Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 7: Hobbes, Locke, The Cambridge Platonists & The Glorious Revolution


Before confronting the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and other late 17th and early 18th century thinkers and what their ideas might mean today, it would be well to go over a bit of period history. King Henry VIII of England was the Tudor monarch who created the Church of England because the Pope in Rome would not give him a divorce. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was one of the greatest monarch’s in English history.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the Tudor line died with her, but not before she set Britain firmly on the path to globe spanning empire. Before, during and after Elizabeth’s reign Britain was wracked by sectarian struggles, political intrigue and the never ending attempts by those aligned with the Catholic Church to regain the throne for one of their own. A notable episode was the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament during the reign of James I, he of King James Bible fame. Co-conspirator Guy Fawkes is still burned in effigy as a traitor and terrorist who wanted to destroy the Protestant leadership in one blast to make Britain Catholic again. Fawkes has recently been used as a symbol for freedom by anarchists whose like the real man most likely would have been killing in Holland and Belgium as an enlisted soldier during the 80 Years War. During this time of uncertainty, British culture came into full flower and sported some of the greatest dramatists (not only Shakespeare), poets and men of science the world has ever known.  During Henry VIII’s reign and afterwards, the parliamentarians (roundheads) and royalists (cavaliers) sniped at each other over how England would be ruled. Ultimately, civil war broke out in the 1640’s. The result of the war was that the king was beheaded and the monarchy ended, at least for a time. The English Commonwealth and then Protectorate that replaced the monarchy was ruled by Oliver Cromwell and then his son. The rule over England was firmly in Parliament’s hands only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. While the monarchy was ultimately restored, the “constitution” of Britain, being a balance of powers between classes and interest groups with power shared among branches of government rather than concentrated completely in the hands of one person, was firmly established and has continued to this day. All throughout the 17th century, Britons were fighting sectarian battles amongst themselves and also fighting off attempts by various foreign powers to claim the throne. Catholics became a persecuted minority in much the same way Japanese and German Americans did during World War II and fights continued between the adherents to the official Church of England, who were mainly Tories, and Protestant groups including the Calvinist Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a monarchist Tory who most feared the mob and the anarchy through which he had lived in Britain. After being exiled as a result of the civil war, he wished to make his peace with the government of Cromwell while upholding principles which he believed would be the foundation for all subsequent political thought and form a textbook for teaching leaders. Hobbes famously said that in a state of nature, where all men are equal, life is “nasty brutish and short.” There is no trust or basis for any sort of agreement between persons in a state of nature where each is at war against all. Consequently, enlightened self-interest makes men choose to give up liberty for the sake of security. While each person has a natural right to protect himself, each is afraid of everyone else and so he delegates sovereignty over himself and others to a leader over all (“the sovereign”) who is beyond the law and whose rule is absolute. Hobbes was cynical about human nature and believed that self-interest, or egoism, and fear are the driving forces of significance in human behavior, which makes Ayn Rand an intellectual heir. He said egoism and fear ruled out altruism and also produced positive results in generating the common security desired. Therefore selfishness is not a negative force but actually the standard of moral value. At the same time, Hobbes also insists all are by nature equal in that they have an equal capacity to kill each other.  It is enlightened self-interest that makes them wish to do unto others as they would have others do to them. They need the sovereign to guarantee this state of affairs by making potential cheaters too afraid to think they can take advantage of rule followers. Despite a view of human nature and political association darker and more supportive of authoritarian rule than Machiavelli’s, some say Hobbes was a principal author of modern liberalism, if one takes liberalism to be what it meant in 19th century Britain and America, since he taught that all political duties or prerogatives are derived from the individual’s natural right to self-preservation.  Hobbes was in those terms illiberal in that he believed the sovereign was above the law including any contracts between subjects. It would appear to be consistent with Hobbes’ view that the government can lie to or about subjects or “nudge” them for their own good where the sovereign himself is the sole arbiter of that good and is not held to any standard enforceable by law or the government’s other functions. This is in fact more consistent with modern “liberalism” than is Locke, who would not have accepted Machiavellian subterfuge as either necessary or justifiable based on nature’s law. While emphatically stating the sovereign has total power, Hobbes also says that no one can be said to have laid down his right to resist anyone who attempts to deprive him of his life. Consequently a people have the right to rebel against a sovereign who violates the basis of his power. Hobbes was against hereditary monarchy but believed democracy was inferior to almost any other form of government and is merely an opportunity for many to seek benefit for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.

John Locke (1632-1704) was a friend to Newton, whose very Protestant views of the world Locke shared. Newton was a scientific super genius, yet he believed in a transcendent God who could and did work miracles in the material world as it suited his plans, and who also was the grand architect of all that is, which itself is both an awesome testament to, and proof of his ongoing involvement in his creation. Locke believed in Newton’s approach to careful judgement based on fact and mathematics but also made room for first principles, which he nevertheless actively denied, in that much of the foundation of his thinking is based on a priori reasoning. However, his empiricism was more thoroughgoing than that of Hobbes, who was a fan of Bacon but reasoned like Descartes. It is well to remember that empiricism did not then and has not since escaped from the need to rely on things we just know because we do, and not because of evidence. Locke also began the origin of political authority in the state of nature but viewed man’s natural state prior to the creation of civil societies very differently from Hobbes. For Locke, the state of nature was not a war of each against all but one in which men lived amicably under the law of nature, each understanding that the others were there to cooperate with and not merely to exploit or kill. As to whether anyone ever lived in this state, Locke responds that there were extant examples all over the world both among ruling class and aboriginal peoples. Locke defined this state as men living together according to reason, with no common superior on earth with authority to judge them. So the opposite of the state of nature would be civil society where all are subject to a common ruler to judge them. Locke calls war the use of force without right, justice or authority. The state or war can exist in civil society or the state of nature. The state of nature can exist in civil society or outside of it. Where there is a common judge over members of a community who is ineffectual, there the state of war can be said to exist. Where there is a tyrant who violates the natural rights of members of the community there a state of war exists as well. Civil society for Locke, as well as for Hobbes, was of practical benefit but civil laws were only valid insofar as they conformed to the law of nature and, in Locke’s mind, the will of God which is the same for all men everywhere and always. Rousseau clearly followed Locke’s brand of empiricism in viewing man as a blank slate, or tabula rasa, and went further by saying family, religion and society corrupt their innocent natures, that education is everything and shouldn’t be left to incompetents, including most parents. Unlike Rousseau and later Karl Marx, Locke believed that it was natural for men to have unequal property insofar as some legitimately have put more effort into generating what he termed “increase,” or the development of natural resources into new artifacts or tools. This makes Ayn Rand an intellectual heir to Locke as well as to Hobbes. Also unlike Hobbes, Marx and Rand, Locke was not a committed materialist. He believed in God and that Providence worked in the world and the universe. He was opposed to religious enthusiasm (e.g. Quakerism) and while he claimed to be a Christian, Locke had much in common with later deists like Benjamin Franklin, who believed religion produced moral structures that were good for man but that their claims about revelation and a world beyond what we can perceive and measure is at best forever unknown and at worst pernicious nonsense. While Locke was influential for later communitarian ideas he was an individualist who was for equality of opportunity with minimum of constraint rather than equality of outcomes based on the heavy hand of government or some concentrated show of force that would artificially limit liberty and capacity for improvement. Locke’s legacy is libertarianism but both individualist and communitarian strains of thought were important to those whose thinking Locke shaped, notably the French Enlightenment thinkers and Revolutionaries, and the American Revolutionaries, as well as Tories in Britain and their counterparts elsewhere. Locke’s position overlaps with Hobbes but ends up in a different place. This can be attributed at least in part to the fact that Hobbes and Locke lived very different lives and had very different fears. For both Locke and Hobbes, the individual’s right to defend himself and his property is common to all and the basis of natural right. Locke goes further and says that men are obligated to defend themselves but also humanity as a whole. To do either, the use of force may be warranted. This prefigures the libertarian viewpoint that force is to be avoided but can be necessary either to stop tyrants or prevent acts of destruction. Locke also said that property begins with each person owning himself, and so slavery is against nature’s law. From this Locke extended original ownership to the product of a man’s labor being his, which is the foundation of labor theory of value in classical economics and Marxism. Locke believed man was capable of making increase out of ingenuity and work, and therefore the game was not about distributing what already exists equitably, as the Levellers and more radical Diggers claimed, but creating conditions by which individuals and groups could innovate their way to output that would lift all boats. It can be said that this was the genesis of what would later be Americanism, which was described by de Tocqueville as a practical 19th century reality but is now all but myth.  It is Locke’s version of natural law that informed the creation of the United States Constitution, being a document that is supposed to limit the power of normally mischievous politicians. However, Hobbes’ views have more currency among world governments and organizations operating across national lines in terms of how they actually run, pious statements about their national founding and ideals notwithstanding. Hobbes would not accept the now commonplace totalitarian denial of the natural and inviolable basis of the power of the sovereign being in the individual’s right to defend himself against aggression. He would not be surprised in the least that wherever “democracy” claims to hold sway, we see the booboisie bamboozled by a never ending parade of demagogues, swamp monsters, ward healers and con men living at taxpayer expense who, as H.L. Mencken put it, all know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.  Locke believed in the wisdom of crowds and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He therefore advocated limited government and the supremacy of law over individuals or the discretion of magistrates. We see therefore in our political structures the influence of Locke and in the reality of their operation and tools for subversion and control the influence of Hobbes. This was understood at the time and there were many who viewed Hobbes’ ideas as inimical both to right living for individuals and to optimally running political organizations.

20th century philosopher and historian Ernst Cassirer said that the Cambridge Platonists shared an historical connection with the Neo-Platonist Italian Renaissance Magi, such as Ficino and della Mirandola. Cassirer himself represents a modern instance of what these Cambridge thinkers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries were about: the unification of mental experience and learning under a contemplative umbrellas that is neither a proxy for materialism nor a denial of our ability to understand reality beyond sorting words and experiences that can easily be measured. Naturally with his moderate and inclusive view, Cassirer was not a favorite of the NAZIS, who made Heidegger their official philosopher because he signed up and helped them justify their delusions. This is sad, because Heidegger’s work has a lot going for it. Heidegger was both notorious and celebrated and so became main stream. He was also often mentioned, though his dense work much less frequently read, by Marxists and other 20th century ideologues. Out of step like Cassirer were the un-hip Cambridge Platonists. This group eschewed both religious extremism and what they viewed as the atheism of Hobbes. Neither empiricists like Hobbes & Locke, nor Puritans like Oliver Cromwell, these thinkers maintained and carried forward a tradition that was not purely a repristination of Plato, but a synthesis of Plato, Plotinus, early church fathers especially Origen and Augustine, and medieval synthesizers and exemplars of original thinking and broad-mindedness like Boethius, Ockham, Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa. Ralph Cudworth in particular did not approve of Hobbes but also believed the Calvinist Puritans were on the wrong track in supposing that reason is ultimately worthless in understanding God’s will for us. The Platonists always wished to harmonize what they saw as the best of human nature, including reason, to lead a life that was moral and purposeful but comfortable in its own skin and not looking to divide. Extant and later empiricists, like George Berkeley, would claim that common sense and evidence suggest that perception is reality and any form of abstraction is illusory, a viewpoint which carried forward into later attacks on metaphysics from the likes of Wittgenstein. Whether this extreme division is done to defend the faith or render it moot, The Platonists viewed the attempt to segregate what reason can fathom and what the heart can perceive as misguided. Consequently they are all but forgotten both by materialists and religionists and even monkish analytic philosophers.  Cudworth drew from some of the same sources as Hobbes notably Descartes, whose genius he appreciated but whose mechanistic theory he sharply disfavored.  For Cudworth, man has the ability, both built in and teachable, to discern God’s purpose in nature. He firmly rejects the sharp dichotomy Descartes makes between spiritual and material worlds. Cudworth believed in the immortality of the soul and that if God were as advertised the afterlife would not be where the elect got to have a cosmic weenie roast and watch those destined to be damned burn forever. No just God would arrange such a mess as this. Cudworth and the other Cambridge Platonists turned their backs on the Cartesian interpretation of nature and attempted to return to a view that was in line with what leading Medieval and Renaissance thinkers upheld. For them, the mind can perceive eternal moral principles and values which are invariable and not relative to a particular culture or place. For these thinkers and teachers of all ages who are sympathetic to this timeless and globe spanning view, ethics is not a fungible and relativistic or casuistic series of rules, but rather is about understanding mindfully what everyone is essentially programmed to know. This notion would be important to think on today as we see the moral and even operational bankruptcy of the mechanistic and fanatical viewpoints play out all around us.


By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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