The Political Philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke
LaFayette High School
This module was developed and utilized for a ninth-grade advanced placement U.S. government class to teach the AP syllabus topic "Constitutional Foundations: English Enlightenment Influences." However, the module may be utilized in standard or honors U.S. government or history classes.
Estimated module length: Two hours and fifteen to twenty minutes
Thomas Hobbes. Source: Wikipedia here.
John Locke. Source: Wikipedia here.
Thomas Hobbes (April 5, 1588–December 4, 1679) and John Locke (August 29, 1632–October 28, 1704), although in agreement in some of their assertions about human nature and the need for government, held radically different perspectives about the ability of people to govern themselves. A number of American founders, familiar with both political philosophers, favored the ideas of Locke, particularly the assertions that men had natural rights, rulers should derive their authority from the consent of the governed, and the governed had the right to overthrow governments that abused their rights.
This module is designed to introduce students to the political thought of both men and serves as a bridge to future lessons concerning the Declaration of Independence, the U.S Constitution, and other foundational documents.
Identify Thomas Hobbes’s and John Locke’s contributions to the English Enlightenment.
Compare and contrast their beliefs about the state of nature, the best type of government, and the nature of the social contract.
Explain the concepts of popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, and the social contract, and how these concepts influenced the American Revolution and founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
The module was written to enable students to have contextual knowledge for understanding the creation of the American political system. The assumption is that students will have no prior knowledge of Hobbes and Locke. Basic understanding of terms and concepts such as sovereignty, consent, order, and liberty is assumed.
Module introduction: Human nature, good or bad?
This introduction to the module is intended for students to understand that political thought and often action are predicated in part on the individual’s perspective about human nature. Generally, Hobbes had a somewhat negative view of human nature, while Locke’s perspective on human nature was more positive.
Upon entering the classroom, students are asked to complete the task below, posted on the whiteboard (estimated time, ten to fifteen minutes):
Write a short paragraph answering the following question: “Are people naturally good or naturally bad?” Base your rationale on history, current events, or your own life. This is an opinion question, and your response will not be categorized as correct or incorrect.
Students then are randomly asked to share their answers.
Follow-up questions may be utilized to help students think more deeply about the initial question. Examples include:
“If people are naturally bad, how does one justify demonstrable improvements in human life that have occurred throughout history?"
“If people are naturally bad, why are there so many charities and taxpayer-funded government programs for the needy?”
“If people are naturally good, why do we need so many rules and laws?”
“If people are naturally good, why do you lock your car, house, and cellphone?”
Student primary source work: The political philosophies of Hobbes and Locke
Introduce students to the political thought of Hobbes and Locke through succinctly describing basic biographical information about each man and the major event(s) that influenced their respective perspectives on government (estimated time, five to eight minutes).
For Hobbes, the English Civil War significantly shaped his worldview. In response, he developed a political philosophy that emphasized three key concepts:
The natural state of mankind (the “state of nature”) is a state of war of one man against another, as man is selfish and brutish.
The way out of the “state of nature” is a “social contract,” to be agreed upon by the people to be governed and the government.
The ideal form that government should take is an absolute monarchy that has maximum authority, subverting mankind’s natural state and creating societal order in the process
For Locke, the overthrow of King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 showed how governments and people should behave. He developed a philosophy that emphasized three points:
According to Locke, the natural condition of mankind is a “state of nature” characterized by human freedom and equality. Locke’s “law of nature”—the obligation that created beings have to obey their creator—constitutes the foundation of the “state of nature.” However, because some people violate this law, governments are needed.
People voluntarily give government some of their power through a “social contract” in order to protect their “natural rights” of life, liberty, and property.
If a government fails to protect the natural rights of its citizens or if it breaks the social contract, the people are entitled to rebel against the government and create a new one.
Primary source excerpts: Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
Before distribution of the primary source documents, the following additional contextual comment (or something similar) might be needed:
Hobbes and Locke also each posed questions about the nature of humanity, or the “state of nature,” as they called it. These questions about the state of nature concerned whether men were naturally inclined to cooperate and get along with each other in society—or, in other words, “good”—or if man was naturally greedy, self-centered, and prone to violence and isolation from his fellow man—or, in other words, “bad.”
Distribute the excerpts of Leviathan and Second Treatise on Government with eleven text-based questions and have students work through each excerpt, answering the questions as they read. Circulate throughout the room checking student progress and clarifying questions and explaining vocabulary if needed (estimated time, forty-five minutes to one hour).
Note: All primary source materials and accompanying questions are included in Appendix 1 and available at this link.
After students finish reading and answering the Hobbes document, solicit student responses to the Hobbes portion of the question sheet first, correcting or expanding/simplifying answers as needed (estimated time, five to eight minutes).
Augment and expand upon student answers by stressing that although the statement is not present in the primary source readings, Hobbes believed a government headed by an absolute monarch could ensure enforcement of the social contract, and therefore suggested hereditary monarchs be allowed to rule with absolute authority. He argued that anarchy would follow from the lack of powerful central authority and man would revert back to the nasty, brutish, and short state of nature (AKA the “state of war”). The founders rejected this assertion.
After students finish reading and answering the Locke document, solicit student responses to the Locke portion of the question sheet, correcting or expanding/simplifying answers as needed (estimated time, five to eight minutes).
The teacher will emphasize during this section that Locke believed a constitutional government that ruled through the consent of the governed and popular sovereignty was needed. This government should protect the citizens’ natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and could be dissolved if the government abused the people and didn’t recognize their authority. The founders found this claim accurate, and they adopted many of Locke’s ideas as their own.
As a homework assignment, students watch a brief online Bill of Rights Institute video titled Consent of the Governed and download and complete an accompanying video guide/worksheet available at the same site (estimated time, forty-five minutes):
Source: Screen capture from Consent of the Governed from the Bill of Rights Institute.
Cumulative activity questions/formative assessment (estimated time, thirty-five minutes)
Use the following questions that reinforce particularly Locke’s ideas and their relationship to the concept of “consent of the governed”:
Why does Locke’s portrait appear in the short documentary?
Define "consent of the governed" in your own words and give a contemporary example.
Go back to the Locke primary source document. Find passages in Locke that defend the idea of "consent of the governed."
Consider the differences and similarities you see in the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke. What do you identify as the key difference between the two? Recall what you know about the Declaration of Independence. Which philosophers' writing aligns more with the primary message of that document?
Instructors collect copies of the video guide/worksheet for formative evaluation.
Instructors can include summative evaluation questions on graded tests or examinations.
The Center for Civic Education’s We the People program features two very lucid and basic lectures, each just a bit over eleven minutes long, by Peter Woodcock on Hobbes and Locke. The lecture on Hobbes indicates his quite modern and novel—for the day—arguments about why people should support the state. In Woodcock’s Locke lecture, he explains Locke’s arguments for human rights—perhaps the first in political history—his defense of freedoms of property and (though qualified) religion, and his argument that in certain situations people have a right to overthrow their government. The lectures may be accessed at Civiced: Unit 1 (Thomas Hobes and John Locke).
Resources and References
Yale National Initiative: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: This site from Yale’s National Initiative to Strengthen Teaching in Public Schools provides an excellent unit plan that uses Hobbes and Locke to teach students about civil rights and civil liberties. The unit plan here is too long for an AP course, but it provides great background content on Hobbes and Locke, and it gives some potentially useful ideas about how to approach this topic. I used it primarily for content background in preparing the lesson.
Library of Congress: Creating the Decleration of Independence: This Library of Congress site is a digital exhibition called “Creating the United States.” This particular page concerns the creation of the Declaration of Independence and provides interactive buttons that reveal the intellectual background of key passages in the document, many relating to Locke. It could be used to enrich a lesson with more digital content.
Bill of Rights Institute: Constitutional Principles Videos: This site features videos that provide background on core American ideals such as separation of powers, consent of the governed (used in this lesson), rule of law, and representative government. The other videos would also prove useful during or after this module if a teacher wanted to add more video resources.
Bill of Rights Institute: Decleration of Independence: This is a link to the video guide/worksheet that accompanies the Consent of the Governed video from the Bill of Rights Institute’s website.
Diferencias y similitudes pensamiento Hobbes y Locke - Filosofía - Educatina: This video from “Educatina” on YouTube gives an overview of the similarities and differences between Hobbes and Locke. It is in Spanish and could be used for students who need extra help in English-language classrooms.
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes E-Book Download and The Project Gutenberg eBook of Two Treatises of Government by John Locke: Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government were accessed at Project Gutenberg, which offers over 53,000 free e-books.