How social contract, in which the government

How does Hobbes define liberty?



In the Western hemisphere, liberty and freedom are universally considered good political goals to pursue, but rarely are the words ever defined.  For centuries, many philosophers from all sides of the political aisle, have engaged in contentious debates about the true meaning of Liberty.  This being said, perhaps no philosopher in history, has received such a­ hostile and aggressive reaction to his thought than Thomas Hobbes.1 In his book Leviathan, the centerpiece of controversy, Hobbes lays out his definition of liberty and explains how civil peace is best achieved through absolute rule, provoking many authors to respond. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, John Locke who is often considered the “Father of Liberalism” believed that human nature is governed by tolerance and reason and to protect themselves and their liberty, men enter through tacit consent into a social contract, in which the government ensures each man’s liberty and life is protected.2  Although these two distinct schools of thought have many fundamental differences and assumptions, common ground can also be found, as both comment on similar themes, the state of nature for example. However, it is also important to note that both authors are subject to flaws in their writings and don’t escape valid criticism.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

According to Thomas Hobbes, “Liberty” or “Freedome”, is “the absence of opposition”3 to “external impediment of motion.”4 In other words, liberty is the ability to act without being physically prevented from performing one’s desire.  Only physical chains or incarceration can prevent one from acting, so if you are free to move, in Hobbes’s definition you are free.  This is classified by the academic sphere as ‘negative liberty’ as liberty only exists where external impediments do not restrict movement.5 Hobbes’s concept of liberty can be contributed to his mechanical view of the human body, as his theory of motion informs his theory of liberty.  He states “Life is but a motion of limbs”6 therefore freedom must be the absence of external impediments to motion. Moreover, Hobbes argues that liberty is not constrained  only to rational agents, but also to “irrational and inanimate creatures.”7 Therefore, in principal it can be argued that water has no liberty, as it is restrained by banks and vessels, which if were not there, would allow the water to flow outward. Because of this, Hobbes makes the distinction between liberty and power. Take a stone for example, just because a stone can’t move, doesn’t mean it lacks the freedom to do so, but rather it lacks the power to move. Similarly, if an ill man is restricted to only his bed and unable to move, he does not lack the freedom to leave, as there are no external impediments prohibiting him from doing so, but rather the power to do something is what is lacking. In other words, when you are prohibited from attaining your desires by your own inability or “internal impediments,” then you are lacking power, whereas if those impediments are external and you lack the ability to express your desires, your freedom is therefore hindered. The sick man lacks ability, whereas a prisoner lacks freedom.8 As Skinner puts it, “An agent forfeits his liberty if an external force renders him either powerless to act or powerless not to act in some particular way.”9 Therefore, liberty for Hobbes consists solely of unrestricted power and in a social context, a man with liberty “is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.”10 Hobbes’s argument here can be considered flawed as he does not say that movement has to be self-activated. A rock that has been kicked down a hill is free according to his definition of liberty, even though the motion comes from an external source.11 If therefore motivation is also what defines liberty, is a man who puts himself in prison free? He is physically prevented from moving, but he did so at his own will.


Liberty plays a vital role in Leviathan, as all rights of the individual are transferred to a sovereign in order to stop humanity returning to the state of nature, as human thirst for power constantly threatens the safety of the social contract. Hobbes argues that the natural condition of mankind lies within the ‘state of nature.’ This is a place with no government, no laws, no civilization and no common power to contain the violent will of human aggression.  In this state of nature man is permitted to take any action he deems necessary in the quest for self-preservation, up to and including murder,12  and as Hobbes puts it, “the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life.”  In the state of nature, there is no external enforcement mechanism, no law and order, there is no right or wrong, no justice or injustice. The state of nature has made men equal, so that even the weakest among a group is able to kill the strongest.13 And as “every man has a Right to every thing”14 two men wanting the same thing causes confrontation, and so the state of nature becomes a state of war in which every man is against every man.15 PRIDE..87. In order to escape the state of nature, men needed to agree collectively on something, and this according to Hobbes was terror.16 A violent death was something everyone feared and it is one of the only things people can collectively agree on. Therefore, from this premise of war and the want to avoid a violent death, Hobbes argues some common power is needed to enforce and uphold the covenant – the continuous renunciation of rights. Once the covenant can be enforced by a sovereign authority or common power, you are able to escape the state of nature, and live in peace and security. This sovereign or “artificial person” is founded by the citizens of the state as part of the social contract and is endowed with the individual will of all. From this position of authority, the sovereign power is then able to reinforce the covenant through fear and the threat of punishment to anyone who breaks the social contract. Enforcement of the covenant is of the utmost importance and is the bedrock of a society. As without fear of punishment for breaking the covenant and no force to penalize those who do, society returns to the state of nature in which stealing and cheating is plentiful.

To people in the modern era, this complete transference of rights to a sovereign authority may appear to be a step towards an unfree society, in which the people’s liberty can be considered unfairly and unnecessarily restricted.  However, Hobbes argues freedom and liberty still exist in his state of absolute rule, as the subjects themselves have self-imposed their own “artificial chains.” The people endow the sovereign with their power, Hobbes argues, through the social contract and thus are the authors of it’s actions. In other words, liberty does not exist in the state of nature, as people’s actions were impeded by fear of a violent death. Whereas people have absolute liberty under the rule of a Leviathan, as although fear and death are still current, the people have consented to give the sovereign their power, and so are responsible for any actions the sovereign takes. Hence, even if the sovereign kills a citizen, they are personally responsible for their own fate. Liberty therefore, can only truly exist under a sovereign power authorized by its subjects.

In stark contrast to Hobbes, John Locke in his Second Treatise,17 outlines a rational theory of a liberal political government, based on the state of nature and the importance of individual property. Locke’s state of nature is fundamentally different to that of Hobbes’s state of war, as no person has control over another and all men are considered equal.18 This is because natural law governs and renders all people equal, and every individual holds the executive power of natural law.  In this way, it can be argued that John Locke thought that it would be better for people to live in his state of nature rather than in Hobbes’s political society in which an all powerful monarch possessed total control.  In addition, in the creation of natural rights, Locke included the rights of life, liberty and property and determined that all three are inalienable and God-given.  Liberty for Locke therefore, “is to be under no other restraint but the Law of Nature.”19 And “not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another Man.”20  Furthermore, Locke defines natural liberty as a person’s right to be ruled exclusively by the laws of nature. Whereas social liberty is the right to be under no legislative power, other than that founded by the consent of the commonwealth. Liberty, Locke states is freedom from an arbitrary power and this is so essential that even if one wanted to, one could not surrender it. It is therefore impossible for one to enlist into slavery voluntarily, as one must be free from an arbitrary power. Man, to protect themselves and their liberty, enter through tacit consent into a social contract, in which the government ensures each man’s liberty and life is protected.21  Locke also notes that one must not confuse different types of power, be it; familial, political or paternal, as each have very different characteristics. Locke defines political power as the right to make laws for the protection and regulation of property. And these laws are backed by the community for the public good. Private property, Locke notes, is an essential aspect of liberty, as “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.”22


Locke asserted that the people, not rulers, are sovereign and is often credited as one on the founding fathers of popular sovereignty.  

1 J. Bramhall, A Defence of True Liberty, 1655. p. 5.

2 J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government (United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 267.

3 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 145.

4 Ibid. p. 145.

5 D. Mill, Liberty, Rationality and Agency in Hobbes’s Leviathan. State University of New York Press, 2001. p.5.

6 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 9.

7 Ibid. p. 145.

8 K. Palonen, Quentin. Skinner, History, Politics, Rhetoric, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003.  p. 111.

9 Ibid. p. 111.

10  Ibid. p. 146

11 D. Mill, Liberty, Rationality and Agency in Hobbes’s Leviathan. State University of New York Press, 2001. p. 6

12 T. Hobbes, Leviathan, Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 91.

13 Ibid. p. 87.

14 Ibid. p. 91.

15 Ibid. p. 88.

16 G. E. G. Catlin, ‘Thomas Hobbes and Contemporary Political Theory’, Political Science Quarterly, 82.1 (1967), p. 8.

17 J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government (United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 267.

18 Ibid. p. 270.

19 Ibid. p. 284.

20 Ibid. p. 284.

21 Ibid. p. 277.

22 Ibid. p. 287.