Thesis: John Lock Thomas Hobbes

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Locke v. Hobbes

The Political Philosophies of Locke and Hobbes

Two of England's -- and the world's -- most important philosophers were John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Though their lives overlapped by forty years, and both saw the same major political battles and shifts occurring in their native land, the two had markedly different views on the nature and purpose of government.

At the heart of the difference in the two men's thoughts and conclusions are certainly the simple differences of personality and intellect, but biographical differences might also have played a part. Therefore, in order to understand the different concepts of politics and the nature of man that these two men developed, it is necessary to understand the times in which they grew up and the events they witnessed.

Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, and was well into his adulthood when major problems began to develop between the monarch of the time, King Charles I, and the Parliament which sought to severely limit his power and ability to single-handedly direct the government.

As with many of the great thinkers of his day, the continued conflicts and eventual civil war that came as a result of Charles I actions and Parliament's reactions (especially at the instigation of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell) had a huge effect on Hobbes' concept of political power and how it should be wielded. He saw the period of strife and civil war as completely antithetical to the way governments ought to work, and to the way he believed people ought to behave under a government. There is no doubt that the series of wars and eventual beheading of Charles I, followed by the interregnum under Cromwell, placed severe restrictions on society that were viewed negatively by many, which might have influenced Hobbes' view.

Strangely, however, this did not lead Hobbes to a determination that governments ought to be more liberal -- in fact, quite the opposite. Hobbes' most well-known work, Leviathan, as well as his other political tracts such as The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic and Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, detail his belief that a social contract exists between a sovereign and the population he governs that allows the sovereign absolute rule for the people's own good.

Such control and power, he believed, was the only way to stave off the threat of civil war, as any and all historical states without such a powerful central government had proven through their regular periods of social and civil unrest.

Hobbes' views on government were inextricably tied to the unique methodology he developed for arriving at his conclusions.

He claimed to be the most important philosopher of his or any age because he had developed a true science of politics, with rules based on geometry and as strict as those governing all mathematics and the sciences.

His historical works show the nature of the problem concerning the instability of states as Hobbes saw it, while the political works pose his solutions to the problem.

The split in the focus of his works -- with the problems posed most clearly in certain texts but answered in others -- has led to many different interpretations of Hobbes' work, and has also allowed for disagreements with his perspectives and proposed solutions to be raised in many different areas and on many different levels.

In fact, despite the success and influence of Hobbes' methodology, his political conclusions "have served mostly as a foil for the development of more palatable philosophical positions."

John Locke, though perhaps the most prominent philosopher of his age (and even possibly the most prominent English philosopher of all time) was just one of many philosophers to write nearly in a direct response to Hobbes. Born in 1632, Locke was much younger when Charles I lost the throne and then his head, and in fact he did not publish an of his major works until the Restoration, when Charles II took the throne.

It is, of course, impossible to say with any certainty how much this affected Locke's philosophy, but his concept of the role of government and the power granted by the social contract are certainly different from Hobbes'.

The idea of the social contract was a major innovation of Hobbes', and Locke was one of many subsequent political philosophers to use it in his own thinking.

Our modern concept of the social contract that exists between a government and its citizens is much more closely aligned with Locke's ideas, however. Chief among these is the idea that the people have the right to revolt, which is completely antithetical to Hobbes' own conclusions.

Locke goes even further, suggesting that all monarchs and governments derive their power from public consensus.

To our modern democratic sensibilities, Locke's ideas concerning government and civil society are so ingrained that they seem like the only natural way to think about government. The idea that governments or monarchs can rightly and morally wield power not from a mandate of the masses, but rather through physical coercion or even divine right. Yet in Locke's day, these ideas were the standard explanations of why governments existed and how they derived their power, and had been the standard explanations for centuries.

Hobbes' idea of the social contract -- which implied that the general population had some voice and even agency in establishing a government -- was a truly innovative way of perceiving the nature of government, but the conclusions that Hobbes drew from this insight amounted to no more than just another affirmation of the rectitude of the standard power structure.

John Locke was the first English philosopher to take this idea of the social contract in what was for his time a more radical direction, and in our times appears merely the only logical conclusion. Whereas Hobbes believed that this social contract granted supreme power to an impartial monarch or central government, Locke believed that the power was actually completely in the hands of the people, and that any steps made by the government that the people did not approve of -- that is, which violated the social contract -- made permissible and even demanded a popular revolution.

In this construct, governments are supposed to serve the people they govern, not the other way around. When governments stop serving the people, according to Locke, the only morally correct thing for the people to do is to cease supporting the government.

It is admittedly unfair to suggest that Hobbes believed the people should serve the government. Truly, his idea of the social contract implies that the government's sole purpose is the protection and enhancement of the welfare of the governed population.

But he also believed that the most efficient and long lasting way to accomplish this was through a supreme, impartial, and unquestionable ruling body, in essence meaning that the social contract was derived from people willingly giving up any rights they have to let the ruling body decide what was permissible at its discretion.

Locke, on the other hand, believed that the social contract called for complete involvement of the people in their government, both during a government's establishment and in the running of it.

Instead of giving up their rights, the Locke's construction of the social contract is a way of ensuring everyone's rights fairly and efficiently.

These descriptions of the two men's political philosophies are, of course, hugely simplified. Their ideas are the subject of multiple volumes each, and these works themselves have been heavily debated and reinterpreted, especially in the case of Hobbes. Simplistic as these explanations are, though, they do provide a solid basic understanding of both the prevailing Western perspective on government and its rights and responsibilities (i.e. Locke's philosophy) and the intellectual heritage that these sentiments arose in response to (i.e. Hobbes' views).

The two philosophers' constructs of political power and its derivation and implementation can be much better understood with a background of their two widely divergent views on human nature. This should seem rather obvious; how man should govern and be governed is of course an extension of, or at least dictated by, what man is, exactly. Prior to his conception of the social contract, Hobbes utilized a sort of thought experiment concerning the "state of nature," which was also used by many other philosophers both before and after Hobbes. The state of nature refers to the state of man without a government, and Hobbes viewed it as a "dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge," which "would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends."

From this, it can easily be extrapolated that Hobbes did not think very highly of human beings left to their own individual and personal devices. He goes on to list the plethora of human achievements that would not be possible in the state of nature, such as navigation, industry, and anything else that requires the cooperation of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"John Lock Thomas Hobbes."  Essaytown.com.  April 18, 2009.  Accessed May 25, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/john-lock-thomas-hobbes/419570.