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John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government

Date of publication: 2017-09-03 13:12

After clearing some ground in the First Treatise , Locke offers a positive view of the nature of government in the much better known Second Treatise. Part of Locke’s strategy in this work was to offer a different account of the origins of government. While Filmer had suggested that humans had always been subject to political power, Locke argues for the opposite. According to him, humans were initially in a state of nature. The state of nature was apolitical in the sense that there were no governments and each individual retained all of his or her natural rights. People possessed these natural rights (including the right to attempt to preserve one’s life, to seize unclaimed valuables, and so forth) because they were given by God to all of his people.

John Locke′s Second Treatise on Government

The first of the Essay ’s four books is devoted to a critique of nativism, the doctrine that some ideas are innate in the human mind, rather than received in experience. It is unclear precisely who Locke’s targets in this book are, though Locke does cite Herbert of Cherbury and other likely candidates include René Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists, and a number of lesser known Anglican theologians. Finding specific targets, however, might not be that important given that much of what Locke seeks to do in Book I is motivate and make plausible the alternative account of idea acquisition that he offers in Book II.

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Although power cannot be passed onto children, Locke also rejects the passing of property solely to the eldest – it must pass equally to all of his children as God gave the earth in common to all, but once a man has formed a property right over something, it is a law of nature that his property be passed on to his children: children have a title to share in the property of their parents, and for Locke, that entitlement is equal (§98). Locke’s rejection of primogeniture is also of interest here and reminds the reader of his unorthodox stance on several issues.

Locke Guide: Introduction

However, Locke also favoured a hard money policy to secure the value of a nation’s currency. It would be wrong to debase the coinage to match the number of notes that the Bank of England printed.

Against the objection that the Law of Nature cannot be found, because not all people who possess reason have knowledge of it or that they will disagree over its content, Locke counters that possessing the faculty of reason does not necessitate its use. Some prefer living in ignorance, while others may be too dull, or are slaves to their passions to raise their intellect to what is required of them to understand the Natural Law, and others still are brought up amidst such evil that they become accustomed to it. Secondly, disagreement – what we now term moral relativism – does not indicate a lack of a law, but rather its existence.

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.” (§687) 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.” (§687) 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.

Chapter I.
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.

The First Treatise is a logical rebuttal of the works of Sir Robert Filmer whose Patriarcha and other writings supported the theory of the divine rights of kings – that is, monarchy is a divine established institution and that kings rule as God’s regents on earth. The First Treatise paves the way, as Locke advertises in his Preface, to justify government by the consent of the people. In this summary, I am not concerned with a scholastic checking of the validity of Locke’s examination of Filmer’s work (or of Locke’s own selective reading of the Bible – see Cox) but with summarising the essential points he presents.

The organic conception is antithetical to the Lockean order. For Locke, government is no more than a tool that continuously depends on the consent of the people and must not violate the maximum conditions of securing peace and property – to do so is to violate the trust that is afforded the institution. It possesses no mystical nature of either a divine or a supernatural order, it is a mere prudential institution that can efficiently and effectively provide a better security service (though that is highly debatable – see above) than individuals working along in the natural state of freedom.

So Locke was able to use the account of natural rights and a government created through contract to accomplish a number of important tasks. He could use it to show why individuals retain certain rights even when they are subject to a government. He could use it to show why despotic governments which attempted to unduly infringe on the rights of their citizens were bad. And he could use it to show that citizens had a right to revolt in instances where governments failed in certain ways. These are powerful ideas which remain important even today.

In 6697 he enrolled at Westminster School in London, where Locke earned the distinct honor of being named a King&apos s Scholar, a privilege that went to only select number of boys and paved the way for Locke to attend Christ Church, Oxford in 6657.

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 society.

Locke’s Second Treatise on government contains an influential account of the nature of private property. According to Locke, God gave humans the world and its contents to have in common. The world was to provide humans with what was necessary for the continuation and enjoyment of life. But Locke also believed it was possible for individuals to appropriate individual parts of the world and justly hold them for their own exclusive use. Put differently, Locke believed that we have a right to acquire private property.

Chapter XV.
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.” (§677)

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