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A Comparative View of Political Contract: Hobbes and Locke


In any kind of leadership or governance, there exists either written on unwritten contract between the leaders and those who are led. There are many writings on the nature of this contract. Some of the most quoted writings emanate from writings of prominent philosophers. They seek to outline the symbiotic relationship between the governors and the governed. They also seek to establish whether the governors are greater than the governed. In retrospect, the question of political contract cuts across disciplines with very valuable insights coming from political science and philosophy. At the time of these writings, leadership was subject to immense influence of religion: church was the center of political governance. There were fears that the church could even take over the state. This development led to proliferated writings on the subject matter. This write up seeks to explore how different writers viewed political contract. First, it begins by explaining what the political contract assumes. Next, it describes Thomas Hobbes’ and John Locke’s views with respect to this subject. Lastly, it compares and contrasts the views by these two authors and offers a reflection on the subject of discussion. Thomas Hobbes proposed a system of government that tolerated religion in which church theocrats could express their views, a political contract that integrated both divinity and civility; but John Locke’s political contract rejected the influence of Catholicism in the governance of England’s affairs thus differing in principle.

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The Nature of Political Contract

A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (Brutus, 1959) presents the most detailed description of the nature of political contract. Written in the most convincing philosophical tone, the treatise observes that there are at least two types of contracts: one is between God, King and People while the other is between King and People (Locke & Tully, 1983.). This write up is based on both contracts; it explores the nature of King-People relationships and the ideal issues surrounding the relationship between God, King and People. The treatise argues that when people are elected as kings, they are expected to implement the will of God; they do not lead for themselves but for the sake of the people who ordained them into leadership. In an ideal covenant, the king is supposed to rule religiously. Such a contract represents the intersection between religion and government. In other words, the king is supposed to be the face of God on earth. A king is supposed to exhibit the glory of God, as well as protect the wealth of people. Further, he should lead justly; God calls for just rule of the people.

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A king signs political contract in the name of God and for the sake of people. The oath taking is the manifestation of God’s power over humanity. The king promises to lead the people in accordance with the divine law. However, it does not mean that the king has all the responsibility; the people also have responsibility towards the king. The write up recognizes that since the king is the representative of God on earth, people have a duty to respect him. They should obey him. They should live up to the contract they have with God. Additionally, there are mutual responsibilities for kings and people towards each other and towards God. The contract may be written or unwritten. However, although the contract exists, people should not obey a king who enslaves them. Disobeying such a king is not disobeying God. A king who is not ordained by God for the people is a tyrant. Further, people who do not obey a divine king are seditious. Since there is reciprocal responsibility between people and princes, it is expected that the latter saves people from tyrannies of bad kings or princes in the neighboring regions. Contrastingly, even tyrants should have their freedoms. However, in this case, freedom should only be based upon justice. Thus, if a king is not just, he does not deserve to be free. He must be compelled to reason. If this does not work, he must be forced out of the throne.

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Thomas Hobbes’ View

Hobbes’ treatise on politics is based on human nature. To discuss the subject of political contract, he uses the imagery of common wealth. According to Hobbes, the commonwealth is a contract in which the led agrees to give power and authority to another person to act on their behalf. Through elected leaders, the Christian agrees to give up his or her right of governance to another person. This includes their rights and authority. In a commonwealth, the terms of the political contract, the led cannot change how they are governed. They should follow what they are required to do. In addition, since the led have given the sovereign the rights to decide on their own behalf, the former cannot breach the covenant because it is assumed that those that are selected to act on behalf of others are always right and, to some extent, infallible. They cannot err. Therefore, the people cannot be freed out of the covenant. He considers humans as having ‘right to all things’ (Hobbes, 1996, XIV). In this kind of arrangement, although the minority did not put the leaders in place, they have to abide by the laws that the sovereign make. Further, the sovereign cannot be accused of having acted unjustly. This is because the sovereign cannot injure the subject; at least ideally. Consequently, the subjects cannot be put to death unjustly.

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The political contract discussed by Hobbes’ Leviathan (1996) appears to be a bit radical. In essence, a commonwealth gives the sovereign powers to decide on very vital issues in the society such as who is allowed to speak on what issues, as well as what should be included in published authorities. In Hobbes’ political contract, the governors make law pertaining to property; decide on war or peace accords; choose who should be in other arms of government; determine how worthy others are; judge cases, and also reward or punish. The sovereign are so powerful that they can prescribe corporal punishment to anyone.

In Hobbes’ view, a political contract can be a democracy, aristocracy or a monarchy. In a democracy, a person is elected to represent others; in most cases, on a majority basis. In a democracy, sovereign power is vested on a group of people. In this case, the government has several arms; the heads of each arm are powerful and do not fall under any of the other arms. In a monarchy, sovereign power is vested in one individual while, in an aristocracy, power is vested in a small group of powerful people. Hobbes suggests that a monarchy is ideally the best contract that people can sign with their leaders. He explains that, in a monarchy, the sovereign cannot be successful unless the subjects are. Government is run on the basis of the interests of the rule. Moreover, the interests of the ruler are, in most cases, synonymous with the interests of the subjects.

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John Locke’s View

In his Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke offers a different view of governance. He offers an extensive conceptualization of religion and government. Locke wrote at a time, when there were fears that the church in England was likely to overtake the civil government. Locke argues that the best way forward is toleration. The church should tolerate less significant views, and the government should tolerate the popularity of the church. In other words, there should be a symbiotic relationship between the church and state. Notably, the commonwealth in Locke’s treatise seeks to foster personal interests. Locke explores the issue of duties, roles and jurisdiction. He compares the authority of the church with the authority of the courts. He concludes that the courts cannot be the owners of human souls. They only facilitate justice, but such facilitation, if flawed, cannot be justified. Thus, the church has its role and the government, too. These roles, according to him, should not be competing but complementary towards each other. He writes that “The Kings of Gentiles exercise lordship over them” (Locke, 1796; p. 6).

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The political scene presented by Locke is that of tolerance. He proposed that “The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Locke, 1796; p. 9). Although Catholicism was most dominant in Europe, it was necessary that other denominations or religions were also followed. In outlining the intersection between the church and government, Locke writes that a well-functioning civil society must have grounded Christians. If citizens of a country are not religious, their law making and enforcement agencies would have a lot of word and hard time due to crime, lawlessness and social unrest.


Locke and Hobbes present slightly different views on the issue of political contracts. In fact, in some cases, their arguments conflict with each other. In a general sense, while Locke proposes tolerance towards religious inclusion, Hobbes appears to allow religious expression at personal level but forbade it at the state level. But all in all, he was tolerant in his approach, unlike Locke. It is as if Hobbes suggests a political contract that is based on the earthly leadership without any form of appreciation of divinity in a leader. Moreover, a major similarity is the fact that both counterparts recognize the existence of another form of contract. What they differ on is the expression of the divine contract in the face of civil government.

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Hobbes rejected any form of theocracy in a democracy. He rejected Catholicism as a source of contract between men, their rulers and God. It appears, “Hobbes had atheistic inclinations” (Marshall, 2006, p. 680). There is no doubt that this influenced his writing. On the other hand, Locke dedicates a good part of his treatise to explaining the scriptural basis of political leadership. While he uses predominantly a theological approach, Hobbes implies the use of a reason. However, in this view, a reason should always be consistent with the ultimate truth and it should always emanate from God.


Political contracts are covenants that people enter into with their leaders, as well as God. In describing the nature of these contracts, different writers use different political systems. Earlier writings could not have possibly separated civil leadership from divine leadership. A leader was seen as a reflection of God on Earth; he was supposed to fulfill his mission. However, as there were advancements in science and the so-called reason and fact cropped up, writers in political subjects deviated from the earlier approach to political leadership. Moreover, other later writers reverted to original views of co-existence of democracies and theocracies. John Locke represents the group of writers who saw separate role of church and state. However Hobbes was somewhat indifferent with the role of religion in political leadership. Both writers present the opposing view on political contract because Hobbes does not allow expression of religious views, but Locke applauds the distinct nature of religion and state.

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