Thomas Hobbes & John Locke: Political Theories & Competing Views

In this lesson, we discuss the two premier English political theorists of the 17th century: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. We’ll also take a look at their impact on Western philosophy in contemporary and modern times.
Competing Theories: Hobbes & Locke
The world is full of stark dichotomies: good and evil, left and right, chocolate and vanilla – just to name a few. Political theory in the 17th century, according to many historians and philosophers, experienced a similar rift. The very nature of government and sources of power was debated and even experimented upon. Whereas today we have Democrats and Republicans arguing over these issues, in 17th-century England, the two prevailing viewpoints were best exemplified by the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
Hobbes Biography
Thomas Hobbes was the older of the two men, being born in 1588 in Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, England. Early in the 17th century, Hobbes went to study at Oxford, graduating in 1608. After graduation, Hobbes began working as a tutor for the Cavendish family, tutoring the future Earl of Devonshire. Though he continued to work for the Cavendish family intermittently for the rest of his life, Hobbes also made several voyages to Europe to learn and work with his philosophical colleagues, including Galileo, Mersenne, and René Descartes.
Hobbes was a staunch and outspoken Royalist and in 1640, for fear of his own safety, he fled to Paris as Parliament and King Charles I moved closer and closer to civil war. During this time in self-imposed exile from England, Hobbes began publishing philosophical works on the nature of knowledge, language, and humanity. He watched the political developments in his home country from afar, and soon after his return in 1651, he boldly published his most famous – and most political – work, Leviathan. He continued to publish polemical and philosophical works throughout the 1650s, often arguing with his republican contemporary John Bramall.
Hobbes continued to write and publish throughout the 1660s, though his works became less political. For instance, in 1675 he published a translation of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Hobbes died in 1679 at 91 years old.
Hobbes on Government & Man
Throughout his life, Hobbes believed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute monarchy. He argued this most forcefully in his landmark work, Leviathan. This belief stemmed from the central tenet of Hobbes’ natural philosophy that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. According to Hobbes, if man is placed in a state of nature (that is, without any form of government) humans would be in a state of constant warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes stated, the life of a man was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
Hobbes’ view of human nature was shaped largely by the English Civil War, which took place from 1642 to 1649 and culminated in the beheading of King Charles I. Hobbes considered the ensuing chaotic interregnum period, from 1649 to 1660, to be as close to that basic state of nature as humans could get. Considering the highly dysfunctional nature of English government during that time, Hobbes’ views should come as little surprise.
Because of Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature, he believed the only form of government strong enough to hold humanity’s cruel impulses in check was absolute monarchy, where a king wielded supreme and unchecked power over his subjects. While Hobbes believed in social contract theory (that is, the theory that a ruler has an unspoken, implicit contract with his people requiring him to reign fairly), he ascribed nearly total power to the monarch, and did not believe the people to have any right to rebel whatsoever.
Locke Biography
Hobbes’ theoretical adversary was born in 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, England. Locke also attended Oxford, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1656. He continued on with his master’s, and in 1660, he began lecturing at Oxford on the classics.
Locke became a doctor as well as pursuing his academic career, studying and working alongside some of the greatest English minds of the 17th century, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, who became one of Locke’s closest friends. He was a founding member of the English Royal Society, which promoted scientific inquiries and the arts. In 1667, he took up residence with Lord Ashley and moved to London, becoming embroiled in the thick of English politics.
Throughout the next 20 years Locke spent time in London, Oxford, France, and Holland, often depending upon his allies’ and his own political fortunes. Upon his return to England in 1689, Locke published his two most popular and influential works, Two Treatises of Government and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke went on to serve several years on the English Board of Trade before his death in 1704.
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