Common Ground: Exploring the Philosophical Parallels Between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes

When stepping into the rich landscape of political philosophy, the towering figures of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes often emerge as pivotal points of discussion. Their theories have profoundly shaped modern political thought, and while …

When stepping into the rich landscape of political philosophy, the towering figures of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes often emerge as pivotal points of discussion. Their theories have profoundly shaped modern political thought, and while they are frequently portrayed as diametric opposites, a deeper exploration reveals intriguing common ground. This article examines their philosophical parallels, comparing and contrasting their views, and uncovering their tangible influences on contemporary political systems.

Introduction to Locke and Hobbes

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were two seminal English philosophers whose works laid the foundations for much of Western political philosophy. Hobbes, born in 1588, is best known for his work “Leviathan,” where he outlines his views on the nature of human beings and the necessity of a powerful, centralized authority to maintain social order. Locke, born in 1632, is best known for his “Two Treatises of Government,” in which he argues for the protection of individual rights and the establishment of a government through the consent of the governed. Despite their different conclusions, both philosophers grappled with similar fundamental questions about human nature, the state of nature, and the best forms of government.

Key Philosophical Concepts

Understanding the key philosophical concepts proposed by Locke and Hobbes is essential to grasp the nuances of their theories. Both tackled the notion of the “state of nature”—a hypothetical life before the establishment of societies and laws. This concept is pivotal in their arguments as it lays the groundwork for their views on the origin and function of government.

Political Philosophy of John Locke

John Locke’s political philosophy emphasizes the central role of individual rights. He posited that in the state of nature, human beings are rational and capable of self-government. For Locke, natural rights to life, liberty, and property are fundamental and cannot be surrendered to the state. He believed that governments should be formed through a social contract to protect these rights, and if a government fails to do so, the people have the right to overthrow it. Locke’s work profoundly influenced liberal political theory and the development of democratic systems.

Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy paints a more pessimistic picture of human nature. He argued that in the state of nature, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” due to inherent human selfishness and the constant fear of violent death. To escape this chaotic state, individuals collectively agree to surrender their freedoms to a sovereign authority in a social contract, ensuring peace and security. Hobbes’s advocacy for a strong, centralized authority has been crucial for the development of modern state theories, emphasizing the importance of order and security.

Parallels in Their Thought

Despite their divergent conclusions, Locke and Hobbes share several important philosophical parallels. Both philosophers were motivated by the desire to understand and improve the conditions of human life. They engaged deeply with the concept of the social contract, each proposing that governments are legitimized by the consent of the governed, though they differed on the nature of this consent. Both Locke and Hobbes recognized the significance of the rule of law and the necessity of a governing system to maintain order and protect citizens, albeit in very different forms.

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Differences in Their Philosophies

The most significant differences between Locke and Hobbes lie in their views on human nature, the state of nature, and the role of government. Hobbes’s bleak view of human nature leads him to advocate for an absolute sovereign, whereas Locke’s more optimistic perspective supports a government with limited powers that exists to protect individual liberties. Hobbes believed people surrender all their rights to the sovereign in exchange for security, while Locke argued that people retain their inalienable rights even after the establishment of government and that sovereignty ultimately resides with the people.

Impact on Modern Political Theory

The impacts of Locke and Hobbes on modern political theory are profound and far-reaching. Hobbes’s ideas can be seen in modern discussions on security, state power, and the need for strong governmental control, particularly in times of crisis. His influence is evident in the development of centralized, authoritarian states. Locke’s contributions are most clearly reflected in the principles of liberal democracy, the protection of individual rights, and the idea that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. His work has notably influenced the American and French revolutions and the development of constitutional democracies worldwide.


As we navigate the complex philosophical terrain of Locke and Hobbes, it becomes clear that while they start from similar questions about human nature and the necessity of government, they arrive at starkly different answers, laying the groundwork for much of our contemporary political discourse. Their enduring relevance speaks to the profound and ongoing dialogue between authority and freedom, order and rights, which continue to shape societies today.

Introduction to Locke and Hobbes: Foundations of Modern Political Thought

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are seminal figures in the realm of political philosophy, pivotal in shaping the discourse that underpins much of modern political thought. While **Locke** is often celebrated for his optimistic view of human nature and advocacy for democracy, **Hobbes** is equally renowned for his more **pessimistic perspective** and his formulation of the **social contract theory**. Understanding the historical and intellectual context in which these two philosophers wrote is crucial to comprehending their theories. Locke’s works emerged in the aftermath of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, reflecting his belief in the possibility of a rational, ordered society driven by mutual respect and natural rights. In contrast, Hobbes wrote during a time of immense social and political turmoil, particularly the English Civil War, which shaped his view of humanity as naturally brutish and self-serving, necessitating a strong central authority to prevent chaos and war.

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The comparison begins by recognizing that both Locke and Hobbes were deeply influenced by the **Scientific Revolution** and the emerging emphasis on **empirical evidence** and **rational thought**. However, their interpretations of human nature and the social contract diverged significantly. Locke’s “**Two Treatises of Government**” argue for a government that exists to protect the **natural rights** of life, liberty, and property, implying a form of government with limited power and a focus on individual freedoms. Conversely, Hobbes’ “**Leviathan**” posits that in the state of nature, humans would engage in a “war of all against all,” necessitating an **absolute sovereign** with the authority to impose peace and security.

Intellectual Influences

Exploring the intellectual milieu and personal experiences of Locke and Hobbes offers valuable insights into their philosophical positions. Locke’s engagement with the **Enlightenment thinkers** and his experience as a physician exposed him to ideas of **reason** and **empiricism**, which are evident in his political writings. Hobbes, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by the works of contemporary scientists and mathematicians like **Galileo**, which shaped his mechanistic and deterministic view of human behavior and society.

Parallels in Their Thought: Conceptualizing the Social Contract

Despite their divergent views on human nature and the optimal structure of society, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes share significant philosophical parallels, particularly in their conceptualizations of the **social contract** and the foundational role it plays in establishing political order. This concept implies an agreement among individuals to form a society and establish governance, reflecting a shift from viewing political authority as **divinely ordained** to seeing it as a human construct born out of necessity and rational deliberation.

Hobbes’ View on the Social Contract

For Hobbes, the social contract is a solution to the chaotic and violent state of nature, which he describes in stark terms as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Individuals consent to submit to an **absolute sovereign**, a **Leviathan**, in order to escape the constant state of fear and achieve security and peace. Hobbes’ sovereign is endowed with near-absolute power to enforce laws and maintain order, a necessity driven by his pessimistic view of human nature as fundamentally self-interested and prone to conflict.

Locke’s View on the Social Contract

Locke, while also advocating for a social contract, envisions it differently. In his view, the state of nature is not inherently warlike but rather a state of equality and freedom where **natural law** governs human actions. Locke agrees that individuals come together to form a government via a social contract, but this government’s primary role is to protect the **natural rights** of its citizens—life, liberty, and property. Unlike Hobbes’ absolute sovereign, Locke’s government is based on **limited powers** and a system of **checks and balances**, aiming to serve the public good and prevent the abuse of power. If the government fails to protect these rights or becomes tyrannical, Locke asserts that the people have the right to overthrow it.

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Both philosophers rely on the social contract to justify the legitimacy of political authority, grounding it in the **consent of the governed** rather than divine right or hereditary succession. This shared emphasis on consent and the role of the individual in establishing political authority marks a fundamental shift in political theory, aligning with the emerging values of the **Enlightenment** and paving the way for modern democratic thought.

In summary, while Hobbes and Locke offer differing visions of the social contract and its implications for governance, their common ground lies in their recognition of the need for a **foundational agreement** among individuals to ensure a stable and ordered society. This innovative idea laid the groundwork for many subsequent developments in political philosophy and continues to influence contemporary discussions about the nature and legitimacy of political authority.


1. Q: What are the key philosophical parallels between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes?
A: Both philosophers believed in the necessity of a social contract to maintain order and prevent chaos in society, although they had different views on its nature and implementation.

2. Q: How did John Locke’s view on human nature differ from Thomas Hobbes’?
A: While Hobbes believed that humans are naturally selfish and prone to violence, requiring a strong authoritarian government, Locke held a more optimistic view, believing that people are capable of reason and self-governance.

3. Q: In what way did both Hobbes and Locke influence modern political thought?
A: Both Hobbes and Locke laid the groundwork for modern political theory, with Hobbes influencing ideas about strong centralized authority and Locke contributing to the development of liberal democracy and individual rights.

4. Q: Did John Locke and Thomas Hobbes agree on the concept of the state of nature?
A: No, Hobbes viewed the state of nature as a state of perpetual war and fear, while Locke saw it as a state of equality and freedom, though still requiring a social contract to resolve conflicts and protect property.

5. Q: How do Locke’s and Hobbes’ views on the role of government differ?
A: Hobbes believed that a powerful, absolute ruler was necessary to maintain order and prevent societal collapse, whereas Locke argued for a government with limited powers, designed to protect the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.

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