Student Question

How do Locke's and Hobbes's views of human nature differ? Which is more accurate?

Quick answer:

Locke's view of human nature differs from Hobbes's in being more optimistic. Locke viewed the newborn human as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, that could be molded and educated into either virtue or vice. Hobbes, in contrast, saw human nature as inherently barbaric and in need of a strong governing hand. He stated that in a state of nature, human life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Expert Answers

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

Locke famously took a more tolerant and optimistic view of human nature than Hobbes. He believed that a person was born as a tabula rasa, or a blank slate, and could be educated and molded into virtue or vice by family and society. Hobbes, in contrast, believed that human nature was inherently barbaric, leading to lives that, in a state of nature, would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as he famously stated in the Leviathan. Without a strong central governing authority to keep it in line, human nature was such that people would tear each other apart in pursuit of their own self interest, according to Hobbes.

Locke's theory of human nature more closely derives from Montaigne's notion of the Noble Savage, in which humanity in its natural state has a purity and nobility that keeps it from barbarism. His thoughts on human nature, in which humans should be given the freedom to pursue self-interest as far as possible, were deeply influential on the foundation of the United States and the ideal of each individual engaging in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

You will have to draw your own conclusions about who is more correct, Locke with his more optimistic view of the ability of human nature to regulate itself for the good or Hobbes with his pessimistic view of human nature in need of strict control by a strong central authority. Perhaps because of my socialization as an American and my life experience in which, without extreme outside pressure, people do behave decently, I believe in Locke's view of human nature. Often, it seems, people have to be incited and propagandized to enter into the kind of frenzies that lead to barbarity. This lends credence to the idea that left to its own devices, human nature is such that most people will simply move through life in a relatively benign and harmless way.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial