Enlightenment period took place between 17th and 19th centuries and it witnessed significant developments in political thought that became the building blocks of Modern Western system of state and liberal democracy. The English, French and American Revolutions were inspired from reformist political ideologies of the time such as social contract, rights, liberty, separation of power, general will and free market economy (Bristow, 2017). This paper will examine the main political thinkers of Enlightenment. Those are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Thomas Hobbes was an English political thinker who born toward the end of 16th century. Hobbes argued that human nature is selfish and violent, and he rejected the idea of ‘men is a political animal’ because state is established by the consent of people. In the state of nature, he believed no one could be safe from others violent actions, therefore people willingly give their rights to the ruler in return for protection of life, liberty, and property. To Hobbes in absence of the state, there would be constant fear and harm, and everyone would be in war with everyone. In his famous book Leviathan, he justified the necessity of a strong monarch as for protecting the rights of and keeping order in the state. However, the monarch should not endanger people’s life or liberty because everyone born free and social contract is made by consent of people to protect right to live. Therefore, anyone who is imprisoned or sentenced to death can fight for their life and liberty until the its been carried out.
He was opposing the idealist thoughts about the state because they could harm the authority of the state which was needed for everyone’s sake. People also should not oppose monarch’s authority unless the authority endanger life or liberty of citizens.
Another English political thinker of Enlightenment is John Locke. Unlike Hobbes, Locke is more optimistic about human nature, he believed that human as the creation of God is free and has natural rights- life, liberty, and property. Both Hobbes and Locke believed in the consent of the governed, but Locke opposed the divine right of absolute monarch. He believed that human born free and no one can claim right over another.
Social contract is made to protect ‘life, liberty and property’. Therefore, state is responsible for protection of natural rights and if it does not protect its citizens rights, then people have right to overthrow the government and replace it by a new government that is chosen by the society. He supported the superiority of the rule of law and the equality before the law. In contrast with Hobbes, Locke believed rights and liberties come before the obligations. On the other hand, Hobbes argued after the social contract people have an obligation to obey the monarch to avoid disorder.Moreover, both of these Enlightenment thinkers are very important in development of political philosophy, their ideas are also very crucial in shaping the political conjecture of the period.
Montesquieu is a French Enlightenment thinker who had pioneer ideas about the society and system of government. His thoughts influenced many Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and his ideas were also adopted to state systems. He was the first political thinker who introduced the separation of power to limit the abuse of authority. Thus, this could create a balance of power among the branches of the government
Moreover, Montesquieu argued that many variables such as climate, geography, traditions, population, economic life have serious effects on society's law and political order. Therefore, he does not offer a universal system of government. According to him, the most appropriate system of government is the one that is suitable for a particular society and serves its interests.
Genevan thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau is another important Enlightenment political thinker. He was very critical about the development of his time and argued that primitive people and human in the state of nature are morally superior to modern people because pure innate human nature is damaged by society. He believed before the civilized life, people were happier and were living in harmony with each other in small communities but in urban life people are jealous of each other and constantly seek more property.
When it comes to Rousseau’s system of government, he was in favor of direct democracy. He argued that state should be governed by the general will of people which seeks common good. In Rousseau’s approach society is more important than individual because unlike Locke’s individualistic perspective, Rousseau was in favor of common good and common benefit of the society that is provided by the general will. In other word, sovereignty belongs to general will.
Rousseau was also very critical about the superiority of the Western ideologies and system of government, moreover he argued that Eastern peoples can develop their own system of government that is best fit for them.