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Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were two philosophical political theorists whose ideas regarding human nature and the social contract between man and government were shaped by their life experiences and positions in 17th century England and Europe. These experiences gave each man differing views on what role the government should have in an individual constituent’s life, and shaped how both men conceptualised and understood the essence of human nature, and the relationship between human nature and its need to be controlled and governed. They both agreed that power is to be given by the people to their government, as in granted by some means to a political authority in either a constitutional or contractual way by a social contract between the people and government. However, this is the only point that both theorists agreed upon, and they both had conflicting ideas regarding how much power a government should have, primarily how the rights of the people are affected by those in power.
Hobbes view on human nature was quite bleak, stating that man was not a social creature, and that left to their own devices would wage continual war against each other. His most well-known writing Leviathan published in 1651 noted that a strong and supreme leadership was necessary to form society and that none could exist except by the power of the state. His theory was one of philosophical absolutism, with power residing in the sovereignty of a Monarchy – Hobbes was a royalist. Hobbes spent a number of years tutoring members of the Cavendish family, as well as keeping close company with other strong supporters of the royals during the civil war. He fled to France in 1640 to escape prosecution during the uprising and a potential civil war in England where he wrote several theories on the concept of political authority and natural law.
Human nature for Hobbes was an existence of continual fear, and that in a state of nature men could not know what is right or wrong, needing guidance and command from a common law or authority to show them morality. Hobbes believed that as humans following natural law, there is a natural desire to live by well means, although never satisfied with accumulated power and authority and a continuous drive to acquire more power (Harrison, 2002). His belief that all people are created equally also means that each individual is equally killing and harming another in their quest for more power, and that without a common authority to unite the individual, there would always be a reason to war against each other. Absolute freedom is all that individuals have in Hobbes’ state of nature, each can take what they want from others and there is constant threat of danger and death. In Leviathan, Hobbes writes that the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes, 2009). This state of nature motivates individual to come together to relinquish their rights of freedom in exchange for the protection and security offered by an authority of supreme power. Hobbes states that the fact that life in this state is better than the natural state leads to this absolute sovereignty. Along with giving up freedom people will collectively relinquish their right to revolt, the only occasion an individual can resist the sovereign force is to preserve their own life. This would mean that even if an individual disagreed with the sovereign, they had no right to rebel against the state unless by direct threat of life. Hobbes view of human nature leads him to develop his vision of an ideal government, believing that a common power was required to keep men united, creating a social contract for people to group together to give power to a ruler or political authority, agreeing by this social contract to wholly submit to a chosen authority, in turn assuring their self-preservation. In Hobbes’ social contract theory, he wrote in his works Leviathan of a ruler with complete authority, who had been given this absolute power by each citizen willingly in order to enforce state law. To preserve an individual’s life they would be required to submit to the sovereign in Hobbes’ Leviathan State unconditionally. This would ensure that through complete self-subjugation that the citizens would be in return protected by the state authority, which therefore had the power to make any demands on its subjects that it saw fit. In modern terms, this could be explained as an authoritarian government however it ensures the preservation of man as Hobbes’ Natural Law dictates.
Even though John Locke lived during the same period in England’s history as Hobbes, his experiences that shaped his views on human nature and political authority were starkly different by means of who he associated with and which side of the political authority he related to. Locke spent much of his time with those in parliament that rejected the Monarchy, and some of these associates were speculatively involved in plots against the reigning monarch (Thomas, 1995). During this time, a faction of merchants, landowners and former parliamentary bureaucrats formed a group called Whigs, who opposed the monarchy’s absolute power over the freedom and liberty of its citizens (Berkay, 2019). One of these, the First Earl of Shaftesbury, was a patron of Locke’s and a great influence on his political bearings. Locke later exiled himself from England to Holland, where he composed the bulk of his First and Second Treatise on Government. The primary aim of the Second Treatise was to show that absolute monarchy is an illegitimate form of government and lacks the right for its citizens to obey it.
Locke had a slightly less negative view of human nature comparatively to Hobbes. This difference is best explained by each view of state of nature, with Hobbes arguing that without absolute government, humanity would descend into lawless chaos, and life would be so unbearable that they would be forced to find a strong leader to give absolute power to ensure their survival. John Locke on the other side claimed that the state of nature promotes freedom and equality, where the individual has the power only to give consent in a free and voluntary manner to a form of government, which is decided upon by the collective of individuals. For example, Locke believed that people had the God-given natural right to freedoms and that these freedoms need to be interpreted and punishment handed out to violators of these natural rights. This was where the need for an authority is appropriate, and the power of the sovereign is justified only when that power is used to protect the rights of the people and for the benefit of the individual. An absolute Monarchy as described in Hobbes’ Leviathan was not an appropriate structure for society or the preservation of man according to Locke. He believed in a separation of powers, and supremacy of law over the power of a single sovereign authority. He likened monarchy to that of a father having control over his child: the monarchy’s power is derived from the right that a father has to command obedience from his children, a right that is divinely ordained and giving complete power over their liberty and property, much like a father has over his children. Also, that the monarchy/father analogy extends to the loss of the right for the people to question this authority, to rebel or overthrow such a form of government (Thomas, 1995).
Equality and the individual’s rights had completely different meaning for both Locke and Hobbes. As mentioned above, Hobbes believed that it was human nature to act in a self-preserving manner, and based on this theory, that the only definition of what is right or wrong is solely up to the individual, society or political authority decides. Hobbes believed that when people group together to gain power and form governments, that they are consenting to become governed and do this in order to maximise chance of survival by handing power to the strongest member of a group and giving up their rights of independence to a powerful political authority. This is Hobbes social contract theory. Locke had a different view of human nature and ones preservation of their individual lives, one that put the power into the hands of the individual. He felt that since mankind is governed by natural laws handed down from a creator or God, then man must have individual rights as well. These rights as John Locke saw them are similar to what we now have as human rights in modern times. Speaking on the differences between each theorist’s view of equality and rights, Hobbes views humans as individualistic, while Locke sees man as communal. For Locke, equality is not dependent on who is the strongest as is with Hobbes, because we are all subject to the same societal rules under the creator. This makes any form of political authority subject to being created by the social contract, however for Locke it requires that any governing body must be subject to the common law and answer to it, whereas in Hobbes’ view because the political authority comes from survival of the strongest, it decides what is the law, and what rights its subjects have or do not have.
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