A comparative exploration investigating the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau on the foundation of society Essay


In making a comparative exploration between the “social contract philosophers”: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, we are forced to initiate our enquiry with regard to the question of what the shared motivation is of demonstrating the foundation of society, between these three philosophers. All three philosophers illustrated differing, and in some ways similar theories, as to what the origin and continued existence of society is. In this essay an exploration into the similarities and differences between the three theories comparatively, provokes in the reader the self-reflective question of, “What would life be like in a ‘natural’ state, a world without government?” (Wolff 1996:6).

Thus, in this essay, an exposition of the reasons advanced by each philosopher respectively for the movement from a state of nature to a form of civil society shall be made, and further advanced by making a concentrated focus on the similarities and differences among all three arguments in this regard. Furthermore, demonstration shall be made with regard as to why Locke’s Theory seems to embrace and accommodate the most “relevant” or convincing view of the reason for the origin and continued existence of society as we experience it in our time.

Does the naturalness of living in an existing state humanise us? Have we perhaps been dehumanised or been our own downfall by virtue of constraint by “leaving” what we formerly “knew” as the natural state? These, and further questions, shall provide us with sufficient momentum to ultimately embark upon the journey of exploring contrasting theories, delineated by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau respectively, in discovering the hypothetical foundation of society, as well as self-reflection.



In this section, a compartmentalized exploration into the reasons advanced by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau respectively, with regard to the movement from a state of nature to a form of civil society is undertaken.

a) Thomas Hobbes’ Paranoid Need for the Sovereign

Hobbes’ Leviathan was written as a response to the fear he experienced during the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Leviathan’s argument for the necessity of absolute sovereignty emerged in the politically unstable years after the Civil Wars. Hobbes’ materialist philosophy was based upon a mechanistic view of the universe, holding that all phenomena were explainable purely in terms of matter and motion. Hobbes went as far as to extend the conservation of momentum law, adopted from Galileo, upon human beings, depicting them as “always searching for something and never in a state of rest.” (Wolff 1996:10). Hobbes’ assumption of the direct application of physics pertaining to human nature seems to demean the very nature of humankind.

Hobbes describes human beings’ “innate” continual striving towards achieving objects of desire as “felicity” and asserts this principle as the reason why conflict would be brought about in the form of war in the state of nature. Hobbes ascribes the ultimate formation and creation of the state as human beings’ fear of death, exacerbated by the existence of felicity and thus, the origin of power struggles and competition. Hobbes claims that all men are equal. “Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body, and mind…” (Hobbes 1946:80). Equality, Hobbes argues, is what brings about the possibility of a human being to harm another. “… one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he…” (Hobbes 1946:80).

Hobbes describes an element of “scarcity of goods” existing in the state of nature, which further provokes competition, and thus uncertainty in the sense of suspicion. Hobbes describes man’s self centred desire for not only immediate satisfaction, but also power in order to ensure the satisfaction of possible future desires brought about. (Wolff 1996:11) Attacking is formulated as becoming the surest way of attaining desires and thus Hobbes describes war as a constant readiness to fight based on suspicion. Hobbes also describes an individual’s freedom to preserve himself “the right of nature”. Moral notions however, hold neither bearing nor application in the state of nature. Hobbes calls this “The Natural Right of Liberty”.

Hobbes introduces the three “Laws of Nature” deduced from the fundamental “Natural Right of Liberty”, which may be summed up in the negative formulation of the biblical ‘golden rule’, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe.” Due to the fact that Hobbes does not support the idea of morality in the state of nature, these laws are described as “theorems or conclusions of reason.” (Wolff 1996:15).

Hobbes is caught up in the predicament that he seems to have contradicted himself into asserting that rationality requires both war and peace, but escapes this by making a distinction between individual and collective rationality, which may be portrayed by means of the ‘prisoners’ dilemma’.

The duty to obey the Laws of Nature is extended by Hobbes only in so far as others around us are known to be obeying them too, rendering the society rife with further suspicion and a scapegoat for not obeying the law at all. Hobbes’ corrective alternative is the creation of an almighty sovereign to create conditions preventing people from faltering in order to counteract war, which would be perpetuated by the vicious cycle of violence, brought about by “people attacking on grounds of gain, safety and reputation.” (Wolff 1996:18).

“Hobbes denies that man is naturally social and political. The grounds of this denial are made evident by the theory of the state of nature, that prepolitical condition in which men live without civil government, or without a common power over them to keep them in fear.” (Strauss, L. & Cropsey, J. (eds.) 1963:356-357).

b) John Locke’s Theory of Government based on the Sovereignty of the People

Locke’s Second Treatise starts with the liberal premise of a community of free, equal individuals, all possessed of natural rights. Since these individuals will want to acquire goods and will come into inevitable conflict, Locke invokes a natural law of morality to govern them before they enter society. Locke presumes people will understand that, in order to best protect themselves and their property, they must come together into some sort of “body politic” and agree to adhere to certain standards of behaviour. Thus, they relinquish some of their natural rights to enter into a social compact. In this civil society, the people submit natural freedoms to the common laws of the society; in return, they receive the protection of the government. Locke links his abstract ideals to a deductive theory of unlimited personal property wholly protected from governmental intervention.

Locke’s argument seems to be constructed against absolutism and unjust governments. It appeals to both abstract moral notions and to a more grounded view of the self-interest that leads people to form societies and governments. (http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/locke/section5.rhtml).

Locke objects to Hobbes view of the state of nature in connection to war, but maintains a more positivistic attitude that hypothetically living in a state of nature, in the absence of government, would generally be an acceptable way of life. (Wolff 1996:19).

Locke initiates his theory by stating that the state of nature exists in “perfect freedom”. “The natural liberty of man is to be free…” (Locke 1993:272). Locke shares Hobbes’ view about a state of equality, however, in the case that Hobbes’ claim is a “physical” one, Locke bases his on morality and rights.

Locke shares with Hobbes the creation of a Law of Nature, however, the two philosophers’ interpretations of the meaning attached to such a law differ greatly. Locke’s Law has a theological aspect, stating that no one “…ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty and possessions.” (Wolff 1996:20). Locke describes mankind as the possessions of God and thus we are bound to preserve God’s possessions. Locke and Hobbes also differ greatly in their perceptions of the meaning attached to “natural liberty”. Natural Liberty is given a moral context by Locke in maintaining that we are given the freedom to do only what is morally permitted. Locke is however vague in his formulation of how people will be motivated to act according to the Law of Nature in a state of nature, in opposition to Hobbes’ pessimistic view of felicity and the spiral of violence perpetuated.

Locke ascribes the term, “the strange doctrine” as the right to punish those who transgress the Laws of Nature by spectators of these transgressions. Locke bases the security of other rights and most importantly the right to private property on the hypothetical premise of the possibility of securing the Law of Nature by making it enforceable.

Locke and Hobbes differ considerably in their view of the origin of what brought people into conflict. Whereas Hobbes asserts this as the natural scarcity of goods, Locke assumes a natural abundance of land, with little reason for conflict. However, Locke asserts conflict to a more abstract sense of the argument by people of what justice requires rather than the administration thereof. The origin of scarcity as described by Hobbes, Locke formulates as coming into existence by innate human greed and the ‘invention’ of money. (Wolff 1996:25). “This is certain, that in the beginning, before the desire of having more than men needed had altered the intrinsic value of things…” (Locke 1993:279).

Locke’s model consists of a civil state, built upon the natural rights common to a people who need and welcome an executive power to protect their property and liberties; the governments exists for the people’s benefit and can be replaced or overthrown if it ceases to function toward the primary end. (http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/leviathan/)

c) Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Theory that “man is free, but is everywhere in chains”

Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is out birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter civil society. Legitimate political authority he argues; come only from a social contract agreed upon by all the citizens for their mutual preservation, as he assumes that “…human beings are primarily motivated by the desire for self-preservation.” (Wolff 1996:26). “The theory of a contract of government really postulates, as a prior condition, the theory of a contract of society. There must already be something in the nature of an organised community – in other words, a potential body of subjects…” (Barker 1958:xii). Rousseau suggests that the state also require all citizens to observe a “public religion” that encourages good citizenship with the plan of boosting unity and solidarity. Rousseau introduces another central postulated human motivation, other than that of self-preservation, namely, “pity or compassion”. Rousseau creates a contrasting view of the way to look at the natural state by trying to gain an understanding of “savage man’s nature” and behaviour, instead of projecting qualities of “man-in-society on to savage man. (Wolff 1996:27).

Rousseau took a dismal view of human progress. A similarity can be drawn between Hobbes and Rousseau’s views, that the state of nature exists without morality, justice or the notions thereof. Although Rousseau ascribes self-preservation and pity/compassion as mankind’s primary drives, no reference is made as to the results achieved if these two drives were to come into conflict with one another. We could make the assumption that self-preservation would be the stronger drive of the two, and thus in a condition of scarcity creating competition, “compassion does not seem enough to hold off the threat of war.” (Wolff 1996:28).

Rousseau described savage man as living in solitude and through the innate human attributes of free will, and the capacity of self improvement, mankind did not only achieve progress, but also his own “downfall”. The capacity for self-improvement brought about the development of tools in order to survive through subsistence, due to a growth in the population. Thus, in contract to Hobbes’ view that the primary source of competition can be ascribed to scarcity, Rousseau would have us believe that it was a result of innovation and self-improvement. Co-operation and communal life developed, which brought about the evil of “leisure time”. (Wolff 1996:31). Convenience and luxury goods aided the corruption and eventual breakdown into war.

Rousseau calls the collective grouping of all the citizens the “sovereign”, and claims that it should be considered in terms of a singular entity, the individual. Theoretically the sovereign should express the general will that aims for the common good. The general will finds its clearest expression in the general and abstract laws of the state, which are created early in that state’s life by an impartial, non-citizen lawgiver. All laws are bound primarily to assure liberty and equality within the state.

In essence, Rousseau holds a very negative, pessimistic view of humanity it seems, in so far as the fact that he ascribes the emergence of civil society as a “…response to a situation of war or near-war in the states of nature.” (Wolff 1996:32), similar to the paranoid view of Hobbes.

The most convincing argument of John Locke

Locke’s theory, offering: liberty, equality and freedom, seems to me undoubtedly the most convincing of the three presented above. Although also vulnerable to a certain extent of criticism, I view Locke’s theory as holding the greatest amount of reasoned solidarity embraced. I value Locke’s ability to correlate the origin of society in terms of an innate morality, natural laws, as well the incorporation of “utopian” theological aspects which society can thus strive towards in order to create the Platonic idea of an ideal state.

Locke’s refusal to fall prey to the pessimism portrayed in various instances by both Hobbes and Rousseau, especially in connection with his belief that he cannot accept that “the Law of Nature could be in vain.” is both commendable and one which would provide the basis for later political doctrines, such as those set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Locke does not gain respect or ascertain a convincing argument by means of broad generalisations, hypothetical conclusions functioning as premises (as Rousseau’s view of savage man), nor does he use force and domination in asserting his theory of the foundation of society, but instead through reasoning, and a knowledge of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses in the form of morality, people wilfully submit natural freedoms to the common laws of the society in which they receive government protection in return.


Through the comparative exploration of the “social contract philosophers”, a broader understanding is gained of both the existence of the state, as well as the liberties and luxuries we take fore granted as human beings in connection with the advantages we claim from experiencing life in a formal, organised state.

We also gain an insight into the complex alternatives that the existence of a choice would render in deciding whether to live in a state of nature or in a formal state. Constantly as human beings, we encounter and experience the distribution and administration of institutions through political power, as well as the innate responsibility toward ethical and moral principles we are equipped with.

In conclusion, and answer to the introductory question whether the naturalness of living in an existing state humanises us or whether perhaps we have been dehumanised by virtue of constraint by “leaving” what we formerly “knew” as the natural state, I am forced to answer neither. I believe that we have enhanced our humanness by doing justice to our moral, ethical, social and intellectual responsibilities of discovering the state, even though the state and institutions we find ourselves under the influence of, are far from utopian.


Primary Sources:

Barker, E. 1958. Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume and Rosseau. London: Oxford University Press.

Broome, J.H. 1963. Rosseau: A study of his thought. New York: Barnes ; Noble, Inc Publishers.

Charvet, J. 1974. The Social Problem in the Philosophy of Rosseau. London: Cambridge University Press.

Hobbes, T. 1946. Leviathan or the matter, forme and power of a commonwealth ecclesiasticall and civi. London: Basil Blackwell Oxford.

Lively, J. ; Reeve, A. (eds.). 1989. Modern Political Theory from Hobbes to Marx Key Debates. London: Routledge.

Locke, J. 1993. Political Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Rosseau, J. 1968. The Social Contract Translated and Introduced by Maurice Cranston. London: Penguin Books.

Rosseau, J. 1968. The Social Contract. London: Penguin Books.

Strauss, L. ; Cropsey, J. (eds.) 1963. History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: Rand McNally ; Company.

Wolff, J. 1996. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

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