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Locke vs. Hobbes


“We hold these truths to be self-evident That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” So begins the Declaration of Independence, as articulated by Thomas Jefferson. One needs only do a cursory reading of both this document and political philosopher John Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government to see the profound effect Locke’s ideas of man’s nature, his right to form his own government, and his right to rebel had on the men who founded the American republic. Britain, in the span of only forty or so years, produced two men, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who had very different views of man. These two philosophers represent two disparate perspectives of government and liberty Hobbes an authoritarian regime with limits on man’s rights and freedoms; Locke representative governance with careful protection of the rights that humans, as living creatures, had before government existed and could not be taken away.


Having two such differing views begs the question which view is the correct one? Is man better off being ruled by a strong sovereign because he can not be trusted to rule himself, or does he possess the ability to reason and to rule himself? If government goes against the will of the people, does man have the right to rebel and set up a new government? It was the fundamental and important differences in their views on man’s state of nature, the reasons for which we can find in the conditions in which these two men lived, and of the role of government in society that led Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to different conclusions on the right to rebel and to dissolve the government.


To understand why Locke and Hobbes felt the way they did about human nature, one must take into account the historical periods in which they lived. The forty years that separated them were significant. Hobbes was a product of a time marked by civil strife and tremendous amounts of disorder. He lived to see the beheading of the King, the English Civil War, and the Protestant Revolution. Hobbes saw this period of chaos and anarchy as counterproductive to the advancement of society. This led him to believe that only a strong state under a strong, authoritative ruler could prevent anarchy and provide security.


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In contrast to the period of upheaval that Hobbes lived through was the time of John Locke. By the time Locke emerged, the English Civil War was over. Instead of writing in defense of the old regime of monarchical government, as Hobbes did, Locke focused his energies instead towards representative government. His writings were based upon a defense of the 1688 Glorious Revolution that bloodlessly overthrew the kind and established a new and better form of government.


The time periods they lived in, therefore, colored the way both Hobbes and Locke viewed the world. Hobbes’s view of man is pessimistic. Beginning his Leviathan with a discussion of the state of nature of man, Hobbes concludes that all men are created equal in “faculties of the body and mind.” However, this equality leads men to misery and to war because we all desire the same things. War “consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary”. In this state there can be no industry, arts, letters, or any form of what we would generally term to be civilization. This leads Hobbes to the conclusion that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in the state of nature.


To escape this brutal, solitary, combative, and competitive existence, men compose governments. Government is formed, according to Hobbes, because of man’s “fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, a hope by their industry to obtain them.” To be sure the desire for glory and domination is kept in check, the sovereign must be given all of the power.


John Locke viewed man’s state of nature through a rosier tinted glass than Hobbes. Locke’s view is optimistic and he holds that man in his state of nature is not too unlike man in society. Like Hobbes, Locke starts his discussion of government with an explanation of the condition of man’s nature. As Hobbes does, he concludes that men are all constituted as equal. However, Locke believes that man, because of his ability to reason, knows what is right and wrong, and therefore obeys natural laws even in the primitive state of nature. The state of nature is not, however, a state of license and there are rules founded in man’s innate ability to reason. For Locke, the reason men leave this state of “perfect freedom to order their action” is because there are deficient in the state of nature. In the state of nature, transgressions are punished by the injured party. However, men may be overcome by passion and rage, or biased by their own interests, or may even not be strong enough to punish the transgression. Therefore, men enter into a government designed to protect property through an impartial judiciary with predictable laws. The end of government above all things, to Locke, is for the “preservation of their property.” Property is so highly prized by Locke that he encompasses in his definition of property, “their lives, liberty, and estates;” basically everything of importance.


Because of his more favorable view of man, Locke also has a very different view of government from Hobbes. Locke believes that society is a contract, but that government is a form of trust. The legislators are the trustee who administer to the trust. The trust is the people; the legislature is a servant of the people. The government, according to Locke, has no rights. Only the people have rights. There is no contract, and thus the state has no rights against the people.


Hobbes, instead, believes in a social contract between subject and subject. The sovereign is not included in the contract; instead, he is created by the contract. Since the people have created the sovereign, they cannot complain about his actions, nor can the sovereign act illegally. The sovereign determines what is just and unjust. In short, he is the law. The sovereign has no duties toward the governed. Instead, the people must show unqualified obedience because deviance weakens the state. Certainly, when writing this, Hobbes was thinking of the bloody uprisings against authority that punctuated his life.


Also influenced by history, Locke had extreme distasted for the depositum that marked his life. This leads to the conclusion that there are definite limits on the powers of the government. These limits include the fact that laws must apply equally to all people, that the government cannot make laws or act in ways that are arbitrary or oppressive, that the legislature is barred from raising taxes without consent of the governed, and finally that government may not transfer law making to anyone else.


Central to Locke’s beliefs in the power of the people and the fact that the legislature obtains its power from the consent of the governed is the right to rebel, something Hobbes finds most distasteful. To Hobbes, rebellion is a return to the chaos and brutality of the state of nature. It is an end to civilization and to society. To Locke, the rights to rebel and to dissolve the trust if the rights of the people are violated are tantamount in importance. If the chief executive over rides the will of the people or acts arbitrarily, he becomes an outcast and a rebel against the law. The ruler, in that case, is to be treated as an aggressor, like in war.


Locke’s beliefs in the right to rebel are based upon his theories of man’s nature. His strong beliefs in the right to resistance find their grounds in his strong belief in the inalienable rights of man of personal liberty, consent, and freedom to acquire and enjoy property and his ability to reason. For Locke, governments can only be legitimate if their power is derive from the consent of the people it is set up to govern. If the government fails to do this or takes away liberty, it is the right of the people to abolish the government. Because their reason, the people can then be trusted to form a new, better government, created to protect their liberty, safety, and happiness as they see fit.


Locke tempers this by stating that the people only have a right to rebel if unjust and unlawful force is used and it is the majority of people who are being oppressed. In defense of his radical ideas, Locke concludes that men will revolt anyway in any sort of government if they are in a miserable state, but that they will not dissolve their government for an every small mismanagement of affairs. The Hobbesian view of the right to resist is that only when the sanctity of human life is being violated do men have a right to revolt. Otherwise, to dissolve the government is to destroy society.








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