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Liberalism And Individualism

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) generally is identified as the most important direct antecedent of modern individualist philosophy. In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ascribed to all individuals natural liberty (as well as equality) on the basis of which they are licensed to undertake whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Hobbes believed that the exercise of such natural liberty logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear so long as no single sovereign ruler exists to maintain peace. The exchange of chaotic natural freedom for government-imposed order requires renunciation of all freedoms that humans possess by nature (except, of course, self-preservation) and voluntary submission to any dictate imposed by the sovereign. Yet, even under the terms of Hobbes's absolute sovereignty, individuals are deemed to remain at liberty to choose for themselves concerning any and all matters about which the ruler has not explicitly legislated.

Locke begins his mature political theory in the Second Treatise of Government (1689) with the postulation of the divinely granted liberty of all individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one's life and to lay claim to the goods one requires for survival. Arguing against the patriarchal doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653), Locke insists that no natural basis—neither paternity nor descent—justifies the submission of one person to another. Rather, each individual is the proprietor of his or her (divinely endowed) physical and mental talents, abilities, and energies. The individual thus constitutes the basic unit of social and political analysis for Locke, who is sometimes considered the proponent of the doctrine of "possessive individualism" par excellence.

In contrast to Hobbes, Locke maintains that the natural condition of individual proprietorship can be maintained tranquilly because human beings are deemed sufficiently rational that they can and do generally constrain their free action under the terms of the laws of nature. Hence, should people choose to enter into formal bonds of civil society and authorize a government in order to avoid the "inconveniences" and inefficiency of the precivil world, the only rule worthy of consent is that which strictly upholds and protects the liberty they naturally possess. According to Locke, any government that systematically denies to its subjects the exercise of their God-given liberty (as Hobbes's sovereign would do) is tyrannical and cannot expect obedience.

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