Modern political philosophy refers to the period of political thought from the 16th to the 18th century, characterized by the questioning of traditional ideas about politics and the emergence of new theories about the relationship between the individual and the state. Major figures in modern political philosophy include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.
Some of the key questions explored during this period include:
- What is the purpose of government?
- What is the basis for political authority and obligation?
- What rights do individuals have against the state?
- How should society be organized?
- What constitutes a just society?
The political upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as the Reformation and the English Civil War, led philosophers to reconsider long-held beliefs about the divine right of kings, the role of religion in politics, and the rights and responsibilities of rulers and subjects. Their theories shaped the development of modern democracy and human rights.
Thomas Hobbes and Social Contract Theory
One of the most influential works of modern political philosophy was Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651. Hobbes’ masterpiece was written during the turmoil of the English Civil War, and his description of the “state of nature” reflects the fear and insecurity of the period.
In the state of nature, Hobbes argued, there are no enforceable criteria of right and wrong. With no power to police society or administer justice, humans would live in constant fear and uncertainty. People are motivated primarily by self-interest, so in the state of nature there would be a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) as people sought to defend their persons and property. Life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (xiii).
To escape this fearsome state of nature, individuals agree to a social contract and give absolute power to a sovereign. In return, they gain security and protection. Hobbes argued the best form of government is an absolute monarchy, where the king embodies the state and enforces law and order. Citizens cannot rebel or dissolve the contract, even if the monarch is incompetent, because the order produced by a bad king is better than the disorder of the state of nature.
Hobbes believed most people are too selfish to voluntarily uphold contracts and only a strong, undivided government could restrain humans’ brutish tendencies. His pessimistic view of human nature had a lasting impact on political philosophy. However, his theory of the social contract influenced the development of western democracy, by popularizing the notion that governments require the consent of the governed (Okerlund, 2019).
John Locke and Natural Rights
The English philosopher John Locke offered a more optimistic view of human nature than Hobbes. His seminal work Two Treatises of Government (1689) rejected the notion of the divine right of kings and absolute monarchy.
Locke argued individuals have inherent natural rights to life, liberty, and property which existed before the creation of governments. People voluntarily agree to relinquish some rights and empower the state to better protect these natural liberties. Locke believed the purpose of government is to preserve and promote the public good. Citizens have the right to revolt if the government violates their natural rights.
Locke asserted government authority comes from the consent of the governed, not divine sanction. He developed a theory of limited government based on the separation of powers and checks and balances to prevent abuse. His ideas, especially his defense of natural rights and limited government, greatly influenced the American Founding Fathers and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (Thompson, 2018).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the General Will
The philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau blended optimism about human nature with a radical critique of contemporary society. His 1762 book The Social Contract articulated a new theory of political legitimacy based on the concept of popular sovereignty.
Rousseau argued that in the state of nature, humans were essentially good. The evils of society corrupted natural man’s purity. By coming together in civil society through an agreement known as the social contract, people gain moral liberty and the ability to control their destiny.
Sovereignty rests with the general will – the collective will of the people as a whole. The general will aims at the common good, creating just laws that respect the freedom and equality of all citizens. The social contract requires citizens to set aside their individual preferences and private wills, submitting to laws aimed at the public interest. Governments that fail to enact the general will lose legitimacy (Nichols, 1992).
Rousseau’s radical democratic vision made the general will a foundational principle of political thought. Critics have argued his concept is abstract, mystical, and dangerous, leading to an authoritarian direct democracy in practice. Nonetheless, Rousseau’s philosophy inspired future republican and democratic thinkers.
Immanuel Kant and Duty Ethics
Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German philosopher, is considered one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment. His moral and political philosophy is rooted in the idea of duty ethics. Kant argued that ethical behavior comes from a sense of duty, not because of any goal or consequence.
In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative as the supreme moral principle: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Essentially, moral actions should be universal – what is ethical for one person should be ethical for all people in similar circumstances. Kant believed reason and rationality provide the basis for morality and just governance.
Kant applied duty ethics to politics in Perpetual Peace (1795). He outlined a blueprint for international peace through the adoption of republican constitutions, shared cosmopolitan values, and political autonomy. Kant argued republican governments with representative mechanisms are less prone to waging war, due to popular oversight. His vision has provided an enduring model for liberal international relations (Brown, 2010).
Key Debates in Modern Political Philosophy
The state of nature and social contract theories profoundly shaped modern political discourse. Thinkers have disagreed, however, over human nature and whether man is inherently selfish (Hobbes) or altruistic (Rousseau). Doubts have also persisted about the plausibility of a state of nature existing before organized society.
Moreover, there are disputes over the terms of the hypothetical social contract and whether citizens in fact consent to government authority. Social contract theorists presume legitimate states depend on the voluntary agreement of free individuals, an idea critics argue is unrealistic. Despite scholarly debates, social contract theory remains pivotal to notions of popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, and the rights of citizens against governments.
There are also important debates over natural rights theory. Critics like Jeremy Bentham argued the concept of innate rights is “nonsense on stilts.” The notion of natural rights implies that liberties like free speech or privacy exist independently from government protections. Opponents claim this is illogical, since rights cannot be universal or inalienable if they are not legally defined and enforced by societies. Defenders counter that human rights can have moral force whether or not governments acknowledge them (Lazar, 2022). These disagreements have implications for constitutional rights, civil disobedience, and human rights norms.
Lastly, scholars continue to discuss Rousseau’s ideas of the general will and whether the concept aids or threatens democracy. Rousseau argued the general will tends towards equality and cannot err. But critics counter that in practice, appeals to the “collective good” or national spirit have enabled majoritarian control and curtailed minority rights. Rousseau’s critics believe his abstract conception of the public interest is anti-pluralist and leads to oppression of dissenters. Defenders maintain that properly understood, the general will requires protection of individual liberties against corrupt government power (Williams, 2008). The debate persists over how to balance majoritarian democracy with individual rights.
Modern political philosophy represented a seismic shift from hierarchical societies toward governments based on reason, liberty, and consent. Thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant introduced new paradigms of human nature, rights, democracy, and international relations that still shape political ideas and institutions today. While debates continue over their theories, concepts like social contract, natural rights, popular sovereignty, and rational/moral universalism became core fixtures of modern politics and governance. The epochal innovations of 17th and 18th century political philosophy underlie human rights, constitutionalism, and liberal democracy across the world.
Brown, G. (2010). Grounding cosmopolitanism: From Kant to the idea of a cosmopolitan constitution. Edinburgh University Press.
Lazar, S. (2022). Debunking the myths about universal human rights. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/debunking-the-myths-about-universal-human-rights-175215
Nichols, J. (1992). The general will is good. In L. Grunes & S. Sutherland (Eds.), The Good Society: A Comparative Study of Denmark and Switzerland (pp. 125-140). Peter Lang.
Okerlund, A. (2019). Thomas Hobbes. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hobbes/
Thompson, C. B. (2018). John Locke’s political philosophy and the inseparability of liberty and equality. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, H. (2008). Kant’s critique of the general will. In M. LeBar & J. Gleeson (Eds.), Liberty and Equality (pp. 63-88). Routledge.