Second Treatise of Government by John Locke

Second Treatise of Government,” by John Locke is a revolutionary philosophical work that directly opposed the idea of absolutism.

Absolutism held that the best form of government was autocratic, and was based on both the belief in the Divine Right of Kings and the theory of natural law, as espoused by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. In the context of the absolutism of Louis XIV, and the political events surrounding Oliver Cromwell, Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” was clearly a revolutionary work on the structure and purpose of political authority.

One of the greatest debates of the 16th and 17th centuries was over the nature of political authority. The belief in divine right of kings that had once held sway over the Western world was quickly dissolving. In its place was a rapidly emerging idea of individualism that took form with the Renaissance and the French Revolution, and took root in the ideas of the great Western philosophers like John Locke.

In Chapters 2 through 8 of his “Second Treatise of Government,” the great philosopher John Locke delved deeply into the nature of political authority, and the conditions under which the members of a civil society could be justified in ending a political society and forming a new one.

One of the core principles in democratic thought is the belief that all men are created free and equal. Locke noted, “there being nothing more evident, than that the creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection” (Chapter 2, Sect.4).

Locke was a liberal political philosopher, and believed that individual freedom and consent formed the basis of modern civil law. Locke felt that men were created by nature, free, “equal and independent” (Chapter 2, Sect. 6). Each man had his own idea of the common good, and held his own natural rights. Locke felt that in the state of nature, natural law compelled individuals to defend their life, freedom and property, and punish and judge those who violated their natural rights. Locke notes, “every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature” (Chapter 2, Sect. 8).

Locke argued that if left alone, such a state of nature would ultimately result in anarchy. As such, he advocated the foundation of a political society. In his view, the collective will would create and uphold civil laws. Individuals would exchange their natural rights for those civil rights. Locke felt that a social contract, or agreement between individuals of free will, would result in the preservation of the basic freedoms and rights.

Locke argued that mutual individual consent must lie at the basis of such a union. He felt that this was the “only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it” (Chapter 8, Sect. 95).

Locke noted that consent made an individual a member of a commonwealth, whether that consent was explicit or implicit.

Locke felt that no person had the right to govern another without his consent, and that consent was the only legitimate basis of legal obligation. As such, Locke argued that governors are simply trustees of the common good. In other words, political authority was derived from the consent of those who are governed.

Locke felt that the creation of a political society would help men to avoid this state of war by creating an authority or power that could hear disputes. Locke felt that in the state of war the attacked had the right and duty to defend their freedom, and in doing so they had the right to enslave their attackers. However, Locke argued that the state of war could be avoided by the creation of society. Notes Locke, “To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature” (Chapter 3, Sect. 21).

The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of great debate and controversy. Political thinkers who espoused the natural law theories felt that there were immutable natural laws that should govern political life, and the relationship of political leaders and subjects. The contradictory view, the Divine Right of Kings, argued that Kings ruled because God specifically chose them. Both theories resulted in the development of absolutism, which stated that the best form of government was autocratic, where a single ruler had absolute power.

Locke’s argument has a strong relationship with the differing political practices of early modern Europe. At the time Locke wrote his “Second Treatise of Government,” political authority was linked closely to the ideas of absolutism.

During Locke’s time, the conflict between the English parliamentary tradition and the absolutist ideology often led to conflict. James Stuart and Charles I neglected parliament, resulting in a major civil war around 1612. Oliver Cromwell and the army emerged victorious, and England plunged into a lengthy period of dictatorship until Charles II took the throne in 1660.

Given this history, Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” can easily be understood as a politically charged and controversial work. The ideas of liberal philosophers like Locke posed a great challenge to the absolutism that was present at the time of King Louis XIV. Louis XIV represented the extreme of absolutism, and claimed the Divine Right of Kings, and dissolved France’s only general assembly.

Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary of Locke, would likely have seen Locke’s arguments as seriously flawed. The difference between Locke and Hobbes philosophies has its root in the two philosopher’s opposing views of the basic nature of man. Locke felt that human morality came from the basic will of God for his creatures. This natural law was an understandable and rational morality that formed the basis of the human state of nature. In Locke’s view humans were autonomous, possessed free will, and were not subordinate to other men.

In contrast, in chapters XIII – XXI of Leviathan, Hobbes saw the natural state of man in a much less positive light. Hobbes felt that the natural state of man would inevitably lead to war. As such, the inevitable life of man, left to his own devices, would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Chapter XIII). Hobbes’ understanding of the state of nature was based much more closely on philosophical and Christian norms, which saw man as an unredeemed animal who could only be “saved” by religion or by the imposition of civilization.

Locke believe that man’s state of nature was generally selfish, and argued that the basis of human nature is self-interest, and the pursuit of gratification. He states, “So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.” (Chapter XIII).

Hobbes argued that the most effective way for people to obtain their desires was to form a social contract. In this social contract, humans gave up their immediate and selfish personal desires and subjugated them to the power of an authority. Hobbes states, “A COMMONWEALTH is said to be instituted when a multitude of men do agree, and covenant, every one with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part the right to present the person of them all, that is to say, to be their representative; every one, as well he that voted for it as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgements of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own, to the end to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men” (Chapter XVII).

Thomas Hobbes espoused the absolutist theory, and would have soundly disagreed with Locke’s view of political authority. Hobbes felt that a single ruler could check the selfish impulses of humans through brute force. In Hobbes view, absolute power was necessary to hold society together.

In contrast to Hobbes view that absolutism was the best form of government, Locke felt that the members of a civil society could be justified in ending a political society and forming a new one under certain conditions.

Locke argues that rulers can rightfully be toppled if they break their trust with the governed. Given that the people grant sovereignty to rulers as a trust to protect the common good, if a ruler breaks that trust, then the people have the right to remove the ruler. Hobbes would have disagreed; arguing that overthrowing a monarch would amount to going against the will of God himself.

In conclusion, John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” represented a revolution in ideas on the structure and purpose of political authority. Locke’s work directly contradicted the ideas of absolutism that were held dear by both believers in the Divine Right of Kings and the theory of natural law. As such, even the more liberal philosophers of the time, like the absolutist Thomas Hobbes contradicted Locke’s arguments in works like Leviathan. The work of John Locke ultimately influenced the writing of the American Declaration of Independence, and helped to form the framework for the ideology that underpins the modern Western democratic tradition.

Works Cited

Hobbes, T. The Leviathan. Chapters XIII – XXI. Reproduced at: The History of Western Philosophy from 1492 to 1776, William Uzgalis, Oregon State University. 15 October 2002.

Locke, J. The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Chapters 2-8. Reproduced at: The History of Western Philosophy from 1492 to 1776, William Uzgalis, Oregon State University. 15 October 2002.

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