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The Political Ideas of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau

It would be difficult to understand the evolution of present-day governments without consulting the ideas of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. These men paved the way for future political thinkers and revolutionaries to break free from age-old traditions of monarchy and establish a new political order where the individual is supreme but had to work with other citizens so that they can create a government that will protect them from external enemies as well as preserves peace and prosperity within the nation. They were able to develop these ideas by first tackling what it was like when men lived in their “natural state”, an ancient state where there was no central government (Wolff, p. 7). As a result Hobbes said that men are better off under a “social contract” with a monarch. Locke and Rousseau on the other hand believed that absolute rule is not the ideal form of government. Locke and Rousseau improved on Hobbes’ idea of the need for a “social contract” and asserted that governments can be removed or changed if this will not abide by the terms of agreement.

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Natural State

Hobbes said that the “natural state” is not an ideal place to be in. It would be better to endure the imperfection of a monarchial form of government than to be without a central government. But he was one of the first to recognize that a monarchy could not function without the consent of its subjects. The traditional view is that heirs to throne of England or France are like gods and they can basically do what they want at the expense of their subjects. If they decided to be ruthless and rule without thinking of the welfare of their subjects then there is no one that can stop them. Hobbes said that this is not right. Hobbes asserted that the law of nature dictates that man has the right to self-preservation. Hobbes was actually saying that each individual has the freedom to do everything in his power to save himself from harm.

But Hobbes added that this right, man should lay down – together with other members of society – so that they can leverage their collective strengths and protect their nation or community from external forces that can destroy them (Hobbes, Chap. XIV). Hobbes stated that this agreement is sealed in covenant. This means that when the ruler is given the right to rule he must be reminded that he has the obligation to protect those who took shelter under their leadership. It can be said that Hobbes tried to create a deterrent for the abuse of power. It is clear from his thesis that a monarch should rule with the realization that a “contract” was made and that the people voluntarily surrendered their rights to enable them to rule (Hobbes, Chap. XIV). But judging from history it is clear that this system, this “contract” was merely wishful thinking on the part of those who believed that a righteous ruler will govern the people.

History is witness to the number of despots that rule with an iron hand. They have no inkling of what it means to have a covenant with their subjects. Their subjects are people of great value and these kings must always remind themselves that their power came from the consent of the people. Still, many rulers violated this principle and they continue to live without regard to their responsibility as rulers of the land. Hobbes tried to point to a more enlightened way of leadership but without the ability to challenge the rulers and remind them of their obligations then this system will not work. On the other hand it must be said that this is a good starting point for the creation of a more humane government but apparently it is not enough for Locke and Rousseau. The fundamental flaw of Hobbes’ proposition is that man is not free. He has the right to live but he is not free to do what he wants to do and he does not have the capability to live without a king.

Locke builds upon the ideas of Hobbes but it is very clear that Locke finds Hobbes’ ideas too simplistic for the needs of modern man. Locke argued that the state that all men are naturally in is the state of perfect freedom, “…to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature…” (Locke, Chap. II). Although it is similar to Hobbes’ in the sense that man is seen as a precious created being and with God-given natural rights, Locke presented a more sophisticated idea on the value of human beings because unlike Hobbes, Locke said that man is free to do what he wants and not only free to protect himself from harm. From the point of view of Locke man is more important than a mere member of the community. Hobbes stated that man should lay down that basic right of self-protection in order to be protected by a king. Locke argued that there is more at stake and the solution therefore is to have a city government that will respect those rights.

Locke elevated the status of the common man. He said that they have the right not only to live but to liberty and the right to own property (Tuckness, par. 1). Even if the discussion is limited to liberty and property Locke was daring enough to enter uncharted territory. In other words it was a radical idea. Kings and princes are the ones who made this kind of decision. The land was partitioned according to their desires. This means that they can forcibly take away the property of their loyal subjects if they believe that it is the right thing to do. Locke said that this can be achieved not with absolute power but with civil government (Locke, Chap. II). But there is more, Locke believed that governments exist “by the consent of the people” – to ensure stability and prosperity – and if the same government failed to do so the people have the right to resist and replace it with a new government (Tuckness, par. 1). This resulted in the creation of democracy the idea that a central government is possible without giving absolute power to one man or woman.

Central Government

Rousseau said that civilization is a corruptor and it is the reason why there is inequality. Rousseau believed that men should not be governed by absolute power like a king or queen and that, “Reliance on the feeling of compassion and on native respect for sentience … was an adequate guide for human life” (Kemerling, par. 5). He clarified this by saying that pity and love for each other are enough to help mankind make sense of their environment. But Rousseau also acknowledge that the concern for private property that gave rise to the state and he added that there must be a “general will” not merely the surrendering of rights (Kemerling, par. 7). This means that there is a need not merely to have a theoretical understanding of assent but for every member of society to participate in the process.

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In order for this type of government to be established Rousseau asserted that governments must be temporary and “subject to the continual review by its citizens” (Kemerling, par. 11). Just like Locke this is a radical idea that required the creation of a new type of central government. The only problem with this amalgamation of ideas is the reliance on instincts and the need for consensus is difficult to reconcile. If Rousseau’s conception of human nature is true then it would be difficult to bring people under a central government where there could be agreement. Moreover, Rousseau’s thesis will require that every major decision that has to be made must go through consultation and election. This is impossible if the citizens will number in the millions. This might work in a small town or an in a very small country but this will not definitely be an efficient form of government in the 21st century.


Hobbes was worried that the civil war that ravaged his country would lead them back to a “natural state” wherein man is without effective leadership (Wolff, p. 7). Hobbes then made his argument that men should give up their rights in order to gain the protection of a monarch. This is an unpopular idea in the Age of Enlightenment but without a doubt it paved the way for great thinkers like Locke and Rousseau to consider the importance of central government and the consequences of reverting to a natural state where men live like wild animals without kings and rulers who govern with absolute power.

Hobbes was correct in his assertion that it is only through a central government that men can experience an efficient society where they can live comfortably and be protected from foreign enemies. But the abuses of despots forced others to think of a better way. Rousseau and Locke contributed greatly in this regard because they provided an alternative – a political system that seems better than one under the control of a strongman or a warlord that will only make decisions in favor of the elite. It must be pointed out though that it was Locke who had a more balanced view of human nature. Hobbes was hesitant to break away from conventions while Rousseau suggested something that is too simplistic, for instance he said that man can live based on their instincts alone. While Locke’s idea is also fraught with imperfections he has a much better suggestion because it provided a clear explanation as to why men are willing to be under a central government and how they can be inspired to remain under authority.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan: Chapter XIII of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning their Felicity and Misery. 2009. Web.

Kemerling, Garth. The Enlightenment: Continental. 2009. Web.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Civil Government: Chapter II Of the State of Nature. 2009. Web.

Tuckness, Alex. Locke’s Political Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2009. Web.

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Wolff, Jonathan. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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