[Partly revised Sept. 2011 and Sept. 2012]



The 17th century was a time of change and often a tune of conflict.  Wars between countries were bad enough, but even worse sometimes were the civil wars within countries, civil wars made worse by religious division (e.g., the Thirty Years' War, the French Wars of Religion, and the English Civil War).  How do you stop such conflicts?  How do you create a stable, peaceful society?  17th century thinkers spent quite a bit of time considering these questions, and they came up with some excellent suggestions.  Especially important in this regard, the three thinkers I especially want to emphasize next: Bossuet, Hobbes, and Locke.  Bossuet and Hobbes advance convincing arguments for strong, almost unlimited government as the answer to society's problems.  Locke, on the other hand, offers an even more convincing argument for more limited government.


Jacques Bossuet (1627-1704) was a French bishop during time of Louis XIV.  He was a tremendously popular preacher and one of most prolific theological writers of his time.  Louis XIV chose him to be tutor of the dauphin, the heir to the French throne, and later to the dauphin's son, the heir to the heir.  Naturally enough, with such responsibility, Bossuet devoted considerable effort to figuring out how government might ideally operate.  Also, naturally enough for a Bishop, he derived his ideas primarily from the scripture.  We have his ideas in a book with the title, "The Principles of Politics derived from the scripture."

What form of government do scriptures teach?  Bossuet maintains that they advocate monarchy.  God himself a king.  When Jesus returns, he will reign as king.  We are taught to pray, "Thy kingdom come..." All this is evidence that monarchy is the ideal form of government.  Bossuet uses examples like David and Solomon to show that this is the form of govt. that God intends.  Further, says Bossuet, we can see this is the government God intends for us by the fact that monarchy is the most common, most ancient, and most natural form of government (all the countries of Europe, are ruled by kings; throughout the world, their are kings; back in history: usually we see kings, and, whenever there is another form of government for a while, it quickly degenerates into anarchy, and when the dust has cleared what do you get? Kings.

Monarchy, then, is the form of government God intends for us.  But what kind of monarchy?  Limited?  No--absolute, hereditary monarchy, with succession determined by male primogeniture.

Not only is this the form of government God intends for us, it's the type of government that, if we think about it, we see we ought to desire. Why?  It is the most advantageous of all governmental forms.  A  King will be like a father to his people.  And, since he will want to pass on a strong, stable country to his son, he will do what's best in the long term, not things that are simply immediately popular.

But what if the king is a tyrant?  Shouldn't his subjects rebel?  No.  Bossuet argues that subjects owe complete obedience to their sovereign regardless.  Why?  For one thing, to rebel disrupts the unity of the state and leads to civil war: by far the most undesirable state of affairs.  Look at David's actions toward Saul, and the fact that the Jews are told to be obedient to Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar.  What does a subject do when a ruler is harsh, cruel, or misguided?  "Respectful remonstrances, without defiance or murmuring, and with prayers for their conversion."

Does this mean the king can do anything he wants?  No.  Bossuet goes to great lengths to show that a king has great responsibilities to his people, foremost of which are to ensure justice and peace--and the true religion.  But it is God who places this responsibility on the king, and to God alone that he is answerable.

But what about freedom?  Isn't that important?  Very important, says Bossuet.  But when are you free?  When crime is everywhere?  When there is fighting in the streets and disorder?  Hardly.  Only an unquestioned king can give us the peace and justice necessary for true freedom.

But at least the king should leave us free to practice our own religion shouldn't he?  No, says Bossuet.  Religion is the foundatation of justice and government.  Even in pagan societies, religion serves an essential government function.  The true religion provides and even firmer foundation for good government, and therefore a king must make every effort to ensure conformity to this religion.

Not convincing?  Well, were Frenchmen better off in the 16th and 17th century when they accepted the authority of their king, or when they rebelled against him?  Were they better off as 100% Catholic country or as a nation constantly threatened by religious civil war?  The answer looked mighty clear to Bossuet--and to many of his contemporaries.

And yet, there is a  real weakness with Bossuet's argument.  He derives his proof from scripture.  And what do the scriptures teach about monarchy?  That it is the best form of govt.?  No--when the people of Israel wanted a king, Samuel warned them against it: and the history of Israel shows more the dangers of monarchy than its advantages.  And so if you want to convince people to accept strong govt., scripture alone may not be enough.  This leads us to another great thinker of 17th century, Thomas Hobbes.


 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an  English writer and philosopher.  He left England during the English Civil War (1642-1649) and ended up for a time tutoring the future Charles II.  At same time, he wrote a fascinating political treatise, Leviathan.  Like Bossuet, Hobbes saw strong government as key to avoiding civil war and disorder, but while he often uses Bible stories to illustrate his points, his main argument is based, not on scriptural teaching, but on nature.  Hobbes, unlike Bossuet, sees government as man-made, not divine, in origin.  Because we make our government, we can choose whatever govt. we want.  But what should we choose?  The best way to make a decision is to look at way government is formed in first place.

Mankind was originally born into what Hobbes calls the state of nature: the state we are in before there are any laws, any policeman, any government of any sort.  In the state of nature, we are perfectly free.  We can do anything we want.  Great?   No,  it's not great.  Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  Notice what happens in the state of nature.  Suppose I make for myself something nice (a nice fur-lined jacket perhaps) or have something nice (smoked venison, or a lovely wife).  How long do I keep these things in the state of nature?  Not very long. I'm a tired old man, and there's not much way I can protect my possessions from younger, stronger individuals.  But is life good for big, strong guys in the state of nature?  No! A bunch of little guys can get together and take from them anything they happen to value.  The weakest of us can make things mighty tough on even the strongest, and the stupidest of us can make things mighty unpleasant for bright.  Furthermore, we will.  Hobbes argues that, though we want justice, equity, modesty, mercy and the rest, our passions will make us violate all these things unless there is a strong power to keep us from doing so. Life not good for anyone in the state of nature.  So we do something smart. We use our freedom to make an agreement with one another, what Hobbes calls a covenant.  By this convenant we surrender our freedom to Leviathan, the state, so that our lives won't be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Since government is man-made, we can make any kind of government we like.  But what should we choose?  Democracy?  Aristocracy?  Monarchy?  Monarchy is by far the best choice, says Hobbes.  Why?  People, including rulers, are selfish.  So what one wants is form of government where a ruler's private interest is closest to public interest, a system of government that uses human selfishness to advantage.  The only government that takes advantage of human selfishness well is monarchy. Would a selfish king make his country poor and weak and disordered?  Not a chance.

And whatever government we choose, we have no right to challenge its authority.  Why?  Because the government is a commonwealth, e.g. it is the common wealth--to the advantage of all to be maintained.

Particularly interesting is Hobbes attitude to religion.  He argues that religion is essential to the security of the commonwealth, and that therefore the sovereign has the right to determine what that religion will be.  Catholicism, Lutheranism--whatever he wants.  But even if he chooses Catholicism, it is a Catholicism where the Pope's authority is conditioned on the sovereign's say so.  We have no right at all to challenge the state religion. 

Now you can believe whatever you want--but when it comes to public worship, you must conform.  Hobbes argues that Christ's kingdom is not of this world.  Therefore, outward forms make no difference to God--but they do make a difference to the security of the commonwealth.

Not convincing?  Well, consider England in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Are the English better off when they submit to their kings, or when they start civil wars?  Are they better off when they fight each other over religion, or (as they did in the time of Elizabeth) pretty much accept the queen's dictates?  The answer looked pretty clear to Hobbes and to many of his contemporaries.

There were, then, convincing arguments for strong, almost unlimited government in the 17th century, arguments that, especially in the case of Hobbes, might easily be defended even today.  And yet another 17th century thinker, John Locke, came up with what seems to me an even more convincing argument for limited government.


John Locke (1632-1704) was an important English philosopher, psychologist, and theologian. Almost by accident, he became one of the most important political thinkers ever to live.  Locke was a supporter of William and Mary, the king and queen who replaced James II.  Thinkers like Bossuet and Hobbes would have rejected such a change as a completely unwarranted usurpation of a sovereign's authority.  In his two treatises on Government, Locke attempts to show why the change was perfectly legitimate--and, incidently, comes up with an exceedingly important theory of government.

Locke, like Hobbes, argues that, in order to understand government, we ought to look first at the way governments are formed in the first place.  Also like Hobbes, he says we should begin by looking first at life in the "State of Nature."  But Locke's analysis of the state of nature is much different than that of Hobbes.

Locke argues that in the state of nature we have a number of rights, rights given us by God.  Because they are given by God, they are inalienable, rights that cannot be taken away under any circumstances.  What are these rights?

1.  Life
2.  Liberty (We can do anything we want, but with one condition: we may not interfere with another's liberty.)
3.  Equality (Not in strength or intellect--but equal in one important respect: no one is the boss of anyone else)
4.  Property (The value of any object consists mostly of the labor that goes into it.  The person who labors to create that object should control it as it represents his labor.)
5.  Contracts (e.g. marriage)
6.  Reparation and restraint (The right to stop those who would take away our natural rights and to get back anything they have taken away)

[Note: political scientists would generally talk of just the first four as natural rights.]

If we have all these wonderful natural rights, why would we ever leave the state of nature?  Well, which right would we end up excercising most?  Reparation and restraint! We would be constantly in what both Locke and Hobbes call a "state of  war."  Now that's not so good. And, not being stupid, we use our right to make contracts with one another  to form a government.  What is this contract?  Here is where Locke differs greatly from Hobbes.  While Hobbes insisted we give up all our rights to the government so that the government will protect us, Locke says we give up only the right to exercise reparation and restraint on our own behalf. Reparation and restraint becomes the responsibility of government, and government will now use the right to reparation and restraint to protect our other natural rights.

The purpose of government, then, is to protect our natural rights--and if government doesn't, and especially if government itself interferes with our natural rights, one has right to change government.  Obviously,  Locke's ideas society allows considerably more freedom than that of Hobbes--freedom even to change the government if necessary.

But, if we are to change our government, what should we look for?  Obviously, a government that better protects our natural rights.  And what kind of government does this?  Locke argues that there should be two separate branches of government, a legislative branch and an executive branch.  Combining law-making and law-enforcing leads to abuse.  So another reason to challenge government is when the executive branch usurps legislative power.

Further, in a properly constituted society, each person will be free to choose their own religion.  There's a radical idea!  Few people before Locke thought religious freedom would work.  Almost everyone else believed that a society should choose the right religion and stick to that or (like Hobbes) choose one religion, the religion of the sovereign, and stick to that.  How could Locke possibly advocate toleration?

Easy enough.  Locke believed Christianity was unquestionably true.  He wrote a fine book, "The Reasonableness of Christianity," in which he offers an exceedingly impressive case for the truth of Christian faith.  Because he was so convinced Christianity was true, he believed that all Christianity needed was a fair opportunity in the marketplace of ideas.  Just as consumers free to choose would pick good apples over rotten apples, they would, if free to choose, pick the true religion over anything else.  And that goes as far as the issues that divide Christians are concerned too.  If all are free to express their ideas, the truth will stand out, and inevitably triumph.  The only thing that might stop the triumph of truth is its forceful suppression.  Here, too, then is a limitation on govt.: it should not force anyone to follow any particular religious belief.

[The great Puritan poet, John Milton, made a similar case for religious toleration in his Areopagitica forty years or before Locke. It's well worth reading.]

All of this was attractive to many Englishmen in 1689.  It justified the change of government made by William and Mary.  James the II seemed a threat to usurp legislative powers, to be a threat to the natural rights of his subjects, and to be a threat to free exercise of religion.  And since people form government, it was in their power to alter it and to institute new government.

And Locke's ideas, once put into practice, worked well for England.  For more than 300 years, the English system featuring a limited government that respected the natural rights of its citizens worked well.  And Locke's idea worked out even better when, in somewhat purer form, they were put into practice in another nation. Nearly 100 years later, Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, began with these words, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, and that that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Notice that Jefferson calls these "self-evident," i.e., obvious truths.  They perhaps would not have seemed so obvious if John Locke had not done such an excellent job making the case for limited governments.