Man in the state of nature is the commonplace of Enlightenment thought, and the man who makes the chasm dividing philosophies to this day. He is the starting point for building Leviathan. When writing about the noble savage myth, I invoked this man in the state of nature.
The problem: there may be no man in the world who is strictly in that state. He is a philosophical construct, a possibility.
Hobbes used the native of America as an example, and his opponents did too: those with a benevolent view of human nature portrayed the Indians as living in harmony with their fellow man and with nature, while Hobbes observed that:
It may peradventure be thought there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.
The American Indians in the days of Hobbes did not quite live in a state of nature but were bound in tribes and clans, and these were constantly at war with one another. The Iroquois had a vast territorial federation, which warred with its neighbours, specifically in order to keep peace between the tribes: this is far from the ‘state of nature’. Even the smaller tribes had chiefs, by all sorts of title, as cazique, sachem or others lost to us.
The most primitive of peoples in the world today are those uncontacted tribes of inner New Guinea, or some in the Amazon Basin, but even those half-naked forest hunters blowing darts at aeroplanes live in tribes, and could not live were they expelled to live alone. They have a common power to keep them in thrall, which is a form of Commonwealth, however small.
On occasion, history records, a feral child has emerged from the woods, abandoned or orphaned in youth and living apart, as an animal. Those remarkable accidents may be the only people truly ‘in the state of nature’. Once they have been brought into society, they are forced within the common power, out of nature.
A tale is told of a small village in the Caucasus in the 19th century when a creature of strange appearance emerged from the forest: naked and unable to speak, the villagers took her to be an alma, the local version of the yeti myth, and captured this wild beast to work as a slave. She was however not a yeti, but a woman; a grown, adult woman who had, apparently, been living in a state of nature. She never learned to speak and refused to wear clothes even when brought not the village, from which life she was excluded, like a beast. (Professor Bryan Sykes, in his book Nature of the Beast looks at this story, finds it genuine, and finds through genetic study of the alma’s descendants – she was used as a sex-slave – that she was African; possibly an abandoned child of an Ottoman slave.)
In a sophisticated, urban society we can have no wild men, but then we see feral children to all intents and purposes abandoned by their mother running like wolves, at war with all men, as in the Hobbesian nightmare, and when they come together they may form tribes, which are a little commonwealth, and one in no way in harmony with its surrounding society. It is not the state of nature, but a hint at what this would be like.
The radical wants to break the bondage of those ties in the hope that something new will emerge, while the learned conservative, seeing these examples, has a good idea of what that will be, and shudders.
The idea of a wild man, or woman, living long outside all society, never having been part of society, seems inconceivable, and the few recorded examples we have are saddening and tragic, and end either in death or forced assimilation to society, or slavery within it. There is not a single example of a wild man living the way the Enlightenment philosophers liked to hope, in gladsome harmony with nature, nor of numbers of them living known to each other without forming or being forced into a social and political bond. For the state of nature of the wild man is, in the most famous passage of Hobbes:
wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.