Hobbes and Locke

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Last updated: April 20, 2019

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both set out important arguments on the nature of government that continue to influence the way in which we think about the relationship between the governed and the government. Compare and contrast Hobbes’ and Locke’s arguments, with specific reference both to their reading of the “state of nature” and the kind of contract that each imagines to exist in the very concept of a governed community. Although each is making claims to a universal understanding of man, to what degree were their ideas influenced by their interpretation of history?Hobbes and Locke both set out valid yet differing views on the nature of government that influence our thoughts regarding how we are governed. The first thing we have to take into consideration is the age of Hobbes and Locke at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England as it was a critical point molding their thoughts regarding their understanding of men and the form of rule to be implemented in society. We can see that Hobbes unlike Locke was much older and perceived it much differently to Locke who was much younger and less mature in his thoughts regarding the matters associated with the Glorious Revolution.

In the Leviathan, Hobbes gives us an insight on his perception of social contract. He recognizes a ‘state of nature’ in which people have the mindset of ‘who we are as we are’, basically a state of anarchy where the three basic causes of the conflict are competition, diffidence and glory. It is a situation where every man fights for his own survival, fights to prove his supremacy and acquire the glory associated with it. This state is also referred to as Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes, the war of all against all.When a form of authority crumbles down, people are left to their own governance and proceed to do only what they see as self-beneficial. This is especially true even in modern day.

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In Iraq, after the Saddam regime was toppled, the first thing that people did was loot the national museums, which held all traces of their heritage and history. This is how low human beings can stoop down to in such circumstances and that’s why Hobbes refers to the lives of human in these conditions as “solitary, poor, nasty and brutish. ”John Locke mentions in his Second Treatise of Government that the state of nature is to be preferred to subjection to the arbitrary power of an absolute sovereign. However, Hobbes argues that such a “dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge” would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends. Hobbes understands that there will be a halt in the progress of society if there is no authority governing the actions of people.He mentions in the Leviathan, that there would be “no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death. According to Hobbes, all rights eventually come down to a focal point, which he refers to as the right to live, which can only be ensured by a form of authority in society. He maintains that government does not reflect divine power.

He wants people to understand themselves in a state of nature so that they completely understand the concept of ‘Government as Men’. Hobbes mentions that in a ‘state of nature’, every man has the right to take the life of another.A man should not put his life at stake unless others also others lay down their arms and resort to a common power to ensure their safety and bring about order in society. The common power should not be questioned and if it has to resort unethical means to establish order, their actions should not be questioned by the general mass. Hobbes is aware of the fact that the government will eventually reflect the nature of the people and will do what is beneficial for them.

Locke, on the other hand, who is much younger than Hobbes, experienced the Glorious Revolution at a much younger age and has a differing view. He believes that when a person is born, he or she has no basic ideas and as they progress through life, they gain experience. This he refers to as Tabula Rasa. The doctrine that knowledge derives from experience is called Empiricism. In his letter he mentions that individuals should have the option to choose their own religion unlike Hobbes who believes that different religions causes conflicts.Here Hobbes is just not making a mere assumption, he is stating such as he has witnessed what the presence of various religion in society can cause. Locke suggests that good governments can allow different religions to coexist in harmony. The two treatises on government that Locke tries to explain are the power concerning mischief, which ruins classes, depopulates countries and disorders the peace of the world.

This raises the question regarding which form of government will not lead to oppression or civil war. Can they accommodate religion and politics that will end religious and political disputes?The main problem identified regarding government is the problem of instability in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. We can see that Locke defines a political power as legislative, executive and federative. Power is determined by political voluntarism, where everyone voluntarily agrees on the government. People are by nature free to exercise their own political will, that is not alienated from their own sovereignty, prior to an institutional form of governance. Government as institutions derives from this individual sovereignty.

As a result of this, natural freedom translates into political rights. This gives rise to the right to judge and the right to exercise judgment. Therefore it can be seen that Hobbes and Locke have varying degree of differences in their judgment regarding this matter. The exposure that Hobbes got of the Glorious Revolution is significantly different to that of Locke and thus their varying opinions on matters such as ‘rights’, ‘the nature of men’, ‘the state of nature’ and the form of authority to be implemented in such a state.Hobbes maturity during the time of the Revolution made him more pessimistic about the conditions of men in such situations, whereas Locke got a very different perception and is more optimistic in his views. Reference: 1. The Leviathan Thomas Hobbes 2.

“Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/hobbes-moral/ 3. Second Treatise of Government John Locke


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