Oftentimes in popular media today, we see many themes that boil down to "human nature is to be greedy" or that "human nature is to abuse power that is given". This is not always posed as a negative thing; whether one sees it as naturalistic fallacy or not, there are those who thrive in such environments, taken to their logical conclusion in movies such as Mad Max and Fight Club. These ideas proliferate throughout most of conventional society today, and act as a general lesson that we can assume most every educated person has learned about people and the world around them. From such a place, many debates arise about the future of humanity, politics, and economy; many would say "simply look around you and you will see this to be the truth", but ideas come from places.

Given the popularity of this notion, that human nature is in and of itself selfish, where did this idea first begin? Who was the first to postulate that it is in human's very nature to abuse privilege, power, and freedom that they are given? Hume's Treatise of Human Nature springs to me as one of the most influential, and comes up on a cursory Google search of the question, but I am curious as to if anyone has further insight into the history of this idea.

  • I'm having quite a bit of trouble sorting out what your question is... are you asking where the idea of human nature originated? or are you asking where the idea that humans are bad originated? or ???
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 12:47
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    Not strictly historical, but can be useful : Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (2017, Princeton University Press) Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 13:24
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    Relevant : Thomas Hobbes' state of nature as well as Anthony Earl of Shaftesbury's ethics. Both are relevant to understand David Hume and Adam Smith. Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 14:42
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    This little book may interest you: Title: The way we are Author: Wheelis, Allen, 1915-, ISBN: 9780393062144, (Norton, 2006). Make sure you finish it because it's rather depressing up front! Your area here is: philosophical anthropology. Landmann, Michael (1974). Philosophical anthropology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. ISBN 978-0664209957. I didn't get much from Landmann. There are others. All this in the library, no need to buy it.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 15:17
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    Thank you. I would never fathom buying a book when I'm surrounded by perfectly good libraries!
    – nostalgk
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 20:44

2 Answers 2


There are no absolute beginnings in philosophy. Whoever you are and whatever you say, some anticipation or prefiguration can be found. But I should say that the first modern philosopher to be firmly characterised as an egoist, and promoting an irremediably selfish theory of human nature, was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Egoism or selfishness I take to be the view that we never act purely in order to benefit others, or purely because we believe a certain course of action to be morally right, but are wholly motivated in every intentional action by the pursuit of self-interest.

Hobbes mainly gained this reputation through the Sermons (1726) of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) who lambasts 'the selfish theory of human nature', with Hobbes as its prime exponent. In Sermon I he summarises Hobbes' Human Nature, 1650, 9.§ 17 as claiming 'the principle in the mind (good will, benevolence) to be only the love of power, and delight in the exercise of it'.

And what does Hobbes actually say ?

There is yet another passion sometimes called love, but more properly good will or charity. There can be no greater argument to a man, of his own power, than to find himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs: and this is that conception wherein consisteth 'charity*. In which, first, is contained that natural affection of parents to their children ... as also, that affection wherewith men seek to assist those that adhere unto them.

This is not the place to engage in Hobbesian exegesis, however. There are traces or appearances of 'the selfish theory of human nature', particularly in Hobbes' earlier works and something like predominant (not exclusive) self-interest informs in my view the psychology of Hobbes' greatest book, Leviathan (1651). But in the history of ideas, which is what your question is about, Butler applied the psychological egoist label to Hobbes and it has largely stuck. Hobbes' philosophy, as (mis-)represented by Butler, is the growth-point of modern ideas of an inherently and exclusively self-interested human nature at least in so far as these ideas have philosophical roots.


Bernard Gert, 'Hobbes and Psychological Egoism', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1967), pp. 503-520 : 508 et passim.

  • This is a great answer, I really appreciate the time you put into this. The misrepresentation of Butler and the way you put together the quote from Hobbes genuinely made me chuckle. Thank you.
    – nostalgk
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 14:59
  • Glad to have been of help. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 15:34

Hobbes saw human nature as 'brutish' and unfolded his philosophy from that. Rousseau saw human nature as the 'noble savage' and unfolded his philosophy from that. There tends to be far more of psycology than dispassionate reasoning, in how a person defines human nature - any persons fundamental yardstick is themselves, and how they relate to their own impulses.

Not just any philosophy, but almost any view about how to behave involves at least implicit judgements about our natures. Religions and laws have been doing that far longer than philosophers. There is a necessary movement between considering the impact of wider affairs & conditions on individuals and the impact of internal affairs and conditions of the individual on society. That is how any claim to change how things are organised is built.

Sartre said mankind has no essential nature, we are faced with defining ourselves as our fundamental nature. But then maybe he was just guilty about not doing more in the war.. ;)

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