Locke versus Hobbes

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Two of the most prominent philosophers of the 17th century were John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Their works, the Second Treatise on Government and the Leviathan, are valuable books in the field of political science, especially because they explain how and why civil society and government exist. However, the two philosophers disagree on the essence of man’s interaction with the empire. As such, Locke’s book is generally viewed as a rebuttal to Hobbes’ Leviathan. As a result, this article would examine two works by prominent thinkers in order to comprehend their perspectives on the right to revolution/rebellion. A Review of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
Hobbes reviews the nature of man in the formative chapters of the book insisting that the understanding of man singly is necessary before understanding how man associates with others in society. According to Hobbes, the external body is responsible for sense and in essence one’s knowledge by exerting pressure on our sensory bodies. This claim is emphasized by an analogy he gives that unless stirred by something, a lying this will stay in the state forever. The same applies to something in motion which will remain in the said state unless an external force is effected. The perpetual motion referred to turns sense into thoughts or imagination which over time become memories. He also explains experience as the memory of matters perceived from the outside world. By explaining what vision, dreams, and understanding means, Hobbes examines where ideas originate from.

Hobbes lauds the invention of speech since it provided a means of putting mental converse into verbal discussion. For one to reason and understand stuff such as science, speech is necessary. Reasoning drives the evolution to the establishment of logical consequences. Besides reason and speech, Hobbes argues that a man’s actions are also influenced by his many passions. Passions that man is capable of showing include hope, valor, vanity, and curiosity (Hobbes 28). He insists, however, that the passions indicate the aspect of human behavior that is irrational. Regarding the capacity of man for knowledge, Hobbes argues that man’s knowledge is always associated with some level of uncertainty. His account is, “No discourse whatsoever can end in absolute knowledge of fact, past or to come. No man can know by discourse that this or that is, has been, or will be, which is to know absolutely, but only that if this be, that is, if this has been, that has been, if this shall be, that shall be, which is to know conditionally” (Hobbes 35). As such knowledge can only be used to evaluate situations and derive determinations.

The issue of man’s power is also central to Hobbes’ argument since it drives the formation of the commonwealth in addition to influencing the state of nature. According to him, all men are not equal in all ways. He maintains in the absence of authority to restrain the will of every man; chaos will ensue. He further explains that men seek refuge under common or sole authority. “Desire of ease and sensual delight disposeth men to obey a common power, because by such desires a man doth abandon the protection might be hope for from his own industry and labor. Fear of death and wounds disposeth to the same, and for the same reason” (Hobbes 58). This is actually the cornerstone of his political philosophy. He argues that it is only through the absolute authority of one power that all men will be safe and the law will be maintained.

In an attempt to look for peace, it is Hobbes belief that man must sacrifice some of his natural rights. He transfers the right to the state or commonwealth which means that there must be laws governing this in order to avoid injustice. Regarding personal liberty, he maintains that although man is free to do whatever he wishes in nature, there must be a consideration of consequences of the actions.

Due to a realization of his state, man forms commonwealths in order to avoid the state of war. The commonwealth must have authority in order for people to feel bound to the installed laws. The sovereign has absolute power and citizens cannot make any laws without his consent. Hobbes trusts the moral standing of the sovereign and insists that “no man that hath sovereign power can justly be put to death, or otherwise in any manner by his subjectspunished” (Hobbes 113). He goes on to state that sovereign power can be monarchical, democratic, or aristocratic. Despite the form, the institution still has unlimited power.

A Review of the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke

Locke’s work is smaller but arguably the more influential of the two considering the current school of political thought. The sovereign, in Locke’s case, is just another man and like other mere mortals, he is capable of making mistakes. The civil government, according to Locke, is described as follows, “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all fewer penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good” (Locke 8). As Hobbes argued, all men in their natural nature have the freedom to do whatever they please. However, instead of constantly harming one another like in Hobbes case, a free man must also act in consideration of others thus preventing harm to others. According to Locke, each man has the right to punish those who go against the law. This is necessary if the society is not to turn into chaos. The state of nature, however, could also be problematic in that every man would always look to favor their outcome. As such, Locke proposes a civil government that will solve the problem.

Locke maintains that God gave man land so that the latter could put it to productive use. In the original sense, all men in common are given the land. However, Locke maintains that the common land can be turned into the possession of an individual i.e. private property by labor.

Though the earth…be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands…are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state of nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property (Locke 19).

The sovereign does not have absolute authority in this case. According to Locke, that would be worse than the state of nature where each man is open to defending his property and rights. The sovereign is a symbol of impartiality which is meant to intervene in the case of disagreements among individuals. The sovereign only holds legitimate power with the consent of the people. In addition, the sovereign is not responsible for determining authority since that is the preserve of the majority of the citizens. The will of the majority must be followed even by objectors, failure to which the commonwealth would split. In order to avoid too much accumulation of power in the sovereign, Locke proposes the separation of the powers of government. The arms of government suggested are the executive, the legislature, and the federative.

Rebellion/ Revolution according to Hobbes and Locke

The right of citizens of the state to rebel is an aspect in which the two philosophers differ greatly. This could be tracked down to what each envisions as the sovereign of the commonwealth. Thomas Hobbes is in favor of a sovereign who has absolute authority and is infallible in terms of ability commit a fault. John Locke, on the other hand, sees the sovereign as just a mere mortal. He has the power to rule the commonwealth but can also sin or make mistakes.

Hobbes discusses the right of revolution in Chapter 29, “Of those things that Weaken or tend to the Dissolution of a Commonwealth.” The absolute power given to the sovereign by Hobbes means that the sovereign can do anything within his means to ensure that the commonwealth remains stable. Hobbes is of the opinion that there cannot be peace and security in the commonwealth if there are checks on the sovereign’s power. The judgment of the sovereign is law and should be obeyed by all men. The sovereign, according to Hobbes, is free from civil laws. The sovereign has immense power that he can willfully confiscate the property of citizens of the commonwealth. The separation of powers is a concept that is vehemently opposed by Hobbes. According to him, it would threaten the stability of the commonwealth. “When, therefore, these two powers oppose one another, the commonwealth cannot but be in great danger of civil war and dissolution” (Hobbes 216). Hobbes argues that under no condition should citizens of the commonwealth challenge the sovereign’s decisions and actions. “the liberty of disputing against absolute power by pretenders topolitical prudence, which, though bred for the most part in the lees of the people, yetanimated by false doctrines, are perpetually meddling with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the commonwealth” (Hobbes 218). Subjects can only disobey the sovereign when his power is effectively dissolved by an external act like conquest rather than from the people’s will. Revolution or rebellion against the sovereign is not permitted. Hobbes argues that revolution would cause the commonwealth to dissolve and as such lead to the reversion to the state of nature which is chaotic.

Locke’s argument is the complete opposite of what Hobbes feels about the right to revolution. Locke is of the belief that in the case of an illegitimate government, man has the right to dissolve it any way he can. “There is one way more whereby such a government may be dissolved, and that is, when he who has the supreme executive power, neglects andabandons that charge, so that laws already made can no longer be put in execution…Where the laws cannot be executed, it is all one as if there were no laws” (Locke 110). After dissolution, the citizens of the commonwealth can then come up with a new ruling body. The right to establish government lies with the people. “when the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good” (Locke 110). According to Locke, people have the right to revolt any time arbitrary power is used. Locke maintains that people cannot revolt for the sake of it; it must be triggered by unyielding incentives. Revolution is the result of the excessive use of power and violation of trust by the sovereign. Unlike in Hobbes’ case, Locke believes that the sovereign is subject to civil laws. As such, if the sovereign does not follow the laws, he is actually reestablishing the state of war by dissolving societal structures. Locke’s policy of self- defense is based on the belief that man has the right to protect his life or property. The people are ultimately the judge of the actions of the sovereign: “Who shall be judge, whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust? To this I reply, the people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still a power to discard him, when he fails his trust?” (Locke 123).


Thomas Hobbes and John Locke differ greatly when it comes to the right to revolution. While Hobbes is against it and even advocates for exceptional measures against it by the sovereign, John Locke believed that the power is in the people and they can revolt in case the sovereign abuses their position. The conception of the sovereign and the nature of man causes the differing view about the concept. In today’s world, democratic governments are based on John Locke’s way of thinking. Rather than the sovereign being regarded as an infallible individual with unlimited power, he is seen as a mere mortal and is expected to behave according to the standards of the society in general.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. Hackett Publishing, 1980. Print.

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