John Locke (1634–1704)

Two Treatises of Government

Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha had argued for the divine right of kings, and the refutation of this position, which had the weight of centuries of tradition behind it, was one of Locke’s major tasks. Locke describes government as a human invention organized chiefly to further and protect the right of personal property. Human beings have an obligation in accordance with natural, divine, and moral law to care for each other and support the whole human race. Locke’s explanation for the responsibility of community essentially boils down to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Despite various forms and complicated expansions, no philosopher or political thinker has provided a simpler, more obvious standard than Locke.

The first few chapters of the Second Treatise reveal some of Locke’s most basic beliefs about human nature. Certain problems necessarily arise in a state of nature, such as the fact that some people will always make war or come into conflict with each other, steal from each other, act aggressively toward each other, and so on. But Locke firmly believes that all people have the ability to use reason to find the correct moral path. He insists that we are rational enough to know what is, and is not, in our best interest. Belief in this universal ability is essential to his remedy for war—civil government. Locke believes that people voluntarily create societies and governments all over the world because government provides certain things that the state of nature cannot, like protection and stability. For Locke, maintaining personal liberty is the key to a proper government, which should work toward the individual’s and the commonwealth’s best interest at all times.

The Second Treatise expresses even more emphatically that the key to all of Locke’s political theories is property and the right to individual ownership of goods. Locke doesn’t directly discuss the importance of property until chapter ix, but once he does, property quickly becomes the center of his model for government. After all, Locke says, the primary reason that people join together to form societies is that they have property to protect. Those same people become willing to give up some of their natural rights to the governing of a central authority, since those with property need a higher central authority to protect it. We may note, however, that this explanation leaves those without property out in the cold. Although Locke’s ideas were revolutionary for his time, they have sometimes been criticized as lacking equal treatment for landowners and nonlandowners (i.e., the rich and the poor) alike.

Locke supports the right of the people to overthrow rulers who betray them. The executive and the legislature coexist independently to keep each other in check. Further, Locke asserts that if a leader violates the community’s trust, the people can and should replace him immediately. Similarly, if the legislative body does not fulfill the needs of the people, it should be dissolved and replaced with whatever form of government the people think best.