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John Locke: Political Philosophy
John Locke (1632-1704) presents an intriguing figure in
the history of political philosophy whose brilliance of exposition and breadth of scholarly
activity remains profoundly influential.
Locke proposed a radical conception of political philosophy deduced from the principle of
self-ownership and the corollary right to own property, which in turn is based on his famous
claim that a man earns ownership over a resource when he mixes his labour with it.
Government, he argued, should be limited to securing the life and property of its citizens, and
is only necessary because in an ideal, anarchic state of nature, various problems arise that
would make life more insecure than under the protection of a minimal state. Locke is also
renown for his writings on toleration in which he espoused the right to freedom of conscience
and religion (except when religion was deemed intolerant!), and for his cogent criticism of
hereditary monarchy and patriarchalism. After his death, his mature political philosophy leant
support to the British Whig party and its principles, to the Age of Enlightenment, and to the
development of the separation of the State and Church in the American Constitution as well as
to the rise of human rights theories in the Twentieth Century.
3. Locke’s Political Writings
Locke was initially reluctant to compose political tracts, which he considered, very much like
Thomas Hobbes does in his Behemoth, as producing more conflict than men’s swords.
Nonetheless, at Christ Church, Oxford, he penned two key essays on the extent of toleration,
the most disruptive and contentious issue of the time – the Two Tracts on Government and his
lectures on the Law of Nature, the latter written as Censor of Moral Philosophy at Christ
5. Two Treatises
There is a scholarly debate on when the Two Treatises were written. They were first published
in 1689, but when they were penned is of critical importance; originally the Two Treatises
were deemed an apology – a defence – for the Glorious Revolution, but Peter Laslett claims
its origins back to 1679, while Richard Ashcroft disagrees and places it in 1680-82, allowing
Locke to make amendments to the manuscript to give the impression it acts as an apology for
rather than a prescription of revolt; for readers interested in knowing more, I refer them to
Laslett’s 1988 Cambridge Edition of the Two Treatises.
b. Second Treatise
Locke now sets out his own theory of political power in which he will look at the power of the
magistrate as distinct from the power a parent wields over children or employers over
employees (“a Master over his Servant”) or conjugal power (“a Husband over his Wife”). He
defines political power as the power of making laws and executing penalties, the preservation
of property, and of employing the force of the community in executing the laws and
defending the commonwealth from foreign attack. Power, he stresses, must only be used for
the public good.
Locke outlines his theoretical construction of the state of nature. Given God gave the earth to
all of mankind, Locke envisages the state of nature as a state of perfect equality in which each
person has the freedom to do as he sees fit without asking leave or depending on the will of
any other man. Reason teaches man not to harm his neighbour or his liberty or possessions,
but also that he is right to punish those who transgress against him. “The State of Nature has a
Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone”, and “there cannot be supposed any such
Subordination among us, that may Authorize us to destroy one another.” (§6). Indeed,
aggressors – those who violate the freedom of others – live life by another (implicatively
unnatural) standard, one that is irrational and thus dangerous. If a man is attacked by another,
he is fully justified in punishing the offender and being the “Executioner of the Law of
Nature” (§8) to kill murderers and seek reparation from thieves. It is better for a man to judge
his own case than to have “one Man commanding a multitude, has the Liberty to be Judge in
his own Case, and may do to al his Subjects whatever he pleases” (§13). So far has Locke
moved away from his conservative Oxford days of erring on the side of magistrates.
The state of nature is not just a theoretical conception, for wherever there is a lack of
government or arbitrating institutions between men or nations, the state of nature presides.
“For ’tis not every Compact that puts an end to the State of Nature between men.” (§14).
Whenever a man “declaring by Word or Action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate
settled Design upon another Mans life, [he puts] him a State of War.” That is, the breach of
peace is the declaration of war, and accordingly a man has the natural right to defend himself
against aggressors who renounce reason and who live like predators. Where there is no
common power, any use of force takes man back to the state of nature and this continues until
a common magistrate is set up; but where proper government is lacking, a man’s actions are
to be judged by his conscience alone. But the state of nature is distinguishable from the state
of war, a dissimilarity Locke criticises followers of Thomas Hobbes for not making. The state
of nature is governed by peace, goodwill, preservation, and mutual assistance, whereas the
state of war is a condition of enmity, malice, violence, and mutual destruction.
To avoid the costs (the “inconveniences”) associated with the state of nature – of being
without a common power to ensure the rule of law and order – men are disposed to join a
Locke presents his rejection of slavery: man’s liberty in society is to be under no other
legislative power but that established by consent and under no other will or power but what
the legislative enacts according to the trust put in it. Slavery is defined as being under
absolute, arbitrary, and despotic power, and, we may recall from Chapter I of the First
Treatise, it is the most miserable condition of man – yet it is not wholly unjustifiable in
Locke’s system; if a man aggresses against another, he loses all rights in the just war fought
against his aggression, and thus may he be rightly enslaved. (Incidentally, Locke deemed the
West Africans enslaved by the Royal Africa Company to have been taken prisoners in a just
war against them, thus defending, if somewhat naively, colonial slavery).
Locke rebuffs the argument that a man can enslave himself to another, because, ultimately, he
may take his own life and by so regaining his freedom thus deprives the slave master of his
power. This puts a terminal limit on a master’s power over his charges. Freedom, Locke notes
in passing, is not something to do as one pleases, as Sir Robert Filmer [and many since]
would describe it in order to reject it (that is, a straw man fallacy).
With regards to property, Locke recalls his earlier argument that the earth is initially given to
all in common, but most importantly for Lockean political theory he argues that “every man
has a Property in his own Person.” (§27). Therefore, when he moves away from the state of
nature, whatever he mixes his labour with becomes his property, with the proviso that “at least
where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.” (§27). Although God gave the
earth in common, He did not mean it to remain in common and uncultivated, for “He gave it
to the use of the Industrious and Rational.” (§34). The expansion of private property also
increases the net yield to the commonwealth (that is, causes economic growth – something
Adam Smith was to later develop). Private property also clarifies resource ownership and thus
removes areas of contention.
When a man mixes his labour with anything and by drawing it into his private ownership, he
makes it more valuable. The benefits of private ownership can be readily compared to those
nations in which few people reside upon commonly owned tracts. Ownership gives a man an
entitlement to do with his resources as he pleases, although in this chapter, Locke is ready to
remind his readers of the duty they bear to others, for those who waste their (non-durable)
resources “rob others” of the benefits they could have produced for the community; but apart
from that, a man may acquire wealth justly.
In discussing paternal power, Locke proclaims that children are under their parents’ rule until
maturity, but, in comparison with Filmer, who claimed that no men can be free because of the
subjection to their parents, Locke asserts that the development of a man’s reason frees him
from their protection. To turn children out of the home before their reason has developed
sufficiently is to throw them out amongst the beasts and into a wretched state. Once they are
mature enough, children have the ability and hence the right to choose what society they wish
to belong to; accordingly, Locke emphasises that parental power should not be confused with
God drives men into society, Locke notes, deploying the traditional Aristotelian thesis that
society stems from sexual desire, reproduction, and then employment (that is, man and
woman come together, they reproduce, and employ servants – and gain slaves captured in just
wars), a thesis that was repeated throughout the ages but more recently, in Locke’s time,
being advanced by, for example, by Hugo Grotius and Pufendorf. Incidentally, Locke notes
that a wife has a right to leave her husband (§82).
The society that develops from conjugal and kinship origins tends to posses commonly
established laws and a judicature, as well as an adjudicating authority. All men are equal
before the law, including those passing legislation. The created commonwealth then possesses
the power, a power delegated to it by the citizens, to punish transgressors and external
aggressors and to protect the property of its members. In removing themselves from the state
of nature, men hand over the power to punish to the executive; but where the process of
appeal is lacking, men remain – or at least their social relations remain – in the state of nature.
When their property is not safe, then people cannot think themselves as being in a civil
The move towards a civil, law-abiding society, also shows why absolute monarchy is
inconsistent with that society: “to think that Men are so foolish that they take care to avoid
what mischiefs may be done them by Pole-Cats, or Foxes, but are content, nay think it Safety,
to be devoured by Lions.” (The lion being the traditional symbol of kingship).
This chapter continues with the origins of political society. Community begins with consent,
Locke argues, and this consent can only be majority consent, as universal consent is
impossible to gain. Consent of the governed is the only justifiable form of government, but of
course critics are going to ask for evidence for consensual government. Locke replies that the
lack of evidence does not imply that early governments were not formed consensually, but
because people were initially equal in the state of nature, it can be deduced that they
consented to put rulers over and above them.
Indeed, Locke accepts that people historically converged onto monarchical forms of
government, for he agrees that it would make sense to put political power into the hands of
those they trusted or who were capable of ensuring the rule of peace; certainly such a
government would reflect the natural disposition to look up to a male patriarch, but Locke is
not bowing down to Filmer’s theoretical proposition that all government should be
monarchical. Any power given to the government was given to secure the public good and
safety and the defence of immature societies from external aggression, but once the legislators
or executors of the law sought to use power for their own interests then it becomes vital for
men to understand the origins of government and the limitations to its power, so that they may
find methods to prevent such abuses of power.
A people are free to remove themselves from their government – that is, they are free to
secede and to establish a new commonwealth if they see fit, for only an explicit promise or
contract can put man into a society and, just as children upon reaching maturity are free to
leave their parents, so too are men free to leave their society.
Locke raises the question as to why a man may give up his freedom that he enjoys in the state
of nature. He answers because that state is full of uncertainty and it is also exposed to
aggression. The state of nature lacks established, known and settled laws, a known and
indifferent judge, and the power to give a judge execution of the law. In the state of nature
man has two powers – to preserve himself according to the Law of Nature and the power to
punish criminals. In such a free state, all men are of one community making up a society
distinct from the animals. “And were it not for the corruption, and vitiousness of degenerate
Men, there would be no need of any other; no necessity that Men should separate from this
great and natural Community, and by positive agreements combine into smaller and divided
associations.” (§128) In other words, the few who seek to predate and to live by force, prompt
people to form polities.
In joining a society, man gives up his power to protect himself to the laws of his society; he
also gives up the power of punishing aggressors, and they do this “only with an intention in
every one the better to preserve himself his Liberty and Property.” (§131). It could not be
supposed that we would join a society to be made worse off.
What form a government takes depends on where the supreme (legislative) power is located.
Legislative power is supreme but it ought not to be absolute or arbitrary. What power it
should wield is limited to the powers that man possessed in the state of nature which should
also be limited to serving the public good. It “can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or
designedly impoverish the subjects.” (§135) Its laws must thus conform to the laws of nature
and any use of arbitrary or absolute power, or indeed, operating without settled law, creates a
situation worse than the state of nature. “For then Mankind will be in a far worse condition,
than in the State of Nature, if they shall have armed one or a few Men with the joynt power of
a Multitude. (§137).
The government cannot take a man’s property without his consent, and since governments
need to raise taxes to finance themselves, they can only do so with the consent of the
governed. “Hence it is a mistake to think, that the Supream or Legislative Power of any
Commonwealth, can do what it will, and dispose of the Estates of the Subject arbitrarily, or
take any part of them at pleasure.” (§137) The tendency of politicians is to think “themselves
to have a distinct interest, from the rest of the Community; and so will apt to increase their
own Riches and Power, by taking, what they think fit, from the People.” (§137) This last is a
powerful statement, both of Locke’s cynical conception of power and the legitimate
boundaries based on natural law that he envisages for governments.
There is no need for the legislative to stand all the time (and in the following chapter Locke
observes that if it meets frequently it can become dangerous or at least burdensome), but the
executive power ought to be permanently in office to ensure that the laws are enforced.
The people have the right to alter the legislative; similarly, if the executive stops the
legislative from sitting, it effectively declares war on the people (§155). Executive power is
held wholly on trust and representation in the legislative should be equal (§157).
The executive may use powers of prerogative to ensure the smooth process of legislation, but
it ought never to overstep its bounds. Locke observes that while good princes stay within their
limitations, “the reigns of good princes have always been most dangerous to the liberties of
their people” for developing a trust in their prerogative which is soon abused by the next
Since nature does not give one man power over another, as all men are equal, that power can
only be gained over those who wage unjust war upon the peaceful commonwealth. The
aggressor forfeits his rights, for he acts like the beasts that society is formed to protect people
from and therefore “renders himself liable to be destroied by the injur’d person and the rest of
mankind, that will joyn with him in the execution of Justice.” (§172)
Human history is certainly of war and conquest, however “many have mistaken the force of
Arms, for the consent of the People … But Conquest is as far from setting up any Government
as demolishing an House is from building a new one in the place … but, without the Consent
of the people, can never erect a new one.” (§176) Aggressors in an unjust war cannot have
rights over the conquered people; on the other hand, in fighting a just war, power can only be
justifiably held over those who fought and not the innocents who did not partake in the
fighting. Locke thus establishes strict just war code, strictly demarcating non-combatants from
combatants, and also the property of conquered combatants and their dependents.
“Conquerors, ’tis true, seldom trouble themselves to make the distinction, but they willingly
permit the confusion of War to sweep altogether; but yet this alters not the Right.” (§179).
In a note on usurpation, Locke apparently accepts the usurpation of power by another
personality; it only becomes problematic when the usurper adds to his power.
Accordingly, tyranny is the exercise of power beyond normal rights; no one can have a right
to that power and an unjust regime may thusly be opposed. “Tyranny is the exercise of Power
beyond Right, which no Body can have a Right to.” (§199) If the laws do not protect me, I
have a right to defend myself. “May the Commands then of a Prince be opposed?” Yes, when
the Prince deploys unjust force (§204).
A government is thus dissolved if it falls to a foreign power or if there is a civil war,
when the government acts illegally or refuses the legislative to sit, or acts contrary to
the trust put in it by the people. 6.
Analysis of Locke’s Two Treatises
In this section, the reader’s attention is drawn to several issues that the Two Treatises raises. It
is by no means exhaustive, indeed it is extremely fractional in comparison with the debates
and problems the Two Treatises have provoked. Lockean scholarship has attracted and
continues to generate hundreds of articles on the various aspects of his philosophy – property,
rights, rebellion, women, trust, social contract theory, anarchy, toleration, etc., and here I can
only touch on a few. References are to sections (§) within the Second Treatise unless noted.
a. State of Nature
Locke’s state of nature is often contrasted with that of Thomas Hobbes’s, with which he
would have had some familiarity either through reading Hobbes’s Leviathan or Pufendorf’s
critique of Hobbes. Hobbes’s vision of a world without government is one of a war of all
against in all, in which each will seek to aggress opportunistically against his neighbour –
violence and resulting fear are endemic to life in a world without political power. At §19,
Locke compares his own vision with Hobbes’s, arguing that Hobbes has not distinguished
between the state of nature and the state war. Nonetheless, Locke’s vision remains tainted
with the fea …
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