April 1, 1651 - Enlightenment Political Philosophy: Locke vs. Hobbes

The philosophical debate between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes discusses whether man is innately good and how society should answer it. To analyze the conflict between the two, one must answer the question “Is man innately good?”  John Locke believed that humans are, that they are peaceful, good, and pleasant. Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, believed without a strong, authoritative government, society would crumble to anarchy, and humans would all war with each other. The main contention that stemmed from this debate was whether society should be governed by a sovereign, absolute monarchy, or a democratic government that served the people.

Thomas Hobbes truly embraced the idea that man was not naturally good as he went through the horrors of the English Civil War. As he witnessed the brutality and evil of man, he wrote “Leviathan” in 1651, where he argued that “(T)here be no propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but (only) that to be every man’s that he can get; and for so long as he can keep it” essentially saying that no man has sole right to their property and that a ruler could take it away from them. To define a key term, Hobbes envisioned a hypothetical life before society called the state of nature, or in other words how humans would act without any direction or government, a natural state. Experiencing the atrocities of the English Civil War, Hobbes viewed the state of nature as a war between “of every man, against every man” and that with “no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of his belief that without society, there would be complete chaos, Hobbes developed the idea of a “social contract”, in which to escape such a bleak life, people had to hand their rights to a strong ruler, in exchange, they gained law and order. Under a sovereign ruler, people would concede their rights to the government, and in return, they would have the right to not be killed and protection from the “invasion of foreigners” and “injuries of one another”. This resembles an absolute monarchy and alludes to a “reciprocal relationship between political obedience and peace”. 

John Locke, on the other hand, thought the government should be very limited in order to serve the people. With these ideas, he had a deep influence on modern political thinking and would inspire James Madison and the American constitution with his belief that people had certain unalienable rights, and would be very important in the fifth amendment of the American constitution. For “Leviathan” to Hobbes, Locke had the “Two Treatises of Government” in which he proclaimed that people had three natural rights, life, liberty, and property. The latter is important, as where Hobbes argued that an absolute state would own all property and judgment over good and evil, Locke thought that people should own their own property and they should be able to overthrow the government whenever it is wrongdoing. Another point, when both talked about the state of nature, Hobbes used hypothetical examples, whereas Locke pointed to moments in history where the innate good of man was shown. Using existing historical examples, he pointed to people not subject to direct authority but still had the good to punish wrongdoers. He quotes and references such examples as the American Frontier, Rome, and Venice, where the state of nature is present, and the good always end the violent conflicts, instating back peace. 

The debate between social contract theorists John Locke and Thomas Hobbes on the state of nature, the nature of man, and the consequences of it led to some of the most important decisions in history. Hobbes’ endorsement and promotion that an absolute monarchy was required to abolish chaos inspired divine command theory, virtue ethics, and rule egoism. Locke, with his ideas now more accepted in the modern world, inspired framers like James Madison, which rooted itself in the American Constitution, and many other politicians who followed Lockean ideologies.









By Jeffrey Huang