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Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an Englishman in England who didn't like the idea of people living without governmental authority – a condition he called a "state of nature" – with people believing they had the "right to all things" and were free to plunder, to rape and murder in an endless "war of all against all." Such a life, he said, would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Hobbes wanted order. He saw the legitimate rule of a king as a kind of "social contract." He pictured his ideal king as a good father of his people, looking out for his subjects, and his subjects happy about their king and happy about having surrendered some of their "natural rights" to their king in exchange for his protection and their freedom to do whatever the king's laws did not explicitly forbid.

A couple of generations after Hobbes came the Englishman John Locke. He stayed with monarchical rule and government by social contract, but he didn't like absolute power in the hands of the monarchy (king or queen). He favored electing representatives to a legislative body (parliament) and the monarch's powers limited by constitutional law – a constitutional monarchy. He favored a judicial branch of government independent of the powers of the monarch or legislators – an independent judiciary making decisions based on the nation's constitution.

Locke had a more optimistic view of humanity than had Hobbes. Locke believed that with representative government people and a constitution people could live together peacefully. He believed a sense of decency was common and that brutish criminality would be an aberration. The bigotry and brutalities that had contributed to Europe's recent religious wars and atrocities had annoyed him. He believed that churches should be voluntary associations rather than appendages of higher authority associated with the state, as was the Anglican Church. He held that for a modern society to function well it had to be unified not by a single religion but by allowing religious diversity. And a part of Locke's optimism was his belief in education, in people lifting themselves above their circumstances.

Locke died a famous man in 1704, at the age of 72. Eight years later, in Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born. Whereas Hobbes and Locke believed in reason, education, institutions and civilization, Rousseau grew up as a social outsider and at times a vagrant. Like some people in the United States today he had contempt for the educated elite. He spoke of humanity having been corrupted by the arts and sciences. Physics, he said, had risen from vain curiosity. The study of ethics he described as having its source in human pride. Leaning toward populism, he believed more in the emotions of the unlearned than in the reason of intellectuals. He influenced politics, but fortunately he never acquired political power.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.