The Individualism of Early Liberal Thinkers

Early liberal thought, especially as it has been argued through Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, have identified human nature as inherently individualistic and self-motivated. Each liberal thinker in their stead has offered some interpretation of this individual and how that relates to the natural condition of humans outside of society. This essay will explore the main features of those varying conceptions but, due to the broad nature of the essay, it will not examine all the related arguments about human nature. It should be additionally noted that in the discussion of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, their individual works will be treated as representative of both of them (except where explicitly stated) as they largely held the same philosophical views and co-authored many of their works together (Miller). Finally, it will be explicitly mentioned here that all of the discussed philosophers, with the exception of Karl Marx, emphasize human nature as individualistic. This can be noted implicitly by the features of their human nature. Ultimately, liberal thinkers have conceived of humans as naturally individualistic, equal to one another, and selfish, with later feminist thinkers (such as Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Taylor) focusing on including women as equals in human nature and one socialist thinker, Karl Marx, rejecting this individualism and selfishness entirely.

Thomas Hobbes believed that humans, being fearful of death, constantly and preemptively warred with one another, but, due to their relative equality, never gained security. The fear for one’s own life characterized the human condition but, beyond that, humans also wanted commodious living and for their labors to be worthwhile (Hobbes 188). Humans were naturally of relative equality for Hobbes, such that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest” (183-4). Finally, humans also had the unlimited right to do what they thought best to preserve themselves, even if this meant warring with others (189-90). It should be noted here that Hobbes did consider males and females to be of the same rough equality naturally, such that females could gain pre-eminent dominion over their children by the same mechanics (sparing one’s life) that men often gained through conquest (254). Following this, though, it seems that females came to be subordinated to men through conquest. Hobbes differed from the lineage of Western thinkers before him. Hobbes differed from Plato in considering the goal of humans to be security rather than, through his tripartite soul, the mastering of reason (Plato xxxvi-ix). Unlike Aristotle, who considered humans to be naturally gregarious, Hobbes considered humans to be fundamentally warring and antisocial (Aristotle xix-xiv). Saint Aquinas believed that reason could guide humans in creating a suitable society, yet Hobbes thought any power not delegated to a sovereign and arbitrary authority would end in chaos (Aquinas 7-9; Hobbes 202-6). He seems to agree with Augustine that human nature is corrupt and leads them to negative outcomes but he does not locate this in original sin (Augustine 103-4). The consequence of this human nature is that humans exist in a state of perpetual war, active or latent, where the rough equality of all prevents any from securing power permanently and creating a coercive peace (Hobbes 185-6).

John Locke diverged from Hobbes in considering humans rational, peaceful, and motivated toward the security and preservation of their lives. Given the rationality, rough equality, and sociability of humans, they naturally are predisposed to observing a natural law (treat others how you want to be treated) that renders most peaceful (Locke 8-9, 42). Humans are also motivated toward securing and preserving their property, which is their life, liberty, and estate (65-6). In addition to this, they have the ability to individually judge and punish any violations of natural law (10-1). When Locke speaks of these conditions, however, he does not traditionally consider them to apply to females. Rather, he considers female nature to be irrational and inferior to that of males (44). Locke differs from Hobbes because he considers humans (mainly men) rational and sociable to the point where they can live in peace by observing natural laws. Rather than being terrified of death, they instead are motivated to secure their property, and rather than having unlimited rights to preserve themselves, they only have freedom limited by natural law. This latter condition is why Locke says that the state of nature is “a state of liberty, yet not a state of license” (9). Finally, unlike Hobbes, he considers women to be naturally inferior. The consequence of human rationality and sociability results in a peaceful, not warring, state of nature (8-9). However, due to the individual powers of the judgement and execution of natural law, and due to the lack of an agreed upon civil law, minor transgression (e.g. stealing) may justifiably be punished by death because it is an assault on one’s liberty and leaves no guarantee otherwise that the violator will not attempt to restrict all liberty in the future (14-5). It follows that property is insecure in this state, despite the relative peace (16). Thus, despite the rationality and peaceful nature of humans, they are unable to achieve the security of property they are motivated toward.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau conceived of humans as naturally solitary and content but believed that reason and socialization led to unhappiness. For Rousseau, just as it was for Hobbes and Locke, humans are motivated by self-preservation (Rousseau, “The Social Contract” 50). He thought that they had the capacity for rationality but that they were naturally simple-minded, solitary, and peaceful (50; Graeme 71-2). Human rationality, especially when humans collectivize, is warped. It distances humans from contentedness by making them desire unobtainable things and by making them prideful and vain (Graeme 72-3; Reuter 926-8). This is best exemplified in Rousseau’s Emile where he says, “coming from the hand of the Author of all things, everything is good; in the hands of man, everything degenerates” (Rousseau, “Emile; or, Concerning Education” 15). Much like Hobbes, Rousseau considered females to be of relative equality with males by nature; however, in civil society, he thought it best for females to be subordinate to males and fulfill different functions according to their sex (Rousseau, “Emile, “Book V” (excerpts)” 250-3). Jean-Jacques Rousseau differed from much of Western thought in construing humans as happier and more fulfilled in their natural state. He does bear resemblance to Augustine in considering human reason to be perverted even though he doesn’t attribute this to original sin. In any case, the outcome of his conception of nature means that humans are better off avoiding society. Perhaps more interestingly is that he considers females to be naturally independent of males but that human rationality (as it creates civil society) gives females their lot of subordination to males (251-2; Reuter 930-2).

Mary Wollstonecraft ultimately rejected Rousseau’s thoughts, and though a portion of her criticism was of Rousseau’s different education regimes for females, it was ultimately founded in the converse belief that human reason was good, god-given, and could lead to self-fulfillment. What distinguishes Mary Wollstonecraft from the former thinkers in Western political philosophy is that she focused on human nature specifically as it pertained to women, arguing that women had the same rational capacities and virtues as men (Wollstonecraft 2-4, 11-2). Furthermore, she argued that the current state of women (as less rational) resulted from cultural and social conditioning rather than nature (3-4). Lastly she believed that reason was good, god-given, and that it could be used for self-fulfillment (2; Reuter 927-9). She diverged from Locke and many earlier western thinkers in arguing that females weren’t inherently less rational. She diverged from Hobbes, Locke, and many other thinkers in arguing that females should be given subordinate positions. Finally, she differed significantly from Rousseau (and was very similar to Aquinas) in arguing that rationality was a good, god-given tool that could play a meaningful role in creation. Her particular arguments culminate in the conception of women as equally moral and rational as men, leading to (as Wollstonecraft argues) the same educational regime as men so that these capacities can be developed (Wollstonecraft 5, 17).

Both John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor focused on women as having a shared and equal human nature with men, particularly one that is malleable. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Mill and Taylor focused on how women fit in to human nature and argued that females were raised to be inferior, not that they were actually inferior (Mill, “The Subjection of Women” 5-11). They even declare that “the social subordination of women thus stands out an isolated fact in modern social institutions” (10). To add to this, their underlying philosophy is based upon the idea that human nature is largely nurtured and malleable (for both men and women) (Heydt): humans are “not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing” (qtd. Heydt). Thus, Mill and Taylor diverge significantly from Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, in arguing that nature didn’t inherently fix anything and that, rather, they were the product of nurture. While this line of argumentation is similar to that of Wollstonecraft’s, both of them go further to suggest that legal rights and economic rights were needed in addition to education to reflect the true nature of women (as equals) (Mill, “The Subjection of Women” 9-11; Taylor 2-4, 7). Mill believed, however, that women should still take up domestic duties in civil society while having this rights. Taylor, more radically, thought that women should spend an equal amount of time working outside the home professionally (Miller). Mill’s and Taylor’s contribution to the concept of human nature was in arguing for women as equals to men, particularly in that they were the product of social conditions and required equal social conditions (legal and economic) to have they deserved freedom.

Marx rejected the prior tradition of liberal thought in arguing that, instead of human nature as individualistic, human nature was reflected by the material conditions and relationships of production at the time, but that humans fundamentally were creative and sociable. Marx contended that humans are motivated, not just to preserve oneself, but to be creative and enjoy beauty: “man produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in freedom from such need … man reproduces the whole of nature … man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty” (Marx, “Estranged Labour”). Human nature, insofar as it consists of intellectual life, social relations, and political relations, are the direct result of the material world and the efforts of human beings to meet their needs (Marx, “The Communist Manifesto” 58-60). Finally, it can be noted that Marx believes humans are meant to be social by the way he criticizes capitalism as drowning out virtue by orienting people toward selfish gain (37). As for the individualism represented by liberals, he considers it merely an intellectual phase that results from the current material system, but that humans are naturally sociable and cooperative instead (Bryson 57). Marx bears the most resemblance to Aristotle in arguing that human beings are sociable and gregarious by nature, but he differs in locating the state as arising from present material conditions. He differs from just about the entire history of liberal thought, especially Hobbes and Locke, in rejecting individualism human selfishness as natural. From his understanding of human nature, he believes that private property and its institution result from the material conditions of society (such as the labour relations and material needs), but it ultimately polarized power unequally through different forms of governance under private property and individualism (Marx, “The Communist Manifesto” 41-9). Eventually the inequality causes such despair that the majority of society (who are the workers) overthrow the current regime and establish an egalitarian and communist society, one in which humans can facilitate their natural inclinations toward socialization and creativity (50). The fundamental motivation of humans, Marx believed, was to go beyond their needs by connecting with others and enjoy beauty through creativity.

Hobbes and Locke began early liberal thought by arguing that the natural self was individualistic and self-motivated, with Hobbes emphasizing the antagonistic and fearful aspect of humans and Locke emphasizing the rational and peaceful aspect of humans. Rousseau, following largely in the stead on Augustine, believed that human rationality was perverted and that civil society was to introduce unhappiness into a relatively content, peaceful, and wandering human. All three of these thinkers, however, believed that females should have subordinate positions within society based on their nature. Wollstonecraft rejected this by arguing that females had the very same virtues and rational capacities, so they were worthy of the same moral and rational development of males. Mill and Taylor took this one step further, arguing that legal and economic rights were required if females were ever to be truly equal. Finally, Karl Marx rejected this entire tradition by arguing that human intellectual and social life arose from material conditions, but that humans were naturally sociable and cooperative. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that human nature (and whether females are included or not) has many bearings on the society and conditions that result for humans, including what their objectives should be.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1988. Print.

Aristotle. The Politics and The Constitution of Athens. Ed. Stephen Everson. Padstow: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Augustine. St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics. Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1988. Print.

Garrard, Graeme. “Rousseau, Happiness and Human Nature.” Political Studies, Vol. 62, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 70-82.

Heydt, Colin. “Mill, John Stuart.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 21 Aug. 2016.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. St Ives: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C. B. MacPherson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980.

Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labour.” Accessed 21 Aug. 2016. Web.

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm. Fairfield: Verso, 1998.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women, 1869. Athabasca University, 2016.

Miller, Dale E.. “Harriet Taylor Mill.” Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy. Winter 2015 Edition. Stanford University, 21 Dec. 2015. Accessed 21 Aug. 2016. Web.

Plato. Republic. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.

Reuter, Martina. “‘Like a Fanciful Kind of Half Being’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Hypatia, Vol. 29, Issue 4, 2014, pp. 925-41.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile, “Book V” (excerpts). Ed. James P Sterba. Social and Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives, Third Edition. Toronto: Thomson, 2003. pp. 250-263. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile; or, Concerning Education. Trans. Eleanor Worthington, Ed. Jules Steeg. Boston: D. C. Health & Company, 1889. Print.

Taylor, Harriet. Enfranchisement of Women, 1851. Athabasca University, 2016.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Athabasca University. Print.


3 thoughts on “The Individualism of Early Liberal Thinkers

  1. What do you make of Blakes reaction against the likes of Paine and Newton? His system is so radical that most people think he is simply denouncing science! However, he has a point; rationalism has given us climate change, extinction and above all de-humanisation. Ok, end of apocalyptic snap! I have named the new President elect of USA, as President Urizen.


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