Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are probably the most famous political thinkers of the 17th century. The generally accepted view asserts that these authors stood poles apart, the first one advocating an absolutist regime and the latter recommending a stable civil society where powers are separated. But their methodological demonstration follows the same pattern and Locke shares with Hobbes the same initial assumption: They indeed both suppose that the correct way to tackle questions about the grounds of political obligation is by performing a thought-experiment: the description of the state of nature. They thus imagine a state of nature where individuals live in abstraction from all political institutions and superior control. Hobbes first expressed his conception of the state of nature in his most famous political masterpiece, the Leviathan published in 1651. John Locke further explored it in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written in the wake of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688. Devoid of any ultimate moral values, the Hobbesian "natural condition of mankind" seems to differ from the regulated state of nature guided by human Reason. And even if Locke's philosophy sometimes seems to be rooted in Hobbes' principles, we will see that their accounts of the imagined state of nature are sharply different. We'll thus try to compare Hobbes's and Locke's visions of the state of nature, regarding their nature, their essence, and their purpose regarding their conceptions of political power.
[...] Contrary to Hobbes', there is therefore no pre-given form of subordination in Locke's account of the state of nature. Hobbes evokes on his side that the only rights of nature belonging to individuals are animal impulses necessary and unavoidable in the struggle to survive. He recognizes a natural equality but thinks it pushes men to compete, willing to compare what they have and mimetically desire what they do not have. They have the same abilities, the same expectations, creating consequently an animalistic rivalry, enhanced by the fact that people do anything to preserve their own liberty or safety. [...]
[...] As stated by Hobbes himself: "Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". [...]
[...] But their states of nature show two different levels of development, two different essences explained by two conflicting conceptions of the basic characteristics of human beings, and of the natural laws that govern them. More precisely, Locke's depiction of the state of nature is much more optimistic than Hobbes' who was often accused of drawing a cynical picture of men. Locke emphasizes the positive moral features of human beings in their natural state since this state of nature is based on religious and moral foundations, assuming that it is the original condition in which God placed mankind. [...]
[...] State of nature/state of war One of the main differences between Hobbes and Locke is that the latter separates the state of Nature from the state of war, “which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are one from another. Men living together according to reason without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of Nature. [...]
[...] Also, for Locke, there is a logical continuity between the state of nature and the new political order instituted since the limited chosen government has a duty to respect the laws of nature and protect the natural rights. The supreme legislative power for Locke should thus be exercised in conformity with the requirements of the god given “moral standard for human behaviour”. That is why Locke tries to initially depict a quite good state of nature because in it reside the conditions of the state's exercise of political power. [...]
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