Protestantism and Classical Liberalism

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Liberalism occupies an important place in the evolution of Western civilization for at least two reasons. First, as a political philosophy, it has played an essential role in the formation of modern democratic states. Second, as a moral principle, it has served as the spiritual foundation of capitalistic economic development.

Liberalism, or classical liberalism to distinguish it from modern liberalism, owes its formulation to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). While they were not theologians like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Jean Calvin (1509-1564), the ideas expounded by Hobbes and Locke cannot be dissociated from the development of Protestant thought in the post-Reformation Europe. Examined for its moral and spiritual implications, liberalism can indeed be regarded as a natural outgrowth of that individualistic outlook on life that the Protestant Reformation embraced and encouraged. As such, the value system liberalism promotes overlaps with the Protestant value system, which has played an important role in the modernization of the Western world.

Hobbes is known as the author of Leviathan, the work often compared to The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), another influential political treatise that came out of medieval Europe. Hobbes was quite anti-religious, especially against the Church. In fact, Hobbes went as far as describing the Church as the “Kingdom of Darkness, ” for he saw religion to be a major cause of conflict among people as well as a source of abuse of people. While Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin turned their attention to reformulating the Christian doctrine in opposition to the orthodoxy promulgated by the Church, Hobbes turned his attention to developing a political doctrine in conformity with the spirit of these Protestant reformers.

Hobbes did not see differences among men to be significant. As Hobbes saw it, men are more equal than unequal in faculties of the mind and the body. However, in the pursuit of ends, quarrels among men emerge, prompting him to utter these words which are often quoted as most representative of his thought: “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”1 If the state of war in which every man is against every man is the natural condition of mankind in which there is “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,”2 Hobbes had to develop a political system that would create a common power to keep all men in awe.

The right of nature is the right of each man to do whatever is necessary to insure self-preservation. This, then, gives rise to what Hobbes called the “fundamental law of nature”: “It is a precept, or general rule of reason, that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule, containeth the first, and fundamental law of nature; which is, to seek peace, and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is, by all means we can, to defend ourselves.”3 In Hobbes’ assertion of the right to self-preservation every man possesses in the state of nature, though he seeks peace, we can detect a certain degree of parallelism between his political thought and the spiritual thought developed by Protestant reformers.

Parallelism becomes much more transparent when we come to John Locke, who synthesized Hobbes’ ideas with the Protestant value system. Take, for example, Locke’s view of the state of nature which he expands Hobbes’ view to incorporate Protestant values: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one … no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possession … being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker.”4 A law of nature is needed since the state of nature, for Locke, is a state of war just as it was for Hobbes. However, the reference to “one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” clearly puts Locke in the position of a direct descendant of Protestant reformers.

Locke notes that everyone is bound “not to quit his station willfully.”5 The concept of “station” was an integral part of Protestant thought, exemplified by Luther’s idea of “calling,” the task set by God for man to accomplish, which was responsible for the development of intense belief in the divine will of God on the part of the individual Christian. Locke points out that “God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e., improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.”6 Thus, to Locke, it was God’s command for man to work hard in his station—the same theme developed by Protestant reformers.

We can also detect a germ for the idea of private property in these lines. Indeed, Locke goes on to stipulate that only the industrial and rational are entitled to the fruits of the earth: “God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrial and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious.”7

Classical liberalism, as developed by Hobbes and Locke, thus elaborates and expands on the Protestant conception of man and his calling in their political philosophy. While Hobbes and Locke, as philosophers, may not have been the ardent proponents of Protestantism faith like Luther and Calvin, it is clear that classical liberalism formulated by them was a product of the socio-cultural environment of the post-Reformation Europe.

  1. Hobbes, Leviathan, Britannica: Great Books of the Western World, 1952, p. 85.
  2. Hobbes, ibid., p. 85.
  3. Hobbes, ibid., pp. 86-87.
  4. Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1960, p. 311.
  5. Locke, ibid., p. 311.
  6. Locke, ibid., pp. 332-333.
  7. Locke, ibid., p. 333.