What were the similarities and differences between Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau's philosophies, ideas, and views on government? 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Each of these political philosophers was concerned with theorizing the best type of government. Each generally argued that the best government was one most aligned with human nature. It was on this point that they diverged, particularly Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes argued that because mankind was naturally suspicious and greedy, governments were formed to keep them from a state of constant conflict. It followed, he wrote in Leviathan, that the best possible government was an absolute monarchy, unanswerable to the popular will.

Montesquieu, on the other hand, argued for a divided government, one with separation of powers between a monarch and a body dominated by nobles. He believed, more fundamentally, that governments had to be created in accordance with the particular "spirit" of a people.

Locke argued that government was based on a social contract, one in which people willingly and freely determined to submit to government. Crucially, that government had to protect the rights of individuals, or its rule could not be justified.

Rousseau, too, argued that the source of government was the consent of the governed, who entered into a social contract. His focus, though, was in establishing a government that would best express the "general will" of the people, whose will (rather than that of a single king) was sovereign over all.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are all 'state of nature' theorists—they attempt to explain politics and government by constructing a thought experiment of an original state of nature which led people to enter into some kind of tacit social contract. 

The primary differences revolve around two axes: their descriptions of the state of nature and the motivations for humans to enter into a social contract with one another. 

Hobbes held that lives were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" in the state of nature (Leviathan, I.13) and that it was a desire for self-preservation that led us to form a social contract because, in nature, life was a zero-sum game. 

The other three, however, were more optimistic about the state of nature. Montesquieu, through his parable of the Troglodytes in the Persian Letters argues that people were originally good and benevolent when they led simple lives but that war and politics corrupted them.

Locke thinks that humans were originally free "to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature" (Second Treatise on Government, section 4). They enter into a social contract for mutual benefit because of conditions of scarcity. 

Rousseau argued that we were born neither benevolent nor malevolent but as tabulae rasae that were written on by education and environment. He did think that there was true freedom in the state of nature but that social contracts were needed in order for humans in society to be "forced to be free."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were all political philosophers that debated the question of who was best fit to control the government. Thomas Hobbes stood out among the four philosophers in that he believed that a strong absolute monarchy was the best form of government. His support of absolute monarchs stemmed from his belief that men, in nature, acted in their own self-interests and could not be trusted to act for the good of society. His theory was that in order to secure a peaceful and orderly society, people formed a social contract with an absolute ruler that would sacrifice individual liberties for the good of the whole. The only similarity in theories with the other philosophers was the idea of a need for people to form a social contract with the government.

Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau leaned towards a more democratic system of government. They felt that there were unalienable rights of life, liberty, and property that a government was responsible for protecting. Their idea of a social contract was reciprocal in nature meaning that while citizens granted government sovereignty, the government was to guarantee that these freedoms were protected. Locke was the first to propose that these were unalienable rights.

Montesquieu also opposed the idea of an absolute monarchy and believed that the main purpose of government was to maintain law and order and protect the political liberty and property of the individual. Montesquieu advocated a system of elected representatives that were separated into branches to separate and balance power. Montesquieu was similar with John Locke in the idea of representative government and popular sovereignty.

Jean Jacque Rousseau was different from Thomas Hobbes in that he believed in the inherent nature of people to do good and act for the best of the group. With that in mind, Rousseau advocated for a form of direct democracy in which all citizens are permitted to vote on laws and the operations of government. Rousseau agreed with Locke and Montesquieu that government's principal responsibility was to protect the rights of the people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team