Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke introduced a wide array of concepts regarding human nature and what they perceived to be the proper structure of the state (government). As this article will demonstrate, however, both of these philosophers differed quite significantly in their ideas, especially in regard to the state of nature and how a government should rule over its subjects. Were the ideas espoused by both philosophers relevant? More specifically, which of the two philosophers had the best insight into how a state should be structured?
Views on Human Nature
Many of Hobbes and Locke’s general arguments over the proper structure of the state derives from their views on human nature. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, believed that humans were self-interested and only concerned with doing things that benefited themselves instead of others. John Locke, on the contrary, had a much more positive view on human nature as he believed that all humans were not self-interested beings. Rather, Locke believed that all humans possessed a moral sense given to them by God that allows them to decide between what is right and wrong. While Locke believed that some individuals were self-interested, as Hobbes asserts, he felt that this characteristic could not be applied to all humans.
Views on the "State of Nature"
Because of this difference in opinion over human nature, both Hobbes and Locke differed quite significantly in their view of the state of nature as well. To both philosophers, the state of nature represented a time in history where no form of government existed. In modern times, this concept is similar to the idea of “anarchy.” Because Hobbes maintained a negative view of human nature, he believed that the state of nature was a war of all against all. As he states: “the condition of man…is a condition of war of every one against every one” (Cahn, 295).
John Locke, in contrast, did not share this negative view of the state of nature with Hobbes. Instead of it being a war of all against all, Locke believed that the biggest problem humans faced within the state of nature was not each other, but nature itself. Because he believed that humans have a God-given natural right that allows them to determine what is right and wrong, Locke asserts that people were capable of cooperation with one another in the state of nature. Locke believed that living in an environment devoid of organization and basic utilities would be a struggle for survival, however, since humans were forced to essentially live off the land. This concept is illustrated by individuals who live in areas such as the Alaskan frontier. By living in remote regions, their survival depends entirely on their ability to transform items within their environment into shelter, food, and clothing before winter sets in. Locke believed that the state of nature was not entirely peaceful, as conflicts did occur amongst humans. However, Locke did not feel as though this conflict permeated the state of nature to the degree of all-out war like Hobbes asserted.
The Formation of Government and Law
So what makes humans decide to abandon the state of nature and form a government? Hobbes asserted that through a person’s enlightened self-interest, they would realize that the state of nature was in nobody’s interest due to the constant chaos and disorder and would create a government to provide security and stability. Locke, in contrast, felt that individuals would leave the state of nature and form a social contract as a means of protecting their natural rights and private property. As Locke states:
“One who divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it” (Cahn, 325).
When individuals choose to leave the state of nature, therefore, which form of government is best? Thomas Hobbes’ version of the perfect government centered around the concept of the Leviathan; a nation-state which encompassed a strong central government. The leader of this Leviathan, he felt, should be an all-powerful sovereign leader that ruled over the people and whom was elected to this position for life. This type of ruler would have the ability to create, enforce, and judge all the laws within a society. According to Hobbes, the people’s transference of their rights to the sovereign was the best way to maintain security. As he states: “The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them [the people] from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another…is, to confer all their power and strength upon one man” (Cahn, 301). In modern times, this type of leader seems largely reminiscent of dictatorial regimes such as Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin. Because humans are self-interested beings, Hobbes felt that a powerful sovereign leader that ruled through this manner could more easily maintain peace in society.
Locke, in comparison, felt that power should lie with the people through a representative democracy. Three branches of government needed to exist in this democracy that included the legislature, executive, and judiciary (just like the United States government today). Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that power did not belong in the hands of one person. Rather, it should be divided with the legislature (composed of representatives of the people) being the forefront authority of a nation-state. As such, this form of government would serve as a means of establishing laws and regulations, would protect its citizen’s natural God-given rights, and most importantly would protect its citizen’s private property.
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Given the arguments presented by both Hobbes and Locke, deciding which one appears to be the most correct is an obvious question. Through an examination of the last few centuries, however, it would appear as though John Locke had the most insight into the proper structure of government and how leaders should govern their subjects. Hobbes view of the “Sovereign” appears extremely similar to tyrants such as Joseph Stalin and his rule over the Soviet Union. As seen, this form of government, ultimately, collapsed after several decades. Locke’s concept of a representative democracy, on the other hand, has flourished within western countries like the United States for many centuries. While I agree with Hobbes that a powerful leader is important, I believe that this concept only applies in emergency circumstances, such as times of war. Too much power given to one individual, in any other circumstance, can be detrimental to society. This notion can be clearly seen with Germany and Adolf Hitler during World War Two. As a result of Hitler’s power sweep, Germany suffered catastrophic destruction in regard to both property and human lives.
Cahn, Steven. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Rogers, Graham A.J. "John Locke." Encyclopædia Britannica. October 20, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Locke.
"Thomas Hobbes." Wikipedia. November 17, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hobbes.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Larry Slawson
MR. C.J.ZAMBONINI on August 20, 2020:
Hobbes , -the first Eurosceptic. He would not share sovereignty!
Abodunde Tomide on April 05, 2018:
very good review and comparison on these two philosophers. however whilst having a comprehensive narrative on their differences, their similarities would also need to be reflected upon.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 19, 2017:
Very interesting article about Hobbes and Locke. The differences in their views makes me wonder about their individual upbringings. I, personally, would hate to live in Hobbes world of everyone being so self-interested.