Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are well-known English philosophers whose contribution to the development of the human society is extremely wide and all-consuming. The ideas and theories of Hobbes and Locke made a significant impact on the future views of the societies of Europe and America. The beliefs and theories of these two philosophers concerned such areas as sociology, religion, ethics, economy and politics. They helped to establish political ideas of Western democracy and shape the societies of Europe and America the way they are these days.
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While Hobbes laid the foundation of the political thought of Europe and the definition of the civil society and the state, Locke elaborates on the concepts such as the self and consciousness. Both of these philosophers creates the basis for the European liberal views, be natural and initial equality of all the members of a society and became the ground for the creation of the Declaration of Independence of the United States and the Constitution.
This paper will focus on the exploration of the most prominent ideas and theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; it also will compare and contrast between their views concerning religion, the theory of social contract, value and property, and political philosophy. Finally, the paper will discuss the contribution both of these philosophers made to the human history and social development and their influence on the establishment of the Constitution of the United States.
Thomas Hobbes: Main Ideas and Theories
Hobbes was born in 1588 in Wiltshire, England (Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy, n. d.). Little is known about his family and early life. Hobbes acquired his education at a church school at first, and then continued to attend a school in his hometown Malmesbury. Hobbes was fascinated by physics, the laws of nature, mechanics of motion and matter (Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy, n. d.).
His interest towards philosophy derived from his scientific theories which gradually lead Hobbes to start to identify the Man as separate from the nature and one with the society and the state. Some of the most well-known literary works of Hobbes are “Leviathan” and “The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic”. Hobbes theorised about the development of the civil society and the establishment of political power and authority which resulted in his contractarian ideas. In other words, Hobbes believed that social contract was the starting point of the occurrence of the civil society.
According to this theory, the members of a society consciously gave up some of their freedoms and rights to assign a political authority whose objective was to provide social security and protect the remaining rights and freedoms of the individuals (Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy, n. d.). Raised in a religious family where the father was a vicar, and educated in a church school and under the influence of a puritan tutor, Hobbes did not embrace religion and supported materialistic point of view in metaphysics.
John Locke: Main Ideas and Theories
Locke was born in 1632 in Somerset, England in a puritan family and grew up in a rural town (John Locke, n. d.). He began his education in Westminster School which was an extremely prestigious affiliation. After graduating he entered the Christ Church in Oxford. Just like Hobbes, Locke was disappointed by the curriculum taught at his college and read a lot of philosophical works of his contemporaries such as Descartes. Locke also was fascinated by medicine and soon acquired a bachelor’s degree in this field.
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The first difference between Locke and Hobbes is that the latter never obtained any academic degrees, whereas the former had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Eventually, Locke became a professional physician and even conducted very dangerous medical procedures of that time such an operation on liver which turned out successful. Locke’s ideas and views are recognised as the basis for the European liberalism in politics and empiricism in philosophy. Just like Hobbes, Locke supported the social contract theory.
Locke emphasised the meaning of toleration in a civil society in relation to religion and equality of its members (John Locke, n. d.). Locke is known for his rather revolutionary way of thinking for his time. The philosopher spoke against absolute monarchy as a form of political authority and supported his understanding of what he called “natural rights”, a concept applied to the rights a human being had naturally due to their culture and its customs, natural rights are characterised as freedoms that cannot be restricted by the legal systems.
Hobbes and Locke: Comparison and Contrast
Even though Hobbes and Locke lived and worked at slightly different periods of time (Locke was born 44 years later than Hobbes), both of them are recognised as the prominent thinkers of the 17th century. The two philosophers explored a number of similar ideas and theorised about the same phenomena. Among the areas Hobbes and Locke explored there were social contract theory and human rights, religion, political forces and their power, and meaning of value and property for the society.
Social Contract Theory
Both Hobbes and Locke supported the theory of social contract which maintains that the governments and political powers do not derive from God, and the rulers do not originate from divine power, but are assigned by people. Social contract states that the political authority occurred from a social agreement of the members of the society to assign a government to protect their rights and hold the power to facilitate order and law.
Yet, there was one significant difference between the views of the two philosophers on the nature of the assigned government. To be more precise, Hobbes believed that once the rulers are named, they cannot be overthrown by the other members of the society. Locke maintained that the rulers should only stay at power as long as they fulfill their duties determined by the social contract and protect the rights of the individuals. In other words, if the social contract is violated, it is no longer active and the government can be overthrown through a revolution.
Human Nature and Property
Both Hobbes and Locke explored the concept known as the “state of nature”. It refers to the state that reveals the true features of human beings, their natural character. Yet, the two philosophers had absolutely different views concerning what the state of nature entailed, and what the true character of the man was. Hobbes believed that human beings are by nature aggressive, violent and self-centered. At the same time, Locke argued that the true nature of people was calm, thoughtful, and peaceful.
It looks like Locke was generally much more optimistic than Hobbes. The natural state of human relationships, according to Hobbes, was the state of war of everyone against everyone. As a result, the need for social contract and civil society occurred and secured a safer life for the individuals. Locke viewed humans are naturally reasonable beings, and social agreement – as a logical way to achieve equality and fairness in the society. As for the meaning of private property, Hobbes believed that property was something that existed only while the political and legal forces were at power and established the regulations.
For Locke, property was characterised as one of the initial rights of humans and it was naturally respected when humans are in their state of nature which is peace. Hobbes believed that human beings, due to their natural selfishness, are only interested in their own survival, and this desire to survive serves as the motivation for the cooperation and creation of social contract. According to the opinion of Locke, humans are interested in the survival of the society as much as in their own due to their altruistic nature (John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes: Founders of Modern Political Science, 2012). After all, the events when one person saves another person’s life are rather frequent in our society and are not typical for the animal world (apart from the actions motivated by the maternal instinct).
Religion played an important role in life and works of Hobbes and Locke. While Hobbes was a convinced materialist and rejected the existence of all incorporeal substances, Locke was a very religious man and believed in the act of initial creation which automatically made people God’s property in his opinion. Hobbes was accused of atheism, yet he always protested against such claims. Hobbes maintained that spirits and divine substances as well as heaven and hell existed and were corporeal.
This way, his belief fit perfectly into his materialistic attitudes. Moreover, both Locke and Hobbes agreed that the revelation was in tune with the human reasoning. Yet, here the views of the two philosophers differ as Locke believed that humans accept the revelation due to their peaceful and thoughtful nature, while Hobbes was convinced that people obey the revealed rules following their desire to avoid the conflict as otherwise war is inevitable without the regulations of a sovereign.
Locke’s religious beliefs penetrated his ideas concerning not only the nature of humans, and the cause of social contract, but also his views upon the political organisation of a society and the relationship between the ruler and the followers.
Locke’s liberalism was based on the philosopher’s idea that humans were initially created equal (this includes gender equality as well). This meant that Locke believed that from the very beginning of times all human beings shared the same freedoms, which meant that to establish any rules and regulations the governments required the approval of their people first.
Hobbes had different beliefs on the political power. In his opinion, the assigned government was free to enforce the laws it considered as necessary and the people were in to power to argue with the decisions of the government as according to Hobbes’ views on the social contract the presence of the government and its rule were essential to prevent the ultimate social conflict between unregulated human beings who are violent and selfish by nature.
This difference in views of Hobbes and Locke determined their ideas concerning the optimal political systems. The former believed that absolute monarchy was the way to establish harmony in the society and secure law and order, the latter rejected royal absolutism and supported constitutionalism as an optimal way to build a society.
This way, it becomes noticeable that the ideas supported by Locke are the basis for the modern understanding of a harmonious political system known as democracy which secures human rights and equality and assigns the governments approved by the population. At the same time, the ideas of Hobbes in terms of politics are today recognised as the old-fashioned model of power, or autocracy, which still is accepted in a number of non-western countries.
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The ideas and beliefs of Hobbes and Locke described above served as the foundation of the contemporary views upon the political science and the understanding of power. Social contract theory developed by the two philosophers led to the establishment of democracy and the idea that the source the political power of the government is its people (John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes: Founders of Modern Political Science, 2012).
Arguing about the human nature Hobbes and Locke began a debate that is still happening in the modern society – the discussion concerning who we really are – peaceful and respectful creatures, or self-centered and violent beasts. Out of the two philosophers, the ideas of Locke influenced the future society the most. First of all, Locke’s theories concerning equality and natural rights, which included liberty, property and life, became the basis for the idea of a legitimate government (Foundations of American Government, 2014).
As a result, Locke’s belief that a failing government can be overthrown by its establishers, the people facilitated the creation of such important for the American nation document as the Declaration of Independence proposed by Thomas Jefferson. The ideas of Hobbes and Locke outlined the meaning of power in the society and necessity for a strong and valid leader assigned by the followers and ruling based on their consent. The ideas described by Hobbes and Locke lie at the basis of the Constitution of the United States today and inspire the values of democracy in general.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are known as two of the most prominent English philosophers of the 17th century. They came from different environments, had different education and fascinations, yet they ended up theorising about the same concepts and developing similar ideas. Locke and Hobbes agree on a variety of ideas such as the non-divine origins of the political power, the need for social contract and a government, equal rights and freedoms of all human beings, and the existence of an ultimate state of nature for human beings.
At the same time, the views of the two philosophers differed drastically when it came to deeper understanding of their beliefs. For example, Hobbes characterised people as naturally violent and self-interested beings, while Locke maintained that people are thoughtful, reasonable and peaceful by nature.
Hobbes believed in permanence of the government once it has been assigned, but Locke believed that should the rulers fail their people, it results in violation of social contract and automatically makes the government invalid. The ideas of Hobbes and Locke concerning the nature and sources of the political power in the society and the mechanisms of its validity helped to create Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and lie at the basis of the Constitution of the United States.
Foundations of American Government. (2014). American Government.
John Locke. (n. d.). IEP.
John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes: Founders of Modern Political Science. (2012). Western Civilization II Guides.
Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy. (n. d.). IEP.