Teaching Hobbes and Locke in a Prison

     Between Western Civilization II, Christian Apologetics, and Principles of American Politics classes, the students at the SWBTS Darrington Extension get a lot of exposure to the political thought of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).  It is fascinating for me as I teach these courses to watch how they respond to the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, given that they are incarcerated in a maximum security prison.
     Hobbes wrote in The Leviathan (1651) that men are fundamentally individualistic, and are interested above all in maintaining their personal security. In the state of nature, that is, the state in which men live prior to establishing a civil government, everyone’s lives and property are continually at risk. Hobbes’ state of nature is a state of insecurity and chaos. While everyone has absolute individual freedom, nobody has peace.
     In order to remedy this condition, Hobbes wrote that individuals agree to forfeit their freedoms in exchange for stability, security and peace. These are found in the establishment of a civil government, on the basis of a social contract, that is ruled by an absolute sovereign. People forfeit all their rights but one, the right to life. The right to life is sustained by the sovereign, who is the embodiment of the state. For Hobbes, peace and security are maintained through fear, rather than the rule of law.
     Locke, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689), agreed with Hobbes that men exist in a state of nature (he pointed to Native Americans as an illustration of the meaning of the state of nature), and that the social contract establishes the civil government. But Locke asserted that government rules by the consent of the people, who retain their rights not only to life, but also to liberty and property. These rights are inborn, given to individuals by God, and no one has the right to deprive another of these rights. Locke also asserted that if the sovereign deprives the citizens of these rights, either actively or passively, then the people have the right and the responsibility to replace him with one who will guard their rights.
     Both Hobbes and Locke wrote these treatises with the violence and chaos of the English Civil War in mind. Charles I, king of England and Scotland, had been put on trial and publicly beheaded. Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in Parliament ruled ineptly during the 1650s, so in 1660, the Stuart monarchy was restored. But Parliament would again become embittered against the king in 1688, and it invited William of Orange to displace James II. This was known as the Glorious Revolution. Locke wrote the Two Treatises as a defense of William’s claim to the throne—Locke said that he ruled by the consent of Parliament, which represented the people.
     Teaching on these things is always a lot of fun, because all this is personally interesting to me. The first time I taught on seventeenth century England, it was for  eighth and ninth graders. But teaching on Hobbes and Locke in a prison context is really special.
     The men understand exactly what Hobbes is saying about the selfishness of people. They live that reality each day, seeking to overcome it themselves while being surrounded constantly by others who are nurturing their selfishness. They also live under a Hobbesian system—not a pure Hobbesian system perhaps, but certainly more pure than the system in which I live. They have broken the law themselves, and are living with many others who have broken the law—the law is no deterrent for most of the inmates at Darrington. But fear is a powerful motivator, and that is what Hobbes thought kept order. Also, they live and move and have their being according to the dictates of a central authority—that of the warden and those who serve under him. Their every move is watched and controlled, 24/7—their every move.
     Still, the students at Darrington know they have not forfeited their rights to life, liberty, and even of property. They have a strong sense of Lockean liberalism, even if they do not enjoy its benefits like those of us in the free world do. So for the Darrington students, there is a palpable tension between the system they know experientially—a Hobbesian system—and a system of which they have a longing awareness—a Lockean system.
    The students at Darrington are faced with historical-philosophical ideas that are manifest not in abstract, but in concrete terms. Their exposure to these ideas might be similar in some way to how people faced them in the 1650s, 1680s, or 1770s—not as abstractions fit only for a classroom, but as concrete reality that taxes every part of one’s being.
     Never a dull moment teaching at the Darrington extension of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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