The notion of the ‘natural man’ — that is, humanity as it was prior to the influence of society, culture or government — is a key concern within political philosophy. Though many different schools of thought exist, the governess seems to be drawing particularly on that of Thomas Hobbes. Indeed, it was Hobbes’s thinking, particularly as laid out in Leviathan (1651), that formed the foundation for concepts of the state of nature. For him, the natural man, having no knowledge of virtue, was necessarily wicked. His sole motivation was to preserve his own life and, lacking any sense of morality, he would do this through whatever means presented themselves. He was therefore in a constant state of war and his existence was doomed to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".
Hobbes’s views had many critics, the most prominent of whom was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that the natural man was essentially an animal. Having no concept of good or bad, he was incapable of performing a knowingly wrongful action. Though Rousseau’s arguments held greater sway during the 19th century, it is the earlier Hobbesian model of innate evil that informs the governess's investigations into Miles’s doings.