No arts; no letters; no society; and […] worst of all, continual fear, and the danger of violent death; the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, so says Thomas Hobbes, describing his conception of the “State of Nature” in Leviathan (1651).
This quote is one of the first things that comes to my mind when playing Rust, which is perhaps one of the most fully realized visions of Hobbes’ greatest fear; a world of anarchy, free of any governance and thus plagued by an unforgiving dog-eat-dog state of affairs. Though we can never know for sure whether, as Hobbes suggests, the State of Nature existed before society, it is undoubtedly alive and well in Rust.
Hobbes was one of the leading social scientists and philosophical scholars of his day. He was born in the onset of the Spanish Armada and lived through the entire English Civil War, two experiences which seemed to directly shape his Realist worldview—he later exclaimed that “my mother gave birth to twins: fear and myself”. Leviathan is essentially Hobbes laying out his case for the necessity of an absolute sovereign power to rule over humankind. In the absence of such an authority to keep our primal nature in check, Hobbes suggests that any form of civil society is unable to exist. As such, before society as we know it was established, there was only the State of Nature, which is characterized by five key features.
“Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice”
You begin Rust as an adult human being, naked and alone in a rugged landscape, with only a multi-purpose boulder for companionship. There is no tutorial because, as you’ll quickly discover, there are no rules. You are free to do as you please, within the limits of your physical capacity as a hapless primate of course. This freedom, however, is as much as a curse as it is a blessing. You’re lucky to survive just one day in Rust before you encounter a fellow player who will either exploit, abuse, or outright murder you. As Hobbes predicted some 400 years ago, the natural man—without any laws to dictate his behaviour—is an animalistic savage. This might sound like a nihilistic nightmare, but there is a natural order of things behind this anarchic carnage.
“The first and fundamental law of Nature is to seek peace and follow it. The Second […] by all means we can, to defend ourselves.”
Hobbes wasn’t a completely glass half empty kind of guy. He did believe that humankind, first and foremost, sought peace. Unfortunately, according to Hobbes, perpetual peace in the State of Nature is impossible without any sovereign to facilitate or enforce it. Naturally, then, the next best thing you can hope to achieve in Rust is to merely survive. The game allows players to attain these goals through a number of means; progressing your character, collecting resources, building a home, even killing others for self-gain. It’s all in the name of being able to stay on top of things in this unforgiving climate.
“The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
Of course, it’s not just yourself who is looking to secure the advantage in Rust. It’s a Darwinist world where staying alive requires staying at the top of the food chain. As such, conflict reigns. Every chance encounter with another player is, at the very least, met with suspicion and tension, and either ends with the beginnings of a shaky alliance or, more likely, a bloody battle to the death. Conflict is the surest means to self-preservation, as the competition is thinned and the upper-hand is gained. Thus, as long as your moral compass can handle the incessant bloodshed, you should heed Hobbes’ warning and prepare yourself to kill or be killed in the wilderness of Rust.
“For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE”
Hobbes is famous for being to the first to articulate what is now known as social contract theory; the idea that, to transcend the State of Nature, the people of the land must come together and jointly consent to a legal agreement that sets the basis for a functioning government and society. Though this never comes to full fruition in Rust, you can see the echoes and semblances of such a social contract, as pacts are made and microcosmic communities are formed. Becoming a member to groups such as these may require the willing sacrifice of certain liberties, as you will no doubt have to follow their rules should you wish to enjoy the security that they provide. Even something as informal as a verbal agreement, between two strangers who decide to venture forth as a team, is indicative of a contract where both parties understand the mutual benefits of each other’s companionship. That said, plenty of alliances fall and crumble in the virtual world of Rust, wherein all hopes of some semblance of society are destroyed with the firing of a gun. This is contrary to Hobbes’ vision of a common-wealth, which he considers to be a permanent and absolute entity.
“I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.”
This is where things get really nihilistic. The stories of exploitation and humiliation are abundant in the servers of Rust, with my particular favourite going to this cannibal prison, wherein unfortunate detainees were beaten to death and their remains thrown into the other prisoner’s cells for food. Don’t let the 17th century lingo fool you, Hobbes is saying that humans are douchebags, with a taste for maliciousness. Plenty of other games have touched on this topic too, but none have quite reached the same heights as Rust in revealing the dark side of human nature.
Hobbes also once wrote in Leviathan: “Knowledge is power.” Well stated, Hobbes, but can we actually learn anything from these unmistakable parallels between this 17th century philosopher’s musings and the world of Rust? While Rust can never outright prove Hobbes’ theory of the State of Nature, for nothing ever could, it is still useful as an incidental experiment into the plausibility of his ideas. The game certainly showcases the idea that, in a world without rules, humankind is also liberated from any morals, free to pursue their natural tendencies to survive through the assertion of power. We shouldn’t take this as a reason to become existential nihilists by any means, but—by painting a vivid portrait of Hobbes’ expressed fears regarding human nature—Rust serves as a stark reminder that civil society is something we should not take for granted.