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Comparison of Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s Social Contract Theories

Since the beginning of civilization, people have been asking questions about the nature of authority. The suggestion of seeing a political society as an advantageous arrangement could be found in Ancient Greek philosophers’ works. Related conceptions were used to justify feudal leaders’ power. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke developed their systematic theories of a social contract based on the idea of a mutually beneficial political agreement. However, sharing a similar concept of a deliberate and mutual agreement, Hobbes and Locke articulate different views on a range of essential details. Still, both their theories do not comply with the complicated modern reality. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s social contract theories are significantly different: operating with similar terminology, they present contrasting views on human nature, ideal government, and its functions and have various limitations describing current political society in the USA.

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Hobbes’ and Locke’s Social Contract Theories

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote his works De Cive (1641) and Leviathan (1651) inspired by the legacies of the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War, and the rational scientific ideas. Hobbes saw political society as an artificial creation, invented by free and equal individuals previously living in a world of natural anarchy (Plotica, 2017). Being afraid of war, people willingly transfer their natural rights to the Leviathan by unanimous agreement (Baumgold, 2017, p. 114). The name “Leviathan” serves as a bright metaphor for a mighty ruler. People may revolt if the ruler could not guarantee safety, but these efforts always end with a disaster: “the civill troubles, divisions, and calamities of the Nation” (Baumgold, 2017, p. 450). Thus, Hobbes created his theory of social conflict to convince people that establishing a strong government with absolute power is essential: being unable to overcome their violent tendencies, individuals resort to social contract as the only method to achieve peace.

Hobbes’ Theory and the USA

Hobbes’ theory includes some thoughts which are relevant these days: government should be powerful to protect stability. However, according to Hobbes, an effective sovereign does not transfer his right to self-government and is not bound by any law. If the USA adopted Hobbes’ theory in practice, it should have been an absolute monarchy. On the contrary, the USA is a representative democracy with the separation of powers.

Major Conceptions of Locke’s Theory

Lock was a son of the Reformation and supported the regime founded by the Glorious Revolution and further justified the American Revolution, inspired the American Declaration of Independence, and legitimized the French Revolution. According to Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (2016), the state of nature is a peaceful condition, and a government should protect the people’s natural rights. He says that the state of nature is a “State of perfect Freedom”, but not a “State of Licence” (Locke, 2016, p. 4-5). After enacting a social contract, individuals collectively hold the powers of sovereignty, entrusting some of them to a government for protection. Lock upholds majoritarian rule and the separation of powers, distinguishing the federative, executive, and legislative. Individuals maintain a right to rebel against tyranny because “self-defence is a part of the Law of Nature” (Locke, 2016, p. 115). Thus, Locke establishes his theory believing that he follows God’s prescriptions promoting the liberal traditions of governance.

Locke’s Theory and the USA

Although Locke’s work served as a basis for liberal establishments, it describes some utopian ideas. For example, it is obtaining property through labor. Moreover, society is a complicated unit: it consists of interdependent individuals with unique psychology (Seabright et al., 2021). The US political society could not be considered operating according to Locke’s social contract theory because this theory fails to describe the multitude of factors influencing political decisions.

Comparison of Hobbes’ and Locke’s Theories

The analysis of Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contract theories shows that both philosophers justify political authority through logic and dispute kings’ divine right, emphasizing self-interested human nature. They employ analogous vocabularies and admit that the main purpose of a government is the protection of equals. Both contracts could be broken if a government could not ensure safety. However, the results of resentment will be different.

Differences of Hobbes’ and Locke’s Theories

The dissimilarities of theories stem from their authors’ purposes and life circumstances: while Hobbes rationalizes an absolute monarchy, Lock’s theory supports liberal ideas. Locke’s concept of majoritarian power opposes Hobbes’ notion of an all-mighty ruler (Seabright et al., 2021). The philosophers also present opposing perceptions of the state of nature. In addition, Hobbes creates his Leviathan to establish the source of morality, while Locke’s main reason for a social contract is the protection of human’s natural law to property (Sasan, 2021). Thus, both theories reflect the main aspirations and inclinations of two generations living in a period when the institution of the absolute monarchy was substituted by a more progressive form of governance – a parliamentary monarchy.

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Conclusion

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke greatly influenced political philosophy thought. Similar in their core concepts, they present two opposing views on humanity and governance. Hobbes promotes an absolute monarchy as a rational outcome of a social contract between equals to cease the state of war, while Locke supports liberal ideas and describes his perfect government as an entity designed to protect people’s natural rights imposing the will of the majority. Therefore, Locke’s theory created the reasoning for the American and French liberal revolutions. Although these theories could be utilized to describe the operation of political society, they could not be applied to the description of the US system. While Hobbes’ ideal of absolute monarchy contradicts the US traditions of democracy, Locke’s approach is too simplistic to explain the complex mechanism of politics.

References

Baumgold, D. (2017). Three-text edition of Thomas Hobbes’s political theory: The Elements of Law, De Cive and Leviathan. Cambridge University Press.

Locke, J. (2016). Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (M. Goldie, Ed.). Oxford University Press.

Plotica, L. P. (2017). Social contract. In B. S. Turner, C. Kyung-Sup, C. F. Epstein, J. M. Ryan, P. Kivisto, W. Outhwaite & J. M. Ryan (eds.), Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sasan, J. M. V. (2021). The social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Comparative analysis. Shanlax International Journal of Arts, Science and Humanities, 9(1), 34-45. Web.

Seabright, P., Stieglitz, J., & Van der Straeten, K. (2021). Evaluating social contract theory in the light of evolutionary social science. Evolutionary Human Sciences, 3, E20. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Comparison of Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s Social Contract Theories." August 19, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/comparison-of-thomas-hobbes-and-john-lockes-social-contract-theories/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Comparison of Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s Social Contract Theories." August 19, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/comparison-of-thomas-hobbes-and-john-lockes-social-contract-theories/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Comparison of Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s Social Contract Theories'. 19 August.

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