John Locke and Thomas Hobbes lived during a very turbulent century in Britain. Both men were great thinkers of their time, but held very different opinions on politics and many other facets of life and man. Both of these men were theorists on natural law and social contracts, but this is where the resemblance between the two ends. The time in which these two men lived can account for the pessimistic views of Hobbes on the nature of man and the ideal form of government. Locke, however, held very different views on these subjects, offering fairly more realistic and optimistic words about them. Locke believed that men are born with basic rights, while Hobbes believes that men are born with no rights at all. Locke theorized that, man will exist in peace, and will naturally exist to help himself survive and not get in the way of others in their identical pursuit. Hobbes, on the other hand, believed that men lived basically for self-preservation, and that they exist in a constant state of war. He also thought that the opposing forces of each individual man neutralize each other, and that men need to form a government to be kept in line. On this note, Locke believes that man is naturally social, and that men will form a government whose basic purpose is to serve the rights and common good of the people. Using what is known of each man, it can be said that Hobbes desires an ideally absolute type of government, with all power resting in one single ruler, and that Locke would prefer a government more like that of the United States, that grants the people their freedom and is utilized to serve them. Both Hobbes and Locke have written some major works of literature, and it is only by reading and understanding these that a person can decide which form of government he believes is the right one.
John Locke and Thomas Hobbes: Thinking Men.
Many consider John Locke and Thomas Hobbes of Britain two of the greatest political minds. Each man has written classic literature concerning their views on social contracts and natural law. Hobbes, and his pessimistic views of man, always contradicted Locke's more American standards of thinking. While no one really followed Hobbes' idea of how to run a government, the United States modeled some of its Constitution after many of Locke's ideas. This is because, in more modern thinking, people can relate to how Locke viewed the basic nature of man over that of Hobbes. Using detailed quotes and examples, the ideas of these two men can easily be broken down and contrasted.
John Locke was a very stern believer in basic human rights. He believed that all men, in a state of nature, are far less evil than Hobbes would like to believe. According to Josh Brown, Locke believed that "In the state of nature, a innate sense of right and wrong governs all of us, which is imbued by God and our capacity to reason" (1996). Men, in nature, all desire the right to live. While trying to observe this right, men also must realize that other men besides themselves are after the same thing, and respect their right to live also. For most of the time, this allows man to live in relative peace and harmony, flourishing in this state of nature. When the nature of two men crosses paths, and conflict occurs, "we quickly discover that our partiality in such conflicts prevents us from objectively executing the laws of nature" (Brown, 1996). This causes men to go to war, since conflicts cannot be solved between two men alone, holding different viewpoints. Also according to Brown, and based on Locke's beliefs, "We then construct a system which allows for independent, objective and binding adjudication of the law of nature, so that we can attain security and also retain many of our 'natural rights' at the same time" (1996). Based on these beliefs, it can be deduced that Locke believed that men, existing in a state of nature, interacted with each other and formed societies. He also believed that men, in a state of nature, will punish people for wrongdoing done against them. This is where his beliefs about the ideal government and how it should be run stem from.
Thomas Hobbes had quite a different viewpoint on the basic nature of man. In his most famous work of literature, called Leviathan (1951), he argued that man is naturally hedonistic. He also argued that "In that often glorified state of nature, life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short', a 'war of every man against every man.'" (anonymous). Men, according to Hobbes, were essentially born equal. This equality, contrasting to Locke's views, is caused by man's power, opposed to the power of every other man. This belief is said to be a beginning notion towards the idea of checks and balances. In this state of nature, "the opposing vices of individuals are said to neutralize one another and produce policies conducive to the common good" (Anger, 1996). It was also argued by Hobbes that a major driving force in each man is the continual fear brought about by the danger of violent death. Hobbes believed that men existed in a constant state of conflict with each other, and that each wrong neutralizes a wrong done by another man. By this, it can also be said that he believed that man exists in a constant state of war, continuously fighting for what he believes to be what is right for him. Hobbes also argued that "as human motives were, in their natural state, guided by unenlightened self-interest, then these could, unchecked, have highly destructive consequences" (anonymous). The equilibrium in society of man neutralizing man, played upon man's love of survival and some degree of rationality. These viewpoints spawned what Hobbes believed to be the ideal governmental setting.
Locke's ideas for the ideal government were looked upon during the formation of the Constitution of America. The Constitution plays upon many key points in his theories and ideas of how a government should work. Locke believed that men have rights by nature, and that the state exists to provide for these rights. A belief of Locke that resembles what is written in the US Constitutuion, is that "We give up our right to ourselves exact retribution for crimes in return for impartial justice backed by overwhelming force. We retain the right to life and liberty, and gain the right to just, impartial protection of our property" (James). By this quote, it can be said that two of the mail beliefs on government of Locke were: 1. To protect the rights of life, liberty, and property, and 2. To create order in society. Another well known belief of John Locke is that citizens have the right to rebel against a government that does not respect the rights of its citizens. He also showed in his famous Two Treatises of Government (1690), that rules should stay in power only as long as they have the consent of the people they govern. This is stated by James when he says "If a ruler seeks absolute power, if he acts both as judge and participant in disputes, he puts himself in a state of war with his subjects and we have the right and the duty to kill such rulers and their servants." These quotes show that Locke clearly believed in a government run by the people, and made to serve the people's needs and basic rights.
Although his ideas of the ideal government weren't put into action, Hobbes has ideas for a perfect government that can be as persuasive as Locke's ideas, given the right examples and evidence. Hobbes clearly believed in a fascist form of government, using what he believes to be the nature of man. The only right Hobbes believes should belong to the people, is "If you shut up and do as you are told, you have the right not to be killed" (James). Unlike what Locke believes, Hobbes does not think the people have any right to rebel against their leader. He also believes that the ruler defines good and evil for his subjects, and that because of this, the ruler can do no wrong, only what is his will. Since he believes that men are in a constant state of war, he believes that the state creates the society that exists, and therefore, should control it. Brown believes that Hobbes would agree with the statement "All power transferred to the sovereign, it has the right to both pronounce law, and to enforce that law, which includes the key right to punish transgressions of it. The existence of an all-powerful sovereign allows the safety of all the people" (1996). Hobbes, without doubt, believed in rule by an absolute ruler, with control over the people and state. These examples show what Hobbes believed to be the ideal government.
Although John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, both Social Contract theorists, lived in the same century, their viewpoints on politics and the nature of man are completely different. While Hobbes believed in a more inherently evil society, Locke thought that men were basically neutral to good, and could live together in relative peace. Locke's ideas of the ideal government resemble that of the United States. Hobbes, on the other hand, idolized an absolute government with very little rights going to the people. Though these viewpoints are very contrasting, each man presents his case in an equally persuasive manner, in all the works of literature they composed. Only an individual can decide for himself which man is correct about the ideals of man.
Anger, M. M. (December 4, 1996). "The Legacy of Hobbes and Locke: Individualism and the Social Contract" [Online]. Available:
http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7011/hobbes.html (October 12, 1998).
Brown, J. (October 7, 1996). "Hobbes and Locke: From the State of Nature to Civil Society" [Online]. Available: http://picasso.cslab.wesleyan.edu/~jbrown/worddocs/hlson.html (October 12, 1998).
James, D. (no date). "Locke Versus Hobbes" [Online]. Available: http://www.jim.com/jamesd/hobbes.htm (October 12, 1998).
(Anonymous) (no date). "Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679" [Online]. Available: http://www.econ.jhu.edu/people/fonseca/het/hobbes.htm (October 12, 1998).