Two Political Theories

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Why do people act the way we do? Is it human nature? Many philosophers during the enlightenment, and other movements like the scientific revolution, tried to answer this question, along with other questions about human nature, war and political society. Some of these writers were John Calvin, David Hume, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes. The focus of this paper is the social contract. When discussing social contract, you have to mention two political theory pioneers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. According to Locke and Hobbes, social contract is dictated by society needing government interaction to stay away from a state of war which is derived from a state of nature. Social contract, which stemmed from the enlightenment, was popularized through the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These two men had similar and opposing views on human nature, government interaction, states of war, and politics in society. Many of their ideas are still relevant today.

Before digging into the text and comparing Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, it is important to have an idea of what the Enlightenment was and how it impacted many writings including those of Hobbes and Locke. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the enlightenment was a period in which people questioned the previous thinkers, ideas, and philosophies that were seen as significant. Things like politics, philosophy, religion and science were reanalyzed and re-interpreted. People stopped accepting things as others said they were. Even communication changed and ordinary citizens had access to new materials which went against everything they had been taught previously. These new ideas were made evident in many writings, but the two most prominent were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. These two men are the founders of political thought and many modern political ideas are still based off their research and writings.

One important idea that is debated among philosophers during the enlightenment is the idea of social contract. Social contract is an agreement between the people in a society for the betterment of the group as a whole. Usually in a social contract, people give up some freedoms for protection from a type of government. For this idea, I will focus on the two prominent philosophers I mentioned above, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes was influenced strongly by the scientific revolution. His famous work Leviathan begins by saying that all men are machines. Hobbes asserts in chapter 6 that men’s bodies are performing everyday functions, not because we consciously choose to do so, but because men’s bodies are wired to do things such as speaking, walking, and thinking (Wootton 131).

In relation to social contract, Hobbes said that people give up some individual liberty in order to get a common security. Hobbes referred to this as “the mutual transferring of rights” (Wootton 161). Hobbes said that everyone had an equal right to everything. There are no limits to natural rights. When social contract is in place, people lost their natural rights and gain limited rights. In Hobbes view, men are born with natural self-interest. Their state of nature, as it is called, is “nasty, brutish, and short” (Wootton 159). Hobbes is different than Locke because he writes that without a social contract, state of nature is a state of distrust which inevitably leads to a state of war. Men pursue peace so they pursue a social contract. In order for the social contract to be effective, men must do two things (Wootton 161):

  • Men must renounce rights they previously had in their state of nature.
  • Men must agree to live together and enforce some type of agreement or contract and there must be laws or rules to keep and enforce peace and justice.

Hobbes suggest living under one ruler, an autocracy, because living under a sovereign is better than living in a state of nature. Hobbes also says that it is better to have one ruler because they can keep peace and enforce rules easier. He was trying to keep England under a traditional form of authority.

The philosopher that is discussed as much as Thomas Hobbes in relation to social contract and human nature is John Locke. John Locke said, “State of nature is a state of liberty to do as one sees fit” (Wootton 287). This however does not mean that men are free to do whatever they please. In Locke’s writings, he describes state of nature as a time without civil authority or government. Again, this does not mean there is no morality. It is a pre-political time not a pre-moral time. Locke’s theory is that all men are equal because God has given every man the same resources. We all belong to God equally. In Locke’s view, people abandon the state of nature because it can lead to a state of war.

That does not mean it always will. This is one difference between Locke and Hobbes. To avoid a state of war, people choose to create civil government. In Locke’s theory property plays an important role. Since he says that all men are created equal by God, he asserts that all things given to men by God is equal. Property is one thing given by God. In Locke’s view, men are given property and they are to use this to live off of. Men are not to take more than they are allotted, they are not to take property from their neighbors. State of war comes from property and slavery. (Insert slavery quote). According to Locke, it is basic nature to punish those who take from you, this enacts the state of war. Men abandon this state of nature to protect their property which can be their actual land or their bodies by what is called social contract.

When a civil government is created, men come together to represent their families and give up their God given power to punish men. In Locke’s social contract, men give their previous power to government and in return the government protects society by creating laws and restrictions which they then enforce by punishing those who break the laws. This contract gives power to the government instead of individuals. Once these men have created a political society they gain three things (Wootton 320):

  • Laws- rules by which people follow to keep peace
  • Judges- To enact new laws and/or rules
  • Enforcement of laws- seeing that punishment is carried out accordingly.

Another thing about Locke’s view of social contract, is that it can be dissolved. Locke states that at any time, things can go back to the way they were previously when men used their God given natural rights.

When comparing Locke and Hobbes, they favored two different types of government. Since Hobbes thought a state of war was inevitable in a state of nature, he asserted that the best commonwealth to combat this would be an absolute ruler. He thought men needed someone to make all the decisions by oneself. Hobbes thought this would be best because men would not be able to input their wants and an absolute ruler would be more likely to keep society out of war by establishing rules and enforcing punishment when those rules were broken. Hobbes describes the commonwealth as an artificial person which mimics the human body. He referred to this as the Leviathan (Wootton 117).

Hobbes said people would enter this contract with an absolute and give up some freedoms to gain protection, but the Leviathan owed the people nothing. Locke on the other hand thought men needed a say in the government. He declared that there should be a government to protect men from the state of war which can derive from the state of nature, but it should be a limited government. Unlike Hobbes, Locke stated that men would give up some freedoms for protection, but the government in rule owed the people. Locke’s idea of government was more quid pro quo. If the people thought the government was not doing their part, they had the right to a revolution (Wootton 343-347).

When researching social contract, there are three main writers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, as well as Jean Jacques Rousseau. I have not mentioned him because he was not in the earlier part of the readings. These three philosophers had much impact on the writings of the constitution and the founding fathers. Just because many people have seen these writings as influential, does not mean that is the consensus. One opposer of social contract theory is David Hume. Hume states in ‘Of the Original Contract” that there are people al over the world that do not have the choice but to give up their power to government. He does agree that all governments began with consent and a contract, but he called it original contract. Hume even says that if people preached about voluntary consent or mutual contract in certain places they could be imprisoned (Wootton 354-355). The impact of these writings are still reflected in modern writings related to political theory.

Cite this paper

Two Political Theories. (2021, Oct 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/two-political-theories/

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