Published Humanitas, Volume IX, No. 1, 1996

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government are sometimes seen as the two greatest works of political philosophy in the English language. At the beginning of this century the relationship between these two authors and their two books seemed clear. Scholars believed that by championing powerful ideas in favor of limited, constitutional government Locke had decisively refuted Hobbes’s absolutist notions. Carl Becker and Merle Curti pointed out that the ideas of the two men were antithetical. They assured their readers that Locke’s ideas, not Hobbes’s ideas, had held sway during the preceding two hundred years, and that Locke’s ideas, not Hobbes’s ideas, had powerfully molded Anglo-American liberalism. Becker argued that Locke was the most influential apologist of the Glorious Revolution, and noted that sharp echoes of Locke’s thunder could be heard in the Declaration of Independence. Hobbes was dismissed as wrongheaded, even if it was admitted that he was clever. No one dreamed that it was “possible to read Hobbes as a surprisingly liberal author.”

After World War II, scholars began to explore the relationship between Hobbes and Locke from new angles. Whereas Becker and Curti argued that the two men’s ideas were antithetical, it became fashionable to argue that they were similar. Leo Strauss suggested that Locke was a duplicitous disciple of Hobbes. Both men worked, Strauss claimed, to wreck Europe’s long natural-law tradition…

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