Two Treatises of Government


        The first treatise was aimed squarely at the work of another 17th-century political theorist, Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha (1680, though probably written in the 1630s) defended the theory of divine right of kings: the authority of every king is divinely sanctioned by his descent from Adam—according to the Bible, the first king and the father of humanity. Locke claims that Filmer’s doctrine defies “common sense.” His refutation was widely accepted as decisive, and in any event the theory of the divine right of kings ceased to be taken seriously in England after 1688. Locke’s importance as a political philosopher lies in the argument of the second treatise.

        Locke defined political power as a “right” of making laws and enforcing them for “the public good.” Power for Locke never simply means “capacity” but always “morally sanctioned capacity.” Morality pervades the whole arrangement of society, and it is this fact, tautologically, that makes society legitimate. Locke’s account of political society is based on a hypothetical consideration of the human condition before the beginning of communal life. In this “state of nature,” humans are entirely free. But this freedom is not a state of complete license, because it is set within the bounds of the law of nature. It is a state of equality, which is itself a central element of Locke’s account. Each person is naturally free and equal under the law of nature, subject only to the will of “the infinitely wise Maker.” Each person, moreover, is required to enforce as well as to obey this law. It is this duty that gives to humans the right to punish offenders. But in such a state of nature, it is obvious that placing the right to punish in each person’s hands may lead to injustice and violence. This can be remedied if humans enter into a contract with each other to recognize by common consent a civil government with the power to enforce the law of nature among the citizens of that state. Although any contract is legitimate as long as it does not infringe upon the law of nature, it often happens that a contract can be enforced only if there is some higher human authority to require compliance with it. It is a primary function of society to set up the framework in which legitimate contracts, freely entered into, may be enforced, a state of affairs much more difficult to guarantee in the state of nature and outside civil society.

        Before discussing the creation of political society in greater detail, Locke provides a lengthy account of his notion of property, which is of central importance to his political theory. Each person, according to Locke, has property in his own person—that is, each person literally owns his own body. Other people may not use a person’s body for any purpose without his permission. But one can acquire property beyond one’s own body through labour. By mixing one’s labour with objects in the world, one acquires a right to the fruits of that work.

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