Locke and Hobbes on Revolution
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1706) belonged to the same generation of philosophers. However, both philosophers viewed English Revolution differently. Hobbes had experienced the English Revolution as a time of brutality. Thence, the philosopher compared the revolution to what he referred to as the “state of nature” (or, a state of primitiveness).
This state was ruthless and uncouth. Hobbes believed that revolutions were similarly a negative state, and in order to guard itself against the malice of revolutions, society needed a strong king and strict governance, somewhat akin to the Panopticon state of Michel Foucault. Locke, on the other hand, lauded the concept of revolution as a necessity during times of governmental disturbance. In other words, the philosopher with a good view of revolution believed in dismantling the government if it does not work (“Locke and Hobbes”).
Sharp (2006) explains the difference between Locke’s and Hobbes’ viewpoints on revolution thus:
At least part of the difference between Hobbes and Locke can be attributed to their historical circumstances. Hobbes witnessed the English Civil War, which destroyed every opportunity for happiness for many people. His all-powerful state must have seemed like the lesser of two evils, since it would at least be stable and life would not devolve into anarchy. Locke, however, witnessed the Glorious Revolution, where the government was completely changed without bloodshed.
For him, revolution must not have seemed like such a terrible thing. Most likely, both views are too extreme. Revolution is usually a costly endeavor, since those in power rarely relinquish it willingly. However, the possibility or revolution is a key part of maintaining rights, since an all-powerful government could suppress our rights without fear of repercussion.
Hobbes, being senior to Locke in age and experience, had apparently seen a bloody war that Locke had not been a witness of. Thus, the views of the philosophers differed with respect to the English Revolution. Had Locke also lived through the English Civil War, he might have been bitter about the idea of revolution as well. Nevertheless, it is important to note that both philosophers believed in human rights. Locke was not a violent agitator. Furthermore, it is clear that his philosophy on revolution was written with ultimate peace in mind.
Locke wrote about “abuse of power by the government” as a reason for a revolution. In order to serve justice, he considered it ethical for citizens to fight for their rights, even if they must fight the government for the same reason. In Locke’s view, “rebellion” was a necessity at times of governmental corruption and dissidence. Besides, in the perspective of the philosopher, the people could be trusted to make decisions as regards civil rights. The important matter to consider remained, however, that people could achieve “restoration of their rights” via a revolution (Kemerling, 2000).
Locke’s philosophy on revolution makes the kinds of allowances for the common people that Hobbes’ philosophy does not allow for. In the latter’s view, revolutions are bad because they lead to bloodshed. So therefore, governments should be strong enough to rule the people without letting them express their agitation in any form whatsoever.
Locke’s philosophy can debate with Hobbes’ view quite simply by claiming that the victims of bloodshed are usually the common people; and if they are the ones taking responsibility for a revolution, they are the ones also responsible for guarding their safety at all costs during a revolution. Governments that try to quell public rebellion through military violence are bad in any case. Hence, the public is right in demolishing such governments. At the same time, the public must protect itself from the agitation of the government during a revolution.
Thus Locke’s philosophy of revolution allows for public liberty unlike Hobbes’ philosophy, which is similar to the Panopticon. Michel Foucault’s (1995) Panopticism begins with a detailed description of the measures to be taken against a seventeenth century plague.
The government was meant to exercise absolute control over all citizens during such time, as spaces were to be partitioned and houses were to be closed off. Stray animals were to be killed, and human beings were to be advised that they could only leave town if they wanted to be killed too. Moreover, guards were to be put on duty to keep a constant eye on the people. Every guard was to be informed that “if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death.”
The government aimed to create a pure and disciplined community through these orders. What is more, as Foucault points out, it was a “political dream” to create such an obedient community, even for a brief period of time. Such an obedient community happens to be a model for other communities and other times. This plagued community was further marked by:
…strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power; not masks that were put on and taken off, but the assignment to each individual of his ‘true’ name, his ‘true’ place, his ‘true’ body, his ‘true’ disease. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.
The Panopticon state is the literal embodiment of Hobbes’ philosophy of government. Totally unlike Locke’s state of freedom, which is equal to democracy in present times, Hobbes’ is a restrictive state with police control at best. From these two differing philosophies of government arise two dissimilar, defining concepts of revolution. People through history have found it difficult to believe in both at the same time. To answer their concerns, both Hobbes and Locke advise their readers and thinkers to use their reason in changing or adopting a form of government (Sharp).
Focault, Michel. (1995). Panopticism. Retrieved 20 May 2007, from
Kemerling, Garth. (2000). Locke: Social Order. Philosophy Pages. Retrieved 20 May 2007, from
Locke and Hobbes, Two Contrasting Views of the English Revolution. Retrieved 20 May 2007,
Sharp, Robert. (2006, September 5). Hobbes Vs. Locks: A Question of Rights. Retrieved 20 May
2007, from http://philosophy.suite101.com/article.cfm/hobbes_vs__locke.