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Thomas Reid: State of nature versus state of war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

John Locke: State of war and state of nature are opposites

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Thomas Reid
From Essays on the Active Powers of Man

Of Systems of Natural Jurisprudence

Systems of Natural Jurisprudence, of the Rights of Peace and War, or the Law of Nature and Nations, are a modern invention, which soon acquired such reputation as gave occasion to many public establishments for teaching it along with other sciences. It has so close a relation to morals, that it may answer the purpose of a system of morals, and is commonly put in the place of it, as far, at least, as concerns our duty to our fellow-man…

Moral Duty had long been considered as a law of nature; a law not wrote on tables of stone or brass but on the heart of man; a law of greater antiquity and higher authority than the laws of particular states; a law which is binding upon all men of all nations, and, therefore, is called by Cicero the law of nature and of nations.

To say no more upon this point, it is of great use to sovereigns and states who are above all human laws, to be solemnly admonished of the conduct they are bound to observe to their subjects, to the subjects of other states, and to one another, in peace and in war. The better and more generally the law of nature is understood, the greater dishonour, in public estimation, will follow every violation of it.

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[David Hume] nowhere says, that it is not naturally criminal to rob an innocent man of his life, of his children, of his liberty, or of his reputation; and I am apt to think he never meant it.

The only philosopher I know who has had the assurance to maintain this, is Mr. Hobbes, who makes the state of nature to be a state of war, of every man against every man; and of such a war in which every man has a right to do and to acquire whatever his power can, by any means, accomplish – that is, a state wherein neither right nor injury, justice nor injustice, can possibly exist.

Mr Hume mentions this system of Hobbes, but without adopting it…He says, in a note, “This fiction of a state of nature as a state of war was not first started by Mr Hobbes, as is commonly imagined. Plato endeavours to refute an hypothesis very like it in the 2d, 3d and 4th books, “De Republica”…

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