Hobbes And Locke: The Power Debate

1393 words - 6 pages

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were seventeenth century political philosophers whose different beliefs stemmed from the different contexts in which each man lived.
Hobbes, an aristocrat who lived through the English civil war, had to flee England, watch his monarch’s execution, and observes the violence of human nature at its very worst. Given this experience, his central concern was the need for absolute power to maintain peace and prevent another civil war. On the other hand, John Locke lived and wrote forty years later, after the Glorious Revolution. His ideas developed in the context of a period in which individual’s rights and power were emphasized. He believed that individuals needed freedom from control to reach their full potential. Hobbes became an advocate for absolutism--the belief that because humans are naturally power seeking, a sovereign is needed to maintain peace, and the individual must completely submit to that power. In contrast, Locke advocated constitutionalism, the belief that all individuals have inherit rights, government should be based on consensus, and citizens must fight for their liberty in the face of an overpowering government. These philosophers and their ideas outlined the debate about where power should lie in society–with the individual or with the state.
Although Hobbes and Locke agree that all people are equal, they perceive natural rights and human nature in very different ways. Hobbes believed that people innately love liberty and dominion over others and that men fight due to three “principal causes”: “competition,” which results in men invading for “gain;” “insecurity,” which makes men invade for “safety;” and “glory,” which makes men invade for “reputation.” He states that men are naturally greedy and self-centered without someone to keep them in “awe,” and that with complete freedom man is “brutish” and “nasty.” Because he experienced the English Civil War, during which human nature was at its most violent, he assumes that all men are savage, and that the individual’s place in society must be limited to maintain peace. On the other hand, Locke believed people are not born with beliefs or characteristics; it is their experiences, opinions, and observations that define whom they are. He has more faith that people will behave responsibly and act accordingly for the benefit of society. Locke saw England at a state of peace and stability; therefore, he saw no reason for individuals not to have more control. Hobbes’ theory assumes that all men crave power while Locke’s theory assumes that men can possess power and responsibly use it. These assumptions are the major flaws in each of these theories. Hobbes’ argument is inconsistent: If all men crave power, then none would support the absolute rule that he advocates. In contrast to Locke’s theory there is no guarantee that people will act sensibly. In this way, Hobbes seems to be overly pessimistic about human nature whereas Locke is overly optimistic. ...

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