Paul Budde's History Archives

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.

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

While he 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.

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. ‘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.

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