Locke, Hobbes and the Importance of the Family Structure to Society


Philosophers need to be concerned with the family structure because it is a representative microcosm of the larger issues of society and the associated hierarchies. The assumption of the male as the dominant figure in the predominance of patriarchal societies presupposes a natural state of affairs, yet the evolutionary imperative toward patriarchy appears to be based more on might than right. How differently might the world look if women had access to weapons and men did not? Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke come to reject the theoretical construct of a divine plan in which the order in society is understood to be a natural plan of a divine being. Both men eventually come to understand that social order is an artificial construct and that civilization over time has formed an artificial connection between the development of the family order and the larger social order.

In Leviathan Hobbes delineates the divergent aspects between what is natural and what is artificial through the introduction of the Leviathan itself. That entity is a symbolic representation of the sovereign and is clearly a work of artifice devoid of any organic component. The Leviathan is an artifice that constructs the order that is to be found within society and the purpose is to create stability within that society. In the Second Treatise John Locke draws a similar distinction by suggesting that though everyone is born equal, responsibilities and duties conspire to create the various hierarchies social classes. The supreme power at the top is analogous to the father and social strata resonates with the duties and responsibilities applied to spouses, children and relatives. When one compares the more comprehensive social divisions with the narrower familial divisions it becomes apparent why both men take this approach; the superstructure of the patriarchy continues to apply even when the head of the household is not the father.

Both Hobbes and Locke equate the state of nature as a dualistic concept that applies to both the family and to society. Even though Hobbes and Locke differ somewhat on the potential for maternal power to be applied to the larger aspects of political power, with Hobbes almost avoiding the issue altogether and Locke only grudgingly admitting to the existence of parental power even in the absence of a patriarchal dominance, both philosophers agree on the internal logic of the covenant of the family and society. An unspoken covenant exists within the family structure to work together for common or shared goals. Clearly the opportunity for rebellion exists and in many cases is nothing to hold any single family member within the unit should they decide to secede. Why most don’t has to do with the interconnected dependence and independence that makes the family unit the centerpiece of society regardless of the evolutionary steps forward. Members of a family depend on other individuals within it for certain basic needs while exchanging their own ability to fulfill needs that are met by others. This is equally true of society in which the people depend upon the sovereign to provide for certain needs are met by the necessity of people at all levels to provide for the state.

Political society for both Hobbes and Locke represented a transformative approach that sought to deny divine intervention into the affairs of men and instead shift the onus of creating a state deemed natural to a contractual one that is entered into, under the best circumstances, with full acceptance of what probably should not be termed inalienable rights to liberty, but nonetheless should be considered a state of nature in which liberty is a right of birth. Locke directly addresses the issue of moving from the family state into the social state as an example of graduating to the communal nature of society. The communal state into the body politic to which one graduates is essentially a social contract not unlike that written about by Rousseau. Hobbes is more oblique in his examination of the nature of the contract through his suggestion, mirrored somewhat by the Locke’s separation between paternal and political power, of the divergence in nature between the paternal and despotical power. The oblique acquiescence to a social compact even allows Hobbes to suggest that a despotical sovereign is accepted only through the contract because, at the very least, inaction is a form of action that accepts the status quo.

What Hobbes asks in Leviathan is whether there can exist a contract when the authority has been acquired, especially by force. In a larger social sense, when this occurs it contains the either explicit or implicit patina of dominance and submission; master and slave. The nature of family is one in which dominance and submission of an explicit nature exists only in rare cases and is usually termed deviant when it does exist. The question really becomes not whether a social contract can exist when authority has been acquired, even by force, but whether a social contract should not exist under those terms. The state of family is by definition one in which children are acquired by an act of force; most children do not choose their parents and are denied the right of secession until they come of age. The parental power that Locke writes about, as opposed to paternal power which assumes a patriarchal dominance, is in most cases a complex system that is more aptly and appropriately compared to a society in which authority and power are acquired. Children do not get to vote for their parents, after all. Even when the paternal power is applied to the family setting within a historical context, many women throughout history did possess that birthright of liberty that extended to being able to choose their husband. While Hobbes is far more reticent about the application of power to the maternal role, and even Locke denies the opportunity to place paternal and maternal power on equal footing, that place where both men share the same view that a social contract remains in place even when power is acquired possesses even greater resonance when the comparison is made between the state of nature in family and society from the perspective of despotic power.

The state of nature in both the family and society also extends to the nature of ethics and morality. It is up to the heads of the family to shape the ethical and moral beliefs of the children and other members of the family. Without an agreement on a standard of such concepts of good and evil there would be no acceptable standard throughout the family unit. Both Hobbes and Locke agree upon the notion that individuals are capable of seeking personal satisfaction without the introduction of a sovereign overseer; a seeking that has the likelihood of keeping the natural state of things a state that is equitable to war or conflict. Therefore, the vitality of reflecting society at large as a patriarchal state a necessity to maintain at least temporary semblances of peace in exactly the same way that parental control maintains the peace in the family unit.