British Political Philosophy

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A Comparison of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

by Emily McEachern

A Comparison of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes
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John Locke vs Thomas Hobbes
Project by Emily McEachern


The goal of this project is to make comparisons between the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These two men represent very different schools of thought on political philosophy and this project will explore the reasons for these differences. Most people have different opinions on Politics and political philosophy due to its controversial nature. In my opinion it is very important to understand the reasons behind people's viewpoints in order to be able to make an informed decision about ones own political views. At WPI I have taken 2 history courses and 1 philosophy course, HI 1332, HI 2332, and PY 1731. I have never done a philosophy project like this before on my own so it should be an interesting and challenging experience.


This project aims to make comparisons between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who were very opposite in their philosophical views. These two men played very important roles in the foundations of political philosophy and it is important to understand how their opinions were formed so distinctly different from each other, at the same time period. I have also included my own opinions on what I have read, and which argument I believe is the most valid and truthful. In PY 1731 we did not cover political philosophy very much, and it is something that I wanted to continue learning about. Completing this project was new to me because I had to find philosophical texts to read and develop an aim for a project on my own rather than having someone give me things to read and questions to write about.

Section 1: Background

Historical Context

To better understand the reasons behind the beliefs of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes it is important to identify some historical context of the time period. The Enlightenment was beginning during the times that these two men lived, and the Scottish Enlightenment specifically had an influence on Locke's ideas. While the Scottish Enlightenment influenced Locke's ideas it is important to make distinctions between the Enlightenment in Scotland and the French Enlightenment, so the background contains information on both. The English Civil War also played an important role in shaping the political theory of the two men, and was a major event going on at the time of their lives.

The Age of Enlightenment

The exact dates of the time period may vary among historians but the general consensus is that it took place between 1685 and 1815. Enlightenment thinking was characterized by a person creating their own ideas, rather than just following ideas of other intellectuals. Enlightened thinking was not about what a person thinks, it was more about the way a person thinks[1]. Enlightenment thinkers didn't accept things just because of the authority of the person saying them, they accepted ideas because of this authority and their own ideas on the issue at hand. An unenlightened thinker will accept an idea simply because a figure of authority said it, showing faith in authority. However, an enlightened thinker will only accept an idea after they themselves have considered it with their own ideas in mind. For this reason, religion, christianity in particular, were highly scrutinized during the Enlightenment[1]. This does not mean that all Enlightenment thinkers were anti-religious, it just meant that they believed in a more rational form of their religion and supported the "demystification" of religion[1].

During the Age of Enlightenment Immanuel Kant believed that there was a social aspect to the Enlightenment due to the need for freedom. He believed that the freedom of will and the freedom to operate a certain way in a society were both necessary for Enlightenment to occur[1]. Kant believes that a person should have the freedom to publish the work that they want to, have it be open to criticism of the public, and be able to respond to that criticism publicly[1]. This is a reason why the Age of Enlightenment is referred to as an age of toleration. If a man of authority did not agree with the work of a man of less authority it didn't matter because there was no constraints on what could be published or written at the time[1].

The Scottish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment specifically influenced Locke's work and ideas as well as the formation of the U.S. government. The Scottish Enlightenment resulted in many great accomplishments, despite the loss of the Scottish court in 1603 and its Parliament in 1707[1]. The countries well established universities in St. Andrews, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen contributed to the great thinking of the time. These universities were teaching the ideas of Rene Descartes and the mathematics of Isaac Newton before the Enlightenment began[1].

The Scottish Enlightenment was only part of the wider movement of the Age of Enlightenment across Europe. The majority of people who formed the Scottish Enlightenment were professors, ministers, and lawyers. Some of the major philosophers of the movement included David Hume and Dugald Stewart, where Stewart was a leader in the Scottish school of common sense philosophy[1]. One of the most important social theorists of the time was Adam Smith, who wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations which was an outstanding work of economics and social theory[1]. The lawyers of the time period included Lord Kames and John Erskine and were heavily influenced by the work of Stair and Mackenzie. Scientists of the Scottish Enlightenment like Alexander Monro primus and Alexander Monro secondus helped to make Edinburgh a medical center through their work as medical professors[1]. A central feature to the Scottish Enlightenment was the formation of societies by the thinkers mentioned previously, where they could explain their ideas to other thinkers of the time.

A common belief of Enlightenment thinkers was that progress comes slowly, if it even comes at all, and that it must be defended in order to be retained[1]. Thinkers of the time believed that society could not sit back after achieving progress because this progress must be defended in order to have further progress. Hume and Ferguson, among many others, wrote on this idea and also believed that humans were no where near coming to a perfect society[1]. Another common belief of the time was that all of the sciences together as a whole form a kind of unity. Hume wrote about the subject saying that all sciences lead back to a "science of man"[1], meaning that human nature is a principle for the unity of sciences. Hume also wrote about how the natural world could not continue the way it does without humans because humans interact with the world directly. This is his reasoning for all of the sciences linking back to human nature[1]. Human nature was also explored by other philosophers of the time, like Thomas Reid, and all of these ideas would later influence John Locke's thinking.

The French Enlightenment

The Enlightenment truly began in Great Britain but the movement later exploded in France during the 18th century. One of the important origins of the French Enlightenment was the tension between mercantilists and anti-mercantilists. The expansion of the economy and Royal Authority had been happening since the end of the Hundred Years War in France and created a burden among citizens of the countryside who were heavily taxed[2]. The differences between mercantilists and anti-mercantilists were further intensified when religious and philosophical issues were injected into the arguments of both sides. Mercantilist views were slowly made to be a part of the legislation in France which sparked intellectual dissent to turn into political opposition[2]. Questions about taxes and fiscal exemptions also intensified tensions between the French monarchy and members of the Aristocracy. Organized opposition to the government formed during the reign of Louis XIV, especially after the works of John Locke became available to the general population[2].

Intellectual thinkers of the French Enlightenment became known as Philosophes. Philosophes praised the work of John Locke and Isaac Newton and rejected Christianity, causing the church to hate them and what they stood for[2]. During the French Enlightenment there was also a great improvement in the literacy of the country. One of the great thinkers of the time was Baron de Montesquieu, who got a lot of inspiration from Locke's work and was one of the first people to write about a system of checks and balances which can be seen in the U.S. government today[2]. Another major figure of the Enlightenment was François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, who was a writer who became known for his wit and satire.

The English Civil War

The English Civil War, which took place between 1641 and 1653, was a series of armed conflicts between Parliamentarians and Royalists in the British Isles. The era of the British Civil War began when a large group of Scottish people rejected King Charles I's religious policy. This caused a series of rebellions in England, Ireland, and Wales that challenged the rule of the King[3]. The war seemingly began because of religious disputes, however the King's relationships to the three parliaments of the British Isles were questioned and caused political revolutions in 1638-1640 in Scotland and England, before the Civil War actually began[3]. These rebellions developed into deeper of the political representation currently in place as well as social structure.

King Charles I's determination to push religious uniformity onto the four nations that made up the British Isles caused rebellions across Scotland in 1637. Charles's response to these events was to treat them as unwarranted rebellion[3]. After some time King Charles realized he had been losing control over his subjects and began to prepare for war against them. During the eleven years of Civil war, the war was constant in Ireland while in the other three nations fighting was much more sporadic. The first battle of the English Civil War took place at Edge hill in October 1843, but because both armies fighting were so inexperienced they had to end the battle with no winner[3]. In 1643 there was also an attempt at negotiations with the King to get the Catholic religion and property rights of Catholics recognized in government[3]. The King surrendered to the Scots in 1646 hoping to drive a wedge between the Scots and their English allies. King Charles I was eventually handed over to the English Parliament by the Scots and was imprisoned, marking the end of the first English Civil War[3].

The Second English Civil War was fought in England and Ireland during the spring and summer of 1648. By the end of this war everyone had realized the King was a major problem that needed to be dealt with[3]. Parliament reopened discussions with the King, but some people with more radical views wanted him to be brought to trial for what he had done[3]. A High Court of Justice was created by the House of Commons to try Charles. When the House of Lords objected to this the Commons declared that they were the supreme government of the nation. Charles was tried and executed and the monarch was abolished along with the House of Lords. This made England and Wales a free Republic and State[3]. Later, in 1652 after more fighting between the nations, Scotland and Ireland were incorporated into the new Republic and the war was deemed over[3].

John Locke

Early Life and Education

John Locke was born in 1632, 44 years after Thomas Hobbes was born, and died in 1704[4]. Locke's father, also named John, was a lawyer and later a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early parts of the English Civil War. During Locke's youth he studied writing and Latin, and also began thinking about some of the important philosophical questions of the time. This is attributed to the fact that his father was so involved in the Civil War and the army that was fighting against Charles I[4]. As a young boy Locke attended Westminster School and was awarded the honor of becoming a King's Scholar in 1647. Locke then went on to attend Christ Church, Oxford although he did not enjoy the curriculum of the time and condemned the teaching methods that he went through in his work Thoughts Concerning Education[4]. Locke preferred more modern philosophy to the classical teachings that were taught at Oxford. Locke received his bachelor's degree in 1656 and his master's degree in 1658. He also received a bachelor's degree in medicine in 1675 after studying medicine extensively during his time at Oxford[4].

Political Theory

John Locke's Two Treatises of Government

John Locke's political philosophy was guided by his religion and religious commitments. He believed that through reason people can determine that a God does exist and that there are laws that his existence entails. Something important to note about Locke is that he did believe God exists but he never specifies in his work which God he is writing about, making him a diest.

One of John Locke's most famous writings is his work Two Treatises of Government published in 1689, which is considered to have played a major role in the formation of modern democracy and the Constitution of the United States. Within the first sentence of the introduction, Locke had already taken a stand on slavery, calling it "vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation" [5]. In the first part of his book Locke criticizes Sir Robert Filmer's work Partiarcha by saying that Filmer implies all men are slaves to a divine king. According to Locke, Filmer's system is "That all government is absolute Monarchy"[6], and he interprets Filmer's argument to mean that no man is born a free man and therefore, all men are slaves. Locke uses the First Treatise to refute Filmer's argument, which Locke says that he cannot support because he believes in reason and that every man has the right to govern himself according to God's law.

Chapter VII of the second treatise in Locke's book, summarizes his beliefs regarding Political or Civil Societies. He writes "Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to...are in a civil society one with another" [7]. This means that to have a civil society there must be a commonly accepted law within a group of people, and if no common law is present people are considered to be in just a state of nature. In the end he comes to the conclusion that three things are necessary to be considered a civil society: a common established law, a body that is impartial that will give judgement, and power of the people to support the judgements of the body. In this section of the book he also argues that absolute monarchy is inconsistent with the definition of civil society.

Chapter VIII deals with the beginnings of political societies. Locke states that once a community is formed, "the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority" [8]. This means that the best, and necessary, way to govern a community is through a majority ruling. It is impossible to remain as one body and community without a majority rule, according to Locke. Under one government, each person has a responsibility to submit to whatever decision has been made by the majority of the group, even if they disagree with the decision.

Later in the book Locke writes what he believes is the extent of legislative power. Unlike Filmer, Locke believes that government, specifically the legislative branch of government, does not have absolute power. He writes, "No body has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other...[to] take away the life or property of another" [9]. Locke believes that the government has a limit to their power and that they must only use this power for the public good of the people of their society. He also says that the legislative power is not allowed to take property of anyone without that persons consent. The main premise for this argument is that people have rights to their own property and if the government had the ability to simply take anything without consent people would not truly own any property themselves. Extending this even further Locke writes that legislative government representatives cannot place taxes on citizens without their consent.

Locke's system of government states that there needs to be a Legislative Branch, Executive Branch and Judicial Branch of the government, clearly this is how the United States government is divided. Locke writes that the legislative power does not need to always be in session creating new laws, because they will have a "constant and lasting force"[10]. However, he does believe that it is the job of the executive power to "see to the execution of the laws that are made, and remain in force"[11]. This means that the executive branch of the government must always be active, in order to always be enforcing the laws passes and developed by the legislative government, according to Locke.

Other Beliefs

In Locke's work Two Treatises of Government he includes some of his beliefs about man to lay the foundation for his own political theories. He believes that men are born in "a state of perfect freedom" [12] and that people can do what they believe is right with themselves and their possessions. He believes that men are born equal by nature and not a single man is automatically given power over another man. He also writes that the total freedom of man does not include the "liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession" [13]. Locke also believes that everyone has the right and responsibility to punish any violator of the "law of nature" [14]. He also questions the rights of royalty to put to death or punish criminals who commit a crime in their country but are not from their country, which to many people at this times is a strange and new idea.

John Locke disagreed with the concept of full paternal power. He believed that power over children should be shared equally between the two parents and not all on the father, he calls this concept parental power rather than paternal power. He also says this power is a temporary jurisdiction over children that they grow out of when they become adults. Locke writes that age brings both freedom and rationality.

Thomas Hobbes


Hobbes was born on April 15th, 1588 and died on December 4th, 1679. Hobbes' father was a clergyman in a very small and poor village parish and was convicted for crimes against the church. This likely made Hobbes' anticlerical tendencies even stronger the they already were[15]. Hobbes attended Oxford and one of the things he wrote about his time there was that he preferred to read about explorations and the discovery of new land rather than Aristotelian logic and physics[15]. Directly after Hobbes graduated he was hired as a tutor for William Cavendish, a very rich land owner who had been made a baron in 1605 and was to become the first earl of Devonshire in 1618[15]. Hobbes taught the William Cavendish's son who was also named William Cavendish and who would become the second earl of Devonshire. During his time with the Cavendish family, Hobbes acquired intellectual interests in politics and natural science. Later on in his life Hobbes fled to Paris as did many other Royalists during the English Civil War which led him to write and publish his famous work Leviathan[15].

Political Theory

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

Although he lived during the same time as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes's ideas were essentially opposite of the ideas and beliefs of Locke's. Hobbes was a royalist who supported a monarchy, where Locke, as stated above, disapproved of an absolute monarchy. Hobbes's writings in Leviathan, which was published in 1651, aim to show his perspective on the type of government that will create a civil and peaceful society. The text itself is split into four different sections: of man, of commonwealth, of a christian commonwealth, and of the kingdom of darkness. The first part of the book, "of man", contains most of the main points of his philosophical argument and the other three parts attempt to strengthen his arguments by extending them and further clarifying them.

The majority of Book I is concerned with human nature and Hobbes's beliefs about science and the mind. Later on in the book, in Chapter 10 titled "Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honor, and Worthiness" Hobbes writes about the concept of power and humans drive to achieve power. He writes, "The power of a man, (to take it universally,) is his present means, to obtain some future apparent good. And is either original or instrumental" [16]. He splits power into two categories, natural (original) and instrumental. Natural power is obtained from the "faculties of body, or mind" [17] where strength and art are examples of natural power. Instrumental power is power that is acquired from the use of a persons faculties. Wealth, friends, and reputation are examples of instrumental power. He described the worth or value of a man as being how much power that individual has. Dignity is defined as the publicly recognized worth of a man. Also, a person of high worth is considered honorable and a person of low worth is considered dishonorable, according to Hobbes.

Hobbes defines a "Law of Nature" as something that can be discovered through logical reasoning. According to Hobbes, a natural law is very different than a civil law because a civil law must be written down for all to know and understand, but a natural law can be deduced by anyone using their mental abilities and therefore does not need to by written down or publicized. The first Natural Law or the fundamental Law of Nature is, "That every man, out to endeavor Peace, as farce as he can hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, the he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of War" [18]. This natural law calls on us to seek peace because seeking peace helps us fulfill our natural right to defend ourselves. The second law is written, "That a man be willing, when others are so too (as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself" [19]. This law is a contract between people and states that there is a mutual transference of rights based on moral obligation. Hobbes also states that this will help us escape a natural state of war. He also writes many other laws that directly follow from these two, which he often did in this fashion.

Chapter 20 of Leviathan is focused on contractual sovereignty. Hobbes argues that a person who comes to power by universal consent is able to gain power because the people of the commonwealth fear each other. Similarly, a person who gains power by using force is able to because of people's fear for him. Hobbes is very fascinated and concerned with the idea of fear and is a main focus of his writing. Hobbes also discuses liberty under a sovereign power and defines being a freeman as, "in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do" [20]. He also writes that the terms freedom and liberty cannot be applied to anything but "bodies". By Hobbes' definition of freedom, everyone under sovereignty must have absolute liberty because the only way a person can physically not be able to do what they wish is to by chained or imprisoned in some way.

Hobbes reiterates many times that he uses leviathan as a metaphor for an artificial person and examines the systems of the artificial body represented by Leviathan. A system is defined as, "any numbers of men joined in one interest" [21]. There are two types of systems according to Hobbes. A regular system is when the body of the system is represented by one specific person or a group of people. The members of the system are contractual subjects of the representative, according to Hobbes. An irregular system is one where this representation is nonexistent.

To end Book II of Leviathan Hobbes writes about the necessity of following the philosophy of his book. He stresses the point that one must know the laws of God in order to avoid divine punishment. It is also important to understand how the laws of God relate to the laws of the sovereign power.

Section 2: Deliverable

Locke vs. Hobbes

State of Nature

Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke write a lot about the natural state of humans, however the results of their thinking and writing are dramatically different. Hobbes argues that people are selfish and only concerned with obtaining power and will do anything to get this power[22]. The drive to obtain power in humans forces us into a competitive state, according to Hobbes. He also writes that in a state of nature every many is solely focused on preserving and strengthening himself and gives no concern for anything else[22]. Unlike Hobbes, John Locke has a much more complex view of human's state of nature. Locke recognizes that there is a God but does not specify which God this is, making him a deist like many philosophers and intellectuals of the time[23]. He argues that our natural state is maintained by laws set by our creator and that humans are not only concerned with the success of themselves, but we are also concerned with the success of our society[23]. Locke argues that not only do humans want to do things for the common good they also have a duty to "preserve mankind"[23] due to natural law. These two views on the state of nature are clearly very different from each other but they both do acknowledge the need for free will in a successful society.


Although they have very different opinions most of the time, some general similarities can be found in the works of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Both men do agree that freedom is a necessity that people deserve, but they disagree on the definitions of freedom. Hobbes argues that it is possible to have liberty and freedom under an absolute monarchy, while Locke's views are completely opposite. Hobbes believes that freedom means a person has the physical ability to what they want, and that freedom can only be applied to a physical body[22]. Locke argues that freedom is the ability to do with themselves and their property what they believe is right under natural law[23]. However, this does not mean that freedom is the ability for someone to do whatever they want, because under natural freedom the Law of Nature is a restricting mechanism for a mans actions[23]. Locke also writes that freedom is grounded in the ability of a man to have reason and apply this reason to his life. Something important to note is that John Locke also believes that everyone is born free regardless of who they are. Hobbes's argument in general is much more simple than Locke's and completely disregards concepts of freedom that are not physical.

The need for society

Both men do agree that creating or joining a civil society is necessary for all people. It is clear that they disagree on what kind of government this society should have but both agree that it would not be possible to have a functioning world if no society existed. Locke believes that the best form of government is one in which a majority ruling is in place and also one that has three branches of government[23]. He believes that these branches should be set up so that they share the responsibilities of government equally[23]. He also believed that no government, especially the legislative branch of government should have absolute power over anyone. Hobbes on the other hand believes the best form of government is an absolute monarchy. He argued that without the presence of a government with absolute power, anarchy will result[22]. He argues that humans need a government or they will be left in a state of war and for Hobbes the absolute monarchy solves this problem. The main difference between the types of government that these two men want is that Thomas Hobbes calls for a government with no limit to its power while Locke says that their must be a limit to government power.

What caused these differences?

In my opinion, the differences in the beliefs and philosophical arguments of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes stem from the differences in their upbringing. Both men were living during the time of the English Civil War but lived two very different lives and had different people influencing them. John Locke was raised by his father who was a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early English Civil War[4]. Naturally John Locke would hold views similar to that of his father and grow to be against an absolute monarchy. Hobbes was on the other side of the things and was a Royalist during the Civil War. Because Hobbes was a Royalist he fled to Paris in 1640, along with many others, during the English Civil War to avoid the likely hostile reactions of Parliament to his writings. His time in Paris with other Royalists probably strengthened his beliefs, further distancing them from Locke's ideas and beliefs.

My reflections

After reading both Leviathan and Two Treatises of Government I believe that John Locke's argument is most valid and truthful. Locke's ideas are very similar to the contemporary philosophy of many. His writings also helped the United States form our constitution and system of government. Being a citizen of the United States and learning about the U.S. government since elementary school, it certainly doesn't surprise me that I agree with Locke's ideas over Hobbes. However, being an American is not the only reason I agree with his ideas, Locke uses very strong logical reasoning patterns that I cannot dispute, while in Hobbes's argument there are some holes.

Much of Hobbes's work is based upon the idea of fear, and the belief that people fear each other and their leader. He wrote that a person can come to power through universal consent because people of the society fear each other. I strongly disagree with this, I do not decide who I am going to vote for in government because I fear people with different opinions than my own, I decide who I want to govern our country because of my personal beliefs. Fear may be a driving force for some, but it is not valid to make the statement that fear is motivation for all. Hobbes's criticism of human's natural state is harsh and an oversimplification of human nature.

I also disagree with Hobbes's concept of freedom. He says that freedom is a physical thing that can only be obstructed by being physically imprisoned or restrained. This completely ignores the concept of freedom of speech. Hobbes writes that freedom and liberty can only be applied to bodies, but Freedom of speech is a concept regarding the mind. Hobbes's belief that it is possible to have freedom under an absolute monarchy is also something that I disagree with. In a society ruled by an absolute monarchy, the King or Queen that rules the country can do whatever they want to and will not be restricted by laws or customs. Under this type of government, which has no set laws a monarch must follow, it is impossible to have freedom because a person cannot know if their actions will be punished when their government has the right to do anything they wish. However, I strongly agree with John Locke's ideas that in a civil society a majority rule is necessary for the success of the community or society. It is obvious that not all people of a large society will have all of the same opinions and beliefs, so a majority rule is the best way to keep a group of people together.


During my work on this project I read two very influential works of philosophy, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes and Two Treatises of Government by John Locke. I realized that in order to better understand these works some historical context was needed, so I added this to the background section of the project. After reading these two works, which hold very different almost opposite views, I made comparisons between the political philosophies of both men and attempted to uncover reasons for the differences in their theories. I also included my own reflection on which argument I agreed with more, and not surprisingly this was the argument of John Locke.


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