Thomas Hobbes and John Locke each formulated notions regarding human liberty in nearly the same social, political, and provincial circumstances. Although their most famous works were separated approximately forty years from one another, they were both wealthy members of seventeenth century English society during a period of particular social and religious turmoil. Similarly, both Hobbes and Locke sought to use reasoning to determine the most appropriate form of political and social organization. It should be anticipated, therefore, that their fundamental conceptions regarding freedom also possess many similarities; however -- aside from their initial premises -- Hobbes and Locke vary wildly in both their approaches to the topic of freedom and the consequences they believe these lines of reasoning hold for society. Locke has come to be thought of as one of the founders of modern political philosophy in the West, and rightly so. Hobbes, on the other hand, has continued to remain celebrated for his philosophical construction of metaphysical materialism. Their ideas concerning freedom reflect these two drastically different perspectives, and in fact, are products of them.
The central premise that links Locke and Hobbes together concerning the topic of liberty is that they both believe that all human knowledge comes into existence through the senses. To them, the human mind is analogous to a blank sheet of paper waiting for our interpretations of sound, light, texture, and taste to write the story of what we perceive to be real. This position automatically denies that humans are born with any knowledge or drives towards complex action before we receive external stimulus. Hobbes believes, "From sense experience we derive historical knowledge and prudence, and from reason we derive scientific and philosophical knowledge and reason." (McGreal 1992, p.187). So, Hobbes holds that the information we receive from our senses can be used to linearly draw rational conclusions through deductive thought. Locke also believes, "Human knowledge is derived either from sense experience or from introspection." (McGreal 1992, p.223). The minor difference being that introspection is not necessarily based upon deductive reasoning, but still relies upon external information; knowledge may be inferred rather than deduced. Although both philosophers virtually agree upon where knowledge comes from, they use this idea to arrive at utterly divergent conclusions regarding the nature of man.
Locke uses this basic blank sheet conception of man to assert that all men are naturally in a state of equality. This makes up one of the natural states man is in; with the other being perfect freedom. He writes in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, "To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and to dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man." (Cottingham 1996, p.487). This freedom, connected with equality, permits every man utter sovereignty over his own faculties and decisions. This freedom itself is a result of the Law of Nature, as Locke perceives it. The Law of Nature has been arrived at through internal reflection upon the processes of the world that Locke has observed throughout his life, and is discoverable through the process of reason as applied to God's will.
To Locke, God created man in his own image, independent of the trivial classifications and divisions we place upon human beings; so, in the eyes of God we are all equal. This equality demands that each man's sovereign rights to govern himself be respected. Recognizing this, according to Locke, a natural law can be derived; it is a law that ensures the freedom of individuals is complete, insofar as it fails to interfere with the freedom of others. Essentially, the restriction upon this "perfect freedom" that man is born into is that the freedom of others cannot be interrupted. However, this Law of Nature is not innately present in man's mental construction of reality; in other words, each man is free to choose whether or not he will abide by this law. "It is the responsibility of each individual to enact the law of nature which binds them to perceive peace and refrain from harming one another." (Collinson 1987, p.69). This aspect of Locke's freedom is a consequence of his belief in free will: morally, men are required to follow the natural law, but physically they will only follow it by choice. So, humans possess freedom, and they also possess a will.
Hobbes, however, does not draw his reasoning from the will of God, and therefore, does not assert that man is perfectly free. Hobbes' inspiration for investigating the properties of mankind is science. Science is not authoritatively bestowed upon the masses by some abstract entity, but rather, is realized by man through linear reasoning. Additionally, science does not depend upon the existence of immaterial substances, but is dominated entirely by physical objects that are either directly observable or perceivably observable. So for Hobbes, even those aspects of reality that we cannot fully understand must be explainable by physical substances that, if we could measure, we would understand. Accordingly, man's freedom and man's level of equality are quantifiable.
Like Locke, Hobbes must describe man in what he calls "the Natural Condition," or the Natural Law. "In a natural state each individual exercises the natural right to preserve his own life and avoid death. . . . Our natural state is one in which, as we move towards what we want, we collide with others similarly engaged." (Collinson 1987, p.53). Basically, the natural physical construction of the human being inclines him to work towards what he wants -- pleasure and preservation of his own life -- attainment of these wants is complete freedom. Restrictions upon this freedom, like with Locke, occur when individuals come into conflict with other individuals acting out of personal desires. The major difference between the two, however, is that Locke identifies the complete capacity of the human being to choose as being perfect freedom, but Hobbes identifies unimpeded pursuit of desires as being freedom.
"Liberty is the freedom to execute what is willed," to Locke; and to Hobbes, "By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments, which impediments may oft take away part of a man's power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according to his judgment and reason shall dictate to him." (Cahn 1999, p.515, p. 394). Both philosophers agree that liberty is associated with the possibility of achieving what is willed, but they define it from opposite ends. Hobbes takes the negative definition of liberty: he defines it with reference to what it is not. Locke defines it as the link between the two powers of man in his natural state: will and freedom. Locke's conception of liberty is very similar to Hobbes conception of freedom; it is connected to the capacity to carry out what is wanted. But to Hobbes, liberty is entirely a product of external settings; it is not a natural condition of man or even a derivation there of -- it is a social concept.
Accordingly, Hobbes' Law of Nature is fundamentally different from Locke's. Locke assumed man's equality in the eyes of God, and used it to conclude that each individual is obligated to one another based upon the total realization of our collective freedoms. Hobbes' Law of Nature, however, is singularly applicable to the individual: "A Law of Nature is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do what is destructive to his life or taketh away by means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved." (Cahn 1999, p.394). Here, there is no overall consideration for the freedoms of others which binds people to Locke's Law of Nature. The general consent towards peace and consideration of one's neighbors, to Hobbes, grows out of self-interest.
This is where the consequences of their differing perspectives concerning freedom and liberty become most stark in contrast to one another. Hobbes observes that the complete pursuit of freedom by everyone can only result in anarchy, universal pain, warfare, and suffering. Therefore, it is advantageous to the individual to enter into a bargain with society: "And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war." (Cahn 1999, p.394). Therefore, he asserts that the best possible organization of society calls for individuals to ally themselves with a powerful sovereign, who is capable of protecting their freedoms in peace as well as in war. Essentially, Hobbes believed that the formation of government was the culmination of…