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The ownership concept extended beyond one’s entitlement to the fruits of his or her labors. The initial axiom, by virtue of its self-evident quality, had come to encompass a great many other things, such as landed property and self-ownership. The seeds which were sown became a weed.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part III

The ownership concept, the defining characteristic of individuality, extended far beyond one’s entitlement to the fruits of his or her labors. It may have served as the initial axiom by virtue of its self-evident quality, partaking of the view that since humans inherited the Earth, whatever they extracted from it by way of hard work and toil was naturally theirs to keep and to enjoy; in time, however, it had come to encompass a great many other things such as landed property and ownership of the self; self-ownership, in other words.

The latter is of particular interest because it entailed ownership of one’s labor to do with it as one pleases, even if it meant selling it to the highest bidder. Just as importantly, however, it served as the precursor of the soon-to-emerge concept of unalienable (and other kinds of) rights, to this very day the quintessential aspect of all liberal democracies the world over, but more on that later.

Whether they realized it or not, both Hobbes and Locke were depicting conditions most appropriate to a fully-functioning market society, and the depicted relationships which were purported to ensue between individuals could well be reduced to relationships between bona fide members of that society, each of whom knew full well their place in it and acted accordingly. More than that, however, both laid out the very foundations for such a society, past, present and future, the necessary conditions. Consequently, the question of whether the society they were depicting was realistic enough, which is to say, corresponding to the facts of the day, is of secondary interest and it needn’t concern us now. Suffice it to say, both were visionaries. I have no doubt whatever their account sounds far more plausible today than it sounded to their contemporaries.

Hobbes, in particular, was a highly schematic thinker and the far more abstract of the two. The Hobbesian “state of nature,” a brand new construct by the way, whereby human lives were presumed to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” was itself an abstraction of sorts from the already highly socialized society of men, and the express purpose was to demonstrate beyond any doubt how shallow our civilization is once the sovereign is removed. Well, Hobbes’s schemata purporting to depict the human society of his day is of the same order: if not exactly an abstraction, it’s surely an accurate projection of a fully integrated market society functioning, as it were, on all four. And his projection is uncanny.

We must remember that Hobbes’ wasn’t a sociological account. That came with Auguste Comte, the presumptive father of sociology. Truth be told, alongside with what Hobbes has envisaged as exclusive, market-directed relationships, there were a pletora of other relationships, such as those which make use of the human sentiment, affinity, loyalty all of the above. Indeed, even today, and we’re speaking now from the vantage point of having reached the outer limits, it’s unimaginable that any of us could possibly get on in terms of “market relationships” alone, without any recourse or regard to all the things which make us human. But that wasn’t an omission on Hobbes’s part, I contend. It was, rather, his particular turn of mind, bent on focusing.

If anything, Locke was more of a sociologist than Hobbes ever was, forever trying to incorporate the practical aspects of everyday life into the Hobbesian schema; both, however (and Hobbes in particular), regarded such societies, and communities, as somehow strained and artificial. Sentiment, moral or otherwise, wasn’t the proper basis upon which to construct a viable theory of society, the market and market-related behavior were.

For which very reasons, we should never be tempted to reduce the bulk of Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings to ideology . I’m well aware of the temptation, especially in light of the infamous connection between ownership and universal franchise. But the tenuous nature of that connection, and its severing may well be regarded as the singular triumph of modern-day democracies, is, relatively speaking, recent in coming.

The founders couldn’t have anticipated this turn of events, and they shouldn’t be judged accordingly.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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