Writing in the 1650’s, Thomas Hobbes sought to address the prevalent problem of war by seeking to obtain those rational principles that will aid the construction of a “civil polity that will not be subject to destruction from within. ” Hobbes employs the idea of a “social contract” to resolve that seemingly intractable problem of war and disorder. He begins by imagining how people were in their natural condition i.e. before the emergence of a civil society. According to Hobbes, in that natural condition all men are equal and all possess the power of rationality. However, they are also “fundamentally selfish each person’s desires are for his (or her) own survival and reproduction.” As people increase in number, they will start competing for resources, glory and love and since in that condition there is no law to put into check human behavior, there will inevitably emerge a state of war. As Hobbes puts it, “…during that time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” The remedy of such a situation is only possible because all people possess rationality which, as Hobbes argues, will necessarily lead them to “create a government run by a sovereign holding absolute power, because only absolute power is sufficient to resolve disputes that otherwise would precipitate conflict dissolving the commonwealth and threatening the lives of all.” Put simply, Hobbes’ Leviathan theory contends that the state should have absolute power and no one should be able to overthrow it.
It took forty years and the person of John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, to point out the grave problems presented by the Leviathan Idea. Locke’s scathing attack on the Leviathan idea takes a two-fold approach. Firstly, it addresses what Locke sees as an incorrect description by Hobbes of men and women in their natural condition. To Locke, what Hobbes describes is actually the ‘state of war’, a condition different from the ‘state of war’. Secondly, and this is the gist of his critique, he argues against an absolute state on two main reasons. Since, according to Locke human beings do not have absolute power; they cannot give what they don’t have to the state. And the possession of absolute power by the state will deny men and women their property yet the preservation of property is the reason for them to form a civil society.
This paper explores each of the above-mentioned lines of criticisms by Locke on Hobbes’ Leviathan Idea as a possible explanation to why Locke is such an aggressive critique of the Leviathan idea.
The “state of nature/natural condition” is not necessarily a “state of war”
Hobbes apparently unproportionately mixes two different conditions which blend into what many commentaries term an overly pessimistic view of the nature of human beings. Locke makes a clear distinction between these two ‘states’. Unlike Hobbes, Locke views the natural condition as a “state of Peace, Goodwill, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation… (wherein people live together) according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them.” This condition differs from that of Hobbes in the sense that it implicitly argues for the upper role that reason takes in governing people’s behaviors while subordinating self-interest and passions.
It is a “State of perfect Freedom (of men and women) to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature…” This law of nature forbids anyone from destroying himself/herself or any other person for that matter, “when his (or her) own preservation comes not in competition” and requires everyone to do as much as they can to “preserve the rest of mankind”