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John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes: Founders of Modern Political Science

Brian has a Masters of Education from Southern Utah University. He is an autistic adult and board certified behavior analyst (BCBA).

John Locke (29 August 1632 - 28 October 1704)

John Locke (29 August 1632 - 28 October 1704)

Two Philosophers

Two prominent English political philosophers have had a profound impact on modern political science. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both have made contributions to modern political science and they both had similar views on where power lies in a society.

They both are in favor of a popular contract or constitution, which is where the people give the power to govern to their government. This does not necessarily mean a democracy, but can be something as simple as a tribe or as complex as the fictional government described by Plato in The Republic, which is more like an aristocracy or communism rather than a republic.

The key is that the people have granted this authority to the government and that authority rests in the people. This, however, is where most of the similarities in opinion end.

Of the two, Locke has been the most influential in shaping modern politics, our view of human nature, the nature of individual rights and the shape of popular constitutions that exist today; on the other hand, Hobbes has influenced to some degree what can be done to change a government by the people.

"Thomas Hobbes" by John Michael Wright

"Thomas Hobbes" by John Michael Wright


Hobbes and Locke both break human motivation down to a basic state of nature. It is a "what if" scenario where people are placed to understand their actions, reactions and motivations. What is interesting is that these two states of nature Hobbes and Locke come up with are polar opposites.

Hobbes establishes a science that explains humanity at a physics like level of motion. In fact, this motion in humanity leads to "a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceases only in death" (Deutsch, p. 235). Hobbes argues that so strong is this desire for power that "man is a wolf to his fellow man," and that the true state of nature for man is at war (Deutsch, p. 237-238).

This does not seem to be fair to wolves or men. Based on this argument, in nature when two men come face to face on a narrow path, one will bash the other in the head to make way for his path, or perhaps enslave him to carry his burden and do work for him.

Locke takes a very different approach. His ideas of human nature are formed with a deist philosophy, meaning that he recognizes that there is a God but does not espouse any particular religion or dogma behind this being or beings. Rather than having human nature rooted in individualism, our nature is governed by natural laws which are set by this creator.

Because of this an individual who focuses on his self-interest with an eye to the community is the center of John Locke's view of human nature (Deutsch, p. 274). Unlike Hobbes, Locke sees that man is not only interested in self-survival, but also the survival of his society because of these governing laws.

This may be the reason why a man or woman will rush into a burning building or plunge into an icy, fast-moving river to save another person or child's life. This idea of altruism, of risking one's life to save another is somewhat unique to humanity with the exception of a mother animal defending its children.

This divergence in ideas between these two men does come back together in one way at least. In both cases, there has to be a choice of forming alliances and creating or joining societies. Both perceive a need for free will and intelligence, or else under an extreme Hobbesian philosophy, we would be battling brutes, and under an extreme Lockeian philosophy, we would be ants.

What Are Rights and Equality?

Rights and equality are yet two other dividing points between Hobbes and Locke. Based on Hobbes' theories there is little to nothing defining right and wrong except for what the individual, in the state of nature, or the state in society, decides. There is only one natural right, and that is the right of self preservation (Deutsch, p. 263).

This is literally might makes right. Hobbes' theories takes an interesting twist in respects to individual rights when in the state of nature because he claims that all men are equal in physical and mental faculties. That while there are some who are stronger than others, the weak are capable of forming confederacies to kill the stronger and so be strong themselves (Hobbes, p. 74).

This equality makes it so that each man has the ability to consent to be governed and does for the sake of survival. This theory makes Hobbes the originator of the modern social contract theory (Deutsch, p. 238). Locke, however, views man in a nicer light by countering that since we are governed by natural laws that come from a creator, then there also follows that there are rights that come from this being as well.

These rights are called inalienable rights and nowadays are also referred to as human rights. Sadly there is some ambiguity about the definition of these rights, but there are at least three that are well known. These are "life, liberty and property ownership" (or in the words of Thomas Jefferson, "the pursuit of happiness").

Funnily enough, while Hobbes views humanity to be more individualistic and Locke's is that we are more communal, it is Locke's idea of inalienable rights that has helped to forward the individual rights movement and advance us to the point we are at today. In respects to equality, since we all are owing our lives and rights to this creator and we are not God and so are subject to death, this makes all of us equal.

This equality is not based of alliances, physical or mental prowess but rather on the fact that we are, in a sense, children of a god. This makes any alliance, government or ruler subject to the law rather than being above it because they or he is the author of the law. He who violates the inalienable rights is the enemy of mankind.

Common Ground

A commonality that both Hobbes and Locke hold is the necessity of government which is again contrasted by the means of recourse said government's citizens have when the government has become abusive to their rights. Hobbes' view of government is as jaded as his view of human nature.

The reason man forms government is for self-preservation and this government is perpetuated by fear. Man creates the government because they fear for their lives, for "while men's mutual fear of each other characterizes life in the state of nature, the fear of government characterizes civil society" (Deutsch, p. 247).

He continues by rejecting limited government and push the need for absolute sovereignty because limited government fails to protect the individual's right to self preservation. This returns us back to nature and basically destroys society. This absolute sovereignty is achieved when people give all their power to one individual or to an assembly of individuals through a contract or covenant (Deutsch, p. 247).

Once made, the sovereign has absolute power in waging war, declaring peace, levying taxes and so forth. If the government were to become oppressive, Hobbes gives no justification or solution to get out of this because going back to the state of nature is worse than being subject to such a government to him.

He points out that the purpose of the government is to preserve its citizen's lives, yet when the question of if this government is not doing this comes up, there is no solution given. It is hoped that the sovereign will do what is right for his people if nothing more than for fear of violent death, and yet, the people are supposed to do as they are told for the same reasons.

What is more, Hobbes then says that the sovereign can be above natural law and so can use it to get his subjects to do as he wills. A man who would normally fear going into battle can be "motivated" to do so by a greater fear of his government (Deutsch, p. 263).

Locke's government is at the consent of the people and does not preclude the legislative branch of the government from making laws without needing to constantly ask permission of its people. This is not absolute sovereignty because the government is limited in two ways.

First, that the sovereign power is governed by the natural laws and inalienable right and are not allowed to violate them. Second, because Locke advises that the legislative branch (or law making) and the executive branch (or law enforcing) be separated so as to prevent abuses and a sense of being above these laws (Deutsch, p. 292).

If at any point the government does exceed its bounds and will not self-correct, Locke declares that the people have one final inalienable right which is clearly defined. This is the right to revolt and establish a government which honors natural laws and human rights (Deutsch, p. 294).

Thomas Jefferson saw and understood this. In the Declaration of Independence was a clear statement that since the colonies had attempted to resolve the wrong done to them through all means possible and that these attempts had not affect, that they then had the right to "abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed" and "throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security" (Jefferson).

This is the final check and ultimate limit to government in preserving the liberties that come from natural rights. Both Hobbes and Locke see government as a necessity, but the amount of government and the means and justifications for ruling are very much different.


Finally, of the two, John Locke could be considered as an honorary founding father of the United States. As seen in his ideas being used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and by the principles of separating powers included in the Constitution, his contributions justify placing him in that group of great men.

There are two things he would be opposed to in the Constitution however. One being the lack of recognition of or allowing for rebellion in the event of a tyrannical government and second in the limitations of power upon the executive, especially since that individual would not be a monarch.

Locke was in favor of monarchy when balanced with a law-making legislature like the Parliament. It seems that Hobbes opposition to revolution has lived on in the exclusion of this right from the founding document of the United States.

Whatever the views that one has on Hobbes or Locke, it is important to see that both have had a profound influence on modern politics, human rights and specifically in the formation of the United States of America.

Works Cited

Deutsch, Kenneth L., and Joseph R. Fornieri. An Invitation to Political Thought. Belmont, Cal.: Thomson Wadswoth, 2009.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hacket Publishing Co., 1994.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Delcaration of Independence. 1776.


ptosis from Arizona on April 20, 2013:

I knew about Hobbe's 3rd law, and got to know John Locke when I was a "LOST" fan and found out that all the names were after famous philosophers.

Brian Middleton (author) from Southern Utah on April 18, 2013:


Thank you. With regards to your question, the greatest risk with Locke is when someone takes the "State of Nature" that he mentions literally when conducting one's self in a society. Locke uses this idea as a hypothetical, not a literal. The biggest plus to Locke is that his ideas are the basis for the foundation of the United States. Combine this with William Blackstone's works and you can see where the foundation of our governmental system.

I hope this helps.

Thank you.


Randy on April 18, 2013:


Great article!

You mention that Hobbes believes, “If the government were to become oppressive, Hobbes gives no justification or solution to get out of this….”

Does Locke’s philosophy have a similar trap in a different area?



Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 11, 2012:

Thanks for enlightening us. The truth may keep us free.

Brian Middleton (author) from Southern Utah on January 10, 2012:

You can read them here.

To give the short of it, they are a group including Thomas Jefferson who were concerned with the negative aspects of the Constitution such as no inclusion of a Bill of Rights or an opposition in a really strong central government. There is a lot of information relating to this, so I fear I will not do it justice if I try to explain it here. I suggest researching on the topic as that will make things more clear. Still, this explanation will do as a basic intro.

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 10, 2012:

Which papers were the anti-federalist?

Brian Middleton (author) from Southern Utah on January 10, 2012:

Kathryn, I've read most of the Federalist and Anti-federalist Papers. We owe a debt to the Anti-federalist because without them we would not have our Bill of Rights. Limited government is a wonderful thing. I don't trust government, as I think no citizen should. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. History proves that over and over. Boarders are just one aspect of that.

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 09, 2012:

Thank you for this information. Have you read the Federalist Papers? I just discovered that Hamilton was for a national bank, which is in reality is dangerous. I just hope we can keep our nation. We need an extended republic: not too big, not too small to maintain freedom for all, (within the country.) Maintain the borders I say!