Back To CourseHistory 102: Western Civilization II
14 chapters | 108 lessons
Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
The world is full of stark dichotomies: good and evil, left and right, chocolate and vanilla - just to name a few. Political theory in the 17th century, according to many historians and philosophers, experienced a similar rift. The very nature of government and sources of power was debated and even experimented upon. Whereas today we have Democrats and Republicans arguing over these issues, in 17th-century England, the two prevailing viewpoints were best exemplified by the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
Thomas Hobbes was the older of the two men, being born in 1588 in Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, England. Early in the 17th century, Hobbes went to study at Oxford, graduating in 1608. After graduation, Hobbes began working as a tutor for the Cavendish family, tutoring the future Earl of Devonshire. Though he continued to work for the Cavendish family intermittently for the rest of his life, Hobbes also made several voyages to Europe to learn and work with his philosophical colleagues, including Galileo, Mersenne, and René Descartes.
Hobbes was a staunch and outspoken Royalist and in 1640, for fear of his own safety, he fled to Paris as Parliament and King Charles I moved closer and closer to civil war. During this time in self-imposed exile from England, Hobbes began publishing philosophical works on the nature of knowledge, language, and humanity. He watched the political developments in his home country from afar, and soon after his return in 1651, he boldly published his most famous - and most political - work, Leviathan. He continued to publish polemical and philosophical works throughout the 1650s, often arguing with his republican contemporary John Bramall.
Hobbes continued to write and publish throughout the 1660s, though his works became less political. For instance, in 1675 he published a translation of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. Hobbes died in 1679 at 91 years old.
Throughout his life, Hobbes believed that the only true and correct form of government was the absolute monarchy. He argued this most forcefully in his landmark work, Leviathan. This belief stemmed from the central tenet of Hobbes' natural philosophy that human beings are, at their core, selfish creatures. According to Hobbes, if man is placed in a state of nature (that is, without any form of government) humans would be in a state of constant warfare with one another. In this natural state, Hobbes stated, the life of a man was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'
Hobbes' view of human nature was shaped largely by the English Civil War, which took place from 1642 to 1649 and culminated in the beheading of King Charles I. Hobbes considered the ensuing chaotic interregnum period, from 1649 to 1660, to be as close to that basic state of nature as humans could get. Considering the highly dysfunctional nature of English government during that time, Hobbes' views should come as little surprise.
Because of Hobbes' pessimistic view of human nature, he believed the only form of government strong enough to hold humanity's cruel impulses in check was absolute monarchy, where a king wielded supreme and unchecked power over his subjects. While Hobbes believed in social contract theory (that is, the theory that a ruler has an unspoken, implicit contract with his people requiring him to reign fairly), he ascribed nearly total power to the monarch, and did not believe the people to have any right to rebel whatsoever.
Hobbes' theoretical adversary was born in 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, England. Locke also attended Oxford, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1656. He continued on with his master's, and in 1660, he began lecturing at Oxford on the classics.
Locke became a doctor as well as pursuing his academic career, studying and working alongside some of the greatest English minds of the 17th century, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, who became one of Locke's closest friends. He was a founding member of the English Royal Society, which promoted scientific inquiries and the arts. In 1667, he took up residence with Lord Ashley and moved to London, becoming embroiled in the thick of English politics.
Throughout the next 20 years Locke spent time in London, Oxford, France, and Holland, often depending upon his allies' and his own political fortunes. Upon his return to England in 1689, Locke published his two most popular and influential works, Two Treatises of Government and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke went on to serve several years on the English Board of Trade before his death in 1704.
Throughout Locke's political writings he also favored a monarchy as the best form of government. However, contrary to Hobbes, Locke considered the best type of monarchy to be one that was severely limited in its power by the power and will of the monarch's collective subjects. Locke also believed in social contract theory, yet, whereas Hobbes believed the monarch gained unlimited power once that initial contract was implicitly recognized, Locke claimed the social contract between a monarch and his subjects was supposed to be continuously scrutinized. Indeed, according to Locke, this contract could be broken by the collective will of the people, and the government and monarch overthrown, if the king began to rule arbitrarily and unfairly.
Similar to Hobbes, Locke's political theories were shaped by the political climate in which he lived. Locke lived through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when English Protestant parliamentarians forced Catholic James II to abdicate the English throne in favor of William of Orange and his royal English wife, Mary Stuart. While Locke's view of suitable government differed in degree from Hobbes' view, it functioned on, and arose from, a fundamentally different conception of human nature. Locke believed that humans, when placed in a natural state, were generally good and wise. Human beings, according to Locke, were social and tolerant beings that, if left unmolested, they would naturally work to better their own position and the community in which they lived.
This general faith in humanity underpinned Locke's belief in a limited monarchy. A monarch's subjects could provide for themselves and determine, as a community, the best way forward. If the monarch ruled in such a manner as to hamper the community's forward progress, the monarch's subjects were not only allowed, but justified in the removal of the government.
Both Hobbes and Locke were widely read and their political theories thoroughly discussed in their time. Though Hobbes paradoxically ended his book endorsing the new government and the parliamentarian rebels, it was consistent with the underlying message of respect for the ruling power. Ironically, when the royal authority did return to England in 1660, he had to backtrack from his endorsement in Leviathan despite being a noted Royalist throughout the interregnum period.
Whereas Hobbes' writings had an impact on contemporary English society, Locke's writings would achieve greater distinction in posterity. Locke's political theories continued to be read, and his recognition of individuals' possessions of at least a modicum of inalienable rights have caused him to be seen as one of the founders of classical liberalism. Indeed, several passages in both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are taken nearly verbatim from Locke's Two Treatises of Government.
The competing political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke represent the disparate governments that were present across 17th-century Europe. For example, the absolute monarchy espoused by Thomas Hobbes was alive and well in the centralized monarchy of Louis XIV's France, while the conditional rule and social contract theory posited by Locke was exemplified by the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Furthermore, both men's theories - though Locke's more so - had an impact on the growth of social contract theory and the idea that citizens had rights that could not be infringed upon, even by a sitting king or queen. These ideas flowered later in history and, in part, helped to influence the beliefs of men who would institute today's democracies, republics, and constitutional monarchies.
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Back To CourseHistory 102: Western Civilization II
14 chapters | 108 lessons