Life Is Brutish, Undead, and Short: On Hobbes’ State of Nature and The Walking Dead


Any George A. Romero fan will tell you that zombie movies aren’t just about zombies.

Sure, Romero’s zombies are gross and nasty, and there’s plenty of blood, gore and scares.

Hence the appeal.

Sparkly vampires might get the ‘tween crowds all worked up and kissing their posters of shimmering, brooding, pout-lipped blood-suckers on their walls

Go Team Edward!

– but for some folks (in particular those folks who like a little bit of thinking served alongside their horror) zombies are definitely they way to go.

Wait, are the Twilight films even considered horror? Horrible yes, but are they horror?

Good Lord, I hope not.

If you look (not even so) closely, Romero’s zombies are always about something – civil unrest, consumerism, militarism, bureaucracy, or the war on terror…

and the sorry fact that there will always be some idiot who won’t put down his camera long enough to save his own life.

Of course, Romero’s zombie films aren’t the only place you’ll find zombie symbolism. In Max Brooks’ best-selling novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the undead represent a global crisis: viral pandemics, environmental disasters, terrorism, economic collapse…

You name the crisis, zombies can be it.

This could be part of the reason why zombies, despite their utter grossness, are a pop culture favorite. And the ratings success of AMC’s The Walking Dead has proved that audiences are more than willing to watch a weekly television show about a world full of cannibalistic revenants. Ostensibly, the show is about a group of survivors in a zombie plague. And that works just fine – undead flesh eaters are fun to watch. But if you look a little bit closer, you’ll see that The Walking Dead, like the zombie films of George A. Romero, is actually about something.

If you ask me, I think The Walking Dead is really about the state of nature.

Although David Hume writes that the state of nature is purely hypothetical (the state of nature never actually existed at any time in human history), and writes, “‘tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society…”, the state of nature is meant to explore the origin of natural law and the social contract.

In political philosophy the state of nature precedes the political community and leads to the social contract. John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Hobbes all wrote about the state of nature.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the “state of nature”, you’ve probably heard the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) famous quote in wrote in Leviathan (1651) that in the state of nature, life is “brutish, nasty, and short.”

This is what Hobbes had to say about the state of nature:

In such condition, there is no place for industry… no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea… 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. (emphasis added)

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, writes that the state of nature is the “natural condition of mankind.” Nature, according to Hobbes, has made all men equal “in the faculties of the body, and mind” and even though one person may be quicker or stronger than the other, Hobbes writes “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others…”

In the state of nature, Hobbes states, each man is left to define his own rules. Hobbes says human nature positions people to fight each other and with no authority to intervene or prevent violence human “society” is nothing more than a war of “all against all”. Hobbes writes, since self-preservation is supreme, our benevolence towards others is limited, and people are easily offended and quick to fight. Since each person operates according to their own law, our actions are influenced only by our own interests and we treat others not according to how we want to be treated, but according on how we decide to treat them. Thomas Hobbes says people are left to master others “by force or wiles… all the men he can.”

Hobbes states that the need for self-preservation is so essential that in order to save our own lives people agree to band together for mutual protection and to appoint a ruler to maintain social order. We leave the state of nature (where people possess maximum freedom) and agree to mutually binding rules. This is the social contract.

According to social contract theory, we agree that the law may restrict our freedom in order to preserve or promote freedom. For example, we agree to laws that restrict people from murdering each other in the interest of preserving the public’s right to live in peace without fear of their lives being cut short through act of violence.

Try as they might, these zombies will never enter into the social contract.

Try as they might, these zombies will never enter into the social contract.

Although it is entirely possible that the state of nature never existed, it might under the right circumstances.

– like a zombie apocalypse.

Unlike the hypothetical state of nature, where Hobbes tells us the urge for self-preservation leads us out of the state of nature and into the social contract, during the zombie apocalypse, the zombie plague infects people back into the state of nature. The zombie symbolizes untamed human nature. It is driven only by base drives; the need to consume and devour everything and everyone in its path. A zombie does not think, it does not reason. It has no desire to create or participate in civilization. Zombies do not create art. They will never participate in the social contract. Zombies will kill you without even thinking about it.

That’s because a zombie can’t think about it.

It is an all-out war between the living and the dead.

There is constant fear of violent death. And as young Sophia Peletier learns, life during the zombie apocalypse is indeed “Nasty, brutish and short”.

Alas, poor Sophia. Oh look, her shirt has a rainbow!

Alas, poor Sophia. Oh look, her shirt has a rainbow!

After watching a few episodes of The Walking Dead, it’s fairy easy to figure out that The Walking Dead isn’t merely a zombie TV show, but a morality play wherein the main characters, led by former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes, struggle to hold on to what is left of their humanity following the collapse of civilized society. Civilization in The Walking Dead has returned to a state resembling Hobbes’ state of nature. Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, states that he wanted:

[to see] … how living in a world like this twists and turns things around to where morals get twisted and people’s actions that they would think are morally wrong end up being the right thing to do. And just showing how miserable it would be to live in this world.

However, in the world of The Walking Dead, it is not only the dead who threaten the survivors, but the living do as well. The series’ tagline for the third season was “fear the living”. Without law or fear of punishment, no one is trustworthy. The living are as dangerous, if not more threatening than the undead.

Given the state of lawlessness and incivility in Robert Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse, surely Kirkman was channeling Hobbes’ state of nature war of all against all when he created The Walking Dead. It remains to be seen how civilized the civilized enclave of Woodbury will remain in the aftermath of the attack/rescue mission by Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors in which the Governor (of Woodbury) lost and eye and his daughter is re-killed. By all signs, the traumatic events have caused the Governor to let go of his grip on what remained of his humanity.

Does this mean that there is no hope for these characters to emerge from the state of nature?

I wonder how much deeper into the state of nature the characters of The Walking Dead will go?

My guess is that The Governor won’t be reading any John Rawls the second half of season three.

My guess is that The Governor won’t be reading any John Rawls the second half of season three.


2. Thomas Hobbes Leviathan. 1985 [1651]. NY: Penguin Books. 184
3. David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature. 2000, 2005 [1739]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Bk. 3, Pt. 2, sec. 2)
4. “Making of The Walking Dead”. The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season. Anchor Bay Entertainment. 2011.


2 thoughts on “Life Is Brutish, Undead, and Short: On Hobbes’ State of Nature and The Walking Dead

  1. Love this! I’m new to political philosophy and decided to jump into a grad program in Barcelona. Learning so much! Some classmates struggled with the concept of the Hobbesian state of nature. I just kept thinking of TWD. I even nervously submitted a paper about it. My prof loved it and said he was well read concerning TWD and it’s philosophy lol! Thanks for confirming my suspicions! – signed… a new but motivated political philosophy, zombie-loving grad student

    • Thank you!

      We appreciate that you appreciated the article. We’re big fans of The Walking Dead and we’ve seen philosophy in the show since season 1, episode 1. We think the show is a wonderful way to teach political philosophy.

      Good luck with your grad studies!



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