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Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were 17th and 18th century scholars with comparable yet differing hypotheses about human nature. Rousseau’s theory is based on man living in a state of harmony with nature while Hobbes theory assumes that human nature is naturally violent and competitive. Both these authors were born into the Enlightenment era influencing their personal development and their writing. During this time, science was becoming a more pronounced subject in the works of many scholars which allowed for thinkers, such as Hobbes and Rousseau to open their mind. It brought about ideas of liberty, progress, and reason. Moreover, it brought about change to society and how people think. No one had previously looked into the functionality of society like Hobbes, as it was simply never questioned before. Following Hobbes lead, Rousseau stepped in to give his differing thoughts on society. Although both of these theories have their flaws, Hobbes’ argument on human nature is very idealistic and proves to be superior.
Thomas Hobbes lived through many accounts of violence from the English Civil War, the 30 Years’ War, and even two more wars between England and the Netherlands. These wars influenced Hobbes’ idea on the State of Nature. He believed that if unchecked, humans tend to be violent towards one another. The State of Nature describes man as focused on self-interest with no desire to help other people. The State of Nature provides the positive aspect of complete freedom, equality of people, and no subjection to authority. These may sound promising, but the negatives severely outnumber any positives.
The negatives include no protection from others, conflict is inevitable, and being in constant danger. The biggest factor leading to conflict is everyone being equal and no man owning anything and anyone can take what they want if they apply enough force. As a result of no one owning anything, property lasts for however long someone can control it. It is paradoxical that with so much freedom, a person is not free at all due to constantly worrying about safety. Since man has no guarantee on what they control, the desire of self-preservation is key and more importantly, “Each person wants his own self-preservation above all else, not the self-preservation of everyone”. This idea of self-preservation is different among each person and because it is different many conflicts will arise due to the goals of each person clashing.
Hobbes would say this is inevitable and can be damaging to the people in their state of nature. In addition, if someone were to help another person, it would be because they perceive these interactions as a benefit to themselves in hopes for profit or honor. Basically, the State of Nature brings fear into every man’s life because he could easily lose his life to another man; naturally this means everyone is at war with one another. However, man still has the use of reason to understand that a society would create an escape from this state of war and distrust.
In order to escape from the State of Nature, people must agree to create an enforcement mechanism tied to the social contract with laws that constitute it and an agreement to live under those common and universal laws (Friend). Since the Sovereign has the power and authority to give out punishments for breaches of contract, citizens have good reason to adjust to the law. The Sovereign stands as structure for men to abide by. Hobbes believed in this idea of a Sovereign because it would help protect those who gave up all their rights. The issue with this is morality because according to him, men have the instinct to be evil but with this hierarchal set up, more order will be displayed. Furthermore, morality is seen not as a heavenly matter but a matter that maximizes a person’s self-interest. If a person can act good and deviate from the evil, their life can now prosper. However, Hobbes’ idea for creating this government for society is that it depends heavily on liberty, representation, and will. If the people of the society are not willing to give up those rights, then the entire government would be a waste of time and knowledge. Someone has to keep the people in order otherwise they will fall back into the State of Nature and more chaos will ensue. Moreover, if the representation is lacking in authority or power, no one is going to listen. Additionally, when the Leviathan was written the English Civil War was coming to an end which had the people talking and sparked conversations about what type of government should be ruling. Thomas Hobbes had the motivation and incentive to create this new world that humans still abide by to this day.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born more than a century after Thomas Hobbes and had vastly different ideas on man and government. Rousseau thought of mankind as a good spirit when born and tarnished as soon they become involved in society. According to Rousseau, the State of Nature was a peaceful time where people lived uncomplicated and solitary lives who’s needs were met by nature. He believed there was no competition since the population was small and “persons rarely even saw one another, much less had reason for conflict or fear”. Moreover, in these simple times there was no need for conflict because everyone’s needs were satisfied but that changed quickly due to an increase in population. People started to have families and create little communities leading to an implementation of division of labor. Following the division of labor, came the introduction of private property and inequality among communities. Slowly, the private property owners realized how important their land was and wanted to establish a government to guarantee ownership. This idea only benefitted the strong and wealthy; focusing only on how well the social contract is enforced and not the well-being of the public.
The idea behind Rousseau’s Social Contract is how people can be free but also live together. Essentially it can be described as, “how can we live together without succumbing to the force and coercion of others?”. Rousseau believes that this can be solved by giving up individual wills to the general will along with other free people. This brings up many issues because if a person chooses not to give up their will for the sovereign, they will not be included in the society. They will be reverted back to the State of Nature. Furthermore, no one has a right to govern over other people so it will be up to the community to choose which direction they want to go regarding what is best for the common good. Since the sovereign cannot do anything to harm the people and it is only based on what is good for the people, if a rebellion starts no one has the authority to imply any kind of power over them. This is where Rousseau’s social contract starts to crumble.
Thomas Hobbes’ idea on the social contract can be broken down to this: man is born evil, the government is needed to protect the public, the government should be all powerful and unable to overthrow, and power should not be shared. Alternatively, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea on the social contract deals with this: man is born good but society brought about corruption, the government needs to enforce the social contract, the government is arbitrary and can be overthrown, and power should be shared and direct. Both ideas rely heavily on the liberty and will of the society because if they do not follow along, there will be no structure. Even though they had different ideas on what the State of Nature meant for man, they both agreed on people being regressed back to this state if they did not follow the contract. Moreover, Hobbes creates this idealistic view of how society runs today. If man is left outside of society, they will receive negative perceptions about people and become evil. Also, the government holds the power in the society albeit there are checks and balances and other notions put into place to stop total corruption. Hobbes also argues that a person gives up some rights in order to have other ones protected. Freedom and other liberties might have to be sacrificed in order to gain protection from other people and to this day that still happens. Rousseau is more focused on how well people will follow the Social Contract and adhere to its rules while Hobbes’ focus is on the public and protecting the people.
Although both theories contain flaws, Hobbes’ critical view of humans is more accurate than Rousseau’s innocent, idealistic view on the State of Nature. It was naïve for Rousseau to believe that humans were naturally peaceful beings and society being the root of corruption. Because Hobbes has a more cynical and violent view on the State of Nature, his analysis on human nature proves to be more realistic. His theories about mankind’s violent nature is more prominent in today’s times because of his examples on natural states. Rousseau wanted to take a step back and think of humans as good, but in all reality, people are evil if not subjected to authority and society.
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