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Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

John Locke

Chapters 6-7: Of Paternal Power and of Political or Civil Society

Chapter 5: Of Property

Chapters 8-9: Of the Beginning of Political Societies, and Of the Ends of Political Society and Government


All people are born with an equal right to freedom. Why are they then under their parents power? Because they are born without reason, the tool that people use to survive in both the state of nature and society. Parental power extends until the child is grown old enough (Locke uses twenty-one as an example age) to function independently within society. Likewise, the commonwealth at this age attributes the responsibilities and duties of an adult to a person who reaches this age of readiness. Thus, reason leads to personal freedom.

Locke's problem here is the equation of monarchical power with paternal power. He starts out by noting that if the phrase were changed to "parental power"--to include the mother in the situation--people would not make the mistake of associating parental power with political power. Locke then notes that political power and paternal power are totally different. People are free of paternal power when they are old enough to function as individuals; but political power is built on wholly different foundations.

Chapter 7 begins with Locke's description of the first society, conjugal society between a man and a woman. Locke then describes conjugal society as separate from political society; in it the master and mistress of the household have power over everyone in that household, although that power is neither absolute (they lack the power of life and death) or political.

Locke reiterates his description of civil society as a united body of individuals under the power of an executive that protects their property and well being, and designs legislation to govern their behavior. Thus the commonwealth combines the legislative power to make laws and the executive power to enforce laws, with the public's support. The difference between this and the paternalistic society, in which people are born into filial obligations that then extend throughout their adulthood, is significant.

Locke ends the chapter with a description of all the ways in which absolute monarchy violates these principles. Absolute monarchy places no common authority over all; thus, by investing the authority in one person, the entire system suffers. Since the monarch can impinge on people's property and welfare without fear of retribution, the people lack the comfort, protection, and incentive to contribute to the good of the commonwealth. To prevent such an imbalance of power, the legislature and executive must be placed in a collective body. Thus, no individual is exempted from or above the laws of the commonwealth.


These two chapters define civil society by describing what it is not--paternal or conjugal society. Why should Locke spend so much time establishing this distinction? In Locke's time, it was very common for political philosophers such as Sir Robert Filmer to compare kings to fathers of their subjects to justify their absolute power. Locke was also aware of the traditional historical notions (Locke uses the Latin term paterfamilias) of the family social unit centered on the father as both the paternal and political center of power

Locke presents paternal power, based on the assumption that young people have not yet fully developed their reason, to underline his belief that grown reasoning adults should become their own masters. Political power cannot be paternal because it either assumes that people do not have reason, or recognizes their reason and thus becomes powerless.

A similar description applies to the conjugal power situations Locke describes. They cannot serve as models for civil society because they are based on one of two relationships--master/slave or parent/child. Both are poor models for civil society: Locke has defined slavery as an extension of the state of war, and the parental model we have already discredited as invalid.

Locke's discussion of absolute monarchy logically extends from this discussion and becomes quite significant. First, it is significant because he presents to us for the first time a more detailed model for the correct way to go about establishing a civil society. Remember Locke's context here: Locke affiliated with the Whigs, a group of aristocrats with a mix of idealistic and practical concerns. He challenged the idea of an absolute monarchy on the basis that leaving the absolute monarch free to take the property or life of any member of society without redress violated natural rights.

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The Preservation of Property

by readingthegreat, July 25, 2013

Throughout the essay, Locke stresses the key reason for the formation of a governmental system: the preservation of property. This becomes his pseudo-mantra that he often returns to while making a point about usurpation, despotism, or tyranny. If the government is designed by the people to first and foremost protect their property, then it makes sense that Locke’s closing words would include the statement, “the end of government is the good of mankind.” This preservation of property is Locke’s explanation for why a group of people wo... Read more


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