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Comparing Hobbes and Locke

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    Social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke agree that legitimate government comes only from the mutual consent of those governed. Although both were empiricists, the ways by which they came to their conclusions differed wildly, and perhaps as a result their views on the means by which society should be governed also conflicted. This paper will briefly address the different conclusions as well as the reasoning that led to them. Written during the English Civil War of 1642-51, Hobbes’ Leviathan is presented as a rigid construction of reason.

    Building from base examinations of human senses, Hobbes defines a State of Nature in which man lives where there is no over-arching authority to regulate behavior. To Hobbes, man is fundamentally warlike and self-serving, leaving him to conclude that life without government is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. ” There is no sense that man might work together to avoid conflict because, to Hobbes, conflict is a given. Therefore, his first Natural Law is that man should seek peace when possible, but to seek self-preservation – the only natural right – when it is not.

    His second Natural Law states that in order to achieve peace, man should be willing to sacrifice his freedoms if others are willing to do the same. The result of this compact is a government created by those who are governed, or, a commonwealth. Hobbes reaches the conclusion that an absolute monarchy is the best method by which to govern. In fact, to Hobbes, it is the only reasonable option. In his view, the monarch is an embodiment of the people. He is a collective conscience, of sorts, manifested in the form of a man.

    Hobbes does not explain how this person should be chosen, nor does he explain how a peaceful transition of power can be best achieved once the life of this specific human expires. Therefore, it can be questioned whether Hobbes was thinking in terms of practical application, or if Leviathan was merely an exercise in theory written to justify the British monarchy as it stood. The English Civil War era is notable for the amount of radical new political theory being espoused at the time, and many traditionalists were vehemently opposed to newer ideas that were being presented.

    Leviathan, therefore, can be seen as somewhat of a rouse. While it addresses man in a way that had not previously been provided on such a visible scale, rationalizing a monarchy on the basis of reason rather than a blind acceptance of the Divine Right of Kings, the result is that it endorses a maintaining of the status quo. To Locke, the idea of a monarchy as being a method by which society should be governed is – to appropriate one of Hobbes’ base terms – an absurdity.

    Locke, who appears to operate more in concrete reality than his predecessor, observes that the monarch is a man, and is therefore subject to the same law of nature as every other man. He can hold no more authority over men than any other man in society, and cannot be exempted from the same penalties that other men would face for infringing on the rights or welfare of other men. Locke starts his Second Treatise on Civil Government not with an examination of the human body as Hobbes does, but rather with an overt rebuke of contemporary religious-based political philosophy that stated that Adam was given ruling authority by God.

    Locke’s argument against Robert Filmer, a contemporary proponent of the “Adam” theory by way of his work, Patriarcha, has a trickle-down effect that disqualifies the conventional wisdom of the time that the Divine Right of Kings could be justified by tracing man’s history to who was the first human, then claiming that he was given by God dominion to rule, as per the Biblical record. This quarrel with contemporary beliefs gives Locke cause and opportunity to present his groundbreaking and in many ways earth-shattering philosophy.

    In subsequent chapters, Locke lays out his idea of the State of Nature, and in it, man is not inherently warlike, as he is in Hobbes’ interpretation. Instead, Locke sees the State of Nature as a situation in which all men are equal and charged with the responsibility of preserving the peace and, ultimately, the human race. Conflicts can arise in this state of nature when a man infringes on the freedom of another in an action that upsets that balance of equality, and that is, to Locke, the purpose of government: to judicially settle these conflicts.

    To Locke, the State of Nature and a State of War, when one man is infringing on the freedom of another and creating conflict, are two distinct things. To Hobbes, they would have been synonymous. Locke explains that in order to achieve and maintain peace, a government – again, created with the consent of those who are to be governed – must be able to make laws that not only punish transgressors, but are also capable, when executed, of discouraging others from undertaking similar acts of transgression.

    This law-making power, which he terms legislative, can be vested in any number of persons or groups: in all the people (a democracy), a select group of people (an oligarchy), or one person (a monarchy). The executive, in Locke’s model, puts the laws of the legislative branch into action, and he argues that it is best if these powers are placed under the charge of different persons or bodies.

    While Locke is opposed to absolute monarchies, he does not give an unmitigated stamp of approval to democracy, although later men at the vanguard of western democratic thought – Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, for example – relied heavily on Locke’s writing as a guide in their own endeavors. Another key difference between Hobbes and Locke is the power granted to the people under the leadership of the government they agree to create. Locke delineates a method by which the people can overthrow their government, should it infringe on their rights, which include not only the right to self-preservation, but also to liberty and property.

    Hobbes accounts for no such freedoms and to him, being that the monarch is the embodiment of the people, those people have no right or ability to depose him. Of the two, Locke appears to be the less assumptive in his reasoning. The key difference, triggered most likely by the eras in which they were written and the personal circumstances of either writer (Locke’s Second Treatise was published while he was in exile in 1690, thus creating speculation that his anti-monarch opinion could have been influenced by his own political plight), is that of the State of Nature.

    Hobbes is more thorough in explaining what makes man think and act as he does, but there is a disconnect between Hobbes’ findings and his belief that there is no option other than what Locke terms as the State of War. Locke is more thorough in examining that process and why it leads to the need for government, and why that government must have the consent of those governed. Because of the differences in opinion regarding the State of Nature espoused by Hobbes and Locke, it can be reasoned that perhaps neither philosopher is entirely correct in his analysis.

    Hobbes’ warlike view of it and Locke’s focus on personal freedom within it draw into question their methodology for addressing the State of Nature, their motivation and goals for researching the State of Nature, and the external realities that influenced their work, all of which would effect and possibly taint the data used to reach their conclusions. Ultimately, it should be surmised that neither presents a complete picture of the topic, while significant elements of their reasoning are justifiably elemental to modern political thought in the West.

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    Comparing Hobbes and Locke. (2016, Oct 06). Retrieved from

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