Political Philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

Political Philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes


The philosophies of both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes present very interesting assertions which certain times have common points of confluence, while at other times; they substantially depart from each other. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the two philosophers’ views of the state of nature and the fundamental purpose of political society. Besides, it is to decide which of them is more plausible and provide reasons as to why.

Key words: philosophy, social contract theory, political society, state, government

In order to put this discussion in perspective, it is imperative to explain certain key terminologies, as identified hereinabove, right from the outset. This is largely because the terminologies found the basis upon which the very essence of the discussion is founded. The first of these is the word state. Although the term may be conceptualized differently, it has been understood generally as meaning a political system of a group of people who are organized politically besides the system of rules which are used to exercise the resulting authority over the group of people who form the state (Garner, 2004).

Certain times, the term state has even been used synonymously with the phrase political society. This is because a political society is an association that men (human beings) establish in order that they be able to achieve certain desired ends (Garner, 2004). The said ends whose needs for achievement necessitate the association which precipitates into a state include peace, civilization as well as order (Salmond, 1947 as reproduced in Garner, 2004).

The next term which becomes necessary to be defined is the legal and political concept commonly referred to as government. This term, owing to its near inherent nexus with the concept state, almost becomes a flipside of the political term state. The term government may be understood as meaning that particular segment of the state by which the state’s relations with other state entities are organized and managed (Woolsey, 1878 as reproduced in Garner, 2004).

Although it has been seen that the organ which dictates a state’s relations with other state entities is the government, the governance system of each state remains a function of certain fundamental philosophical nuances. This then calls for the definition of the term philosophy. Philosophy, within the concept of this paper, means a set of ideas which direct the behaviour of a person or organization; read political society (Bullon, 2003). Thus, philosophy forms the glue which gels governance issues of a political society.

The final terminology to be given a consideration is the phrase of social contract theory. Social contract theory is a philosophy of governance which describes the tacit agreement that citizens of a political state have in place with their state. This theory forms the seam upon which the relationship between the state and the citizen is based. It thus explains the source of the authority that the state exercises over its citizenry. It basically presupposes that all rights are vested in the individual. The individual then gives up some of their rights to a common entity, the state, which then takes upon it the responsibility for the provision of such services as security et cetera (Friend, 2004).

With this background securely in place, the question then becomes one for the illustration of the political philosophical leanings for each of the two philosophers, namely John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. What did each of these philosophers enunciate? It is now proposed that a little discussion for each of them be set down here. This would in turn help to illustrate the points of confluence as well as those of departure for the two philosophers as required.

Let us first turn our sight to Thomas Hobbes and consider his political philosophies in a nut shell. Who was this man Hobbes? Hobbes was an English philosopher who lived between the years 1588 to 1679 (William, 2003). While being considered today as the father of the modern day field of political philosophy, Locke’s biggest contribution remains his great contributions in formulating the social contract theory as a political philosophy (Lloyd & Sreedhar, 2008).

One event that greatly impacted upon the philosophical lenses of Hobbes was the English Civil War. The effects of the war left very lasting negative impressions upon him. The atrocities that the people underwent during the civil war invoked into Hobbes the constant call and need for peace. This, in his view, did thus call for stability of the government because compared to the horrors visited upon the people by war; he believed any government would be an attractive alternative to war. In order to forestall acts that may visit war-like horrors upon the populace, he argued, the people thus had an obligation to keep off from activities that could undermine the government. From this argument, it may be seen that in Hobbes view, the social contract theory should be an agreement whose intent must be geared at ensuring political stability (Lloyd & Sreedhar, 2008).

According to Hobbes, this theory could be used to justify the different political principles. This is because, in Hobbes view, the theory readily appeals to persons who are rational and free. Interestingly however for this great philosopher, it is from this same philosophical formulation that he gained an infamy. The said infamy arose out of the philosopher’s assertion that human beings are supposed to wholly submit to the sovereign authority (state). From the foregoing, it becomes apparent that Hobbes uses the social contract theory to vouch for an enhanced governmental power, hence asymmetrical political power relations between the people and the government.

On the other hand is John Locke who lived from 1632 to 1704. Locke’s political philosophy was founded upon ownership of property (Moseley, 2005). He argued that a human being’s political philosophy derives from self-ownership and the resulting right of ownership of property. To Locke, therefore, property relations found the basis of governmental role in the life of the people (Moseley, 2005).

What political philosophy was Locke propounding through this assertion? This, I consider, was his own version and brand of a social contract theory which had earlier been put forward by Thomas Hobbes. This is because like Hobbes, Locke also suggests that the entry point of governmental authority in the lives of human beings is out of a common need. Whereas for Hobbes this point had been out of the common need for peace, for Locke, this derives from the common need for security for one’s property. In Locke’s view therefore, the social contract between the sovereign authority (state) and its subjects is out of the need for the state to provide and guarantee the security of the subjects’ property.

Suffice it to say, that the common point of the two philosophers’ political philosophy was their subscription to the social contract theory. This then drives us to the next level of the discussion which is to inquire into the point of departure for these two people in their philosophical bent.

Considering the way the two lived and practised their philosophies, their point of departure had to do with the exact limits of governmental intrusion into the life of their subjects. Hobbes, as has been seen hereinbefore, could take any amount of governmental intrusion into his life. This was out of the need to maintain stability of the country so as to avoid war; a phenomenon which he considered a worse devil. Thus, Hobbes’ conceptualization of this political philosophy was at a level that was nearly absolute.

This understanding of the social contract theory by Locke, though not fundamentally departing from that of Hobbes, has a slight distinction. This is to the extent that Locke could not breach too much governmental intrusion in the subjects’ lives. This is seen for instance when he opted to go into exile during the harsh reign of King Charles II; during which time the Uniformity Act was enacted and chose to stay until after when the monarch passed on (Moseley, 2005).

In conclusion, it is to be submitted that both philosophers’ positions are sound. However, on a balance of probability, Locke’s is more plausible. This is because the contractual relationship between the individual and the state should be mutually beneficial. However, if the state becomes, repressive, then the subjects cannot continue to be under the obligation to be subservient to it. Submissiveness of the subjects in the face of repression does not bode well for human rights development in the political society. The subjects cannot afford to be obedient when their own rights are under threat simply because they fear war as espoused by Hobbes. There must be a balance between the subjects’ patriotic duties within the social contract relationship.


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