Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both sought to explain the behavior of humans in the purest form. In comparing and contrasting their theories, one begins to realize the extent to which these philosophers agreed and disagreed. While Hobbes states that human nature is malicious and requires a sovereign, Locke explains how humans are benelovant and pastoral with no motivation to advance. In Hobbes’ theory of a natural state, people live with no sense of government or law, forcing society into chaos and a war where “every man [is] against every man” (Hobbes 1651:3).
Without the constraints of an institution, people begin to reveal their most unpleasant virtues. The three “principal causes of quarrel” include competition, diffidence and glory (Hobbes 1651:2). In order to control these causes, Hobbes proposes a sovereign with the ability to preside over all. He proposes a Leviathan with which the people can create a social contract and increase their probability of self-preservation. In return for its protection, the Leviathan assumes the power over all through violence, resulting in contracts of fear.
Ensuing from the contract with the Leviathan, society understands that “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand” (Hobbes 1651:7). Similar to the covenant between Rome and the Romans, however, if their sovereign fails to uphold its conditions of safety and security, the commonwealth can justify his disposal. In summary, Hobbes’ believes that a successful society is one that prevents people from experiencing complete freedom, simply because they cannot handle this privilege.
In comparison, Locke states that the main concern for society is the placement of property rights. In a natural state, people are equal to one another and thus have no chance to progress. Just as Hobbes recommended the Leviathan, Locke presents the placement of property as an ideal solution. Locke believes that people are able to reason, and therefore understand what is morally right and wrong. This understanding allows resolution of conflicts without an intervening sovereign.
Their trouble, however, stems from the inconsistency of their ability to apply these morals when faced with conflict. By appointing property rights, people develop a capitalist style marketplace. Methods of exchange are agreed upon, and therefore each man can benefit from one another. They acknowledge that if a man puts labor into land, it is his own; as he benefits from his own land, he is simultaneously improving the welfare of his entire society. Man is able to apply his rationality and take no more than he needs.
In this scenario, one of the greatest differences between Hobbes and Locke is revealed. While Hobbes believes man is merciless, Locke explains it is man’s modesty that prevents him from going to war with his neighbor. In Locke’s society, people are rational, but do not always practice this rationality. Therefore, they must give up a little freedom, in order to gain wealth and acquire benefits. Hobbes and Locke share the idea that in the state of nature, men are equal.
Despite man’s equality, both philosophers also believe man is constantly at risk of endangering himself. Where their theories contrast is in the definition of a social contract and with whom. While Hobbes maintains a negative perspective of war and violence, Locke’s view presents a more positive outlook. While Hobbes puts forth a government with totalitarian values, Locke’s government represents a liberal monarchy. Hobbes believes a social contract exists between a sovereign and his people; he obtains absolute power and cannot be overthrown.
In contrast, Locke’s government is conditional and depends on the social contracts between society members. Traits of Hobbes’ natural state are still evident today in some societies. Without fair governments, corrupt populations will attempt to overthrow unjust rulers. A recent example is the 2011 Libyan revolution. Under Mummar Gaddaffi, the Libyan people felt their government was no longer acting in their best interest. As a result they overthrew their oppressive rulers and abolished the wrongful government, capturing and eventually killing Gaddaffi.