The political gulf in contemporary America—amply evident in what we witness, read, and experience—tends to be expressed as categorical differences, such as Liberal vs. Conservative and Democrat v. Republican. Often missing from consideration are the philosophical underpinnings associated with contrasting perspectives. One source for plumbing deeper-tier differences can be found in the work of European philosophers who wrote during the Age of Reason (known familiarly as The Enlightenment), a period that spanned the mid-17th Century through the beginning of the 19th Century.
The Enlightenment brought a sea change in the way people looked at themselves, others, and the world around them. Big questions dominated the discourse, including what a good society is and how we should organize to achieve it. Literary contributors to The Enlightenment had widespread influence in Europe and beyond. For example, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their compatriots drew on Enlightenment thinking as they proceeded with a revolutionary project that became the United States of America.
For me, the writing of three Enlightenment philosophers stands out—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—often referred to as “the social contract” philosophers. While each offered an interpretation of the relationship between the individual and society, they had different views about that relationship, including how to organize and manage the political sphere optimally. Their work has helped me recognize where I am situated on the spectrum of political beliefs/preferences, why others think and feel as they do, and how I should proceed with my political activism.
Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher whose life spanned nearly a century, from the late 16th to the late 17th centuries. His widely influential Leviathan (1651) spoke to what might be called “the risk society,” that is, a world that is insecure and dangerous and (in his words) “nasty and brutish.” With that perspective, Hobbes’s preferred political pathway involved people voluntarily trading personal freedom for protections afforded by an authoritative leader. Not doing so, Hobbes warned, increased the prospect of society devolving into mayhem and chaos. Hobbes’s social contract, which is "strongman” and dictatorial in nature, is grounded in authority figures exercising generally unrestricted power.
Another British-born Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke, lived from the mid-17th Century to the early 18th Century. An Essay Concerning Human(e) Understanding (1689) and Second Treatise on Government (1690) are among his significant literary contributions. Unlike Hobbes, Locke had a positive outlook on humans and social possibilities. Locke believed that people and society could thrive, and he was specific about how. People had to be free, and governmental interference could not thwart their pursuits. Locke was also clear about social priorities and what government should focus on—the pursuit of “Life, Liberty, and Property.” Locke embraced the concept of representative democracy because he believed that political leaders led only with and by the consent of “the people.” But he also left room for the use of revolutionary means to enact political change if the people deemed that pathway necessary.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French-born philosopher who lived during the 18th Century, is well known for his The Social Contract (1762) and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755). Rousseau’s perspective on the social contract differs significantly from the views expressed by Locke and especially by Hobbes. Rousseau favored a society that benefits from a mutually influential relationship between what is best for the individual and what is best for the collective. Individuals would not be driven by self-interest alone. Indeed, setting aside what is best for an individual and supporting what is best for the collective is fundamental to Rousseau’s philosophy. Likewise, the collective should be dedicated to the status of all, not just some. Rousseau’s perspective—commonwealth-focused as it was—emerged from concerns regarding the abuse of power and political corruption, on the one hand, and the quest for equality and justice, on the other. In Rousseau’s mind, social progress wrought by advances in science and technology stunted humanity, making it more difficult for the human spirit to flourish. With that in mind, Rousseau encouraged parents to shield their children from society’s influence.
So, what might be gained today from what those philosophers wrote centuries ago? I believe it can help us better understand current circumstances. For example, according to Hobbes’s security-driven thinking, I understand why some Americans focus attention on immigration restrictions, especially regarding our Southern border. From Locke’s conditional interpretation of democracy, I understand why and how insurrections can happen—even in a country like ours. Relieving graduates’ college debt burden (a move serving the greater good) is a page from Rousseau’s script.
Moreover, what the Enlightenment philosophers offered may be more relevant for America today than at any time since the Revolution. Back then, our Founding Fathers drew extensively on John Locke’s thinking when crafting foundational documents. An example is how the words “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness [instead of Property]” were included in our Declaration of Independence.
That was then. Today’s political tug-of-war seems to be waged between those who embrace ideas drawn from Hobbes and Locke (expressed in various amalgams) vis-à-vis those of us who embrace Rousseau’s thinking (as Progressives do). Primary differences seem to revolve around images of what a “good society” is/should be, including the preferred role of government and what “the will of the people” means.
What strikes me today is how certain words carry loaded meanings. In my youth, words like freedom and liberty were catchphrases, liberally used and often without much thought. Today, they are anthems. For example, a daily reality during the Great Pandemic was the obstreperous implications of freedom of choice. For many Americans—even in the face of significant illness and death—the individual right not to be vaccinated trumped the social responsibility to be vaccinated.
Democracy is another magnet word. In my younger days, democracy was a taken-for-granted, rarely contested matter. I no longer take that view. While many of us see democracy as the cornerstone of American society—to be honored and protected from incursion and abrogation—I believe it has conditional value for other Americans. So, when I hear or read, “Democracy is Under Attack!” I know that concern resonates with those Americans who view democracy as a sine qua non of American society. On the other hand, I believe that many other Americans view this country as a democratic republic and not as a pure-form democracy. Indeed, one can argue that a democratic republic is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind and created (See Robert Longley, 2022, “The United States, like most modern nations, is neither a pure republic nor a pure democracy. Instead, it is a hybrid democratic republic.”)
A democratic republic is still “of and by the people,” but it is not as dynamic and robust as, say, Rousseau had in mind. Consider this. In today’s America, we are experiencing multiple efforts to restrict citizen participation. Examples include the passage of restrictive voting laws as well as ongoing attempts to limit voting rights, state legislatures that make it increasingly difficult for citizen-initiated proposals to make it to election ballots, closed primaries, and laws that enable “big” and “dark” money to infiltrate the political system.
While it is easy to point to politicians who enable and support what I have just written, those politicians are aided by those who either support or (at the very least) do not oppose their actions. Either way, democracy—as many of us would define it and as Rousseau saw it—does not carry ascendant value. Instead, “good government,” in the minds of many Americans, is an efficient enterprise run like a business, and it focuses on a select/limited set of priorities (much along the lines of what Locke proposed over three centuries ago, I might add), namely, to protect life (today—pro-life, strong defense), liberty (today—Second Amendment rights), and property (today—smaller government, lower taxes).
Consider the root words associated with our two major political parties. A democrat (lower case d) is an advocate and defender of democracy, which includes the power of the people to elect representatives in free and open elections and the need to establish and sustain institutions that aid and support democracy. On the other hand, a republican (lower case r) supports a non-monarchial government form with citizens electing representatives who govern according to laws. The difference does not need to be as stark in implications and practice as it is today, but that is our reality.
POSTSCRIPT: If this essay was helpful, one reason might be that it illustrates the relevance of what Stephen Covey wrote years ago in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. Habit 5: Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood. In politics today, we practice the reverse of Covey’s dictum. Wondering why, I turn to Rousseau’s observations about amour-propre (self-love), which is well-expressed by contemporary philosopher Aaron James as a “concern for how one looks in the eyes of others, and the relentless need to be seen as superior” (from Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, p.45).