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Two Political Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

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The Social Contract theory which dominated the European political thought in the eighteen century has played a very important part in the development of the modern political theory and practice. Being the most important of all the speculative theories, it came into being as a result of reaction against the theory of the Divine Origin. This theory was the first to denounce the influence of the church in the state affairs, provided an explanation for the origin of the state and shows the relationship between those who governs and those who are governed. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are the chief exponents of the Contract Theory. Both of them have established their thesis from the beginning of human habitation, though their ideas and opinions are quite distinct.

Hobbes in his theory has only described one contract where Locke has described two. Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and John Locke’s “Two Treaties on Civil Government” these books are considered as bibles in the evolution of modern states system. Though there are criticisms and debates regarding the social contract theory, but the modern political theories today have evolved from these contract theories which has no doubt. The aim of this assignment is to compare and contrast between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and explore their contribution in the development of international relations according to the analysis of their works.


Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government are sometimes seen as the two greatest works of political philosophy in the English language. Liberalism asks, “Given a large number of individuals with roughly equal power, what institutions and policies allow them to attain the common good?” The basic institutional decisions are made via a Social Contract; usually hypothetical, tacit, or normative. Hobbes and Locke follow methodological individualism, deriving the “public” sphere from the “private” sphere of individuals. Based on experience in the English Civil War, Hobbes argued that freed from state restrictions, power-seeking individuals invade each other’s property, implying aware of each against all, in which “peace” is preparation for further conflict. This Hobbesian “state of nature” reflects the human nature he posited.

Examples include Beirut (1989), Bosnia (1995), and the world absent a hegemonic power or a world state. To avoid their destruction, people must agree to be dominated by a permanent, unified, and despotic sovereign, organized as a state no matter whom or what it might be. All individual rights are granted by that state. As Locke suggests, Hobbes did not solve his stated problem. Since the sovereign seeks power, the wrong kind of sovereign can arise, as with Hitler, creating war against its subjects. Facing government that rebels against its people, Locke justified revolt, as with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Rather than rejecting the need for a unified sovereign, to Locke the state’s organizing force- the government must be subordinated to the governed. Locke did not see revolution as automatically provoking Hobbesian havoc, since he assumed a consensus based on “natural” property rights.

In effect, sovereignty is vested in the property-owning class as a whole. His contract gives this class freedom to control resources without state-enforced responsibility to society, assuming that individual ownership produces benefits that trickle down to nonowners. Both of them were advocates of the social contract system, but they were influenced by their surrounding and contemporary events. The American constitution is hugely influenced by the philosophy of John Locke as it includes Natural Rights (Life, Liberty, Property), All People are born Free and Equal, Purpose of Government is to Protect the Rights’ of People, People have the right to rebel against unjust rulers; the question may arise, what would happen if the US constitution was influenced by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.

Similarities and Differences between Locke’s and Hobbes Social Contract Theory

In the 1600’s the political situation of England was being threatened by the constant changes in political powers. Throughout this period two philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, argued the reasons and purposes of government and began to establish different theories for the Social Contract known as the Commonwealth. Part of their main argument, was the need of government and how government should be stated.

The State of Nature
The State of Nature, as is conceived by both philosophers, the state in which all men naturally exist, the time before any government or commonwealth is created or convened. According to the Hobbesian argument, the State of Nature is an amoral state, where there are no moral or ethic values. There are no laws in this state that rule men and far less a common power to keep individual behavior in order. An important aspect in the Hobbesian State of Nature is that where he argues “Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of the body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet, when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself (…)” (Leviathan, Part I Chapter 13 ).

This argument allows us to interpret that men where born as equals with no differences that would change this equality. This view is similar to the Lockean argument where he states that men where born in a “perfect state of freedom and equality.” (John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government: Chapter 2,pg 8). Hobbes and Locke, furthermore agree in the freedom of men after their birth, when they argue that there is no person which can control them in such state, for they are free to do what they desire. Their differences begin after this equality and freedom is argued. For Hobbes, this state of equality will bring discord amongst men, however Locke, argues otherwise. Discord, according to Hobbes, comes from the fact, that since we are all equal, we have the same right to attain that what we desire, however, there will be scarcity, which will create disputes amongst men.

This disagreements and believe of scarcity will then derive in the need to “destroy or subdue one another”(Leviathan, Chapter XIII) in order to insure our participation in that we want to obtain and ultimately, insure our self-preservation. Subsequently, this will create a perpetual state of disorder or war, where we fight for those things we believe will be scarce and will be characterized by a continual state of fear of violent death and war. Locke, on the other hand, believes that this equality shall bring peace amongst men. Beyond from the fact that Locke believes that the earth is an abundant provider of good, where nothing will be scarce, Locke argues that equality will not bring war to people because there is a law that will not allow this to become a fight over those things two men desire in common, a Law of Nature.

Unlike Hobbes State of Nature, Locke’s has a common law for all men, which states “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty or Possession,” (John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government: Chapter 2,pg. 9) meaning that no one can kill or fight another man for the goods that are common, because we will be breaking the Law of Nature. In spite of the fact that there is a Law that will avoid men from fighting over common goods, some men, will have renounced reason, and will break the Law of Nature. This breaking of the Law of Nature, will unleash a momentary state of war amongst the individual affected, considered by himself to be the victim, and the transgressor of your natural rights.

Law of Nature in the State of Nature
The existence of a Law of Nature in the State of Nature, represents one of the biggest differences between the Hobbesian and Lockean view of the State of Nature. In the Hobbesian State of Nature, men are allowed to do whatever they will to do, as of in the Lockean State of Nature, there is still liberty to do what we will, just as long as it does not break the Law of Nature. Hobbes believes in the “dominion over men being necessary to a man’s conservation (…)” (Leviathan. pg. 75) meaning that men have to invade and subdue others in order to insure their self-preservation.

This, counters the Lockean belief where we have to respect others life and liberty, according to the Law of nature. Another difference we can observe between Hobbes and Locke’s view of the State of Nature refers to the common wealth. Even though, both philosophers concur that self-preservation is the most significant commodity in the State of Nature, Locke adds to it the preservation of the rest of mankind. Locke believes that men are to have amongst its priorities the preservation of all mankind while in the State of Nature. This argument will be the foundation to the obligation that Locke gives men in which we are to punish, with slavery or death, those who transgress ones rights and who have renounced reason so they do not transgress the rights of other men.

Police State and Welfare State
The conditions of the contracts stated in Leviathan clearly indicate that Hobbes supported the establishment of despotic monarchy and demanded the unlimited authority of the sovereign. “ If the sovereign commands a man(though justly condemned), to kill, wound or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him, or to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine or any other thing, without which he cannot live, yet hath that man the liberty to disobey” (Leviathan, pt II, ch21). Thus it is quite clear that Hobbes allows the individual to disobey the commands of the sovereign only if his life is in peril. Gooch, in his book “Studies in Diplomacy and State-craft” stated, “Leviathan is only a policeman of super-human size with a truncheon in his hand. His state is a necessary evil, an organ of coercion, not an indispensable instrument of a free and progressive civilization.”

But John Locke cites in the chapter II in his book “But though men, when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative, as the good of the society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse) the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good; but is obliged to secure every one’s property,… … only in the execution of such laws, or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries, and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people” which clearly indicates to a state more open to liberalism and by its core an welfare state.

The existence of property in the State of Nature
The existence of property in the State of Nature is another significant difference between the Hobbesian and Lockean points of view of the State of Nature. According to Locke, property can be obtained even when the commonwealth is not created, however for Hobbes, there cannot be such thing. For Locke, property is defined as “Whatsoever then he [men] removes out of the state of nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with (…)” (Leviathan. pg.19). on the other hand we can discern Hobbes view on property when he states that in the State of Nature, where there is continual “war of every man against every man (…) there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct (…)” (Leviathan. pg. 78). With this, Hobbes contradicts the Lockean argument that states that man can hold property in the State of Nature and ties directly the need of a government to property in the Hobbesian system.

Legislative, Executive Power and the Government

The types of government consistent with both theories appear very similar, but are actually quite different. Hobbes says in chapter 19 of Leviathan that his theory allows for a monarchy when the sovereign power resides in one person only; democracy when the people are represented by an assembly; or aristocracy when the representative is a part of the people only. He then goes on to say that when people are dissatisfied with the government, these three forms of government are referred to by different names; tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy, respectively. In chapter 10 of the Second Treatise, Locke refers to the same three types of government with the exception that he calls an aristocracy an oligarchy; but the definitions are the same. Where the two theories differ is that Hobbes says the sovereign power must be given to one of these types of government and there can be no mixing of the power.

Locke, on the other hand, allows for mixes between the three. In fact, he prefers a legislative branch to have the power of making laws, while the executive has the power of enforcing those laws. Finally, Hobbes and Locke have similar and contrasting views on the dissolution of government. Hobbes compares the Sovereign to a mortal god, a Leviathan, in the last paragraph of chapter 28 in Leviathan. Then, in chapter 29, he says that the Sovereign is the soul of society. When the government collapses, the soul no longer exists and each member of society must seek a new sovereign to protect them. Likewise, Locke says in chapter 19 of the Second Treatise, that the Legislative “is the Soul that gives Form, Life, and Unity to the Commonwealth.” Although they use similar language here to describe the power source of their respective governments, Hobbes and Locke have different views about whether or not that power can be legitimately taken back by the people. In chapter 18 of Leviathan, Hobbes says that once the power is transferred to the Sovereign, the process is irreversible.

Outside forces, such as a conquering nation, may cause the government to fall, forcing the people back into the State of Nature where they can contract again. However, all internal causes of the dissolution of the government are unjustified, such as the people withdrawing their support of the Sovereign. They promised their support by contracting to form the government, and so are bound to continue that support until the Sovereign can no longer fulfill his part of the contract. Locke, on the other hand, allows for the contract to be justifiably broken internally. Locke, contrary to Hobbes, says in chapter 13 of the Second Treatise that the power of the legislative is given through a trust. Once that trust is violated, the people retain the supreme power to remove or alter the legislative.

In the end of the Second Treatise, Locke is arguing about the dissolution of the government. He says that some people consider the right to form a new government by the people as detrimental to the existence of any government. Locke answers them by saying three things. First, it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong; people will revolt and overthrow the government if they are mistreated. Second, people will tolerate a great amount of poor governing without revolting, so long as the mistakes do not continue. Thirdly, having the reasons which warrant for a revolt by the people written down in the constitution is the best defense against rebellion. Nevertheless, the body of people will be the judge to determine when the government violates its trust.

Hobbes, Locke and International Relations
In international relations (IR), Thomas Hobbes’s politics has widely been considered as providing a basis for the realist understanding of international relations. Although Hobbes himself did not say much about the relations between states, in his words Leviathans or Commonwealths,/his name, together with Niccolo Machiavelli’s, is cited in almost all treatments of what has come to be known as ‘realism’ in the academic IR. Yet, Hobbes himself is partly responsible for the so-called realist interpretations. First, in famous chapter 13 of Leviathan, where he describes the ‘state of nature’ as a ‘state of war’, while he treats the state of nature between individual persons to be fictional, he tells us that the state of nature actually occurs between persons of sovereign authority.

Second, when Hobbes himself and especially those who made use of his writings in terms of the realist model derive the conclusion of international relations being a state of war, they apply the inter-personal state of nature to the sphere of international relations and make an analogy between individual persons and states. With regard to this analogy, Hobbes provides textual support. In chapter 21 of Leviathan (titled ‘Of Liberty of Subjects’), Hobbes attributes the states with the same rights as individuals had before the establishment of the Leviathan. In fact, it is this analogy between the individuals and the states, between the state of nature and international relations that constituted the basis for realist interpretations of Hobbes.

One may detect two ways that theorists of IR have made of Hobbes’s ideas. First, Hobbes’s theory of politics supplies a model of IR. Second, IR does indeed seem to be similar to the relations among individual human beings that Hobbes depicts in nature, or in the state of nature, which is a state of war. Hobbes is seen as the central figure when it comes to the origins of the realist school in IR. Furthermore, it is claimed that there are similarities and continuities between Hobbes’s ideas and many realist scholars of IR in the twentieth century such as E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Thompson, to name but a few.

As a natural philosopher by profession, Locke argued that all humans were born of equal ability and that we may suppose that “the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” (Locke 1690: Book 2, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2) and that hence all knowledge is acquired and shaped by an individual’s environment and experiences. These two notions directly relate to the assumptions of the State of Nature, the Law of Nature, the idea of a ‘Social Contract’ and the notion of Property, which Locke holds about the individual, states, and the realm of politics. In the international arena, “the definitive demonstration of the existence of the state of nature is the permanent condition of international relations.” (Ward 2006: 693). The State of Nature, according to Locke, thus exists wherever individuals or commonwealths find themselves without a superior governmental authority to which they have surrendered their rights in the hope of finding a “sanctuary from the anarchic condition” (Cox 1960: 106).

According to Lee Ward “Locke envisions a basis for international norms derived from natural law and convention that regulates conflict and cooperation among independent societies in a broader international society” (Ward 2006: 692). Locke regards such Leagues and Alliances as a good means to settle affairs “by positive agreement” (Locke 1988: 269). They offer a way through which one might not be able to completely alleviate the dilemma of the State of Nature, but nevertheless significantly improve the states’ condition in it. As a Liberal, Locke upholds two of Liberalism’s most sacred principles: citizens’ equality and fundamental rights.

Although this differs greatly from Realism’s principle that human nature is intrinsically evil and power-hungry, Locke’s human nature does not deny the existence of people who fit the Realist’s description of human nature. Locke believes that, although humans are naturally inclined to obey natural laws, “we have a right to punish violators in order to help deter future violations and to extract just reparations from the guilty…” meaning that he actually accepts the Realist reality that humans can be evil. However, he accepts the Realist reality as a problem with a Liberal solution.

Ultimately, we can determine a clear differences and similarities between the two thinker’s points of view concerning the Social Contract theory. Both Hobbes and Locke argue that men are born in the State of Nature equal and in complete freedom. They also agree that men’s most important good is its self-preservation. In respect of the differences between the two thinkers, we can summarize that Hobbes argues that the State of Nature is a state of constant war and fear of violent death, where as Locke states that while in the State of Nature, there could be war, however it is not always occurring. In the Lockean State of Nature, there is a common law for all men, called the Law of Nature, which they are allowed to uphold because the are political individuals, while in the Hobbesian state, there is not such thing as political individualism and there is no Law of Nature to uphold.


1. Hobbes, Thomas (1991) Leviathan [1651]. Richard Tuck, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2. Locke, John (1994) Two Treatises of Government [1690]. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 3. Cox, Richard H.; Locke on war and peace; Clarendon Press (1960) 4. Locke, John; Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett; Cambridge University Press (1988) 5. Ward, Lee; “Locke on the Moral Basis of International Relations”; American Journal of Political Science; Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jul., 2006), pp. 691-705 6. J. Jenkins, Understanding Locke An Introduction to Philosophy Through John Locke’s Essay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), p.231. 7. Dunn, John. The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. 8. ‘Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan’, in Murray Forsyth and Maurice Keens-Soper (eds), The Political Classics: A Guide to the Essential Texts from Plato to Rousseau (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 9. Forsyth, Murray, 1979. ‘Thomas Hobbes and the External Relations of States’, British Journal of International Studies, 5(3): 196_/209.

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