Political Theories of Locke and Hobbes
John Locke influenced Western political thought immensely. He lived during the age of political upheaval, the Glorious Revolution. During this time, the Tories and the Whigs, England’s first two political parties, joined together to rid their country of the tyrannical James II and welcomed as their new co-rulers his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William. Locke witnessed these events from the Netherlands, where he had fled in 1683 because he foresaw the accession of the absolutist and Catholic-leaning James II.
These events greatly influenced his political theories.
Throughout his writings, Locke argued that people had the gift of reason. Locke thought they had the natural ability to govern themselves and to look after the well being of society. He wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which treats everyone equally. Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind…that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health or possessions.
Locke did not believe that God had chosen a group or family of people to rule countries. He rejected the “Divine Right,” which many kings and queens used to justify their right to rule. Instead, he argued that governments should only operate with the consent of the people they are governing. In this way, Locke supported democracy as a form of government. Locke wrote, “We have learned from history we have reason to conclude that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in consent of the people.” Governments were formed, according to Locke, to protect the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to property. Their rights were absolute, belonging to all the people. Locke also believed that government power should be divided equally into three branches of government so that politicians will not face the “temptation… to grasp at absolute power.” If any government abused these rights instead of protecting them, then the people had the right to rebel and form a new government.
John Locke spoke out against the control of any man against his will. This control was acceptable neither in the form of an unfair government, nor in slavery. Locke wrote, “The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only have the law of nature for his rule.” In addition, Locke felt that women had the ability to reason, which entitled them to an equal voice- an unpopular idea during this time in history. Despite fearing that he might be censored, he wrote, “It may not be wrong to offer new ideas when the old traditions are apt to lead men into mistakes, as this idea of fatherly power’s probably has done, which seems so eager to place the power of parents over their children wholly in the father, as if the mother had no share in it: whereas if we consult reason or the Bible, we shall find she has an equal title.”
Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, had a completely different view of human beings and how government should function. This is due to his background of growing up in England, during a time of religious, social, and political discord. Hobbes, was very interested in why people allowed themselves to be ruled and what would be the best form of government for England. In 1651, Hobbes wrote his most famous work, entitled Leviathan. In it, he argued that people were naturally wicked and could not be trusted to govern. Therefore, Hobbes believed that an absolute monarchy- a government that gave all power to a king or queen- was best.
Hobbes believed that humans were basically selfish creatures who would do anything to better their position. Left to themselves, he thought, people would act on their evil impulses. According to Hobbes, people therefore should not be trusted to make decisions on their own. In addition, Hobbes felt that nations, like people, were selfishly motivated. To Hobbes, each country was in a constant battle for power and wealth. To prove his point, Hobbes wrote, “If men are naturally in a state of war, why do they always carry arms and why do they have keys to lock their doors?”
Government were created, according to Hobbes, to protect people from their own selfishness and evil. The best government was one that had the great power of a leviathan. Hobbes believed in the rule of a king because he felt a country needed an authority figure to provide direction and leadership. Because the people were only interested in promoting their own self-interests, Hobbes believed democracy would never work. Hobbes wrote, “All man kind is in a perpetual and restless desire for power… that stops only in death.” Consequently, giving power to the individual would create a dangerous situation that would start a “war of every man against every man” and make life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Despite his distrust in democracy, Hobbes believed that a diverse group of representatives presenting the problems of the common person, would hopefully, prevent a king from being cruel and unfair. During Hobbes’ lifetime, business began to have a big influence on government. Those who could contribute money to the government were given great status, and business interests were very powerful. In order to offset the growing power of business, Hobbes believed that an individual could be heard in government by authorizing a representative to speak on their behalf. In fact, Hobbes came up with the phrase “voice of the people,” which meant that one person could be chosen to represent a group with similar views. However, this “voice” was merely heard and not necessarily listened to- final decisions lay with the king.
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