’ Dilemma in which no one has any reason not to defect.

Hobbes’s world, so close to that of Dostoevsky’s novels as described in Mensonge romantique, has obvious affinities with GA. Locke’s anthropology, in contrast, seems at first glance both less originary and less coherent. For Locke, man in the state of nature already enjoys the essential advantage that central authority confers in Hobbes’s universe: liberation from the state of mimetic crisis. Locke expresses this in theological terms:

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, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure. . . . Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind . . . (Second Treatise, sec. 6)

It would be hard to find a clearer expression of the function of the sacred in deferring mimetic violence. Because we are God‘s workmanship, we are not merely obliged to avoid harming our fellows, but we are on the whole able to do so. Thus where Hobbes sees the war of “every man against every man,” Locke is concerned only to point out that every man in the state of nature has the power to enforce the law of nature, for example, by putting a murderer to death. Violence in Locke’s as opposed to Hobbes’s state of nature is local and reversible rather than universal and contagious.

Why then do men subject themselves to governments? When Locke comes to answer this question, his state of nature sounds at first glance like Hobbes’s:

For all being kings as much as [a given man], every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state [of nature] is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers . . . and . . . to join in society with others . . . for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (sec. 123)

This sounds like Hobbes, but it is in fact very far from Hobbes. Fear and danger are punctual rather than general, and this because they come from persons who may be egoistic (“no strict observers of equity”) but not mimetic. In Locke’s world, the desiring self is never naked as in Hobbes’s: it is always clothed in property. Locke’s subsumption of even our “lives” and “liberties” under the category of property protects the desiring self from Hobbes’s naked triangularity by assuring this self’s externality to all its objects of desire, including its own living body. It is, in a word, a soul present in its nakedness only to God. Or in anthropological terms, the mimetic crisis is over, the sacred Being has been established, in advance of Locke’s state of nature.

In Locke, renunciation of power to central authority takes place in a “little bang” rather than the big bang of Hobbes’s Leviathan. What is required of government is a set of established laws, impartial judges to apply it, and an executive to enforce it–a tripartite division that is the outline of our system of governance (secs. 124-26). But we need obey government only insofar as it promotes the “common good” (sec. 131). Just as we never lose sight of natural appetite for the sake of mimetic rivalry, so we never renounce the promotion of our appetitive welfare for the sake of a central institution.

For Hobbes, the transition from the state of nature to that of organized government is too absolute to be understandable as a historical boundary. It is rather a thought-experiment: if there were no government, we would fall into such a condition. On this point, Rousseau will claim that Hobbes inserts into the state of nature excessive human desires that exist only in society. Locke’s state of nature, in contrast, is the model, if not of a historical state, then of a proto-historical one. To those who object that the state of nature never existed, Locke describes in some detail how government might have evolved out of patriarchal power in the family. Locke’s state of nature, unlike Hobbes’s, is meant to be plausible, which means above all livable. Hobbes’s universal war would lead to extinction since total preoccupation with mimetic desire leaves no energy for the satisfaction of essential appetites. In Locke, we are protected from this eventuality by our property; even the murderer who takes my life seeks to remove an external obstacle to my possessions, not the internal obstacle of my desire itself.


Since Locke’s state of nature already presupposes our equality under God not as a mere piety but as a guarantee of potential cooperation, it might be asked how Locke’s model can enter into dialogue with originary thinking. In Hobbes, the passage from the state of nature to that of government is the transformation of a purely theoretical but unlivable state to a livable one, analogously to the originary emergence of representation as a means for deferring mimetic crisis. But although one can tease out of Hobbes more easily than Locke the connection between human language, religion, and mimetic crisis, neither proposes a scenario of human or language origin, a development that must await Condillac.

Hobbes’s state of nature, like what Girard calls mimetic crisis, goes beyond the minimalism of originary thinking in requiring a long-term rather than short-term abandonment of the appetitive for the sake of the “metaphysical.” Hobbes’s and Girard’s models end with the focusing of all attention on the central being, whether as submission or assassination. What is missing from both is the return to the appetitive after the sparagmos that divides up the consumable central object.

In contrast, Locke integrates the appetitive into the cultural. Property, he insists, already exists in the state of nature: we make natural objects our own through our labor. In contrast with the Ricardo-Marx labor theory of value, Locke defines labor as agency rather than physical effort;¬† the turfs one’s servant cuts are one’s property as much as those one cuts oneself (ibid., sec. 28). It is precisely this concept of agency that defines what we may call in the broadest sense the bourgeois self. Instead of concerning myself with my neighbor’s property, I act to enhance my own, beginning with my own God-given life and energy. Such a position may at first appear naively to deny the power of mimetic desire that Hobbes so lucidly recognized. But the anthropological superiority of the Lockean to the Hobbesian model has been borne out by history. The triumph of liberal democracy is founded on the deferral of mimetic desire through economic activity. It is only those societies where market society has not succeeded that are dominated by Hobbesian problems and solutions.

No doubt Locke fails to address directly the threat of mimetic crisis, but this refusal is an act less of denial than of reticence. My desire and your desire may well have mimetic origins; “ultimately” we may well desire nothing but each other’s desire. But like Keynes’s long term in which we will all be dead, our ultimate desire is irrelevant to our concrete existence. Locke’s model of liberal government guarantees our property rights as the most effective means of turning us away from our rivals toward desire-objects that are in principle our own and not those of another. The bourgeois world functions by privileging the parallel movement of desire over its rivalrous convergence.

The twentieth century taught us the truth of Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government with the exception of all the others. The only solution to the problems of our democratic exchange society is more democracy and more exchange, and the only useful debate is over the relative weight to give each of the two in a given circumstance. The dialogue of democracy is a debate among Lockeans in which Hobbes serves only to designate the outer limits. No anthropology can afford to ignore history’s most successful model of human interaction.