The Development of the Concept of Liberty in British Philosophy From 1640 to 1863: Hobbes, Locke and Mill

Dissertation, Marquette University (1990)

This is an historical study of the development of the concept of political liberty in British thought from 1640 to 1863. It covers the concepts of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. In each case the thinker's concept of liberty is examined against the background of his general political philosophy. The argument of this dissertation is that the concept of political liberty developed from a very negative concept in Hobbes to a highly positive, fruitful concept in Mill with Locke's theory providing a midway point between the two. ;Hobbes defines liberty as the mere "absence of external impediments." People are free when no external obstacle hinders them from doing what they desire to do. Laws are artificial chains reducing an individual's liberty. Hobbes had no regard for the individual liberty of citizens. The sovereign's power ought to be unlimited, enabling him to do anything he believes necessary to secure peace and security for the Commonwealth. However people would still choose to live under this kind of authority because it is the only way out of the state of nature which Hobbes called "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." ;Locke regarded liberty as a fundamentally important commodity which human beings have a natural right to possess. He defined liberty as the state of being free from the arbitrary will of any other human being, yet subject to the legitimately established law in all areas of conduct prescribed by it. Laws do not simply restrict liberty; rather they create it. Because liberty is a natural right, no human can take it away except by consent. Furthermore, government's authority is limited with the final authority resting in the hand of its citizens. ;Liberty is also of fundamental importance for Mill since it is a necessary condition for the development and well-being of citizens. Liberty is the soil in which human happiness can flourish. Government's primary purpose is to encourage the improvement of its citizens, a task which cannot occur without granting them liberty. Therefore, government ought to interfere with individual's actions only when those actions would adversely affect others.
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