Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in phi­los­o­phy these days, but every polit­i­cal philoso­pher must grap­ple with the his­to­ry of the idea — a foun­da­tion­al con­ceit of mod­ern Euro-Amer­i­can thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “con­trac­tu­al­ist” philoso­phers, often grouped togeth­er in syl­labi and select­ed intro­duc­to­ry texts, relied on the notion that humans once exist­ed in an anar­chic state pre­dat­ing civ­il soci­ety, and that this state might be re-dis­cov­er­able in indige­nous ways of life in the Amer­i­c­as. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philoso­phers and their polit­i­cal the­o­ries.

Unlike the Bib­li­cal gar­den of Eden, the state of nature was hard­ly per­fect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw gov­ern­ment as a nec­es­sary medi­a­tor for com­pet­ing self-inter­ests. The kinds of gov­ern­ments they the­o­rized were vast­ly dif­fer­ent from each oth­er — one an absolute monar­chy and the oth­er a cap­i­tal­ist repub­lic. But in each theorist’s pseu­do-pre­his­to­ry, ear­ly humans gave up their inde­pen­dence by mak­ing social con­tracts for pro­tec­tion and mutu­al inter­est. These “con­tracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the ori­gin of gov­ern­ments.

Hobbes was the first major thinker to elab­o­rate a ver­sion of this sto­ry, and his descrip­tion of life before gov­ern­ment is well-known: “soli­tary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful exis­tence, humans would have sought out a pow­er­ful ruler to pro­tect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could pro­vide the pro­tec­tion peo­ple need. It was per­haps no coin­ci­dence that Hobbes worked for a king, his for­mer stu­dent, Charles II, restored to the throne after the Eng­lish Civ­il War that drove Hobbes to his author­i­tar­i­an views, sup­pos­ed­ly.

Despite his defense of divine pow­er, Hobbes stood accused of athe­ism and blas­phe­my for, among oth­er things, writ­ing a sec­u­lar jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for monar­chy that was not based on rev­e­la­tion or the divine right of kings. Like­wise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Trea­tis­es on Gov­ern­ment was a force­ful refu­ta­tion of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of tol­er­a­tion were far more threat­en­ing to the state, which is why he pub­lished anony­mous­ly. In his Sec­ond Trea­tise, he laid out his ver­sion of the state of nature and the social con­tract — ideas drawn in part from trav­el­ogues writ­ten by ear­ly colo­nial adven­tur­ers.

Locke’s the­o­ry of gov­ern­ment is also a the­o­ry of pri­vate prop­er­ty — the right­ful source of polit­i­cal pow­er, he believed — and who should own it. Decades lat­er, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, includ­ing a book titled The Social Con­tract, in oppo­si­tion to the inequal­i­ty of Hobbe­sian and Lock­ean states. Rousseau believed in human per­fectibil­i­ty and claimed that gov­ern­ments imposed a “gen­er­al will” on indi­vid­u­als, repress­ing an essen­tial­ly benev­o­lent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoin­der to the myth of vicious sav­agery gave rise to anoth­er: that of the noble sav­age, an appeal­ing image for the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of late-18th cen­tu­ry France and lat­er utopi­an social­ists tasked with the dif­fi­cult project of imag­in­ing an alter­na­tive to polit­i­cal hier­ar­chy. In social con­tract the­o­ry, the imag­ined way for­ward derives from an imag­ined pre­colo­nial past, more “moral fic­tion” than “his­tor­i­cal fact,” as schol­ar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the myth­i­cal state of nature and the pri­ma­ry the­o­rists of the social con­tract above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Leo Strauss: 15 Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es Online

Social and Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course 

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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