Last Updated 14 Nov 2022

A Comparison of the Views of John Milton, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes

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Thomas Hobbes wrote one of his most famous works, called Leviathan in 1651. Through his pessimistic point of view, he is comparable to John Calvin in the sense that he tends to point out all kinds of things that are wrong with society. He believes that "man is a wolf to man" and he is "here to protect everyone against everyone" through Levianthan (Zunjic). By portraying people as wolves, he makes us out to be undomesticated animals that live in disorder. He says, "humans are egoists who are relentlessly after their own goals. They aggressively pursue their ends” (Zunjic). It is easily seen that he is against us ruling for ourselves, since we are selfish; therefore, he believes in a strong monarch. "Without a common power there is no propriety and property (mine or thine), for in the state of war everything belongs to anyone who can take it and for so long as they can keep it.

Even our body stands out for grabs" (Zunjic). Basically what Hobbes is saying is that humans want for themselves, and have the tendency to want what other people have. This causes violence that Dr. Zunjic, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rhode Island, refers to as the state of war. Hobbes has little belief in human kind as individuals, and although it is not ideal to have a monarch, there has to be one. This caused controversy among those who were pro-monarch and anti-monarch. Hobbes is so pessimistic that he goes against monarchy with his ideas, but asserts that he is, indeed, pro-monarch; however, it only seems that he favors the monarch because there has to be some amount of order among humans. Having a strong monarch is the lesser of the evils. On the opposite spectrum of Hobbes, is John Locke. Author of the Second Treatise of Government published in 1690, his ideals battled those of Hobbes.

He followed more of a religious take, with the idea that as humanity, we begin with a blank slate and make what we want of our lives. He goes against the thought of an authority, but mostly in the sense that he believes we are all good, so we do not need a ruler, since the ruler will cause us to hurt each other; "sharing in all one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination amongus, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses" (Locke. Sect 6). He points to the notion that humans have common sense; that we know things and can do things for ourselves.

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It is society and all of humanity put together that causes dysfunction. Locke likely does not believe that there should be no order among us, but we are better left along. He says, "And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do" (Sect 7). He is incredibly optimistic in the sense that he truly believes we are, and should remain to be, entirely equal among each other. If someone threatens that equality, that is when we may punish him or her. John Milton, another outspoken author of his time, likely falls somewhere in between Locke and Hobbes. In some ways, they are poor examples to compare him to; however, with their extreme ideas, we can relate some of Milton's thoughts to them and decide whether or not Locke and Hobbes would agree with them. For some background, Milton's Areopagitica, as he states, is a "speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the parliament of England" (Milton 1).

He takes a bit of a more religious approach in his argument of peoples' freedom. He asserts that books are alive, just as we are, and are productive. He says, "who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye" (3). These are a strong couple of lines. Here, Milton intertwines Church and State, which is likely part of the reason this work was banned. If State restricts written work in any way, it goes against the Church, because it goes against God. This is incredibly controversial, but most people would probably agree it is true.

Milton asserts that we are all bodies of God and our thoughts and ideas are part of His creation. Milton's notion that our writing is a part of God likely goes against Hobbes' idea that humans, by nature, are bad and will not ever change. Hobbes would likely disagree with Milton's objection to restricted press. This is because Milton notes that books, whether written of good or evil, are all important. He says, "best books to a naughty mind are not inapplicable to occasions of evil [...] the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate" (8). Books throw out ideas to the public, and they are all important in some way. They allow for progression and learning. Hobbes would probably assume that these "bad books" Milton talks about only have a poor intention, and do not provide lessons, rather, they are just asserting his notion that humans are terrible and need to be restricted. In the same way, Milton and Locke would agree more on this idea. Locke, too, believes in progression and freedom of speech; therefore, he would probably back Milton up here.

In contrast, Milton seems to agree with Hobbes on the pessimist idea that humans have evil intentions. While Milton believes that the publishing of bad books does not make much of a difference, he does say that "evil manners are as perfectly learnt without books a thousand other ways which cannot be stopped, and evil doctrine not with books can propagate, except a teacher guide, which he might also do without writing, and so beyond prohibiting, I am not able to unfold, how this cautelous enterprise of licensing can be exempted from the number of vain and impossible attempts" (10-11). In a way, it sounds as if Milton is saying that even if restriction is put on publishing, it will not work. He proves himself right through Areopagitica in a sense, because it was banned, but now is his most famous work. Milton touches on the reality of evil among humanity here, which is something Hobbes would proudly back him on. Locke, however, would probably disagree; or he may say that society and restriction is what makes us more inclined to break the rules or push the limits.

In the sense of religion, Milton leans more towards the ideals of Locke; he does not seem to believe that we are born in evil, yet he does recognize the evil among us (which may or may not be caused by society). He points to the notion that restrictions do not matter, and only cause us to want to break those restrictions. Hobbes believes more in the idea that people are born in sin, while Locke believes humans are born with a blank slate and make what they will of it. It is unclear how Milton believes people are born, but he seems to go against the thought of Hobbes that people are born in sin. This is evident through his statement above that peoples' thoughts are all products of God, just as their bodies are. Hobbes could easily defend his ideas by bringing about the topic of the devil and evil in the world, but that could be another argument entirely. In the grand scheme of things, Hobbes believes in press restriction; Locke does not. Milton falls in between Hobbes and Locke because he thinks that we will not progress without throwing ideas out. The restriction of these ideas will cause chaos, and even if we did restrict peoples' writing, they would just try to go against it anyways. He is more like Locke in a religious perspective, because he does not seem to believe that humans are incapable of living for themselves and we are all important. On the contrary, Milton is more like Hobbes in a scientific/natural perspective, because there is evil among us, and some of us are likely to go against rule and order no matter what.

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