John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were two important philosophers from the seventeenth century. The two were born nearly 50 years apart – Hobbes in 1588 and Locke in 1632 – and yet, they each managed to have a major impact on their time and our own. The philosophical viewpoints of Locke and Hobbes are, in most cases, in strict opposition of each other. There are certain points at which the theories of both men collide; however, their synonymous beliefs are exactly the point at which their theories begin to diverge again.
John Locke is considered to be the first of the British Empiricists, who believed that in order to truly gain knowledge of a certain thing, any individual would first have to experience something from which they would gain that knowledge. He is thought to be one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and contributors to liberal theory. His writings influenced many other famous philosophers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as the American revolutionaries. The Declaration of Independence clearly shows his influence.
Locke attended the Westminster School in London under the sponsorship of Alexander Popham, a member of British Parliament. He would later attend Christ Church at the University of Oxford. It was here that Locke became heavily interested in the works of Modern philosophers, such as Descartes. Locke and other Empiricists rejected the notion of innate ideas – that is, the belief that human beings are born with ideas that are “otherworldly,” or known to us before we enter this life. Locke indulged in a theory which he dubbed tabula rasa, or “blank slate” in Latin.
Following this theory, an individual would be born knowing nothing, and would therefore, only learn and gain knowledge by living and experiencing many things in their everyday life. Thomas Hobbes was raised by his uncle, Francis, as were his three siblings. He attended the Westport Church at age four for education, and then moved to the Malmesbury school, and further, onto a private school kept by a man named Rober Latimer, who was a graduate of Oxford University. Hobbes later attended Hertford College, a constituent college of Oxford University.
He became fast friends with the son of William Cavendish, 3rd Earl of Devonshire, with whom he attended a grand tour in 1610. During the tour, Hobbes and Cavendish were exposed to European scientific and critical methods, which were in contrast to what Hobbes had been taught in his time at Oxford. Although Hobbes was closely linked to figures such as Francis Bacon, he did not become heavily involved in philosophy until after the year 1629. Hobbes lived during a time of great disturbance in Europe. The Thirty Years’ War lasted from 1618 until 1648.
During this time, soldiers were rampant throughout villages, and they acted as they pleased –raping women, destroying entire villages and cities, and leaving any living beings who were lucky enough to live without shelter or sustenance. In consequence of the fact that Hobbes bore witness to these types of situations, his outlook on human nature was understandably somber. Locke and Hobbes were able to agree on one point: all men are equal by nature; yet, their reasoning for this statement varies. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature allowed men to be selfish.
However, in contrast to Hobbes’ theory that men will choose violence over peace, Locke insists that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. In his publication in 1651, Leviathan, Hobbes proclaimed that while man does voluntarily commit some acts of goodness, man is not, naturally, good. The object of those voluntary acts, he believed, was essentially to do some good to the individual who performed them. Locke’s outlook on human nature was somewhat optimistic. He believed that each individual person has the will and the freedom to think and do as they please, and that people are naturally inclined to live according to reason.
Therefore, one can ultimately assume that Locke definitely believed in humans existing in harmony with one another. Locke believes that all men are created equal because they are born into a state of freedom that allows them to be equal; Hobbes believes that all men are equal because they are all equally despicable. Both Hobbes and Locke believed that there was a sort of “social contract” between individual citizens and the ruling government. This Leviathan, as Hobbes proposed, would define the rights and duties of each party. Hobbes believed that once the contract was instituted, it would be irrevocable.
No individual would be able to change their individual rights at a later time, and the government would ultimately have power over them from then on. Locke saw the agreement as less binding. Because he believed that each individual was born with certain natural rights that no other human being could revoke, the contract between the individuals and the state would always be conditional – meaning that individuals retained the option to withdraw their consent and preserve those natural rights whenever they saw fit. I believe that Hobbes and Locke both had ideas that were based on their own experiences in their lifetimes.
Being a person that has come after both of them, I have had the chance to read and try to understand both viewpoints, and I can see where their opinions would differ, and speculate as to why. Even today, living conditions in certain areas differ greatly, and can have a dramatic effect on a person’s view of things. It is even quite possible for two neighbors to have opinions differing as greatly as Hobbes’ and Locke’s. Because the majority of Hobbes’ life was spent experiencing pain and anguish inflicted by other humans, he believed other humans to be evil.
Locke did not see such wrongdoing in his time; rather, he saw a time of peace and prosperity. Therefore, he would not have assumed that humans were naturally evil beings. I think that we are lucky to have lived after so many great thinkers have. Both Hobbes and Locke proposed viewpoints that we are free to combine and contort, if we so choose, and we already have some of the thinking laid out for us by those men. Humans may or may not be naturally good beings; we probably will not be able to say for sure until we have left this world. However, we may not have had much to ponder if it were not for John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.