When describing the state of nature, Hobbes famously describes a state of war which is “nasty, brutish and short.” It is understood by Hobbes to be a state of constant fighting between all members of society- a constant war between everyone. However, in Foucault’s reading of Hobbes, he critiques this conception of the state of nature, offering a different account of what he believes it would really entail, and how it connects to the establishment of a sovereign State.

When describing the state of nature, Foucault articulates a different view of what this state would look like. Foucault rejects the violent and gory view usually associated with it, and instead says that “in Hobbes’s primitive war, there is no blood and there are no corpses” (Foucault, 1976, p. 92). This is not to say that Foucault does not believe that there was struggle and fighting between people, but rather, that he believes that “there are traps, intentions disguised as their opposite, and worries disguised as certainties” (Foucault, 1976, p. 92). This is because while there are differences in strength and power between different people, they are never so significant that they cannot be overcome in war. As a result, the stronger man wants to avoid war, in fear they will be overtaken, and the weaker wants to begin war, in the hope that they will be able to overcome the stronger.

Foucault then continues to explain how this relationship leads to the stronger man trying to reinforce their faux willingness to wage war at any time, in order to intimidate those below them. In Foucault’s conception, the state of nature is not a state of bloody, gory war, but instead, is explained as a relationship of forces against one another. These result in “calculated expressions,” “emphatic and pronounced expressions of will,” and “mutually intimidatory tactics” (Foucault, 1976, p. 92). All three relationships of forces rely on intimidation and the presentation of power in an effort to dissuade the other from attacking, as opposed to Hobbes’s conception of a savagely violent state of nature. In Foucault’s reading, Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature is not a state of war, but rather, is a state where people are constantly trying to perform and inspire fear in the other.

Foucault then continues to describe his reading of Hobbes just on the state of nature and war and goes on to describe the way in which he understands sovereignty to be created and established. He begins by echoing Hobbes’s three methods of establishing sovereignty; by institution, by acquisition and by institution and acquisition. The first is described to be when a person or group gives up their rights to have someone speak on behalf of and entirely represent them. He then goes on to explain the idea of sovereignty by acquisition, which usually is explained to be related to a person’s or army’s defeat in war. He presents the conclusion that sovereignty is in fact not established out of defeat, but instead, is established as a result of the defeated’s will for life.

The establishment of sovereignty, as Foucault explains, actually has nothing to do with war, and is instead entirely related to this desire for life expressed by the less powerful. He applies this same conception to the third method of establishing sovereignty, which Hobbes usually attributes to the “natural” parent-child relationship. Foucault explains that even in a parent-child relationship, this desire for life is vital in establishing sovereignty, just as it is in the method of acquisition. A child allows for their mother to have power over them because they desire survival, and know they cannot have this without giving up their rights to this powerful other. This is to emphasize that this establishment of sovereignty is natural, found even in the relationship between mother and child.

Ultimately, this leads Foucault to reject Hobbes’s assessment of sovereignty as resultant from war. He expresses that the discourses in Hobbes’s work actually point to the conclusion that “It is not really war that gives birth to States, and it is not really war that is transcribed in relations of sovereignty or that reproduces within the civil power” (Foucault, 1976, p. 97). Foucault’s reading of Hobbes leads him to believe that the sovereign State is not established through bloody battles and defeat in the war of all against all, but rather is a result of people theatrically trying to prove their power to one another and from people in less powerful positions making the decision to favor life over death.


Foucault, M. (2003). Society must be defended: Lectures at the College de France 1975-76. Picador, New York.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage, Random House, INC, New York.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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