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A Comparison Between Thomas Hobbes And Jean Jacques Rousseau

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Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries emergence of various works on political philosophy emerged, giving current political scholars a meaningful and rational foundation on politics and society. Various works have constructed a core knowledge and have influenced how we view the world around us today. Political philosophy seeks the application of ethical concepts in regards to the social sphere, and in turn, deals with the variety of forms of government and social existence that people could live in. In return, political philosophy provides a standard by which we analyze and judge existing institutions and relationships.

Thomas Hobbes was an English born philosopher while Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss-born philosopher. Both philosophers were influenced by various ongoing events and therefore their work inherently reflected this. Both were well known for their controversial interpretations of human nature. In this paper, an effort will be made to compare and contrast the works of both political philosophers. An analysis of the works and viewpoints of both Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be made, to determine how Hobbsian Rousseau is. An examination of the background and contributing factors to the philosopher’s writing will be made, in order to gain a better understanding of their views. Then, it will be necessary to examine their standpoints of human nature and the social contract. Furthermore, language will be explored as a tool of similarity and each philosopher’s thoughts on the sovereign will be presented to understand how Hobbsian Rousseau is.

Thomas Hobbes was influenced by traumatic conditions which greatly influenced his work. He was born in Westport, England on April 5th, 1588 (Duncan, 2017). Hobbes was influenced by the Spanish Armada. In his autobiography, Hobbes states “fear and I were born together” (Hobbes, pg.5). By which he refers to his premature birth due to the fear that his mother experienced when discovering that the Spanish Armada was sent to attack England. Fear is a significant theme in Hobbes writing and the Hobbesian philosophical system. The Spanish Armada was a planned invasion of England, due to the hostilities between Spain and England. King Philip II of the Catholic Church set out an attack on Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant England (History, 2018). This was a period of instability and insecurity and it was this particular upheaval that influenced Hobbes’ thoughts.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, in Geneva, Switzerland (Biography, 2019). He was known as one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment period. A time of social change and cultural prosperity. The Enlightenment period was known as the time of reason, where thinkers in Britain and in France and all throughout Europe “questioned the traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change” (History, 2009). Rousseau witnessed the death of his mother, as well as his father’s exile and due to humiliation, he fled to France where he converted to Catholicism. It was the conditions of the French Enlightenment and his early childhood which influenced Rousseaus’ writing and views on human nature.

An analysis of human nature will be made to contrast both philosophers and their work. By definition, human nature is the characteristics, instincts, feelings and behavioural traits of a human that are shared across the globe (Merriam-Webster, 2020). Human Nature will greatly impact your societal, moral and political views, which in turn means that if you believe humans are either good or evil it can influence your entire viewpoint on how you view the world. This is evidently noticed throughout both philosopher’s works.

Thomas Hobbes did not believe in the soul, or in the mind as separate from the body. Instead, he saw human beings as highly sophisticated machines with thoughts and emotions operating according to physical laws and chains of cause and effect. Just like machines, human beings pursue their own self-interest, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. According to Hobbes, the state of nature was a state of human existence without any established form of government and society. He describes this state as “solidarity, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes, pg.107). In this state of nature, there are no moral or legal rules, which quickly turns into a state of war in which humans are constantly disposed to harm others to achieve their goals. Hobbes depicts the state of nature by saying “someone who comes with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit but also his life or Liberty” (Leviathan, pg.57). In short, the state of nature is one of fear, violence and distrust, and would consequently have “no practical skills, no literature or scholarship, no society; and—worst of all—continual fear and danger of violent death” (Hobbes, pg.58)

According to Hobbes, moral ideas do not exist in man’s natural state. Hobbes states that it is an endeavour that motivates us, which he defines as “small beginnings of motion within the body of man before they appear in…visible actions” (Hobbes, pg.22). From endeavour, either appetite or aversion will arise. Hobbes states “This Endeavour, when it is toward something which causes it, is appetite or desire. . . when the Endeavour is fromward something, it is generally called aversion” (Leviathan, pg.52). According to Hobbes’ mechanistic universe, appetites and aversions are the product of transferred motion and depict human nature according to Hobbes. Hobbes recognized these two natural rights and concluded that a shift of power must occur to lift humanity out of this state of nature, and into what he recognizes as the social contract.

The social contract consists of moral and legal roles because it is essential to escape the state of nature, and allow men to flourish. Everyone must agree to these rules, and by doing so men must transfer their rights to all men in order to foster mutual reinforcement of the contract. Hobbes explains that it is in the hands of the sovereign to control appetites and aversions so that mankind could be lifted from the state of war which he refers to as human nature.

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, contrary to Hobbes, was influenced by the French Enlightenment which influenced his conception of humans in the state of nature. Rousseau addresses freedom and aims to explain how a man in the state of nature is blessed with inevitable total freedom. Unlike Hobbes who believed that men are inherently evil, Rousseau believed humans are naturally neither good nor bad, however, the problem lies when society is imposed upon individuals because he believes this creates corruption. In comparison to Hobbes, who describes the state of nature as a place of chaos before the arrival of the sovereign power, Rousseau describes the state of nature as a morally neutral and peaceful condition in which individuals act according to their basic urges. It was a rich environment where humans were living solitary and peaceful lives. Rousseau describes the state of nature as a “state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist,” (Rousseau, pg.34). Rousseau proclaimed the natural goodness of man and believed that one man by nature is just as good as his neighbour. For Rousseau, a man could be just without virtue and good without effort. According to Rousseau, a man in the state of nature was free, wise, and good and the laws of nature were good. It follows that it was a civilization that enslaved and corrupted man and made him unnatural.

Rousseau, was aware of the fact that humans changed over time and that they possess the faculty of self-perfection, he compares humans to animals by saying; “difference in this respect between men and brutes, there is another very specific quality which distinguishes them, and which will admit of no dispute. This is the faculty of self-improvement” (Rousseau, pg.6). Rousseau saw mankind in its natural state as being humble, wise, judicious and even noble and that every step away from the state of nature was one very much in the wrong direction. Rousseau takes an anti-enlightenment tone when he says “the first man who having enclosed a piece of land thought of saying this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society” (Rousseau, pg.272). Here, Rousseau expresses the development of what we know about civilization and how it was founded on injustice, creating fundamental flaws. According to Rousseau, humans become violent due to “enlightenment, which develops only with great difficulty and by a very small number of people within the society itself.” (Rousseau, pg.35). The solution to this was referred to as the social contract.

Rousseau advocates for a corrective social contract through which a proper society can be built. He claims that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” (Rousseau, pg.144), to which he refers to the rationality of man, thus allowing for a sovereign, that can be questioned if the general will is not upheld. The social contract eliminated the social dependence on one another while permitting each other to obey only themselves and to remain as free as before. Individuals must give up their right to control their lives in order to gain an equal voice in setting the rules of society. Thus, giving man equal power since our gradual escape from the state of nature is what Rousseau believed to be the origin of inequality. According to Rousseau’s theory of social contract, people leave an anarchic state of nature by voluntarily transferring their personal rights to the community in return for the security of life and property. According to Rousseau, the original freedom, happiness, equality and liberty which existed in primitive societies prior to the social contract was lost in the modern civilisation. Through Social Contract, which was a new form of social organisation, the state was formed to assure and guarantee rights, liberties, freedom and equality.

An extent of language and liberty will be made to examine how Rousseau is Hobbsian. It is no doubt that language plays a key role in both philosophers’ works. Hobbes and Rousseau agree that language plays an essential role in allowing humans to exit the state of nature. Rousseau believes that a language is a tool used to aid men’s ability to communicate their passions and ideas, thus resulting in enlightenment and rationality. The language was a key factor that separated man from animals in the Discourses on Inequality. According to Rousseau men and animals are equal, since both are exposed to the same conditions. However, when examining humans, Rousseau was under the impression that both humans and animals have senses and ideas, which allow us to “renew strength and to protect ourselves… from all that tends to destroy or disturb ”. Additionally, Rousseau believes that humans rely on passion and the ability to make decisions. Without this ability, humans would remain in the state of nature. Rousseau credits language as a tool of reason. Thus, allowing humans to exit the state of nature.

In comparison, Thomas Hobbes believes that language grants humans the ability to consent to a social contract. Hobbes emphasizes the importance of words and their universal meanings to ensure that thoughts are consistent. Hobbes claims that words with multiple interpretations “deceive others” (Hobbes, 38). Humans must consent to the social contract through a universal understanding of language. To Hobbes, the reciprocity of consent is what keeps men from breaking the contract, and binds people together. Both philosophers understand the importance of language, however, how it is viewed is the ultimate difference. While Rousseau believes that language will ultimately lift humans out of the state of nature, Hobbes views language as a tool used to create trust within the social contract, and without it, humans can fall into the state of nature.

Liberty is another important element to analyse. Although Rousseau does not specifically define liberty he makes many implications as to what it entails. Rousseau implies that freedom is not pursuing whatever man desires, instead, it relies on the foundations of freedom of the general will and it becomes the basis for what one can do. This motivating force behind freedom traces back to the social contract. In the state of nature, people have physical freedom however they are slaves to their own instincts. The social contract is a way to secure civil freedom. Rousseau however does define the sovereign as the citizens acting collectively. Citizens come together and create the will and laws of that particular state. The sovereign cannot be divided up in any way: only all the people speaking collectively can be sovereign.

Hobbes on the other hand explains that the nature of liberty falls under sovereign power. According to Hobbes liberty means the ability to act according to a man’s own hill without being obstructed. This means that without and hindering all subjects have absolute liberty. It can be noted that while civil laws are regulated by the sovereign and can be seen as chains, liberty still exists due to subjects creating thus chains. Hobbes believes the subjects write the social contract and therefore inherently have a connection with the sovereign’s power. Hobbes suggests that humans are required to transfer their natural right to follow their appetites and aversions to the sovereign, suggesting that “the liberty of subjects lies…only in those things which, in regulating their actions, the sovereign has permitted”. According to Hobbes liberty falls under the responsibility of the subject. In regards to the state of nature, liberty was non-existent due to fear of death. Actions were hindered by fear and power. While fear and power are present in the Leviathan, subjects have agreed to pass them onto the sovereign, therefore the subject has attained absolute liberty.

In conclusion, although greatly differ on their opinions of human nature and their views on liberty. However, one can conclude that both philosophers valued language, and agreed that some form of government was needed to establish order as well as the idea of the social contract. While Hobbes believes that humans could be seen as machines, who were selfish and acted upon selfish impulses. These selfish tendencies are what will create a state of war. Rousseau believes that humans are rational creatures, however, they are corrupt when society imposes on them and they then become enlightened. To a certain degree, both philosophers share the importance of language and view it as an essential tool in allowing humans to exit the state of nature. While Hobbes views language as a tool used to create trust within the social contract, and without it, humans can fall into the state of nature, Rousseau believes that language will ultimately lift humans out of the state of nature. Finally, both philosopher’s view on liberty showcases their view on legitimacy and sovereign power, as well as the potential of governing forces. While Hobbes believes that all power should be transferred to the sovereign, given by the transfer of citizens rights. Rousseau believed the power falls under the people speaking collectively thus creating the sovereign. Although two very different philosophers, each influenced by various moments and conditions ultimately leading them to contrasting views of human nature, the concept of the sovereign and the government is what creates similar aspects in both of their works.

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A Comparison Between Thomas Hobbes And Jean Jacques Rousseau. (2021, September 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-comparison-between-thomas-hobbes-and-jean-jacques-rousseau/
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A Comparison Between Thomas Hobbes And Jean Jacques Rousseau. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-comparison-between-thomas-hobbes-and-jean-jacques-rousseau/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
A Comparison Between Thomas Hobbes And Jean Jacques Rousseau [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 26 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-comparison-between-thomas-hobbes-and-jean-jacques-rousseau/
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