Political Philosophy

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Editors: Edward I. Bleiberg , James Allan Evans , Kristen Mossler Figg , Philip M. Soergel , and John Block Friedman
Date: 2005
From: Arts and Humanities Through the Eras(Vol. 5: The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,534 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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In Europe, political philosophy had come into its prime during the sixteenth century, prompted by the great political, military, and religious events of the period which inspired numerous treatises aimed at resolving the problems confronting rulers. The most significant problems rulers faced in the era arose from resistance to the state's ever-growing demand for revenue. By the sixteenth century the "Military Revolution" sparked by the introduction of guns and cannons was well underway. Princes either had to keep up with the latest military technology or risk becoming a victim of it. The only way to keep up with technological innovation was with money, and the only way to get money was through taxes. Raising taxes, however, angered taxpayers and risked rebellion. Princes thus faced a dilemma. They might tempt neighboring states by ignoring defense but keep their subjects happy. Or they could frighten off their neighbors but make their subjects unhappy through the imposition of unpopular taxes. Most chose the latter course, but in doing so, their subjects began to respond with increasing vehemence that kings were violating longstanding contractual notions of government. The religious problems of the age further complicated relationships between princes and their people, and religious turmoil often provided a further justification for rebellion. If the prince was Catholic and the subject Protestant, the argument went, the subject had a right to defend his "true" religion against the encroachments of the state.


As a response to both kinds of arguments—those that opposed new taxes and those that sought to defend "true religion"—royal apologists of the day began to promote the doctrine of the "divine right of kings." Princes were, in the words of the English king James I (r. 1603–1625), "God's lieutenants on Earth." As such, subjects owed the same obedience to their king as they owed to God. Yet merely identifying a "divinely instituted" right to rule did not answer the bristling dilemmas that were raging all the same about just when and how a king might exercise his authority. To justify the increasingly enlarged view of royal power,
Engraving of Thomas Hobbes. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Engraving of Thomas Hobbes. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. sixteenth-century political theorists had turned to examine issues about sovereignty. They had argued that since the king had the final say in formulating laws, he, in fact, stood above the law, and was consequently the "absolute" authority in the nation. As James I again observed, "Kings were the authors and makers of the laws, and not the laws of the Kings." By the early seventeenth century, ideas of divine right, which asserted that the prince derived his authority from God, combined with these ideas of absolutism, thus producing new theories of divine right absolutism. In his True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), James I first gave expression to its key tenets. Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653), an apologist for the absolutist ambitions of James and his descendents, wrote his Patriarcha (1680) to give such theories biblical support, although during the period of rising Puritan ascendancy in England he did not dare to publish his thoughts. Patriarcha appeared only after Filmer's death and the Restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne. Like many previous works, Filmer treated the state as a "family writ large," and the king as its father. But then he went on to trace a line of descent of princely fathers that started with Adam and ended with Charles I, the reigning monarch in England when he was writing. The greatest developer of such Page 316  |  Top of Article theories of divine right absolutism was Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), perhaps the most influential churchman in France during the first half of Louis XIV's reign. As he argues in his posthumously published Statecraft Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scripture (1707) the person of the king is "sacred," and to attack him in any way is "sacrilege." It is through rulers, Boussuet explains, that God "exercises his empire." The power of the prince, he concludes, is "absolute," although he recommends that kings exercise this authority with humility. Against the enormous power of a prince, the people's only power exists in their own innocence.

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INTRODUCTION: Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan was the greatest work of political philosophy produced in seventeenth-century England. Hobbes' insights arose from a particularly dim view of humankind, and they caused him to support an authoritarian state that might rise above human egotism (the Leviathan mentioned in the work's title). In the famous passage below, he summarizes his view of human nature.

Again, men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them in quiet is far enough to make them destroy each other), to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

SOURCE: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651): 61–62.


In Leviathan (1651), the work generally recognized as the first great text of modern political science, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) set out to make a case for absolutism that did not build upon such religious notions. Like his younger contemporary John Locke, Hobbes gained the patronage of a great aristocratic family very early in his career, and was drawn into politics from that family's vantage point. The Cooper family that employed Locke had republican sympathies, and Locke wrote in defense of constitutionalism. The Cavendish family that maintained Hobbes was royalist, and Hobbes' political writings all make the case for monarchy. As tutor to the second and third earls of Devonshire, Hobbes spent a good deal of his life traveling the Continent. During these tours he added to his outstanding command of Greek and Latin—the abilities that first brought him to the attention of the Cavendish family—an expertise in geometry and optics. These interests helped shape Hobbes' approach to writing about politics, furnishing him with a concern to establish first principles from which other arguments might be deduced. While Hobbes had this rationalist instinct, he Page 317  |  Top of Article may also be viewed as an empiricist before the fact. Hobbes was among the first writers to advance a mechanistic explanation for the operations of the human mind, mapping the path sensations travel through thoughts to actions. In 1640, sensing the coming outbreak of civil war in England, Hobbes resettled in Paris, where, with the situation in England clearly in mind, he turned to writing about politics. Among the works he completed during his eleven-year stay in France the Leviathan (1651) stands out from the others, not for the uniqueness of its ideas—all Hobbes' political writings defend royal absolutism—but for the completeness of its case. Hobbes begins there with a discussion of human psychological motivations, focusing on the desire for pleasure and the fear of death as powerful stimuli in producing human actions. Hobbes then proceeds to discuss how different political systems accommodate these forces before he turns to consider the "state of nature" that exists wherever and whenever there is no common consent for a form of government. In such a state, where everyone acts out of pure self-interest, every human being will be at war, and because of this, human life will be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In this state of nature, human desires and motivations cannot possibly produce positive outcomes. Thus human society needs government to help human beings realize their own ambitions. Hobbes rejects, in other words, the idea that some human beings have been born with a "divine right" to rule over others. There are differences in strength and intelligence among individuals, but every individual has the capacity to kill every other. Hobbes' point is that government is by definition a result of mutual agreement. Behind every form of government there is at least an implicit compact or covenant that acknowledges the rights individuals give over in exchange for government protection. But the question that lingers for Hobbes is which form of government is the best? He concludes that in a state ruled by a constitution, there will always be disagreement over whose interpretation of the constitution takes priority. Thus in constitutional states an inescapable tendency toward war will exist. The best form of government is rather an absolutist monarchy where the ability of one individual to serve and protect the polity is not compromised by the self-interest of any other individual or group in the state.


Hobbes attempted to put the argument in favor of absolutism on a "scientific" footing. In his Two Treatises on Government (1689), Locke made a similar effort for constitutionalism. Locke's two treatises are not just important as foundation texts of political science, however. They played a crucial role in restructuring the political debate in England after the Glorious
Title page from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). © BETTMANN/CORBIS. Title page from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). © BETTMANN/CORBIS. Revolution of 1688. In seventeenth-century England the constitutional structures favored by the middle and laboring classes were different from that supported by the rich and powerful. Eventually, it was the constitutionalism this latter group supported that won the day, and Locke's arguments in his Two Treatises was used to justify this development. "When Adam delved and Eve spanned, Who was then a gentleman?" was the pithy phrase that had once been the rallying cry of English peasants during Wat Tyler's Rebellion in the 1380s. The phrase had reappeared around 1600, a fact that points to the challenges to the political status quo that were being mounted in England by the lower classes. Puritanism had helped to create a high level of literacy in England and had provided many ordinary people with the intellectual skills to participate in the great debate over absolutism versus constitutionalism. While the pamphlets written and read by ordinary folk made use of religious arguments, they also used historical arguments based in the "myth of the Norman Yoke." This notion alleged that monarchy Page 318  |  Top of Article in England had only dated from the eleventh-century Norman Conquest. William the Conquerer, in other words, had done away with the simple democracy that had reigned in the country's Anglo-Saxon past, and had subjected English people to a tyranny of aristocracy and monarchy. During the English Civil Wars the Levelers, a movement of ordinary folk, tried to re-establish a democratic republic in the island. The Levelers captured a good deal of sympathy and support in the lower echelons of the New Model Army, the Puritan force that eventually defeated Royalists. As the English Civil Wars were drawing to a close in 1647, the Putney Debates took place. These were a series of debates that pitted the New Model Army's rank-and-file soldiers, who represented the "people" of England, against their superiors, who defended the interests of England's political and economic elite. During the course of the debates one soldier expressed the hope that "all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in Elections." To this, General Ireton, who represented the New Model Army's officers responded that only those who had a "permanent fixed interest in the country should be allowed to vote." Here Ireton was reaffirming the traditional practice that stipulated that only those men who paid an annual tax of 40 shillings should enjoy the franchise. Few of the Levelers were convinced, and it was only after violent repression that their movement fell apart.


Although the Leveler movement was eventually suppressed, the sentiments that its adherents expressed did not die out in later seventeenth-century England. In his Two Treatises, Locke addressed the lingering view that property qualification was a tool of oppression that had its origins in the "Norman Yoke." In Locke's constitutional theory he developed a notion of the state of nature that was very different from that of Hobbes's Leviathan. He argued that individuals extract from the environment valuable things by virtue of their hard work. Property arises from these efforts, and should therefore be protected by the state, along with life and liberty, as a fundamental, natural right. Government, he reasoned, came into existence through the efforts of property holders, who organized themselves under some form of authority to protect their interests. Thus Locke concluded there had never been a time when everyone had "an equal voice in Elections." Rather, from its very first existence, government had been concerned to protect the property of those with a "fixed permanent interest" in a state. Such arguments proved immensely popular in late seventeenth-century England, where the political instability caused by problems of the Stuart succession bred fears of a resurgent radicalism among the country's political elites. Locke's constitutional ideas as expressed in the Two Treatises became cherished ideas among the aristocracy and gentry, people of vast interests in land. But they were also embraced by the growing class of merchants and commercial men, who were anxious to protect the wealth they were acquiring.


At the end of the eighteenth century Europeans looked across the Atlantic and saw in the nascent state created out of Britain's former North American colonies a living testament to their own political ideas. It was obvious to all who had read Locke, for example, that the rights declared to be inalienable in the American Declaration of Independence—those that allowed for the search for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"—had been inspired from Locke's Two Treatises on Government (with the anti-democratic word "property" changed to the less offensive "pursuit of happiness"). Those who had read Jean-Jacques Rousseau could recognize that the very way in which the political nation was conceptualized by the former colonists referred back to Rousseau's The Social Contract. It took a bit more learning, however, to appreciate that the boldest application of European political thought was to be discovered in the American Constitution, which articulated a principle first found in the Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (1748): the idea that the power to rule must always be shared among competing governmental offices. Montesquieu's ideas are as fundamental to understanding the political philosophy of the eighteenth century as Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) is to comprehending the age's economic theory. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), was an outstanding example of France's noblesse de robe, a category of bureaucratic nobles that received their titles for the services of administration they offered the crown. Montesquieu was trained as a lawyer, and then inherited the position of president of the Parlement of Bourdeaux, a regional court based in that city. He served in that capacity for eleven years before his fame as a writer made him a celebrity. That fame arose largely on the basis of his Persian Letters, a scathingly satirical critique of European society revealed through the imaginary letters of two Persian travelers in Europe. The profits generated from that work allowed Montesquieu to sell his office in the Parlement of Bordeaux and to concentrate on his writing. Montesquieu brought the sensibilities of a working bureaucrat to the task of explaining how government works. Thus the point he seeks to drive home in The Spirit of the Laws is that the greatest danger confronting any government arises from the threat of despotism. He understands despotism as being the logical result of allowing Page 319  |  Top of Article all discretionary authority to fall into the hands of any one official. The way to keep despotism in check, Montesquieu thus outlines in The Spirit, is to balance the discretionary power in the hands of one official with that of other officials in other parts of the government. In Montesquieu's view, the goal of government is not to protect property, as it was for Locke, but to maintain liberty, and he understands liberty to mean the freedom to do those things that do not harm others. It is a given, according to Montesquieu, that those who are endowed with power will ultimately abuse their authority and harm others. And so the best government is one that limits the opportunities for officials to exercise discretionary powers in this way. He identifies three different sources of government power that arise from decision-making powers in the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of governing. In the best government those who exercise any one of these functions will necessarily have to compete for authority against the other two offices, and thus this "balance of power" will cancel out the tendency for any one official to use his power indiscriminately.


The sophistication of Montesquieu's analysis reminds modern scholars of the impact that Europe's political theorists had in fashioning modern systems of democratic and constitutional rule. From the Renaissance, Europe's seventeenth-century political theorists had inherited a curiosity about the arts of government and the state of affairs that had existed in primitive societies. Political theory, too, had been catapulted into the center of Europe's intellectual discussions by the rise of divine right absolutism in many states around 1600, a controversial development that had produced both apologists and critics of the rising authority of monarchs and the state. While many royal apologists argued that such conditions were "natural" and divinely established, others like Thomas Hobbes built trenchant defenses for strong governmental authority by examining the "state of nature" that existed before governments arose. Although Hobbes supported strong monarchical authority, he also shifted the boundaries of discussions of political theory by basing his conclusions on seemingly scientific analysis, rather than biblical or religious precedents. His Leviathan ranks as one of the great intellectual contributions of the Age of Absolutism. Yet its chief arguments in favor of absolutism were soon superseded by the clamor of others like Locke, who argued in a more optimistic vein for greater political participation across the spectrum of a state's inhabitants. Those who followed Locke fashioned new ways of examining the powers of the state in an effort to try to unlock the secrets they hoped might allow good government and human liberty to co-exist. Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, then, stands as one mature expression of this attempt to fashion government that conforms to the needs of human society. That society, as the political philosophers of the Enlightenment were often convinced, was composed of a humankind that was fractious and wont to exercise despotic tyranny, but which was all the same charged with the intellectual powers and restraint necessary to exercise self-rule.


M. W. Cranston, John Locke: A Biography (London: Longmans, 1966).

J. Daly, Sir Robert Filmer and English Political Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979).

S. P. Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

I. Hampsher-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

J. Meyer, Bossuet (Paris: Plon, 1993).

S. Priest, The British Empiricists: Hobbes to Ayer (London: Penguin, 1990).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3427400903