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Hobbes, Locke, and Mill on Freedom

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Hobbes, Locke, and Mill on Freedom

A prominent theme in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill is “freedom.” But to study their works is to discover that freedom comes in different varieties. With what kind of freedom is each author chiefly concerned? The first step is to identify the obstacle of freedom within their writing. The chief obstacles for Hobbes are the power of the sovereign over the subject and the individual going beyond their rights; the obstacle for Locke is big government limiting the power of the individual; and, the obstacle for Mill’s freedom is the hindrance of individual spontaneity by society. In more positive terms, Hobbes concerns himself with the freedom of the subject under an absolute sovereign. Locke is concerned with the freedom that is guaranteed by a limited government. And, Mill focuses on the freedom from social domination.

The chief obstacles for Thomas Hobbes are the power of the sovereign over the subject and the individual going beyond their rights. Hobbes places the sovereign in power to create peace between individuals of a society; creating a freedom from civil war. This gives the sovereign the power to create general laws that apply to all, but limits the extent of freedom for the individual. Hobbes says, “The Liberty of the Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Sovereign hath pretermitted” (Hobbes 148). He then goes on to give examples of this freedom, but it is limited to economic and private family life. The sovereign has the power to limit the freedom of the subject which is one of the main obstacles of the freedom of the individual. Additionally, the individual surpassing their rights can be dangerous for the commonwealth. It is dangerous when the subjects view their liberty as an exemption from the laws made by the sovereign. If an individual does not abide by the laws put into place, the freedom of the commonwealth is threatened. Therefore, Hobbes recognizes the obstacles of sovereign power over the individual and individuals surpassing their rights within the Leviathan.

        Thomas Hobbes concerns himself with the freedom of a subject under an absolute sovereign. However, this is not the ends of politics for Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes illustrates civil peace as the main goal of politics, which is the purpose of instituting an absolute sovereign. The sovereign cannot commit injustice because he is not democratically responsible. This creates an interesting dynamic of freedom that is at the hands of the sovereign instead of the people. But, this does not mean that oppressing the commonwealth is in the best interest of the sovereign. If the sovereign is extremely repressive to an individual’s freedom, then the people would see no benefit in a sovereign and revert back to the state of nature. Likewise, a sovereign with complete freedom cannot exist. Hobbes acknowledges this negative impact of liberty for all; “If a Monarch grant a Liberty to all…he is disable to provide for their safety” (Hobbes 153). If liberty were to be extended among all subjects, then the purpose of absolute sovereignty would be futile. Ultimately, the freedom of the individual is a byproduct of the laws a sovereign puts into place. At the basis of individual freedom is the power to make decisions, but this has to abide by the laws of society that the sovereign establishes. For this reason, Hobbes says, “Liberty is in some places more, and in some less; and in sometimes more, in other times less, according as they that have the Sovereignty shall think most convenient” (Hobbes 152). Hobbes displays a liberty under a sovereign, which is limited liberty. The liberty is not the choice of the people, but rather the choice of the sovereign that the people contracted with.  

        Differing from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke’s biggest hindrance of freedom is the influence of big government on the individual. Additionally, Locke differs in his interpretation of the state of nature from Hobbes; believing that the state of nature is not a state of war but rather a state of mutual preservation. John Locke believes in the freedom from arbitrary rule and tyranny. This creates government with the purpose to preserve life, liberty, and estate of its individuals. However, if the government is too big it could limit the preservation of the individual’s liberty. Locke fears a tyrannical government that exercises the power beyond right. This would include the power for private advantage and ruling by will rather than law. Because men are naturally free, a government has no place to disrupt an individual’s freedom. Therefore, the hindrance to an individual’s freedom is the size and power of the government; if the government is too large it will infringe on individual freedom.

        John Locke concerns himself with the freedom that is guaranteed by a limited government. To limit a big government, Locke outlines a three-branch system consisting of the legislative, executive, and federative branch. The legislative is responsible for creating laws, but Locke argues that this branch should not always be in session because a constant flow of new laws is unnecessary. On the other hand, the executive branch is responsible for the domestic enforcement of laws and must always be in session. And, the federative branch is responsible for governing international relations by natural law. All three of these forms of government are important in protecting the individual’s life, liberty, and estate. By splitting up the government, it does not allow one branch of government to gain power over the others, which is important in avoiding tyrannical rule. Locke displays his idea of freedom from arbitrary rule: “equal right that every man has, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man” (Locke 304). Therefore, it is the natural right for man to have freedom in a civil society. If a man is stripped from his freedom, then everything else becomes irrelevant and he enters a state of war. Locke argues that the proper way to enter into a civil state is by consent towards a limited government. Because John Locke concerns himself with a limited government, freedom is able to thrive due to the lack of impediment on individual freedom.



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