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The Social Contract Theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

Info: 2160 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 12th Aug 2019

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Jurisdiction / Tag(s): UK Law


Thomas Hobbes (1588 1679) and John Locke (1632 1704) developed their political theories at a time of religious, political and social upheaval in England. They were archetypal enlightenment figures well acquainted with the scientific and philosophical concerns of their time. Hobbes was classically educated but later in life became interested scientific thought and metaphysics. Locke was a physician and a member of the Royal Society. They shared the enlightenment view of the world. For them God was the first cause but their scientific understanding of cause and effect shaped their view, not just of physical objects in the natural world and how they interacted but also of individuals and how they interacted in society. Hobbes published Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil in 1651, writing that his book was “occasioned by the disorders of the present time.” (leviathan). Locke published Two Treaties of Government in 1690 “to justify” (TToG) the struggle of 1640 1660 and the revolution of 1688. It was a time a great political turmoil. The certainty and stability that had been provided by the divine authority of the monarch had been removed. With the removal of government legitimised by the church and by God a return to stability required the creation of new certainties. Hobbes and Locke were both making social, political and religious statements as a result of the Puritan uprising and civil war. More importantly they were intending to formulate forms of government that had intellectual integrity and gave legitimacy to the political structure after revolution and the removal of the old order. Using scientific method they each argued from their understanding of the first principals of human interaction and both came to powerful rational conclusions. To develop their theories of government they started with man in his original condition, or “the state of nature”. Where they differed was in their assumptions about the nature of ungoverned human interaction and behaviour. (jb summary). Starting from their very different assumptions as to the “state of nature” they came to different conclusions and provided different prescriptions for the government of society.

The Social Contract

Prior to the civil war in England government was theocratic. This saw kings as divinely appointed and their subjects as divinely commanded to obey them. Government was held to be of God rather than a human contrivance. There was a “contract of subjection” theory which held that the ruler should provide justice and protection for his subjects in return for their obedience (k 209). James 1, King of England (1603 –25), in his True Law of Free Monarchies admits that the king ought to behave honorably but that if he did not and broke his side of their contract that did not release his subjects from obedience.

The enlightenment, the period from the mid seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, saw a move away from theological or religious based thinking to inquiry founded on scientific reasoning . The enlightenment saw the development of social contract theory of which Hobbes and Locke were the principal exponents. The theory of social contract is essentially a morally justified agreement made amongst individuals through which an organised society is brought into existence . It is used as a means of demonstrating the value of government, the grounds for political obligation and authority over a particular geographical area . The classic form of social contract theory suggests that there is a stateless society from which individual’s wish to escape by entering into a social contract. The social contract obliges citizens to respect and obey the state, in exchange for stability and security that only a system of political rule can provide. The social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke start from the concept of man in a primitive state without political authority or formal checks on the behaviour of individuals. They considered that such a stateless autonomous condition could not prevail if man was to move beyond a primitive existence . This could only be achieved if man could be guided by natural law that would lead them to a developed social and political life . Hobbes and Locke argued that the state had arisen out of a voluntary agreement, or social contract, made by individuals who recognised that only the establishment of sovereign power could safeguard them from the insecurity of the state of nature.

Natural law theory paralleled the mechanistic scientific theories successfully demonstrated by enlightenment figures such as Galileo and Newton. Natural law theory held that there were immutable principals of law that existed as part of the natural world that define what is right, just and good for man. These principals were discoverable by the use of reason and all men were subject to these laws. States or other sovereign entities could only have validity and legitimacy if their laws were consistent with these natural laws. (notes)

The view that man in the state of nature had constructed the state for his own security was not new but had been resisted by the church in favour of divine authority. The Canons of the Church of England, drafted in 1606, stated “If any man shall affirm… that men at first ran up and down as wild creatures … acknowledging no superiority one over another until they were taught by experience the necessity of government; … and that consequently all civil power … is deduced from their consents naturally … and is not God’s ordinance…; he doth greatly err.” ( See Carlyles, Medieval Theory – k210).

The revolution in England had seen the end of the rule by divine right. The state could now be regarded as a social structure crafted by man, rather than a condition of man ordained by God. As an artefact it could be studied and improved. Hobbes, Locke and others were free to consider the development of political structure from the starting point of man in the state of nature. Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’ stated the case for absolute sovereignty, while Locke in ‘Second Treatises of Government’ argued the defense of parliamentary government and a limited liberal state.

Thomas Hobbes

Perhaps because he was witness to the Puritan revolution, Hobbes feared man’s anarchical and violent nature. In Leviathan he wrote “It may peradventure be thought, that there never was such a time, or condition of war such as this; … what manner of life there would be were there no common power to fear, by the manner of life, which men have formally lived under a peaceful government, use to degenerate into, in a civil war.” (levi p83) (b p204). Hobbes took the view that man was fundamentally vicious so could expect to live in a state of continual war of “every man against every man” (levi). Living in constant conflict and fear the development of a civil society with industry or culture would impossible. The life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (lev p 82) (b p204). This was not necessarily the view Hobbes held of history but it was the logical starting point that he assumed and from which he developed his structure for a safe civil society. (b204)

For Hobbes self preservation was a natural law and man’s most urgent instinct.(k212) (ll122) (b205). Having the ability to kill one another meant that man in nature would be in a state of continual insecurity (b 204). To escape this intolerable situation, rational, self interested, natural men would agree together to surrender their wild independence (k212). Desiring peace and security they would, by mutual consent, appoint a ruler over them all. The ruler would guarantee their collective defense and their personal security and in return they would obey his laws and give him their complete obedience.(k212).

Hobbes conceived the state as an artificial creature. “For by art is created the great Leviathan called a Commonwealth or State… which is but artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural for whose protection and defense it was intended.” (levi 2.17.) (k p213).”

In the Leviathan State the sovereign would have the right to make any laws he saw fit. The only responsibility of the sovereign was to defend the state and keep the peace. There was no contract between the sovereign and those who appointed him. The only contract was the agreement between the people to appoint somebody they would obey.

Hobbes created a ruler with absolute authority, who was irrevocably handed the power to enforce unity and obedience. (b 205). To preserve his own life each citizen must give absolute and unconditional obedience to the sovereign and his laws and so in the Leviathan State the social contract justifies authoritarian government (ll 112)

Hobbes model of social contract argued rebellion was not justifiable (n)

The purpose of the Leviathan commonwealth is to uphold the natural law of self preservation is the beginning of the concept of natural rights. This is the concept that man may make certain legitimate demands on his fellow men (ll 112)

The role of the Leviathan State is limited to protecting its citizens. Apart from the duty of the state to prevent conflict most other forms of intervention into the affairs of men are unjustifiable. This is Hobbes liberalism. (n)

Hobbes great accomplishment was to make government a subject for rational analysis. (Notes)

John Locke

Hobbes and Locke


Lock did not have the such a dim view of the world as Hobbes This is probably due to the fact that he lived in a time of comparative peace. (notes)

Lock unlkike Hobbes was a believer in the seperation of powers ( t division of the state into leglstvei, executive and judicial branches. (notes)

Lock did not accept that absolute monarchy was the best stucure for a state or the best way to govern a socioty. Rather Locke believed in the supremacy of of the legislature over the monarchy. (notes)

Locke was however in agreement with Hobes on the social contract. Locke said that the proper role of a government was to act as a commonwealth of men guided by the ‘eternal’ law of nature to preserve the life, liberty and estate of the members of socioty (notes)

Nature did not neessarily protect property so it was for man to make such laws. Property rights could only be claimed once a man had mixed his labour with nature – this was part of the law of nature for Locke (notes)

Locke thought that men were in a social contract with their soerign for the protection of three inalianable natural rights of ‘life, liberty and estate’ which were given by God. He identified a fourth right – the right to rebel against unjust laws and their makers. ( the right to with draw obediance is a group and individual rigth) (notes)


Thomas Hobbes concept of the social contract is the enduring contribution to legal and political philosophy.(notes) (b 204?)

‘Hobbes own goal was to rule out the ligiamacy of civil rebellion and thus to eliminate the possibility of civil war; which he regarded as the greatest of evils. (ll112)

Hobbes believed that in the absence of a state, human beings would react to each other with great savagery. He believed that all humans had equal ability to kill one and other creating a constant state of insecurity. As a result they would seek law and order for their own protection. They would all agree to place someone in authority to tell them what to do. Hobbes suggested that a number of people would appoint a king for the sole purpose of giving orders and preventing constant turmoil. He argued the only way to achieve this is by removing the individual’s power and bestow it upon one man. As a consequence the king has an absolute right to make what ever laws he wants, he owes no responsibility to the individual other than to keep the peace. In effect Hobbs was setting up an absolute authority free of any contractual or natural law restraint entrusting all power to the ruler to enforce unity obedience.

John Locke (1634 – 1704)

For Locke the state of nature that preceded the social contract was not as Hobbs envisaged but one of a golden age an Eden before the fall .


Thomas Hobbs, “Leviathan”, 1651, Republished by Forgotten Books, 2008, www, forgottenbooks.org, 16th August 2009.

Hobbs and Lock were both developed their version of the social contract.

It is also true that there would still be argument about “the state of nature” (not resolved) and so the strength of the arguments from both points of view – the books still have relevance That they are still of importance is, in part, due to the fact that

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