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John Locke (1632 - 1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) were both known as English, social contract theorists as well as natural law theorists. However, they are both completely different in terms of their stand and conclusions in several laws of nature. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher from Malmesbury, England. He became famous when his book, “Leviathan,” laid the foundation of Western political philosophy. Hobbes garnered recognition as the champion of absolutism for the sovereign. John Locke, on the other hand, has been hailed as the father of liberalism. John Locke obtained his education at a prestigious institution in London – Westminster School and studied medicine at Oxford. He was one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and proved to be a great English philosopher and physician who greatly contributed to the American Declaration of Independence, focusing on the classical republicanism and liberal theory.

Historical context

Both philosophers’ views were deeply influenced by their respective socio-political background and historical life experiences. Hobbes was writing at the time of the English Civil War, a time when fear of violent death was prevalent, the state of nature was a close reality. He was influenced by the chaos he was viewing in his lifetime, where statehood or rather sovereignty of the state was insecure. Hobbes’s views were psychologically influenced by exaggerated stories of the Spanish Armada coming towards England to attack and his experience of witnessing King Charles I’s beheading.

Locke was considered part of the propertied aristocracy and was part of the entourage of wealthy Earl of Shaftesbury, who owed his lifelong gratitude to Locke for curing his liver problem. Locke was fortunate enough to be writing after the horrific events of the civil war and hence, did not view as seriously the chaos brought by conflicting claims to authority and reached his positivist position on the state of nature and the essence of human nature. In the struggle between the King of England and the Parliament – known as the Glorious Revolution or the Bloodless Revolution (1688) – Locke supported the constitutional monarchy.

 Views on Human Nature

Hobbes sees man as a creature of desire seeking selfish goals and Locke as one of the reasons that seek prudence. According to Locke, man is by nature a social animal, but in Hobbes’s view man is not by nature a social animal, society could not exist except by the power of the state.

Hobbes does not accept Aristotle’s dictum that ‘man is by nature a political animal’, or St. Aquinas’ belief that ‘man is by nature a social animal.’ Hobbes’s experience made him believe that when the state becomes weak, men tend to behave like wild animals. Highly impressed by Galileo’s mechanistic model, Hobbes postulated that all nature including human nature could be explained mechanistically. According to him, man is always moving, engaged in an incessant activity and is constantly driven by his desire or appetite to gain power over others. Appetite is the driving force behind men’s struggle for power. In his view, man is an isolated beast or a purely egoistic creature that is captive of the motions of his mind which in turn are reflections of the appetites of his body. Furthermore, Hobbes saw men as roughly equal.

Locke in his book Essay Concerning Human Understanding starts with a presumption that every individual has certain innate, inborn and indefeasible rights. He presents a more humane picture of a man and emphasizes morality. He believed that human beings are naturally endowed with social instinct; they are basically decent and good, and socially inclined and capable of ruling themselves. According to Locke, humans are peace-loving and not quarrelsome; they are moral and rational creatures. For him, humans were altruistic and the object of all is to substitute pleasure for pain.

Views on the State of Nature

As in the ancient Indian classic, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the state of nature in Hobbes’s philosophy is exemplified by Matsyanyaya (law of the fish) i.e. a state of total anarchy. The state of nature is depicted as one marked by an atmosphere of extreme insecurity. Hobbes holds a negative conception of the state of nature. In his view, it represents a state of permanent war, a permanent threat to the continued existence of the individual. The extremity of Hobbes’ state of nature is typified as the “warre of every man against every man”. This one line sums up the severity of the scenario presented by Hobbes and informs why the life of man in the state of nature would be “nasty, brutish and short”. According to Hobbes, acting for one’s own security or survival is the primary objective one has in the state of nature. Self-preservation is the only right (or perhaps obligation) independent of government. For Hobbes, the transition to the state (sovereign) is a necessity to get out of a state of destruction and anarchy.

In Locke’s opinion, the state of nature was a state of perfect freedom. People had the liberty to do anything and everything, but it was not a state of license because in the state of nature, the law of nature was quite operative and reason prevented men from doing harmful work. In the state of nature, everybody had full freedom to do whatever they desired. But this unlimited freedom on the way of enjoying freedom for others and people of the state of nature sometimes inflicted harm or injury upon others, not out of bad motive but out of ignorance. According to Locke, there were several inconveniences in the state of nature. The Lockean state of nature is pre-political rather than pre-social. He believed that people of the state of nature were very often guided by reason and good motive and wanted to settle disputes among themselves. But the inconveniences motivated them to set up an authority that will implement the law of nature and judge its implementation in an impartial manner. Unlike Hobbes, he held the belief that if these steps are taken, the state of nature would be an abode of peace and tranquillity.

Through their understanding of human nature, in terms of desire or rationality, their understanding of rights and obligation and their laws of nature, we can see Locke’s state of nature as being one of far greater security than that of Hobbes. However, although Locke’s state of nature sounds like the better place to be, his methods of reaching his conclusion seem more fragile than those of Hobbes, whose logical and scientific framework apparently stands on the stronger foundation. Locke’s contract was for a judge (adjudicator) that would protect the inalienable rights of humans whereas Hobbes’s was for a master (powerful sovereign) that would guarantee order and prevent chaos. Not only did the two reach different conclusions about human nature but also differed in their adopted methodologies to arrive at it, thereby, propounding contrasting social contracts.

Contemporary Relevance

Hobbes’s philosophy is associated with classical realist theory in international relations whereas Locke’s is seen as an inspiration for the liberals. ‘State’ (or sovereign) is the main actor or unit of analysis in the realist theory whereas ‘individuals’ are the main actor or focus of analysis in the liberal international theory. The post-cold war era of the 1990s is remembered for the rapid advances in liberalization, globalization and focus on individual values such as human rights. Those days can be regarded as the heydays of the Lockean philosophy.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of a liberal foreign policy that led to interventions in the name of human rights violations in places such as Iraq and Libya also reinforced Hobbes views about chaos and anarchy in the absence of a strong sovereign. As soon as the state structures or strongman regimes in places like Libya collapsed, the society descended into anarchy. The question of intervention was pivotal in the case of Syria also. There was again a clash of views in the West between those (Lockean) who wanted to intervene and topple the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in order to protect individual human rights and those (Hobbesian) who argued for restraint as, in their view, the collapse of the sovereign would have led to more death and destruction.

With the rise of nationalism throughout the world and the comeback of great power politics, realism is again gaining traction and liberalism is struggling to remain at the fore. Hobbes argument for a strong sovereign is being used by ‘strong’ leaders to clamp down on individual rights in the name of national interest and security. The pushback from the civil society and the assertion of individual rights also reflect that Locke’s ideas such as inalienable rights are deeply ingrained in the psyche of people and not easy to trample upon. The right synthesis of the two philosophies would strike a balanced and nuanced approach. Hence, a delicate balance between the two sides is needed in order to move forward harmoniously, i.e. strong enough nation-states to survive anarchy and also guaranteed protection within those states of individual values such as the right to life, liberty, and property.



1. Joe, Comrade, “The State of Nature: Thomas Hobbes vs. John Locke”, Owlcation, published on Oct 05, 2017, URL: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/The-State-of-Nature-Thomas-Hobbes-Vs-John-Locke/

2. Celine, “Difference Between Locke and Hobbes”, DifferenceBetween.Net, published on May 22, 2017, URL: http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/politics/ideology-politics/difference-between-locke-and-hobbes

3. James, “Locke versus Hobbes”, James's Liberty file, published on unspecified, URL: https://jim.com/hobbes.htm/

4. “HOBBES VS LOCKE: STATE OF NATURE”, The-Philosophy.com, published on unspecified, URL: https://www.the-philosophy.com/hobbes-vs-locke/

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Written By Amandeep Hanspal

Software engineer turned geopolitical enthusiast.

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