Hobbes vs Locke: State of Nature - Philosophers

The difference with Hobbes is clearest in Locke’s argument about property. Hobbes and Locke agree that individuals have a right to property in the state of nature, but Hobbes denies that individuals have any duty to respect the property of others. This makes property more or less useless in Hobbes’s state of nature. Locke says individuals have a duty to respect the property (and lives and liberties) of others even in the state of nature, a duty he traces to natural law. Natural law and natural rights coexist, but natural law is primary, commanding respect for the rights of others.

BRIA 20 2 c Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau …

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), conjured up a time and place before governments existed. Humankind before the invention of government, Hobbes believed, was in a "state of nature" in which the life-sustaining needs and passions of individuals dictated their interactions with each other. With no governmental authority to settle disputes between individuals, each person acted as a sovereign--an authority that answers to no one but itself. Because every individual in the state of nature was autonomous and because food and other items people wanted were scarce, life in the state of nature would be characterized by an incessant war of "every man against every man." It was an existence that Hobbes characterized as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." (PHOTO at Right: Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan).


The Philosophical Perspective Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued for a powerfulabsolute monarch (

John Locke (1632-1704), in his , declared that Hobbes' description of life before government was only half right. While the state of nature might be a state of war, Locke argued that it could just as easily be characterized by "peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation. While agreeing with Hobbes' that individuals in the state of nature would naturally and rationally come together to form a government, Locke argued that the contract people entered into with each other and the leaders of their new government was not permanent because the people did not unconditionally surrender their sovereignty to their leaders. Rather, Locke argued, individuals would grant authority to a government so long as it provided for the common good--protection from the dangers of the state of nature. (PHOTO at Left: John Locke author of Second Treatise of Civil Government). Because life in the state of nature is fraught with peril, Locke wrote, man was:


John Locke > By Individual Philosopher > Philosophy

The arguments Hobbes presented in Leviathan were radically original perspectives on the nature of man and the origins of government. Being in the employ of the monarchy, at least one motive behind Hobbes' writings was a desire to create a plausible defense of the monarchy. In defending the monarchy, however, Hobbes ultimately defended the absolute authority of the sovereign, monarch or not. It was an argument neither the people nor the king was comfortable with.

John Locke, the Social Compact, and the Founding Fathers

For contemporary Americans, one reason for studying Locke (together with Hobbes) is to understand the character of liberalism. A liberal system such as ours enshrines individual rights, but its health depends upon people exercising those rights responsibly. It depends on people taking seriously their duty to respect the rights of others. Many observers believe that, while Americans today are eager to claim their rights, too few are willing to shoulder the attendant responsibilities. Is a rights-based society doomed to degenerate into simple selfishness? Or is it possible to construct a rights philosophy with a robust element of responsibility built into it? Must such a philosophy place natural law above individual right? Must this law have a religious dimension? These are questions that should send us back to Hobbes, Locke, and the architects of the .

Thomas Hobbes and the Seeds of Liberalism | Ashbrook

The mechanical model of man, however, is not sufficient to refute classical natural law. Hobbes develops a second argument based on moral experience, showing that human beings are motivated not only by pleasure and power but also by vanity—a false estimate of one’s superiority to others. In historical writings, Hobbes shows how the passion of vanity has undermined traditional political authority where kings have relied on higher law to gain obedience from the people. The defect of this arrangement is that traditional higher law doctrines are easily exploited by vain and ambitious men who claim superiority to the sovereign because of privileged knowledge of divine, natural, and common law. Hobbes’s account of the English Civil War (1642–60) in Behemoth illustrates the problem: King Charles I was overthrown by Puritan clergymen, democratic Parliamentarians, and lawyers of the common law who sought recognition for their superior knowledge of higher law, yet who could not agree among themselves about whose doctrine was right, producing sectarian wars that reduced English society to the anarchic state of nature. From this frightening analysis, however, Hobbes draws a hopeful lesson: if higher laws are not equated with intangible goods like virtue, wisdom, and salvation, then the ills of civilization can be avoided and mankind can enjoy enduring civil peace.