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Jean Jacque Rousseau vs. Thomas Hobbes

Jean Jacque Rousseau, a French philosopher, in his work The Discourse on Inequality, has a fine sense of the possible that makes his thought utilitarian, experimental, and relativistic. This basic quality, if not scientific in a strict sense as Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy is, nevertheless partakes of one important aspect of science: empiricism, or the refusal to accept any solution as final.

Where Rousseau is least scientific is where he thinks himself most scientific; in his belief that his analysis of power is based on solid facts of historical experience, that the record of man’s behavior proves him a depraved and wily creature, and that a realistic theory of power must be based on such a pessimistic view of man. But an unhealed thy state is disorderly and unbalanced, and may require strong measures to restore it to normal. Rousseau called for a leader to use any means necessary to preserve the state, resorting to cruelty, deception, and force if nothing else worked.

As a result, many people thought he supported the use of cruelty and deceit in politics. If Rousseau’s pessimism is the clue to his political philosophy, the weakness of his theory must be sought in his psychological conceptions. In detail, a moderate, Rousseau is an extremist when it comes to the whole. His doctrine of the badness of man is just as much an unscientific oversimplification as is the opposite extreme of the goodness of man. He feels that the government has some sort of clutch on the people and that the society should advance the right to not be administrated by any means.

He connotes that people are supposed have the right to live as they would intend to and then be led. Rousseau’s pessimistic analysis of the politics lays within the facts that he feels that the government has a suffocating hold on the people’s necks, and does not even respect the opinions of its subjects. Although the Leviathan is primarily a book on social and political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, an English political theorist, had not intended to restrict his attention to that subject.

Caught up in the rising tide of scientific discovery, he was deeply impressed by the precision of science and above all by the certainty of scientific knowledge. The intellectual atmosphere of the 16th and 17th centuries had been undergoing a radical alteration as one area of inquiry after another yielded to the probing method of science. Hobbes caught the spirit of the times. Indeed, Hobbes sought to create a science of politics. Hobbes said that there are basic laws governing human behavior and that these laws are as precise as those in the physical world.

If these laws were correctly understood, he said, it would be possible to create a government that works according to scientific principles. Just like Jean Jacque Rousseau, Hobbes believed that people act out of self-interest. Because they want power, possessions, security, honor and fame, they compete violently with each other. Without government to make and enforce laws, Hobbes felt there would be a war “of every man against every man. ” To maintain civilized life, said Hobbes, a strong government must set rules that control human nature.

Hobbes lived at the time of English Civil War and considered that conflict an example of the dangerous capacities of human nature. He maintained that a strong ruler was necessary to avoid total disorder. His book Leviathan compared the state to a whale, arguing that each must be controlled by a single mind, which is similar to Rousseau’s singlehanded kind of governance. However, he did not believe that rulers derived their power from God. Rather, he introduced the idea that people made a “social contract,” trading their liberties for order and good government.

As a political philosopher, Hobbes is frequently, though not accurately, called the father of modern totalitarianism. His book Leviathan read like grammars of obedience. He describes the relation between the citizen and sovereign in such severe terms that it is no wonder he brought upon himself widespread criticism. Two considerations led Hobbes to formulate his unique theory of political obligation. The first was the political turbulence of his times, which saw Cromwell preparing to lead his people in a savage civil war.

This experience of violence, growing out of deep disagreements on political matters, contrasted sharply in Hobbes’ mind with the relatively quick agreements people achieved in mathematical and scientific matters. Secondly, Hobbes looked at political philosophy as a variation of the science of physics. He assumed that from a thoroughly materialistic view of human nature, in which human behavior could be explained simply in terms of bodies in motion, he could formulate an accurate political philosophy.

He hoped that if political theory could be formulated with logical precision, people would be more likely to achieve agreement among themselves and thereby arrive at what Hobbes longed for most of all, namely, peace and order. There is some question whether Hobbes was logically consistent in his systematic political philosophy, and there is even greater question about his assumption that people would become orderly in their relations to each other just because they had been provided a logical plan for harmonious behavior.

In any case, his theory of humanity and society took its novel turn mainly because he built it according to a mechanical model, the chief ingredients of which were bodies and motivation. What’s striking about Hobbes’ theory of state is that he approaches the subject not from an historical point of view but from the vantage point of logic and analysis. He does not ask, “When did civil societies emerge? ” but asks rather, “how do you explain the emergence of society? ” He hoped to discover the cause of civil society and, in harmony with his general method, he sets out to explain the cause of the state by describing the motion of bodies.

His thought about political philosophy resembles the method of geometry only in the sense that from axiom-like premises he deduces all the consequences or conclusions of his political theory, and most of these premises cluster around his conception of human nature. Hobbes argued that several logical conclusions or consequences can be deduced from our concern for our survival, among these being what Hobbes called natural laws. Even in the state of nature, people know these natural laws, which are logically consistent with our principal concern for our own safety.

A natural law, said Hobbes, “is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason,” telling what to do and what not to do. If the major premise is that I want to survive, I can logically deduce, even in the state of nature, certain rules of behavior that will help me survive. The first law of nature is therefore that everyone ought to “seek peace and follow it. ” For instance, now this law that urges me to seek peace is natural because it is a logical extension of my concern for survival. It is obvious that I have a better chance to survive if I help to create the conditions of peace.

My desire for survival therefore impels me to seek peace. Like Rousseau’s advocacy for liberty, Hobbes portrayed in the second fundamental law “a man to be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down his right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. ” According to both Hobbes and Rousseau, law begins only when there is a sovereign. This is a logical truism, for in the judicial or legal sense, a law is defined as a command of the sovereign, there is no law.

To be sure, Hobbes and Rousseau affirmed that even in the state of nature people have knowledge of the natural law, and in a special sense the natural law is binding even in the state of nature. But only after there is a sovereign can there be a legal order, because only then is there the apparatus of law in which the power of enforcement is central. Without the power to enforce, said Hobbes, covenants are mere words. Hobbes identifies law with sovereign command, and he makes the additional point that “there can be no unjust law.

” Whether it is Hobbes’ philosophy of politics or Rousseau’s, all the same, politics simply is not feasible without authority. The most visible and widely accepted example of politics is the workings of the governmental institutions. However, although at first glance one may not be aware of it, politics in its various forms is present wherever and whenever humans form a community.


Hobbes, Thomas. (1982). “Leviathan. ” Penguin Books. Rousseau, Jean Jacque. (1987). “The Discourse on Inequality. ” Hackett Publishing.

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