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Hobbes & Locke

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In recent articles on Hobbes and Locke I pointed out that both thinkers believe in human rights. Despite this similarity, their conceptions of government are very different. Hobbes advocates a monarchy that has absolute power to enforce contracts and maintain morality. His is a state that awes its members into submission; if they defy the state, they could be destroyed. Locke advocates something closer to the liberal state, where freedom is important and state power has checks. Put differently, for Hobbes rights are enforced by the state, while for Locke rights protect us from the state. The difference is both subtle and drastic.

The subtle part of the equation is that the rights advocated are basically similar. Both Hobbes and Locke believe people have a right to self-preservation. They have a right to freedom as well, though for Hobbes that freedom must be partly relinquished to the state in order to be enjoyed in any reasonable way. Without the state, we would have total freedom, but no ability to exercise it without fear of being trampled by other people. For Locke, the state creates freedom by enforcing rights. Where it fails to do so, revolution is appropriate.

This is where a drastic difference emerges. There is no room for outright revolution in Hobbes's state. His state is immense and relatively all-powerful. Citizens have no chance of defeating it, even if they combine forces. That's how the state maintains the power to enforce contracts. Locke seems to see such a state as a terror, and most of us today would agree with him. If we the people cannot overturn the state, then we feel unsafe and more than a little trapped.

At least part of the difference between Hobbes and Locke can be attributed to their historical circumstances. Hobbes witnessed the English Civil War, which destroyed every opportunity for happiness for many people. His all-powerful state must have seemed like the lesser of two evils, since it would at least be stable and life would not devolve into anarchy. Locke, however, witnessed the Glorious Revolution, where the government was completely changed without bloodshed. For him, revolution must not have seemed like such a terrible thing. Most likely, both views are too extreme. Revolution is usually a costly endeavor, since those in power rarely relinquish it willingly. However, the possibility or revolution is a key part of maintaining rights, since an all-powerful government could suppress our rights without fear of repercussion.

Locke versus Hobbes


Locke and Hobbes were both social contract theorists, and both natural law theorists (Natural law in the sense of Saint Thomas Aquinas, not Natural law in the sense of Newton), but there the resemblance ends. All other natural law theorists assumed that man was by nature a social animal. Hobbes assumed otherwise, thus his conclusions are strikingly different from those of other natural law theorists. In addition to his highly unconventional conclusions about natural law, Hobbes was fairly infamous for producing numerous similarly unconventional results in physics and mathematics. The leading English mathematician of that era, in the pages of the Proceedings of the Royal Academy, called Hobbes a lunatic for his claim to have squared the circle.


Issue Locke Hobbes

Human nature Man is by nature a social animal. Man is not by nature a social animal, society could not exist except by the power of the state.

The state of nature In the state of nature men mostly kept their promises and honored their obligations, and, though insecure, it was mostly peaceful, good, and pleasant. He quotes the American frontier and Soldania as examples of people in the state of nature, where property rights and (for the most part) peace existed. Princes are in a state of nature with regard to each other. Rome and Venice were in a state of nature shortly before they were officially founded. In any place where it is socially acceptable to oneself punish wrongdoings done against you, for example on the American frontier, people are in a state of nature. Though such places and times are insecure, violent conflicts are often ended by the forcible imposition of a just peace on evil doers, and peace is normal. no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Knowledge of natural law Humans know what is right and wrong, and are capable of knowing what is lawful and unlawful well enough to resolve conflicts. In particular, and most importantly, they are capable of telling the difference between what is theirs and what belongs to someone else. Regrettably they do not always act in accordance with this knowledge. Our knowledge of objective, true answers on such questions is so feeble, so slight and imperfect as to be mostly worthless in resolving practical disputes. In a state of nature people cannot know what is theirs and what is someone else's. Property exists solely by the will of the state, thus in a state of nature men are condemned to endless violent conflict. In practice morality is for the most part merely a command by some person or group or God, and law merely the momentary will of the ruler.

Epistemology The gap between our ideas and words about the world, and the world itself, is large and difficult, but still, if one man calls something good, while another man calls it evil, the deed or man referred to still has real qualities of good or evil, the categories exist in the world regardless of our names for them, and if one man's word does not correspond to another mans word, this a problem of communication, not fundamental arbitrariness in reality. It is the naming, that makes it so. Sometimes Hobbes comes close to the Stalinist position that truth itself is merely the will of the ruler.

Conflict Peace is the norm, and should be the norm. We can and should live together in peace by refraining from molesting each other's property and persons, and for the most part we do. Men cannot know good and evil, and in consequence can only live in peace together by subjection to the absolute power of a common master, and therefore there can be no peace between kings. Peace between states is merely war by other means.


Issue Locke Hobbes

The Social Contract We give up our right to ourselves exact retribution for crimes in return for impartial


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