Political  Philosophy


It is interesting to look at some of the great minds behind political philosophy, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Their ideas have had great influence in activities that occurred sometimes centuries later.

What make them rather different from the other philosophers  is that they differ from that ‘natural contracts’ that others had been discussing such as the Law of Nature by Spinoza and others. We now move into philosophies that are based on constructs made by humans, based on cultural developments.

The newly arriving political philosophies had good merits but the social structures in the 17th century were far from ideal to get anything like a ‘social’ contract’ executed in any effective way. The powers in charge could theoretically accept that but there was nothing that stood in their way to do whatever they liked, purely based on their own interests.

Choice matters

Choice is an ideology, a cultural concept and requires a freedom in making decisions.

The concept of a choice has changed over time. Going back to Ancient and Medieval times a Free Man was a status, not a choice. It only applied to men. It did not apply to Slaves and Women and the Nobility was a separate status again. This was not a matter of choice.

Choice in trade applied to products other than provisions. Most people in the sense of a market economy did not have a choice as they only acquired provisions. Trade in those periods was trade in luxury goods only for the ruling classes. Choice as in products for larger parts of the populations only started to appear in the early Modern Period.

There was also no choice in tribal belief systems and religions.  Here choice only started to appear in the Reformation.

Choice in lifestyle is equally a new phenomenon. There was very little choice for farmers who made up 90% of the population till rather recent.

Political choice is even more recent and is still only available in a rather select number of societies.

Thomas Hobbes

By putting Thomas Hobbes in its time it is much easier to understand his contradiction. He lived from 1588 till 1679 during the English Civil War and the overthrow of the monarchy. He is using a scientific approach to building a civil society, rather than one based on the divine right of kings. For this he develops the  ‘Social Contract’ a document that basically provides the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. It basically means a legitimate monopoly on violence. Not that this concept was totally new, it goes back much farther, to the Christian doctrine of the two swords.

This is a medieval doctrine on the relation of Church and State, as explained by Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294- 1303): “We are taught by the words of the Gospel that in this Church and under her control there are two swords, the spiritual and the temporal . . . both of these, i.e., the spiritual and the temporal swords, are under the control of the Church. The first is wielded by the Church; the second is wielded on behalf of the church. The first is wielded by the hands of the priest, the second by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the wish and by the permission of the priests. Sword must be subordinate to sword, and it is only fitting that the temporal authority should be subject to the spiritual” . this doctrine was not defined by the Pope but reflected the mentality of the age, when both “priests and kings” were members of the same Catholic Church in whose name Pope Boniface was speaking.

While Hobbes very much believes in reason at the same time he thinks that people are selfish, unbridled and would go for a free for all to satisfy their desires and passions. He stated that  “..people want power and that is why we live in a situation of permanent war’.

In such a state, people fear death and lack both the things necessary to commodious living, and the hope of being able to obtain them. So, to avoid it, people accede to a social contract and establish a civil society. According to Hobbes, society consists of a population and a sovereign authority. To the latter all individuals in that society cede some right for the sake of protection. Power exercised by this authority cannot be resisted, because the protector’s sovereign power derives from individuals’ surrendering their own sovereign power for protection. The individuals are thereby the authors of all decisions made by the sovereign. As according to Hobbes:  “he that complaineth of injury from his sovereign complaineth that whereof he himself is the author, and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself, no nor himself of injury because to do injury to one’s self is impossible”. There is no doctrine of separation of powers in Hobbes’s discussion. According to Hobbes, the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers, even the words.

According to Hobbes an Absolute Sovereign is needed to reign this in. In principle this does not need to be one person (monarch) it could also be an assembly.

The major missing element in Hobbes political philosophy of a civil society is the fact that at his time there was no ‘3rd part’ to enforce the social contract, so the Absolute Monarch could still do what he wanted unbridled by any consequences in relation to the social contract.

While Hobbes is of course famous for his Social Contract, he is currently increasingly being more and more quoted for his pessimistic view on humanity. He is used in phrases such as a ‘Hobbesian Future’. Referring to the fight for power, selfishness and unbridled levels of competition. Another phrase that has come into vogue again is the ‘Hobbesian Trap’. This refers to taking pre-emptive strikes out of bilateral fear of an imminent attack. This then becomes a vicious circle.

The Social Contract has been much further developed since Hobbes as will be discussed below under Locke and Rousseau.

It is also interesting to discuss the ‘social contract’ in today environment. With the covid-19 pandemic we are facing the reality of this contract. In order for the society to stay safe, the individual is facing restrictions of their individual freedom. There are lots of people protesting against their loss of freedom and especially in the USA that has taken on rather extreme behaviour such as deliberately flaunting the crisis. Very few people would have heard of the ‘social contract’ on which basically our democracy is based and suddenly they are being confronted by it.

In the context of the social contract and in relation to covid we all also have responsibilities towards a well-functioning healthcare system and to the well-being of our people working in healthcare. We can clearly see what happens if we put the individual rights of ‘freedom’ above those of social well-being of the other. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill has mentioned we can only use our freedom if we do not harm others. As we have seen – as well as Hobbes did 400 years ago – we cannot leave this to us individuals as there are too many people that for whatever reason do not want to adhere to a social contract. Unfortunately, that means that governments will have to step in with measures that are restrictive for all.

Of course, we do need to place the crisis in the context of our current social and economic environment. Unfortunately, we have seen governments doing the wrong things (in relation to climate change, inequality, refugees, state surveillance). This of course makes people more worried about a social contract. Can we trust governments to adhere to their part of the bargain? I am worried about that. They seem to aim to go back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible and this could be very harmful for society. This, at a time that it has become overly clear that very significant social and economic transformations need to be undertaken by those governments.

So, the extended crisis is far from over and we will have to make some very tough decisions going forward. The importance of the social contract and the responsibility of both parties will become increasingly more important elements of the debate.

John Locke 

John Locke  (1632-1704) did built on this but he didn’t just want a basic social contract, he would like to see that regularly renewed. He was also more positive on society as he believed in the Golden Rule. He believed that knowledge was based on experience. People would basically stick to the principle of treating others as they want to be treated’. This would be the basis on which to build a civil society.

He also believed their ought to be an assembly of property owners that would oversee government revenue raising (taxation). He also stated that the power in charge must have the support of the majority of the people – just opening the way for legalising revolution. The famous statement in the American Revolution was ‘no taxation without representation’, comes straight out of Locke’s textbook.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 -1778) who started to bring the earliest thoughts of democracy into the discussion. He stated that the rich just trick the poor to adhere to the social contract without providing any form of equally. He described a social contract based on a legitimate political order. Here the absolute power in no longer held by the sovereign but by the people. He however, didn’t call his system ‘democracy’ this in his eyes would require a society that not only makes the laws but also executes them, he saw that as utopian.

Outsourcing our mind to populists can easily lead to totalitarianism.

Philosophy TOC