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The political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke Essay

In this paper, I will examine the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. I will investigate both men’s ideas individually and offer my own views on their theories. I will conclude the paper by comparing and contrasting the notions introduced in their respective writings.

Thomas Hobbes was born in Wiltshire, England in 1588. He lived in one of the most unsettled periods in English history. Following a rebellion against King Charles, there resulted a civil war, which began in 1642. As a consequence of this political instability, Hobbes was forced into exile in November of 1640. He remained abroad living on the continent for approximately eleven years. During this period he worked and conversed with many of the great philosophers of his time.

It was while in Paris in 1640 that Hobbes finally matured the plan for his own philosophical work. It was to consist of three treatises, dealing respectively with matter or body, with human nature, and with society. It was his intention, he says, to have dealt with these issues in this order, but his country was in turmoil with concerns regarding the rights of dominion, and the obedience due from the sovereign’s subjects. As a result of this, Hobbes began instead with his examination of society. When stable government seemed to have been re-established by the Commonwealth, he had his ideas published in London. The same year, 1651, saw the publication of his greatest work, “Leviathan,” and his own return to England, which now promised a safer shelter to the philosopher than France, where he feared the clergy and was no longer in favour with the remnant of the exiled English court. The last twenty-eight years of Hobbes’ long life were spent in England.

Hobbes philosophy can be described as materialistic, and mechanicalistic. He believed everything is matter. One cannot differentiate between matter, life and mind. To describe social reality, Hobbes would argue, is like describing physics or biology. It is concerned with matter in motion. He argued that all human life and all human thought are to be understood quite simply as matter in motion. In this regard Galileo heavily influenced his thinking. Hobbes identified two distinguishable types of motion. These he defined as vital motion and voluntary motion. I will not indulged heavily into these notions, except to say, that Hobbes believed that the ultimate goal in all human motion is toward self-preservation. Basically what he is saying is that all motion is a result of fear of death. Although reason plays a significant role according to Hobbes, it is largely a regulatory instrument to these basic motions (1).

Hobbes philosophical ideas are largely portrayed in his text, “Leviathan.” In this piece, he discloses the fact that he feels the evils of absolute power is still better than living in a society without that ultimate overseer. Perhaps as a result of the turbulent time in which he lived, Hobbes had an almost chronic fear of living within a chaotic society. It was his belief that a society without an absolute leader would be, or eventually become a chaotic one. Hobbes gives us a psychological explanation for why he believes this to be so. In his opinion, all people are by nature selfish and egoistic. As all men are selfish, and wish only to satisfy their own needs, competition for resources inevitably occurs. Resources are not infinite in amount, but are limited in their availability. As a result, Hobbes argues that conflict between men over these resources is unavoidable. Hobbes refers to people living in this ‘state of nature’ as ‘natural man (Hobbes, Pt 1, Ch 11).’

In his brief introduction to the Leviathan, Hobbes describes the State as an organism analogous to a large person. He shows how each part of the state parallels the function of the parts of the human body. He notes that the first part of his project is to describe human nature, in so far as humans are the creators of the state. To this end, he advises that we look into ourselves to see the nature of humanity in general. Hobbes argues that, in the absence of social condition, every action we perform, no matter how charitable or benevolent, is done for reasons, which are ultimately self-serving. For example, when I donate to charity, I am actually taking delight in demonstrating my powers, in its most extreme form; this view of human nature has since been termed ‘Psychological Egoism.’ Hobbes believes that any account of human action, including morality, must be consistent with the fact that we are all self-serving.

Hobbes speculates how selfish people would behave in a state of nature, prior to the formation of any government. He begins noting that humans are essentially equal, both mentally and physically, in so far as even the weakest person has the strength to kill the strongest. Given our equal standing, Hobbes continues by noting how situations in nature make us naturally prone to quarrel. There are three natural causes of disagreement among people: competition for limited supplies of material possessions, distrust of one another, and glory in so far as people remain hostile to preserve their powerful reputation. Given the natural causes of conflict, Hobbes concludes that the natural condition of humans is a state of perpetual war of all against all, where no morality exists, and everyone lives in constant fear (Hobbes Pt 1, Ch 13).

Under such conditions, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, 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. Hobbes continues offering proofs that the state of nature would be as brutal as he describes.

We see signs of this in the mistrust we show of others in our daily lives. In countries, which have yet to be civilized, people are barbaric to each other. Finally, in the absence of international law, strong countries prey on the vulnerability of weak countries. Humans have three motivations for ending this state of war: the fear of death, the desire to have an adequate living, and the hope to attain this through one’s labour. Nevertheless, until the state of war ends, each person has a right to everything, including another person’s life (Ibid).

In articulating the peace-securing process, Hobbes draws on the language of the natural law tradition of morality, which was then championed by Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). According to Grotius, all particular moral principles derive from immutable principles of reason. Since these moral mandates are fixed in nature, they are thus called “laws of nature.” By using the terminology of the natural law theory, Hobbes is suggesting that, from human self-interest and social agreement alone, one can derive the same kinds of laws, which Grotius believes are immutably fixed in nature (2). Throughout his discussion of morality, Hobbes continually re-defines traditional moral terms, such as right, liberty, contract and justice, in ways which reflects his account of self-interest and social agreement (Hobbes Pt 1, Ch 14). For Grotius and other natural law theorists, a law of nature is an unchangeable truth, which establishes proper conduct.

Hobbes defines a law of nature as follows: A Law of Nature (lex naturalis) is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved. Hobbes continues by listing specific laws of nature all of which aim at preserving a person’s life. Hobbes’s first three Laws of Nature are the most important since they establish the overall framework for putting an end to the state of nature. Given our desire to get out of the state of nature, and thereby preserve our lives, Hobbes concludes that we should seek peace. This becomes his first law of nature (Ibid).

“That every man ought to endeavour peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war; the first branch of which rule contains the first fundamental Law of Nature, which is, to seek peace and follow it. The second law of nature advocates the position that man in this state is entitled to defend himself (Ibid).”

The mutual transferring of these rights is called a covenant and is the basis of the notion of moral obligation and duty. For example, I agree to give up my right to steal from you, if you give up your right to steal from me. We have then transferred these rights to each other and thereby become obligated to not steal from each other. From selfish reasons alone, we are both motivated to mutually transfer these and other rights, since this will end the dreaded state of war between us. Hobbes continues by discussing the validity of certain contracts. For example, contracts made in the state of nature are not generally binding, for, if I fear that you will violate your part of the bargain, then no true agreement can be reached. No contracts can be made with animals since animals cannot understand an agreement. Most significantly, I cannot contract to give up my right to self-defence since self-defence is my sole motive for entering into any contract (Ibid).

Hobbes derives his laws of nature deductively, modelled after the type of reasoning used in geometry. That is, from a set of general principles, more specific principles are logically derived. Hobbes’s general principles are: that people pursue only their own self-interest, the equality of people, the causes of quarrel, the natural condition of war, and the motivations for peace. From these he derives the above two laws, along with at least 13 others. Simply making contracts will not in and of itself secure peace. We also need to keep the contracts we make, and this is Hobbes’ third law of nature. Hobbes notes a fundamental problem underlying all covenants: as selfish people, each of us will have an incentive to violate a contract when it serves our best interests.

For example, it is in the mutual best interest of Murphy and I to agree to not steal from each other. However, it is also in my best interests to break this contract and steal from Murphy if I can get away with it and what complicates matters more, Murphy is also aware of this fact. Thus, it seems that no covenant can ever get off the ground. This difficulty is overcome by giving unlimited power to a political sovereign who will punish us if we violate our covenants. Again, it is from purely selfish reasons that I agree to set up a policing power, which will potentially punish me if I deviate from the agreement (Hobbes, Pt 1, Ch 15).

As noted, Hobbes’ first three Laws of Nature establish the overall framework for putting an end to the state of nature. The remaining laws give content to the earlier ones by describing more precisely the kinds of covenants, which will preserve peace. For example, the fourth law is to show gratitude toward those who comply with covenants. Otherwise people will regret that they complied when someone is ungrateful. Similarly, the fifth law is that we should be accommodating to the interests of society. For, if we quarrel over every minor issue, then this will interrupt the peace process. Briefly, here are the remaining laws: cautious pardoning of those who commit past offences; the purpose of punishment is to correct the offender not “an eye for an eye” retribution; avoid direct or indirect signs of hatred or contempt of another; avoid pride; retain only those rights which you would acknowledge in others; be equitable; share in common that which cannot be divided, such as rivers; items which cannot be divided or enjoyed in common should be assigned by lot; mediators of peace should have safe conduct; resolve disputes through an arbitrator.

Hobbes explains that there are other possible laws, which are less important such as those against drunkenness, which tends to the destruction of particular people. At the close of Chapter 15, Hobbes states that morality consists entirely of these Laws of Nature, which are arrived at through social contract. Contrary to Aristotle’s account of virtue ethics, Hobbes adds that moral virtues are relevant to ethical theory only in so far as they promote peace. Outside of this function, virtues have no moral significance.

Hobbes continues in Chapter 17 by arguing that in order to ensure covenants and peace, power must be given to one person or one assembly. We do this by saying, implicitly, “I authorise and give up my right of governing myself, to this person or to this assembly of people, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner.” His definition of a commonwealth, then, is this: “One person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedient, for their peace and common defence” This person is called a “sovereign.” He continues that there are two ways of establishing a commonwealth: through acquisition, or through institution.

In Chapter18 Hobbes lists the rights of rights of sovereigns. They are, subjects owe him sole loyalty, subjects cannot be freed from their obligation, dissenters must consent with the majority in declaring a sovereign, sovereign cannot be unjust or injure any subject, the sovereign cannot be put to death, the sovereign has the right to censor doctrines repugnant to peace, legislative power of prescribing rules, judicial power of deciding all controversies, make war and peace with other nations, choose counsellors, power of reward and punishment, power of all civil appointments, including the militia. In Chapter 19 he discusses the kinds of governments that can be instituted.

The three main forms are monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. He argues that monarchy is best for several reasons. Monarch’s interests are the same as the peoples. He will receive better counsel since he can select experts and get advice in private. His policies will be more consistent. Finally, there is less chance of a civil war since the monarch cannot disagree with himself. His overriding belief here is that the sovereign, most likely a king, will only have the best interests of his subjects at heart, as he, Hobbes argues, is only as wealthy as his country.

Rather inconsistently when you consider his theory overall, Hobbes also grants certain rights, or ‘liberties’ to the subjects living within his monarchist society. These liberties, as you might expect, are established to ensure the right of the subject to self-preservation. Therefore, if the sovereign unnecessarily places the life of the subject in peril, either directly or indirectly, the covenant has in effect been broken, or the subject is free to disembark from the agreement. The subject is expected to defend his country from attack, should that occur, despite the danger it may entail for his life.

However, he is not obliged, for instance to testify against himself in court, as that would quite obviously be counter to his desire for self-preservation. This concept was incorporated in the United States Constitution in the form of the Fifth Amendment, and many upstanding members of society have enjoyed its benefits since, including Al Capone, Jimmy Hoffa, and most recently “Junior” Soprano! Another idea introduced by Hobbes which was embraced by the United States legal system, as well as our own, was his belief that the subject had the right to sue the sovereign if his needs were not met.

Hobbes’ theory has often been criticised quite severely and I believe rightly so. His individualistic perspective suggests that our self-preservation is the dominant motivation in our lives. Society exists, if we are to believe Hobbes’ theory, simply as a method of ensuring our self-interest, or at least maximising it. His theory is built on the premise of mutual trust, yet the society would collapse without the threat of sanctions imposed by the sovereign. So, in fact it is not ‘trust’ that is the raft that keeps society afloat, rather it is obviously ‘fear.’ The most disturbing fact in regard to his theory, I believe, is Hobbes’ notion that society arises largely as a result of our selfish ways. He suggests that we are egoistic, as we as being are driven by our desires. It seems that he does not seriously consider the fact that our desires could incorporate any notions of legitimately, and unselfishly wanting to help others. This in my opinion is rather bizarre.

There are other aspects to Hobbes’ theory that I find difficult to comprehend. His assertion that a monarchy offers us the best option for government is ludicrous to say the least, and his arguments to support this position are feeble at best. I will address just one of them here, to prove my point. In the course of his dialogue, Hobbes makes the claim that the best possible way to ensure that the constantly changing desires and needs of subjects are met, is to have a King or Queen as sovereign. When you consider some of the monarchies of our day, I will draw particular attention to the British monarchy, and how out of touch they are with their subjects, I think that it is fair to say that Hobbes opinions on this issue is almost laughable.

Another aspect of Hobbes political philosophy that I find particularly disconcerting is his belief that conflict must never occur between subjects and their sovereign. Often, if not always, change only occurs as a result of conflict. Without conflict, we might never develop and advance significantly as societies. Revolutionary leader Thomas Jefferson said: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is natural manure (3).’ I believe that the threat of revolt is always necessary in order to keep leaders firmly in tune with the needs of their citizens. The final comment I will make on Hobbes work on this matter relates to the fact that I believe his theory is extremely defeatist in essence. Basically, Hobbes’ theory is built on the foundation that we desire peace so much that we should be willing to accept the evils of absolute power, or even dictatorship in order to maintain it.

John Locke was born in Somerset, England in 1632. Like Hobbes, he lived in a period of great political instability. He was forced to flee England twice as a result of this situation, however, unlike Hobbes; he was not soared against mankind as a consequence. In his major political works, his “Two Treatise on Civil Government,” he attempts to justify the revolution of King William of Orange against the legitimate monarch, King James II. In the first of these two treatise, Locke’s purpose is to attack the ideas of pro-royalist; Sir Robert Filmer, and specifically his theory put forward in his work; “The Patriarch.” In the “Second Treatise on Civil Government,” Locke puts forth his own ideas on the establishment of a democratic government. The focus of this piece shall be in the analysis of this work, as it displays Locke’s own thoughts and believes.

Locke developed the theoretical argument that became the basis for democracy, as we know it today within the western world. His ideas were to become the building blocks for the development of the constitution in both the United States of America and France. In fact, sections of his writings appear almost word for word in the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The influence of his ideas on today’s world cannot be understated. In examining Locke’s ideas, I also hope to demonstrate how distinctly different his thoughts often are from Hobbes.

There are a few similarities between the two men’s work however. For one, Locke, like his predecessor Hobbes, begins his work by giving what he believes is the historical description of how governments came into existence. In the same way as Hobbes, Locke commences by examining the relevance of the social contract to the establishment of government. Also corresponding to Hobbes he discusses the ‘state of nature.’ However, Locke believes that the fundamental mistake in Hobbes’ theory is in his ideas introduced on this issue.

Locke’s ‘state of nature’ is a largely peaceful one. Men live side-by-side, own property, possessions, and are free to do with these as they please. He rejects Hobbes’ notion that men are as a rule selfish, but rather thinks of a situation were many times people cooperate with each other, but unfortunately sometimes they are egoistic, but not always. For Locke, the ‘law of nature’ that governs behaviour within this state, is quite simple. People should not harm others “in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke, Ch 2).

Life within the ‘state of nature’ for Locke is a life of perfect freedom. Its moral order is overseen by the ‘law of nature,’ which is God-given, and exists independent of any constitution or society. Essential to this moral well being, are the ‘natural rights’ of the people living within this state. These entitlements include that of life, liberty, property and also the authority to reprimand those who violate the ‘natural law.’ It is difficult for individuals to do this alone, and so it is as a result of this factor, according to Locke that we were forced to vacate the ‘state of nature,’ and establish societies. When a person breaks the ‘law of nature,’ it is essential, he believes, to have the institutions in place to be able to punish the person, or persons in a fair and just manner. It is due to this fact that man originally voluntarily agreed to create society in order to have these institutions established (Ibid).

These institutions that had to be erected had a number of goals, or objectives, which it needed to fulfill. Firstly, laws had to be created that reflected the needs of the population. In addition, these laws must become relatively fixed within the framework of that society, to the extent that those who would come under their influence would know them. Locke also felt that it was imperative to have at the core of these legal institutions impartial judges, who would have both knowledge of the law and authority to adjudicate in legal disputes. Finally, Locke rightly believed that all of this would be pointless unless the society had in place the resources to enforce these laws. If it did not, then quite simply the laws would not be followed (Ibid).

Locke also discusses what he calls his ‘state of war’, which is very similar to Hobbes’ ‘state of nature.’ In this state, there are no common judges or established institutions of law. Locke describes an environment where the fittest survive. This state of war can exist both inside a society and outside the bounds of it. It occurs when somebody, or some group, attempts to acquire resources solely as a result of their power. Opposition to such tyrants, according to Locke, is not only justified, but he would even argue that at times it is completely necessary for the maintenance of the society. If an issue such as this is not addressed, life will simply revert back to the conditions experienced within the ‘state of nature (Locke, Ch 3)’.

The accounts I have already given of the consensual agreement among citizens to establish legal institutions to oversee the upholding of the law are the basic rudiments of democracy. Laws within such a democracy are created only after long deliberation, and are not invented on the spur of the moment. This is often the case under the rule of monarchies, according to Locke, were laws are created and destroyed at will to simply fulfil the wishes of the sovereign. Furthermore, laws within a democracy will be created by representatives of the people and so, Locke argues, should clearly reflect the wishes of the society with whom they represent.

An interesting fact built into Locke’s theory, is his belief that certain aspects of human behaviour should not come under the influence of governmental control. He referred to these as ‘rights.’ This particular notion of Locke’s was another aspect of his theory incorporated in many national constitutions. The most notable of these, is ‘The Bill of Rights’ of the United States Constitution. The ‘bill of rights’ grants those living in the United States certain undeniable ‘rights’, such as the right to free speech, the right to choose where one worships, and also the right to bare arms to mention a few. Also included within The Bill of Rights is the right to own private property. Again, this is another aspect of Locke’s theory that he gave particular emphasis to within his work (Locke, Ch 5).

Locke considered property to be much more than just material substance. He believed property to actually be part of oneself, as it is clearly the fruit of your own labour. Throughout his writings, property is used in a much broader sense than the dictionary definition of the word. It is usually referred to as meaning such things as life and liberty. Therefore, Locke argues that to attempt to take an individuals property from them, it is much more than simply theft. Instead, he maintains that it is an assault on you as a person. This particular opinion on property is very different from the beliefs expressed by Hobbes. For him, property is a creation of society.

Furthermore, he insists that no person can claim anything as his own within the state of nature. What you own is only yours for as long as you are strong enough to hold onto it. Locke’s ideas were obviously in marked contrast to those put forward by Hobbes regarding property. Locke believed that we were all created equal in nature; therefore, society had no right to take from us what nature had given to us initially. This conception was advanced further and indeed incorporated into law. It is of course the ‘NOTION’ that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. I deliberately highlighted the word ‘NOTION,’ because I believe that is all it is, and the truth in reality is actually far from this (Ibid).

The most democratic aspect of Locke’s theory is incorporated in his ideas that when we departed from the state of nature, we voluntarily gave up some of our personnel rights to the government. Specifically, the right to punish those who transgress the law. This right is given to the executive who is appointed by the people and is therefore responsible to them. Locke’s government is almost like a secretary for the mass population. Acting like a secretary, the government should simply do the jobs required by, or requested by the people. If the government does not fulfil the wishes of the population, Locke maintained, they should be removed from office. For Locke, power lies with the people. Revolution by the people is not to be ruled out if the government has to be removed for not fulfilling the wishes of its citizens (Locke, Ch 8).

In order to prevent abuse of power by the government, or indeed any one area of it, Locke introduced the idea of dividing the government into three branches. Each branch has the capability to influence, and if necessary, restrain the other branch or branches of government. The different strands of government he established were the executive, legislature and federative. Again, these branches of government are remarkably similar to those used in the United States.

The executive and legislature proposed by Locke are very similar to those used in the U.S. government. Locke’s federative branch was intended to deal with foreign negotiations, and does not in fact exists in the U. S. government framework. The third element of government there is called the ‘judicial’ and deals with the legal applications of government. The overall goal of using three branches of government is nonetheless very similar in purpose; in that its aims are restrict power from becoming to great within any one branch (Locke, Ch 12).

Locke was particularly concerned with the ‘executive’ gaining too much power. As a result, it is the legislature who is granted the greatest power and influence within government. The legislature makes the laws and the executive is only charged with enforcing these laws. Therefore, the ability of the executive is severely restricted by the limitations of the laws sent down from the legislature. Another interesting aspect of Locke’s desire to restrict the executive is his belief that they could be removed from their office by the legislature should they defy the rules of that office. Again, an idea very similar to this is found within the scheme of the United States government. Impeachment proceeding can be taking against any member of the civil government, if they are believed to have broken any rules of their office.

In the history of the country, impeachment proceeding has been introduced against three presidents. These affairs, overseen by the House of Representatives determine whether there is sufficient evidence against the accused to warrant a trial before the Senate. None of the three presidents were ever convicted of the charges against them. President Andrew Jackson was taken to trial before the Senate, but failed to be convicted by one vote. President Richard Nixon resigned from his office before proceeding could really get under way, following the fallout from the ‘Watergate Scandal.’ Most recently, President Bill Clinton survived a vote in the House of Representatives and so was not forced to undergo a legal trial before the Senate.

I believe Locke’s theory is a substantial improvement on that proposed by Hobbes. Locke correctly identifies the two major weaknesses I see in Hobbes’ theory. They are centred on his believes that man is innately selfish, or egoistic, and so is motivated solely by self-interest, and also his believe that man can live stably and securely under the sovereign leadership of a monarch. He fails to convince me on either of these points. Despite the fact that I see much to be praised about Locke’s theory, I feel that there are certain frailties that should be addressed, and I will conclude this essay by those that I feel are most significant.

Essential too much of Locke’s theory is his belief that living within the ‘state of nature,’ we have certain ‘rights,’ which he insists should be transferred to the societal or governmental level. Locke provides little evidence to offer support for the significance he places on these ‘rights,’ and the evidence he does provide is certainly not totally convincing. Concerning opinion on social contract, Locke fails to identify his position on the double contract, and seems to tactfully dodge this difficult issue. Although certainly not nearly as individualist as Hobbes, Locke’s theory does seem to lean in favour of the individual, rather than towards the genuine concerns of the group as a whole. One notion within his theory in particular seems to suggest this standpoint most clearly.

His belief that we consent to joining society, definitely suggest to me that one is doing so for ones own good, and any thoughts of common good, are secondary at best. Finally, Locke’s belief that government and society should be built on the premise that the majority rule, at first glimpse appears fair. This idea certainly was an enormous step forward from the ideas of those who came before him, going all the back to the ancients. However, often within democracies this notion is taking too literally and the majority rule only while considering their own interests and not those of the society as a whole. Minorities are treated like second-class citizens. Evidence of such behaviour can easily be found even ‘within’ our own borders in ‘Northern Ireland.’


1. Gauthier, D. “Hobbes,” A Companion to the Philosophers. (Oxford:

Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 305.

2. Blackburn, S. Dictionary of Philosophy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1996), 163.

3. Darwin, B. (Ed.) The Oxford Library of Words & Phrases. (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1981), 130.

Note: All other quotations cited throughout this essay are taken from:

4. Hobbes, T. “Leviathan,” Classics of Moral & Political Theory. (Indiana:

Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1996, 2nd Ed.).

5. Locke, J. “Two Treatises of Civil Government,” Classics of Moral &

Political Theory. (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.,

1996, 2nd Ed.).

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