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Comparison of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

Comparison of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes


John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were two political philosophers who came up with the theories about the nature of human beings and the kind of political systems used in the society to enable the people to meet their needs. Both of them came up with the theories on social contract. Locke’s Two Treatise of Government and Hobbes’ Leviathan elaborate an in-depth view of how people in a typical society can effectively be governed. The state of nature as described in their work is a fictitious state of human beings before a legitimate authority is instituted to govern them. Although they lived in the same timeframe, their works seem to have been influenced by different events happening in the society. This paper compares political philosophy work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and their contribution to the idea of governance in the society.

John Locke’s Main Ideas

John Locke’s ideas heavily lean on liberal democracy. Locke used Soldania and American frontier as examples of human beings in the state of nature. Although there are times when the society experiences violent conflicts, they should be solved in a peaceful way (Locke, 1824). For example, when people agitated for their rights in America, there appeared the American Declaration of Independence.

Locke holds the idea that people are innately peaceful and strive to look for the ways to co-exist rather than compete. To him, there are relationships between the government and the citizens based on performance contracts. Locke believes that there are limits to which any government can act, because it is supposed to ensure that the welfare of the citizens is considered. Any actions by the central authority that are contrary to the expectations of people would elicit rebellion form the multitude. Documents such as the Constitution are designed by the society to serve the best interests of the people (Locke, 1824). Such documents are meant to check the power of the leaders. Any action that goes beyond what is agreed is both unhealthy and unnecessary to the people being governed.

Thomas Hobbes’s Main Ideas

Hobbes’ ideas concern the society that experiences lawlessness and needs regulation from an absolute authority. People would use any means available to accomplish what they lacked for their own selfish gains without considering their moral obligations. He describes the conditions in the state of nature using terms such as harsh, brutish, and short (Hobbes, 2008). He saw competition as the driving force towards the wild behavior of people.

Hobbes argues that the division of sovereignty among people is the catalyst to disunity and consequently a slow process of going towards the state of war. He says that there must be an absolute sovereign that will make sure that people obey the rules established by the state. For example, Hobbes gave the example of the English Civil War that arose as a result of dividing the power among the Lords, commons, and the King. His ideas were derived from the dynamic environment of the 1640s and 1650s (Russell, 2005).

Comparison of the Concepts of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

Although both political philosophers think that the state of nature is characterized by chaos, Locke seems to believe that natural law can work best in the society, something that Hobbes thinks may not work. Hobbes explains that if people are given freedom to do what they want without control, they are likely to start a war. Their theories were meant to primarily protect the rights of the citizens. However, their view of who would protect the citizens differed greatly.

Hobbes believed that the society cannot be stable without the presence of one central sovereign who has power and is accountable to protect everyone in the state. According to Hobbes, every person was to voluntarily relinquish some of their freedom to the state authority so that it would be easier for them to be governed. John Locke views these ideas as unreasonable (Adjuct, 2009). He asserts that those in the position of power should also be subject to the laws of the state but not be above it. Hobbes tends to be inclined to the kind of a system where the sovereign power holds the rights and enjoys the privileges of being above the law to enable them to govern the people. However, both of them retain the central notion that people in the state of nature would be willing to give a part of their freedom for the sake of protecting the state (Kelly, 2004).

Hobbes attempts to describe an account of what the society would look like without the social contract. According to Hobbes, the state of nature would be brutal, and men would live in the constant fear and danger of violent deaths (Hobbes, 2008). Properties and possessions in the state of nature, according to Hobbes, would culminate in people becoming enemies. This is because none of the citizens wants to respect the rights of other people’s properties but would like to amass everything at the expense of everyone else. Thomas Hobbes believed that human beings ought to give a part of their freedom to one governing authority, because they live in a state of nature. On the other hand, John Locke saw individuals as reasonable beings deserving total freedom to act the way they like.

John Locke sees obligation as a moral fact, something that Hobbes refutes in his work. Hobbes sees people as being driven by their self-interests. Locke believed that human beings were rational and acted to make sure that their rights and those of others were protected through reasoning. He saw people in the state of nature as living in peace and harmony. To him, respect for life and properties existed even before the legitimate government was formed. Locke affirmed that human beings were reasonable by nature and would voluntarily contribute to the peace and harmony without being coerced to do so.

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Locke argues that sometimes people apply labor to add value to private property. The rights of owning these properties are respected. In the state of nature as described by Locke, there are restrictions even in the absence of the sovereign power, which he calls the ‘law of nature; reason’ (Locke, 1824). The reason contains all the laws that human beings require in order to respect the others and live in harmony without one person acting towards harming others for their own selfish gains. However, Locke thinks that a government put in place would act to protect the rights of the people in the best way possible (Landry, 1997).

One of the sharp differences between the two philosophers is the way to contain the rule of the sovereign. Hobbes sees the rule of the sovereign as perfect; he can make no mistake. This means that there would be no need for a revolution since the citizens are assured that the rulers are perfect in the way they handle issues (Hobbes, 2008). They need to unconditionally submit to the system since doing otherwise would result in them going back to the state of nature. On the other hand, Locke holds the idea that a revolution would be necessary as a system of checks and balances to the sovereign if their actions supersede the roles mandated to them (Locke, 1824). In this case, Hobbes seems to encourage dictatorship while Locke encourages democracy.

According to Hobbes, the work of the government is to tell the people how they are going to behave or act. Locke thought that it is important to control the limits of people’s actions. For example, citizens can be able to practice any religion they feel is good to them as far as it does not cause harm or interferes with other people’s interests. Hobbes believes in a monarchical system where one person is an absolute source of authority. He is mandated to make laws and rule the people. Locke stressed that people are supposed to decide how they would like to be ruled and by whom. They should be given the right to choose rulers.


Locke and Hobbes did great works trying to display ideas on why and how the society was supposed to be governed. They first examined the state of nature. They conceptualized the conditions of human beings before the institution of government was put in place. However, to a large extent, both scientists view the state as chaotic. To protect every person, it is desirable to have a social contract. Hobbes holds the idea that a single sovereign would assist to maintain power balance through ensuring that all people obey the laws of the society. Locke, on the other hand, believes that people are reasonable and do not need to be forced to do anything. Their rationality is enough to guide them in their actions.

The concepts proposed by the two philosophers seem very different. However, there are similarities in their ideas on the role of government. Both believe that the government is created to prevent violence of people against each other. From the perspective of Hobbes, the sovereign protects the rise of belligerence. Locke sees the government as a body that makes sure that the rights of all people are protected. Both philosophers were influenced by diverse experiences that happened in their timeframe. Psychologically, human beings are born in neutral conditions, in a clean state of mind. Factors such as socialization with the environment and the media may influence them to change their way of behaving. People can be taught to do either good or evil.

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