Seventeenth-Century Political Thought: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

Thomas-Hobbes - National Portrait Gallery, CC.jpg

Thomas Hobbes, John Michael Wright, 1669-70

National Portrait Gallery, CC

Thomas Hobbes: a Brief Biography

Thomas Hobbes was born on 5 April, 1588 in Malmesbury, England. Hobbes lived a substantial portion of his life before and during the time of the English Civil Wars, and the experiences he had affected him and his writings deeply and caused him to have a very different perception of the government and the world than Locke, as the era was a major period of political disintegration which included the execution of King Charles I in addition to the aforementioned Civil Wars (Malcolm).

Hobbes in general “aimed to demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between political obedience and peace” (Lloyd). Hobbes was known for his absolutist views as well as his view on the State of Nature being “Nasty, Brutish, and Short.” He wrote many famous pieces such as The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (1650), De Cive (1642), as well as Leviathan (1651) and many other works that were published and/or translated after his death.

Hobbes is widely known and considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy.  His most famous work, Leviathan, has been compared to the works of incredibly influential philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Thomas Hobbes passed away on 4 December, 1679 in Derbyshire, United Kingdom at the age of 91 (Malcolm).

- Claire Brothers and Zach Gauthier 


A metaphor of Hobbes' Leviathan being one man made up of the entirety of the state (Hobbes, Leviathan). 

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

The Legacy of Leviathan

Hobbes presents his belief in the way the world works as well as his beliefs on government in his famous book Leviathan, as Hobbes believed the two were intimately connected (Machamer). Based on his experience in the Civil Wars, Hobbes advocated the belief that humans are naturally disposed to attack each other in order to achieve any advantage. He summed this up in perhaps his best known quote, in which he described life in the state of nature as “Nasty, Brutish, and Short.” Hobbes argued that the most effective way to prevent this and create a strong, peaceful, and unified society was to have an absolute government, or a “leviathan” (Lloyd). Hobbes ties this in with his natural philosophy as well by comparing the entire state to the body of a man. In this metaphor, Hobbes compares the equity and law to reason and will, the wealth of the state to a man’s strength, the magistrates and other officers of the state to nerves, and sovereignty to the soul (Leviathan, pg. 1).

Hobbes’ works throughout his life, especially Leviathan, left a complicated legacy. It was possible, interestingly enough, to interpret Hobbes’ work in enough ways that both the Whigs and the Tories supported some aspects of it and rejected others. For example, the Whigs would often attack Hobbes’ philosophy for its belief in an absolute monarch, which contradicted their beliefs in parliament’s role strongly (Carmel). Despite this, the Whigs were very attracted to the social contract aspects of Hobbes’ beliefs.  During the Exclusion Crisis, some Whigs used his philosophy to say that James the Duke of York ought to be excluded on the grounds that his Catholicism would prevent him from adequately protecting the majority-Protestant nation. It was essential to Hobbes that the subject’s duty to obey their monarch rested on the monarch’s ability to protect them and keep the nation safe, so the Whig refutation of James’s right of succession did indeed have some basis in Hobbes’ philosophy (Carmel).

- Claire Brothers and Zach Gauthier 


Title Page, Leviathan (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651)

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries


Title Page of Leviathan (Hobbes and Tuck, Leviathan, 1991)


Leviathan Throughout the Years 

The two images to the left are both copies of Hobbes' Leviathan frontispiece and title page. The first image is from the 1651, second edition, of Leviathan held by Rare and Distinctive Collections.  It is noted as having been published in London, printed for Andrew Crooke at the Green Dragon in St. Paul's Churchyard as one of the first editions of this work (Hobbes).  Twentieth-century scholarship, however, notes this second edition may have been printed in Holland (MacDonald and Hargreaves, 1952).

The second image is from a modern edition (1991) of a 1651 edition likewise noted as having been printed for Andrew Crooke (Hobbes and Tuck, lxxiv-1).  The legacy left behind by Hobbes is that his Leviathan has remained relevant in political philosophy for the three hundred years and continues to be just as important today.  The iconic image of the Leviathan reigning over his people and his land has followed the philosophy itself throughout time as well. 

- Claire Brothers 

John-Locke - National Portrait Gallery - CC.jpg

John Locke, Herman Verelst, 1689

National Portrait Gallery, CC

John Locke: a Brief Biography 

John Locke was born on 29 August 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, England (Milton, ODNB). Locke, like Hobbes, is considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy, as well as a founding member of the Royal Society of London. He was the son of Puritan parents and attended Oxford at the age of 20 in 1652 (Milton, ODNB).

He was one of the most influential writers and philosophers of not only his time, but of all time. Locke experienced many vital moments in the history of Great Britain and saw the collapse of a government and its renewal. He experienced the execution of Charles I, the Great Fire of London, the “rule” of Oliver Cromwell, as well as the rule of Charles II.

He was also an esteemed member of the Royal Society of London among other incredible men such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle (Milton, ODNB). Together, Locke, Newton, and Boyle were all founding members of the Royal Society (Milton, ODNB). Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, there was a period of political and governmental exploration, including the abolishment of the traditional monarchy replaced by a constitutional monarchy (Milton, ODNB). Locke also experienced the overthrow of James II by William of Orange and his wife Mary (Milton, ODNB).

While living a life littered with political and religious turmoil, Locke began to write and publish many works regarding these topics. A few of his most famous works include, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), and Two Treatises of Government (1690).

Aspects of Locke’s work concerning the Two Treatises of Government, however, contradicted his life. Locke himself held investments in colonial ventures as well as in the slave trade (British Atlantic Lecture). In Two Treatises of Government, Locke argues that slavery is wrong and only justifiable in cases of the winning side of a war enslaving those who were members of the losing side. Locke also wrote “... so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a State of War with me” (Locke, 1991, 279). While Locke’s work is extremely important to political philosophy, on the topic of slavery, his work is considered contradictory.  Locke passed away on 28 October 1704 at the age of 72. 


Title Page of Two Treatises of Government (Locke, Two Treatises of Government). 

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

Two Treatises of Goverment 

Locke's most famous and influential work, his Two Treatises of Government, focuses on his views on the state and the rights and sovereignties of the people. In this text, he discusses concepts that he would come to be known for, such as natural rights, property, the Divine Right of Kings, and a wide range of political theories that would shape much of the modern world. Locke's views were born out of many factors in his personal life and his country's state. Throughout Locke's life, he saw many important events in British history, including a lot of turmoil with the crown leading to his views on the divine rights of kings, or lack thereof, and his general views on authoritarianism that he would explore in Two Treatise of Government. His puritan upbringing also greatly influenced him, which laid the groundwork for many of his political writings (Duignan). In the first, Treatise Locke primarily explores the Divine Rights of Kings and focused on arguing against a book written by 17th-century political theorist Sir Robert Filmer called Patriarcha, which claimed that the Divine Right of Kings was valid since the monarchy directly dissented from Adam. Locke rejected this notion as it defied "common sense," and there was no historical evidence for it (Duignan).

His Second Treatise, the far more influential and well known one, is focused on his views on government and nature. Throughout the text, he lays down the groundwork for his opinions on the world and government, beginning his breakdown of human nature. His chapters regarding nature and natural law are some of the most central to his political philosophy (Tuckness). Chapters from these sections focusing on the "equality of men by nature" and his entire chapter where he makes an apparent stance against slavery run in direct contrast to the fact he was a slave owner, but despite these contradictions, he delivers a message about individual freedom that was massively influential and anti-authoritarian. Later in the book, sections explain an idea for a government separated into three branches, the executive, legislative and judicial, which would go on to inspire the movement of the United States. Locke's views on authoritarianism can be seen at the beginning of his chapter titled "Tyranny," in which he states, "As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to" (Locke, 18). The entire second Treatise of Government is a mosaic of different ideas on the world, ranging from the most fundamental topics of nature to war, slavery, and politics, and despite Locke often contradicting himself, the ideas present in this book went on to influence many generations of great people who changed the world for the better 

- John Kelleher 


Book Cover

(Locke, Two Treatises of Government)

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

Book Design in the 1600s

During Locke's time, books were often published in differing ways. The more expensive the printer and publisher were, the nicer the book looked and the greater the quality. This particular edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, There is also intricate art on the front of the book. This edition was printed in 1690, and has held together remarkably well. It can be inferred from the quality that this edition was most likely a more expensive copy, printed by a higher level publisher and was aimed toward the higher class readers. This edition may have been on the library shelves of universities, nobles, and scholars. 

- Claire Brothers 


Spine of Book

(Locke, Two Treatises of Government)

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

Pictured here is the spine of the book. The leather binding and gold print on the spine further proves that this book was made for people of a higher class. Based on the cover design, the book appears to have been re-bound in the nineteenth century, when the  rebinding of books with decoration such as 'marbling' was very common.

- Claire Brothers

Thomas-Hobbes - National Portrait Gallery, CC.jpg

Thomas Hobbes, John Michael Wright, 1669-70

National Portrait Gallery

John-Locke - National Portrait Gallery - CC.jpg

John Locke, Herman Verelst, 1689

National Portrait Gallery, CC

How do Hobbes and Locke Differ? How are they the Same? 


Hobbes and Locke both agreed in their political writings that the State of Nature was a hypothetical scenario in which humans existed before civilized society and/or government. These two pivotal philosophers believed that humans needed to escape this state of nature in order to ensure protection of rights. Although the rights and freedoms that were discussed by Hobbes and Locke in a post-state of nature society were different, they both were concerned with the protection of said rights and freedoms within society.

Hobbes and Locke both lived through the English Civil War, and saw its effect on their country, family, and friends. They also witnessed the harrowing effects the war had on the English monarchy, with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the near twenty-year Interregnum that followed. 


Thomas Hobbes and John Locke had very different views on government and the state of humanity. Hobbes was a firm believer that in the State of Nature, humans were constantly at war and killing each other. For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war. Hobbes argued that life in the state of nature, nothing can be unjust and that it is "nasty, brutish, and short." Locke, on the other hand, believed that the state of nature was a place that people existed together peacefully. He said that it is the people’s choice to enter into the “social contract” and become members of society. 

In Lockean society, people willingly give their power to the government, but they can take it back any time if the government is not working to serve the will of the majority. The only reason Locke believes there is a need to create a civil society/government is to protect property.

For Locke, protection of property is extremely important. This belief can be traced back to his life and upbringing. During Locke’s time, many people were losing their property due to religious differences, which could be one of the things that inspired Locke to write about a society in which protection of property was the main focus. 

In Hobbes’ State of Nature, life is chaos. Hobbes believed that the state of nature was a state of war in which people were constantly killing each other, nothing was unjust, and it was a free-for-all. In order to escape this hellish state of nature, Hobbes describes an all-powerful Leviathan who is the only saving grace. To escape Hobbes’ state of nature, people must give up their power to the Leviathan. The Leviathan then retains that power for all time, and unlike Locke, the people can never get that power back. For Hobbes, civil society is not an option, it is a necessity. People in the state of nature are incapable of ruling themselves, so they need an all-powerful being to do it for them:  an absolute ruler. 

In essence, Hobbes believed in an absolutist and dictatorial society whereas Locke believed in a democratic and representative government. 

- Claire Brothers 

Locke - Civil Government - McCrillis - edit.jpg

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government

RaD, CU Boulder Libraries

John Locke

John Locke is one of the most renowned philosophers in Europe in the late seventeenth century. He was born in Wrington to a Puritan family of moderate means in 1632. His father served in a cavalry unit on the Puritan side during the early stages of the English Civil War. His dad’s unit commander became a local MP and through his patronage John was able to get an excellent education at the Westminster School in London. At the age of twenty he moved on to Christ Church, a significant college of Oxford and became interested in medicine and experimental philosophy. After graduating, teaching, and researching at the university he moved back to London with one of the wealthiest men in England, Lord Ashley, to become his personal physician. He went to France to study protestantism for over a year while the Edict of Nantes allowed a degree of religious freedom.  When he moved back he had become connected to members of the Rye House and when the plot was exposed he was forced to go into exile in Holland. He supported the overthrow of James II and when his side in the Glorious Revolution became victorious he moved back to England (Milton, ODNB). 

Influenced by his previous experiences he wrote many works including the important book the Two Treatises of Government.  The Second Treatise is considered by many to be one of the most important pieces in modern political philosophy. This work contained influential ideas including the law of nature, which coined the popular idea that all men were endowed with the “right to life, liberty, and estate” (Locke).  It also contained the idea of the social contract explained well in Chapter XVIII when he explains, “From this Institution of a Common-wealth are derived all the rights, and faculties of him, or them, on whom the sovereign power is conferred by the consent of the people assembled” (Locke).  Locke passed away in 1704 and throughout history became known as a father of liberalism.

- Cameron McCrillis