Seventeenth-century England endured a pair of tense struggles for political power that had a profound impact on the philosophers of the English Enlightenment. The first power struggle came in 1649, when the English Civil War resulted in the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Although this republic endured for a decade, it also essentially devolved into dictatorship, and England ended up reverting to monarchy with the restoration of Charles II to the throne.
The reestablished monarchy had clear limits placed on its absolute power, however, as was made clear in the bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the English people overthrew a king they deemed unacceptable and basically chose their next rulers. The revolution occurred because Charles II’s son, James II, was an overt Catholic, which did not sit well with the predominantly Protestant public. The English people rallied behind James II’s Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, who led a nonviolent coup that dethroned James II and sent him to France. When William and Mary ascended the throne, they effectively ended the Catholic monarchy and the idea of divine right. In the years that followed, an English Bill of Rights was drafted, boosting parliamentary power and personal liberties. In this freer environment, science, the arts, and philosophy flourished.
The first major figure in the English Enlightenment was the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who began his career as a tutor but branched out to philosophy around the age of thirty. In 1640, fearing that some of his writings had angered England’s parliament, Hobbes fled to Paris, where he penned a substantial body of his work. He is best known for the epic Leviathan (1651), a lengthy, groundbreaking work that explores human nature.
In Leviathan, Hobbes elaborates on the nature of man and justifies absolutist rule. He argues that human nature is inherently bad and that humans will remain in a constant a state of war, vying for power and material resources, unless awed by a single great power. However, Hobbes also claims that any group of men who ascend to positions of great power will be prone to abusing it, seeking more power than necessary for the stability of society. Thus, he reasons, a single absolute ruler is better than an oligarchy or democracy; because that ruler’s wealth and power is largely equivalent to the wealth and power of the nation, he will seek to lead the nation on a stable and prosperous course. Hobbes claims that this sovereign’s main duty is to provide protection to the citizens and that if he fails at that task, allegiance may be transferred to another.
An atheist, Hobbes long argued that religion is useful as a propaganda machine for the state, as it is the entity most capable of reminding the ignorant masses of their role and their duties. He was of the opinion that human life is by nature “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and was pessimistic about the prospects for progress in a world short on ethics. Fearing, justly, that Leviathan might offend certain groups—especially Anglicans and French Catholics—Hobbes figured himself safest at home and returned to London, where he lived out his years privately.
Commentators have praised Hobbes’s work for its logic and clarity but have disagreed over precisely what he meant. For instance, the rules Hobbes sets forth as to precisely when a citizen may transfer allegiance to a new sovereign are unclear. Basically, only when a ruler kills or ceases to protect a subject may a subject oppose the ruler; at all other times, the subject must remain subservient. The greatest criticism of Hobbes focuses on his failure to describe how totally selfish men would be able to create and maintain the covenant of the state. Hobbes avoids the errors inherent in assuming that all human beings are inherently virtuous, but he is hard-pressed to explain how humans would behave in the manner he describes if they are inherently stupid. Hobbes represents the pessimistic side of the Enlightenment and sees progress as the result of the suppression of man’s instincts rather than the granting of freedom to those instincts.
On the opposite side of the spectrum from the pessimistic Hobbes was John Locke (1632–1704), the other major English political philosopher of the seventeenth century. Locke received a prestigious education throughout his youth and remained involved in academics long after graduation. It was while dabbling in medicine with a mentor that he was introduced to political thought, which then captured his interest.
Locke’s early writings focus on the religious intolerance and bickering that was blighting England at the time. Though important, these earlier works did not have nearly the influence or prominence of later works such as Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which Locke puts forth his optimistic idea that man’s mind is a blank slate and that man can subsequently learn and improve through conscious effort. Locke followed with the work for which he is even better known, Two Treatises of Government (also 1690). This political work was massively influential, particularly the second treatise, and is still considered the foundation for modern political thought.
Not surprisingly, Locke’s more optimistic work was more warmly received and more influential than Hobbes’s in the long run. In particular, Locke’s second treatise on government—which details Locke’s belief that every man is inherently good but that the necessity of government requires that people compromise on some issues for the betterment of the whole—has endured. The work sets forth Locke’s ideas for an ideal representative government and makes suggestions that would eventually be elaborated into ideas such as separation of powers—the system that the founding fathers of the United States used when writing the U.S. Constitution.