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Two Treatises of Government

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Part of the " Longman Library of Primary Sources in Philosophy, " this edition of "Locke's Two Treatises of Government" is framed by a pedagogical structure designed to make this important work of philosophy more accessible and meaningful for readers. A General Introduction includes biographical information on Locke, the work's historical context, and a discussion of historical influences. Annotations and notes from the editor clarify difficult passages for greater understanding. A bibliography gives the reader additional resources for further study.


First published January 1, 1689

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About the author

John Locke

907 books1,182 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

John Locke was an English philosopher. He is considered the first of the British Empiricists, but is equally important to social contract theory. His ideas had enormous influence on the development of epistemology and political philosophy, and he is widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and contributors to liberal theory. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. This influence is reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.

Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin for modern conceptions of identity and "the self", figuring prominently in the later works of philosophers such as David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Locke was the first Western philosopher to define the self through a continuity of "consciousness." He also postulated that the mind was a "blank slate" or "tabula rasa"; that is, contrary to Cartesian or Christian philosophy, Locke maintained that people are born without innate ideas.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 223 reviews
Profile Image for Orhan Pelinkovic.
86 reviews150 followers
August 8, 2022
Even though the Two Treatises of Government was published anonymously in the year 1689, the Editor of this book's edition, Peter Laslett, argues that the two Treatises were written between the years of 1679-1683, well before the publishing and The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Furthermore, Laslett claims that the Second Treatise was written first, and the First Treatise, second, while there remains a possibility of a missing, third part. Challenging times for writers and freethinkers.

The First Treatise is devoted to refuting Sir Robert Filmer's defense of monarchy and patriarchalism, in which property, women, and children are subjects of a father, and the father's subjects of the King. This is all in line with Filmer's central argument, loosely based on Scriptural writings, that God created Adam and the world at his disposal, which makes Adam our first king and the sole proprietor of everything, and all rights can only be inherited through his lineage, namely through a male descendant.

However, in Locke's view, all men and women are born free and lived before the first established civil societies in accord with the laws of nature, in what John Locke (1632-1704) refers to as the State of Nature. Where by he believes that the only reason the people are to enter, by mutual consent, into a political community is to better preserve their liberty and secure their property as the property is insufficiently regulated in the State of Nature. Nevertheless, these Civil Societies should be in harmony with the natural rights enjoyed in the State of Nature. Locke goes on further to discuss the necessity of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, the people's rights to retain instruments to overthrow governments, and that an individual's "labor of his body and the work of his hands" are to remain in their possession.

Locke, a philosopher, and a physician began studying and writing about government and politics once he came under the influence of the first earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper).

Spinoza's and Descartes' impact on Locke's philosophy is evident but his philosophy remains original. A great book with a lengthy biographical introduction of John Locke who is today commonly known as the Father of Liberalism. Worth reading.
Profile Image for Kenghis Khan.
135 reviews21 followers
July 26, 2007
Those of us living in liberal democracies owe tremendous intellectual debt to John Locke. His "Second Treatise" in particular helped lay the foundation for a political system that emphasized "life, liberty, and property." The First Treatise is interesting to skim through, though it is in the second where the Locke is most substantive. His Theory of Private Property, which could also be construed as a theory of value, is an unmistakable revolution in political thought. It is, as Locke contends, when man applies his labor to nature that he is entitled to it. Questions about environmental ethics or indegenous rights aside, this observation, made in a still heavily ecclesiastical society, is a brilliant one. Furthermore, Locke's understanding of the formation of government is based on a hypothetical "state of nature" account. Locke's arguments are intellectually pleasing, and his social-scientific models make intuitive sense. Given that, perhaps the only weakness of the work is its failure to adequately analyze such concepts as the social contract or his theory of labor-property relations. For example, Locke fails to seriously consider what we should do with states that are clearly formed by mere force. Indeed, he doesn't adequately address the possibility that such a state could justify its existence on the grounds that "better tyranny than nothing." While Locke believes that a state that doesn't respect private property cannot last for very long, history says otherwise. Of course, in retrospect it is easier to criticize Locke in these regards, but with Machiavelli before him it was not as though these ideas were not known. There are admittedly other inconsistencies, such as his view on taxation later in the book and on who "owns" the grass his serf cuts. Interestingly enough, Locke is unwilling to expound on the distinction between property garnered for the sake of personal enjoyment (possessions) and property garnered for the sake of profit. Nevertheless, the work is a passionate defense of a liberal government, and the points are persuasively argued. As long as the reader, as Locke himself urges, keeps a skeptical attitude, this work has much to offer.
Profile Image for Miguel Cisneros.
120 reviews
November 2, 2022

In the first chapter, John Locke, briefly summarizes the content of his previous treatise, that is, the treatise in which he refuted the theory of the divine right of kings as it had been elaborated by Robert Filmer, although there is also a veiled criticism of the doctrine of Hobbes.
No one can prove, says Locke, that Adam and his would-be heirs (these would be the self-appointed kings) received from God the power to rule the world. And it is that there is no divine law that determines which is the legitimate heir to govern the world. The oldest line, in the descent of Adam, is so old and was lost so long ago, that it cannot be shown which family has more preeminence in claiming the right of inheritance. Therefore, it is absurd for today's kings to attempt to base their right to the kingdom on an alleged paternal jurisdiction of Adam. Therefore, any theory that attempts to show that the power of kings derives from God through Adam is neither logical nor credible.

Now, Locke continues, if everything said so far is true: where does the origin of governments and political power come from? It is here that Locke develops his critique of Hobbes's politics. For it is that if the foundation of civil government does not have its origin in some commandment of God or in the hereditary genealogy of Adam, then either every government is the product of force and violence, which by nature, men would become like beasts so that the strongest is that rises with power; Or we need to develop a new theory of civil government.

According to Locke, to understand the nature of government and to deduce what its origin was, one must consider what was the state in which men were by nature, that is, before society and political governments existed. It is evident that Locke, as an empiricist, starts from the principle that all knowledge must start from observation and experience. Therefore, according to him, every form of government should start from the analysis of man in his primitive state, that is, in the state of nature.

The state of nature, although it is a state of freedom, does not mean that it is a state of thoughtlessness. In this context man in the state of nature would not be free to destroy himself, since God requires him, through his divine commands, to keep his life until He decides to take it away, this includes the prohibition of destroying others, since all men are endowed with the same faculties and participate in a common nature so it would not be right to destroy, without further ado, the life of others.

This means that when a criminal falls into the hands of a man in a state of nature he cannot do with him what he pleases but only punish him according to the dictates of reason, assigning him penalties that are proportional to the crime committed, with the aim of repairing the damage committed and not repeating his action. In short, from the state of nature, the first human rights are derived. These are: punish any crime in order to prevent it from happening again and give reparations and protection to the weakest.
According to Locke, each transgression would be punished to the degree and proportion sufficient for the offender to lose out and thus give him a reason to repent and dissuade himself from doing the same again.

In conclusion, the natural state is a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and conservation based on Epicurus' Hedonism. It is also that in which men live together according to reason, without an earthly power with authority to judge them. And just like this, the herd ought to use reason alone to determine which men are supposed to rule them under democratic conventions and elections.
Profile Image for Carlo Mascellani.
Author 15 books258 followers
February 7, 2022
Un po' noiosina, forse per l'eccesso di precisione e di tecnicismo legale, la prima parte, quella in cui Locke, Bibbia alla mano, demolisce le teorie assolutistiche di Robert Filmer, che nel suo Il Patriarca legittimava il potere assolutistico dei monarchi giacché derivato, per mano di Dio, direttamente da quello di Adamo. Molto più interessante la seconda parte, quella in cui l'autore viene a delineare, nei minimi dettagli, lo Stato liberale che ancora conosciamo e i principi che hanno poi ispirato la Costituzione americana, francese, italiana. Un filosofo che sapeva indubbiamente guardare avanti.
Profile Image for Robert Owen.
76 reviews18 followers
February 21, 2020
As its title states, John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” are two separate treatments on the basis of just and legitimate government; the first of which is structured as a rebuttal to the notion, as articulated in Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha, or The Natural Power of Kings”, of monarchical power authorized by “divine right” whereas the second is a positive articulation of concepts and principles locating the source of authority for any legitimate government within the consent of the governed.

The essential argument that Locke rebutted in the first treatise was that of a king’s right to rule his subjects derived from divine authority – the divine right of kings. In “Patriarcha” Filmer asserted that the right of a king to rule over subjects was absolute, bestowed by God to Adam, the original patriarch, and has been passed down to successive rulers ever since by the dominion, Filmer asserts, God gave to all fathers over their own children. Locke sets down an almost line for line refutation of Filmer’s assertions, arguing, essentially, that God bestowed no such right to Adam and even if he had, that right certainly did not pass to successive generations by virtue of any divine grant of patriarchal authority. Not having read Filmer, there was a great temptation to skip over Locke’s first treatise; however, through various sly and interesting means throughout his refutation of Filmer, Locke lays the groundwork for his second treatise, namely, that whatever right a ruler has to rule comes exclusively from the consent of the governed. Although this, in itself, is enough to warrant the first treatise a full read, as a bonus, Locke provides a wonderful example of a trained rhetorician’s rebuttal of the absurd through logic and reason that makes the read worthwhile. Moreover, in expressing his argument, Locke’s capacity for urbane, condescending humor leaches out through every line as he takes obvious delight in ridiculing the absurdities of Filmer’s arguments.

The crux of Locke’s second treatise is fascinating in that although it was written over 300 years ago, it will resonate with anyone familiar with traditional American notions of “political common sense.” Locke argues that by nature, all men are born equal and subject to no obligation of obedience to anyone. However, notwithstanding this, living this equality carries the risk that those with greater strength can, through force, compel a free man to do whatever the strong man wants, including surrendering his property. To forestall this risk, Lock argues, mankind has assented to surrendering a portion of his individual liberty to the extent that he is prepared to adhere to mutually agreed upon laws of the community in exchange for the protections afforded by common government whose laws and rules serve to protect him and his possessions. Government, therefore, derives its power and authority not from any ancient grant bestowed by God upon Adam, but only by the consent of the governed.

While none of this is particularly revolutionary to a contemporary reader, it is nonetheless fascinating to read ideas that today we all take for granted structured as propositions that, in Locke’s time, had to be persuasively argued. Moreover, Locke’s ideas are not necessarily a one to one match to those of contemporary democratic philosophy. In particular, the centrality of property in Locke’s thesis is striking relative to the way we think of government today. The purpose of any government, Locke assures us, is to protect the sanctity of individual property from unjust appropriation by others. What’s interesting is the way he takes for granted either that everyone has property to be defended, or, what is more likely, the only people whose rights matter are those with property to protect.

His assumption, of course, is that there is a level playing field and that the only path to wealth accumulation is through dint of hard work. Imagine, he argues, that there is a common forest full of acorn trees. A man, seeing an acorn on the ground, picks it up. The acorns are the common property of the community, but in the moment the man expends his labor to pick it up, the right to that acorn reverts to him who expended the labor to harvest it. It is, he continues, a crime to pick up more acorns than he can consume as the excess will go to rot; however, if he is able to trade his excess for the excess of some other entrepreneur the fact that he’s harvested more than he personally needs goes from being a public evil brought about by waste to a public good brought about by plenty accessible to a greater number of community members. What he ignores, of course, is that when the acorn guy grabs up all the acorns such that he and he alone has all the food there is to be had in the commons, people, faced with starvation, will do anything (including bartering away their own freedom) to get a share of the man’s horded wealth. Throughout his discourse, Locke is silent about how property is accumulated – if you have property, regardless of the means by which you’ve acquired it, you deserve the protection of the law, including, presumably, protection from the masses of starving people who will, in their desperation, attempt to rob from you in order that they might eat. Locke’s cannon is “life, liberty and property,” – it took a different hand and a hundred years for this to become the famous, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” so dear to Americans.

It was not, as one can probably imagine, a light read – especially the first treatise. Yet it is interesting to go back and read about the ideas that changed the world that were written at a time then those ideas were fresh, new and highly controversial.
Profile Image for Matt.
616 reviews
June 22, 2022
Originally published in the wake of the Glorious Revolution these two essays were neglected due to a glut of tracts and treatise in support of the events of 1689-90, it wasn’t until the 1760s that they become important in political discourse. Two Treatise of Government by John Locke were a refutation of absolute monarchy and the theory of the state of nature and how government is created.

The less famous First Treatise is a straight line for line critique of Sir Robert Filmer’s divine right absolutist monarch supporting tract, Patriarcha, the conclusion of which Locke examines the Bible and history to demolish Filmer’s hypothesis. In the Second Treatise Locke turns from Filmer’s work into his own theories of the state of nature and how it eventually led to the formation of a government by contract between individuals. Overall, the First Treatise is slog with Locke apparently having to repeat the same evidence to refute Filmer and essentially isn’t needed to understand its follow-up. On the other hand, the Second Treatise begins slowly as Locke references Filmer until transition to his own theory of the state of nature that leads to his own contract theory that is thought-provoking and historically influential.

Two Treatise of Government while being connected as a refutation and then opposing argument, the latter work by John Locke this is more profound not only as political theory and from an historical perspective.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 21 books269 followers
December 31, 2009
John Locke's major work of political philosophy is often referred to as a major source for the Declaration of Independence, The Second Treatise of Civil Government. This work, authored in 1690, is a major statement of liberalism. Like Thomas Hobbes, Locke begins with humans living in a state of nature, a situation before the development of the state and government. The Lockeian state of nature was not an unpleasant place. Human reason led people to tend to leave one another alone in their respective pursuits.

Natural law guides people's actions in the state of nature and their reason allows them to apprehend the essence of these laws. Thus, Locke expressed great confidence in human reason. However, inconveniences did result in the state of nature. If disagreements rose between people, it was not always easy to resolve these. If one person stole something from another, it was up to the victim to redress the injustice. And these shortcomings in the state of nature made individuals ultimately, rationally, decide that they should give up some of their freedom in order to secure order and protection of the fruits of their labor. Locke said: "[T:]he enjoyment of the property he has in his state is very unsafe, very unsecure. . . . The great and chief end, therefore, of man's uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."

As a result, people contract with one another to form civil society and government in order to preserve their rights under natural law, with the dominant right being termed property. And what happens if government does not protect rights under natural law? Revolution is thereby allowable. For instance, Locke notes one justification for suspending an existing government: "Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence. . . .[I:]t devolves to the people to have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative, such as they shall think fit, provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society."

Locke's work well illustrates basic tenets of liberalism, among which are:

1. Individualism (and its concomitants of limited government and certain rights, such as the right to property and to certain freedoms, and equality);
2. Materialism (material incentives are important; acquisition and enjoyment of material goods is altogether proper);
3. Faith in human reason;
4. Faith in the market as a way of distributing wealth and goods.

Is Locke the philosopher of the American Revolution? Probably not. But he well articulated many of the major themes accepted by the Founders of the revolutionary movement in the 1770s.
Profile Image for mohab samir.
369 reviews300 followers
October 26, 2018
هنا وجدت أصول الفلسفة السياسية الحديثة بمختلف إتجاهاتها فمن كتاب لوك هذا يمكنك أن ترى إنبثاق الديموقراطية والشيوعية او الملكية الدستورية فى مهدها ومن ناحية أخرى تجد الأرستقراطية والملكية المطلقة فى طور الإحتضار فهكذا كانت الإتجاهات السياسية فى عصر لوك والكتاب فى حد ذاته ثورة على التداخل المريع الذى حدث طوال القرون الوسطى وحتى عصر الإصلاح الدينى بين المفاهيم السياسية والتفسيرات الدينية لها كما يمثل ثورة على كل طغيان ترسخ فى أوروبا منذ قرون وأصبح شيئا مقبولا وإعتيادياً حتى أصبح حجر عثرة فى طريق التقدم الإنسانى .
يتناول هذا الكتاب قسمين أولهما إقتصر عل نقد أحد الكتاب المعاصرين للوك وهو السير روبرت فليمر والذى كان له كتابا يدعم فيه حق السلطة المطلقة الإلهى للملوك على أساس إنبثاق ذلك الحق من حق الطاعة الأبوية الذى بدأ مع آدم والواقع أن ذلك الجزء كان ساذجاً مملاً بالنسبة لعقول هذه الأيام ولا يمكن أن يتوقع منه أدنى إفادة اللهم إلا بعض المعلومات التاريخية والدينية من تاريخ المسيحية الأولى واليهود وبعض أقاصيص الكتب المقدسة لديهم .
أما الجزء الثانى فيتناول فلسفة لوك السياسية والتى تبدأ بتوضيح الفروق بين السلطة السياسية والأبوية ثم منها ينتقل إلى الطور الطبيعى لدى الإنسان فتوجب عليه أن ينتقد فى عجالة مذهب هوبز فى حالة الطبيعة التى تمثل حالة حرب الكل ضد الكل . أما لوك فيعتقد أن حالة الطبيعة كانت حالة يعتمد فيها الإنسان على عقله ويتوصل فيها إلى القانون الطبيعى من حيث حق كل فرد فى الدفاع عن حياته وحريته وإقتناعه بأن من يتعرض بالجور على من عداه فإنه يتوقع عدوان وجور مماثل من الآخرين إذاءه فيتجنب بالتالى هذه الأفعال العدوانية . وهذا بالنسبة له هو حال الأغلبية من البشر فى الطور الطبيعى .
ومنها ينتقل إلى حق الملكية والمعروف عند لوك أنه ينشأ عن العمل بعد أن كانت الطبيعة كلها مشاعا لبنى البشر على السواء بحيث تكفى أغراضهم ومنافعهم جميعاً ومن حق الإمتلاك ينشأ حق الدفاع عن الأملاك التى بتراكمها وكثرتها وتعدد الفوارق بينها من إنسان إلى آخر وجب التفكير فى التعايش فى جماعات التى تفوض سلطاتها الطبيعية الى فرد ما أو عدة أفراد يقومون بسن وحماية وتنفيذ القوانين التى سيجتمعوا فى ظلها حفاظاً على ذواتهم ومصالحهم وأملاكهم .
ومن هنا يتجه لوك للحديث عن أنواع السلطات المتباينة ومدى علاقة كل منها بالأخرى وحدود كل منها وإيجازا فإنه يضع مصلحة الشعب وخيره حداً فاصلاً فى شرعية السلطات وحدود سلطتها ويحرم السطو على أملاك الآخرين كل التحريم مهما كان الجرم المرتكب ثم ويجعل الحد الفاصل فى شرعية الحاكم هو إستخدامه للقوة ضد شعبه لأى سبب كان . ويميز هنا بالذات بين المغتصب والطاغية وهو تمييز ذو دلالة فى فكر لوك السياسى .
كن هذا القسم الثانى من الكتاب شيقاً إلى أبعد الحدود كما أنه بالغ الأهمية لكل مهتم بالفلسفة السياسية أو السياسة المجردة .
June 29, 2022
Читав по 3 сторінки в день. Перша книжка, яку взяв до рук і почав читати після початку повномасштабного вторгнення росії в Україну. Доводилось чути в університеті, що Джон Лок - це батько британського лібералізму. Мабуть, ця теза і зрезонувала у перші дні повномасштабної війни – геть від москви, дайош Європу. Бути ще ближче до Європи, до британського принципу негативної свободи - коли у громадянина є фундаментальні права, як-от, зокрема, на свободу, і громадянин може робити що завгодно, якщо це не порушує свободи і права інших громадян. Найбільше небажання було на той момент опинитися під окупацією росії (не було страху смерті, наприклад), і відчути на собі оце от обмеження свобод, що було в совєтському союзі. Тож "Два трактати про правління" стали такою собі спробою інтеграції на особистісному рівні до західного (можливо, буде доречніше написати «британського») світу.
Profile Image for Thomas Mick.
4 reviews11 followers
October 6, 2016
One of the volumes that helped our founders form the Republic in the Convention of 1787. I highly recommend that anyone who wishes to understand what principle we started out to live under were and therefore better understand what we've become in ignorance of them.
Profile Image for Patty.
16 reviews
April 8, 2008
yes . . . ive read it, and you should too . . . this dude was thomas jefferson's BFF!!!!
Profile Image for Marc.
3,040 reviews1,047 followers
October 10, 2015
A basic work in political theory and the growth of democracy in the West. Not Always very clear thinking, and not Always very consistent (e.g. no tolerance for catholics).
Profile Image for Kati.
65 reviews4 followers
July 12, 2015
Had to read this for one of my classes this semester, if you guys wonder...*hides in a corner*
Profile Image for Ryan.
74 reviews20 followers
January 29, 2020
Locke was a monstrous evil that made the world a far worse place. He was really clever tho
Profile Image for Charlie.
42 reviews34 followers
May 4, 2021
If I'm being honest, the First Treatise is more fun. Locke is a witty writer, and he rarely misses the mark when poking fun at authoritarianism, but his tone is more barbed when dealing with the absurdity of Divine Right than when developing his own system. (That said, one joke in 2:235 about how an author who demands 'reverence' from rebels "deserves for his pains a civil, respectful cudgelling wherever he can meet with it" definitely made me chuckle.)

Regardless, the Second Treatise is the important one, being a founding text of Liberalism, and there is genuinely a lot to recommend in it. Locke's system is - aside from some bizarre internal contradictions - an elegant one, and his common sense style is immensely appealing to a modern reader. Tyrants are brought low, revolutions defended, and hard work praised above birthright and feudal privilege. For anyone raised in a capitalist society it's enough to tickle all the boxes of our pre-packaged ideology by showing one of the first places where our intuitively held beliefs were first formulated.

Unfortunately, this is part of the problem. Locke, the great Empiricist, betrays his own epistemology with a speculative history that presumes what he wants to prove, which means that much of his treatise (despite its ingeniousness) does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Moreover, there is something rather monstrous about Locke's thinking, both in his reductive view of human potential and in his avaricious defence of exploitation, especially considering the historical context in which he was writing.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood points out in her fantastic The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, the unique social relations of 17th century England saw the rise of a body of literature concerned with agricultural 'improvement' - a phrase originally drawn from Old French meaning 'into profit'. This movement was not just concerned with new technologies, such as the wheel-plough, but also with new forms and conceptions of property. These ideas were designed to promote the concentration of landholdings into the hands of landlords and their capitalist tenants who (it was imagined) could produce more wealth than the so-called lazy peasantry currently on it. This required the elimination of old rural customs and practices that interfered with an expansion of private wealth.

Put simply, peasants had developed too many defences of their traditions, domestic industries, and leisure time, so new ways were required to enclose the common land and thereby force them to engage in wage-labour for capitalist masters or starve. The historical result of these enclosures was a mass rise in 'Vagrancy' as peasants were forced off their land, many subsequently migrating to cities where they became the new proletariat class, whilst others turned to crime, rebellion, or simply died. Capitalism as a unique form of social relations was enabled by a vast seizure of common land into private hands, the suffering and violence of which is difficult to quantify, though even the monarchy found itself trying to slow down enclosure due to the massive public disorder it caused. But in 1688 the 'Glorious Revolution' marked, in Woods' opinion, a clear victory for the capitalist class, whereupon John Locke appears on the scene in 1690 to defend the principles of the new government.

This is the cynicism that underpins the majority of Locke's treatise. When he talks about freedom, he does not really mean the freedom of every man, but the freedom of men of property. The State of Nature, in his eyes, is one in which property already existed, with proto-capitalists coming together to form governments merely so that they can appoint impartial judges in property disputes. The Medieval notion of 'Natural Law' is recruited as a desperate naturalisation of capitalist ideology as some innate part of human nature, rather than a culturally contingent mode of behaviour. God is said to have given land not to be held in common but for "the use of the industrious and rational" (2:33), with rationality scornfully assumed to mean capitalistic. Even the word 'improve' (which frequently appears) is given God's backing by Locke linking it to the biblical injunction for us to 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth' (1:33) (though I will concede that it is nice of Locke to include art and science as 'improving' the world!)

Locke's theory of labour is a prime example of his problematic thinking. Contrary to what you might have heard, he actually begins with the assumption that humans are all property of God (2:6), and hence we do not have full ownership of ourselves. This means we are forbidden from committing suicide (2:22), and hence, because we cannot hand over a power that we do not possess, governments (which are only legitimate if consensual) do not have the right to murder us. This is a clever argument, but it does not work in a secular setting, and it also contradicts his later (more famous) assumption that "every man has a 'property' in his own 'person'" (2:26). This is crucial to his justification of property since we "mix" our labour with the world and put a part of ourselves into what we modify. This is then further complicated by Locke only selectively recognising the property that people have in their own labour, since he claims that "the grass my horse has bit, the turfs my servant has cut, and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property without the assignation or consent of anybody." (2:28)

There are three problems with this model. The first is simple contradiction - do we own ourselves, or does God? The second is how the servant's labour (and, for that matter, the horse's!) is treated as an extension of Locke's bodily exertions. Even if we buy the notion that we possess what our hands alter, how has Locke managed to coerce the servant into giving up (or 'alienating') his labour unless some pre-existing social conditions are there to enforce that hierarchy? Thirdly, do we really want to imagine that our bodies can ever be property? Perhaps it is overly romantic of me, but I would rather think that my own body is utterly excluded from the very category of ownership, self or otherwise. Even to say that I own my limbs is to open a door to the question of selling those rights and entering by contract into slavery. Locke, as suggested by his frequent refutations of this idea (1:42, 2:22-3, 2:135) must surely have noticed this potential in his model and been disconcerted by it.

Nevertheless slavery casts a shadow over his work that cannot be ignored. John Locke, by virtue of his medical training, saved the life of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, and the two subsequently became life-long friends - or, perhaps, (if one is not feeling charitable) Locke became his crony. Shaftesbury secured Locke a job as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations, i.e., a ministry for slave camps. Should we then be surprised when Locke asserts that "The great and chief end" of people creating government "is the preservation of their property" (2:124)?

Locke's notions of improvement play a key part in his defence of colonialism. He refuses to recognise any idea of land ownership if the occupants are not 'improving' their land. He vacillates between imagining America as empty, such as in his infamous "in the beginning, all the world was America" (2:49) and in condemning the natives as lazy, being "rich in land and poor in all the comforts of life" (2:41). Exchange value, not use value, is the basis of Locke's judgement as he imagines "all the profit an Indian received from it to be valued and sold here" (2:43) which allows him to discount all non-market based forms of economy. Growth, expansion, and 'improvement' is the metric by which everyone is judged and condemned. In Meiksins Wood's words:
"Locke's point, which not coincidentally drips with colonialist contempt, is that unimproved land is waste so that any man who takes it out of common ownership and appropriates it to himself - he who removes the land from the common and encloses it - in order to improve it has given something to humanity, not taken it away." (The Origin of Capitalism, pg 111)

Is there a more humanely worded defence of genocide? Locke gestures to the starvation and suffering in the feudal world around him, and would hold those who protest colonial exploitation and capitalist expansion as responsible for that deprivation. 'Do you not want to see the world improved?' he asks slyly. 'Do you hate progress that much?'

This problem is made worse by Locke's rather lousy empiricism. When he isn't busy making an argument-from-authority by quoting Hooker on some topic, he can usually be found making up random statistics. In defence of 'Improvement' he asserts that "'tis labour indeed that puts the difference of value on everything" (2:40) and that
"I think it will be but a very modest computation to say that, of the products of the earth useful to the life of man, nine-tenths are the effects of labour. Nay, if we will rightly estimate things as they come to our use [...] - what in them is owing to Nature and what to labour - we shall find that in most of them ninety-nine hundredths are wholly to be put on the account of labour." (2:40)

Well, Locke, which is it? Nine tenths or ninety-nine hundredths? I appreciate that statistics was a new field at the time, but he blatantly invents random figures to prove his argument with no supporting evidence before the reader's eyes, and uses these fake figures as a stick to beat the 'unproductive' into submission. And yet here is a man so often praised for his empiricism!

This culminates in Locke's most egregious offence against rationality: his ahistoricism. I have already touched on how his 'State of Nature' presumes that capitalist culture is innate to human behaviour, with Locke paradoxically using the lack of written evidence for his hypothesis as evidence of how well he understands the past (2:101). This rhetorical sleight of hand, however, is secondary to to Locke's general conception of human behaviour. To him, all humans are atomised individuals looking out for their 'rational' self-interest (2:93) who make the decision to join together under a government merely to make the accumulation of property more convenient. Though he later tempers this by saying that later generations, by choosing to engage in property relations and inherit goods are giving their "tacit consent" (2:119) to the social contract, he nevertheless seems to treat this thought experiment as a literal truth, rather than a mere intellectual narrative for sorting out what political rights we should invent for ourselves.

Locke does not appreciate our social character, and can only explain it as resulting from a coercive edict by God who arbitrarily ("in His own judgement") thought it good "to drive [man] into society" (2:77). Should we detect resentment here?

I do not understand this conception of humanity, born, apparently, out from the void before utilising some rational calculus to develop a society from scratch. Humans just don't work like that. We are born in the middle of pre-existing communities, and our ideologies are created by the socialising effect of our upbringing. Our conceptions of selfhood, morality, desire, and the philosophical frameworks we use to understand our experiences are moulded by the culture in which we grow up. Though there is immense variation between individuals, this socialising process is key to any serious understanding of societal development and Locke, despite his 'Tabula Rasa' writings, betrays that framework for his political theorising. He has to assume that "the law of Nature be plain and intelligible to rational creatures" (2:124) so that his artificial bourgeois ideology can be naturalised, rather than ideas of personal and private property, money, exchange value and theft being culturally contingent categories.

This is made worse by the underlying implication being that only people with property are actually involved in the process of making governments (since they need something to want to protect after all). Are the nameless thieves in Locke's model lazy layabouts, or other capitalists greedy to grow a little faster whilst still genuinely working their own land? The specifics of Locke's model cannot hold up here because he invents a scenario that is not historically plausible. It is a rationalisation of the society he wants, not a description of how it really came to be.

And yet, despite all this, there is still something genuinely radical about Locke. His First Treatise in particular is full of great moments, such as his attack on Robert Filmer's Eurocentric notion that all civilized rulers try to link their ancestry back to Noah:
"How many do most of the civilest nations amount to, and who are they? I fear the Chinese, a very great and civil people, as well as several other people of the east, west, north, and south, trouble not themselves much about this matter. All that believe the Bible (which I believe are our author’s ‘most of the civilest nations’) must necessarily derive themselves from Noah; but for the rest of the world, they think little of his sons or nephews." (1:141)

As a result of all this, it is difficult to know on what grounds one can ever definitively critique Locke, since his method, motives, and assumptions are all open to question. In spite of this there are many arguments he makes that I admire on both a rhetorical and moral level. Sure he may be raging against autocratic government because it interferes with private profits, but that doesn't mean he's wrong . Locke's liberalism is so feisty when fighting feudalism that it almost hurts to see the limitations of his theory and the boundaries of his compassion.

It is perhaps best to conclude on the most surprising passage, in which Locke qualifies his notion of property by making it conditional on communal necessity. Here, God "has given [a man's] needy brother a right in the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it [...] so 'charity' gives every man a title to so much out of another's plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise." (1:42)

Sure this draws on Medieval notions of 'Noblesse Oblige', but perhaps Locke isn't that bad after all...

Then again, in 'An Essay on the Poor Laws' (found in Political Essays) he also advocated press-ganging, mutilating, and enslaving beggars (pg 186), as well as forcing 3 year old children into unpaid labour so that they might "from infancy be inured to work" for the profit of the state (pg 190-1), so maybe not.

Liberals, never meet your heroes. Their breath stinks of blood.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
588 reviews27 followers
February 15, 2022
Jefferson called Locke's 2nd Treatise a "perfect little book" and Locke's ideas permeate the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. His brilliant articulation of the necessary components of civilian-led government - from the social contract to the separation of powers and the respective roles of the judiciary, legislature, and executive is pretty mind-blowing, this persuasive, logical conceptualization of how we might organize ourselves politically so as to reduce predation while protecting production and quality of life.

Of course, the prioritization of private property and individual liberty is at the foundation of liberal theory and it is the driving influence for how Locke wanted government to function - it promised security from brutes and criminals, but also from the state itself and any overweaning power claimed by individuals who could act arbitrarily and capriciously (or even viciously and destructively) in their own interests. This idea that society must be organized first and foremost for defense from people within it was rooted in experience and is the context for politics to this day. The idea that it must be balanced with freedoms and rights predates Locke, but was also baked into his treatises.

Locke was also a man of his time and his depictions of the State of Nature and of indigenous people in North America are racist and grotesque. This matters because his logic - not unique to him, but effectively purveyed by him - was used to justify colonization and colonial practices not just in the western hemisphere but worldwide.
Profile Image for Anderson Paz.
Author 3 books11 followers
December 8, 2020
No primeiro livro, Locke critica a formulação de Robert Filmer que defendia o absolutismo monárquico com base em uma interpretação do texto bíblico. Basicamente, o primeiro Tratado é uma exegese bíblica contrária à interpretação de Filmer. É um texto teológico-político.
Já no segundo Tratado, Locke apresenta sua teoria social liberal em que defende a necessidade do governo e das leis imparciais na proteção dos indivíduos e de sua propriedade. Em Locke, propriedade abrange direitos personalíssimos e direitos das coisas.
Sua argumentação é que Deus deu tudo em comum a todos, mas por seu trabalho o ser humano transforma, produz e se apropria legitimamente dos bens e, pelo dinheiro, pode acumular valor. Essa formulação teórica que, para Locke, tem respaldo bíblico, é fundamental na consolidação do Estado de Direito de primeira geração. É uma obra fundamental na defesa da liberdade em Estados modernos, ainda que passíveis de revisões críticas posteriores.
Profile Image for Lovely Fortune.
129 reviews
February 18, 2019
Definitely shows some very fundamental ideas that have shaped our country to this day! I had to read this for class, heavily focusing more so on the Second Treatise. Although, I didn't read the entire thing, what we did read consisted of things I mostly agreed with (inalienable rights and whatnot). Following this up after reading Leviathan was a bit boring, though. I had more fun disagreeing with Hobbes, than I did agreeing with Locke.
Profile Image for Harris.
140 reviews15 followers
December 30, 2021
Ch 1-8 of the second treatise. Locke was a bit of a doofus.
Profile Image for Alvaro Mallo.
31 reviews
June 23, 2020
I had to read this for college. But I have read it anyway. Locke establish the pillars of liberalism. But I found his work lesser than that of Hobbes.
Profile Image for Lloyd Earickson.
127 reviews5 followers
January 26, 2023
Speaking of classics, John Locke's writing should really be taught more often. His writings and philosophies were, and continue to be, enormously influential, and any American reading his Two Treatises of Government who is not already familiar with it will be immediately stricken by the immense and overt resonance between the US Constitution and the system of government it describes, and the philosophies of government espoused herein. Also, by the number of commas he employs, but when you're among the most influential political philosophers of the past five hundred years, you get a certain amount of stylistic leeway, or perhaps liberty would be a better word.

Once you get past the surface level, Locke is actually quite amusing, especially when he is critiquing other philosophers. His entire first treatise of government is dedicated to refuting the absolute monarchical arguments of a contemporary philosopher, and he pulls no punches and is unafraid of employing a certain degree of sarcasm to make his points. Whomever claimed that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor had a) never heard my puns, and b) didn't understand how it could be effectively employed. Not that Locke relies on such tools to make his points. Rather, he falls back upon first principles, presenting cogent arguments for how political power, and polities themselves, arise from the state of nature, and how their origins suggest that power properly resides in the people, not in an absolute monarch.

Many of his arguments, as well as his opponents', are Biblically based, mixing suppositions and thought experiments about what we might today call paleoanthropology with history lessons, examples, and anecdotes drawn from the Old Testament. Though I am far from a Biblical scholar, I do not consider myself entirely ignorant in such matters, but Locke's references far exceeded my knowledge in most instances; these are not necessarily the stories which are often referenced today. It is a useful reminder of just how influential religious teachings and thought was upon even secular philosophers who embraced freedom of religion, and it is worth reflecting that many of the rights and privileges which we take for granted today are founded upon fundamentally religious arguments. What this technique allows, and what is by comparison sorely lacking in more secular approaches, is a definitive point of origin, a derivation from first principles, of a given right, which is part of what makes Locke's writing so satisfying to me (harken back to my thoughts on Milton's Areopagitica).

After spending the first treatise lambasting a proponent of absolute, unlimited monarchy, Locke turns in the second treatise to what I would consider the more productive exercise of defining, deriving, and justifying for himself the source of political power in any commonwealth (which for his purposes is any society or community). Instead of attempting to describe a single form of government that is more 'right' or 'better' than all the others, he takes a more open-minded approach, asserting that, although original legislative power derives from the people, they can delegate it in any form, be it to a temporary group of elected officials, or to a life-long monarch. Significantly, he asserts that the people have a right also to rebel against an established government if that established government breaches the parameters by which it was established in the first place, for instance by acting contrary to its ultimate purpose, which is the betterment of the people from a state of nature. This was (and remains) a source of considerable controversy, since no government is going to support the right of its people to rebel against its authority - the closest case might be the United States' Second Amendment, which, among other reasons, was quietly included as a protection of the peoples' ability to deny the government a monopoly on the use of coercive power.

As the Athenians before him, Locke is hugely concerned with the dread specter of tyranny. He asserts that any government must necessarily involve an abrogation of freedom in comparison to the state of nature (which he uses throughout the second treatise as a baseline state against which all government and citizen action should be compared), but that government exists to serve the people. If there is a single, most important takeaway from his Two Treatises of Government, it is a cogent, derived argument that government exists for no other reason than to serve the people, to improve their state from what they would experience in the state of nature. That is the role of government, the place of government, the reason that government exists at all, and the final limit upon government, for, according to Locke, if the government fails to serve the people, it abdicates the mandate placed upon it by the peoples' will, and the people may justifiably create for themselves a new government which will better fulfill that role. I have read perhaps no greater, more vehement, or more direct call the right to overthrow by force their government to be reserved to the people. It is truly extraordinary that it was allowed to be published at a time when freedom of speech was considerably less enshrined and protected than it is in many parts of the world today.

However, Locke should not be limited to a single takeaway. There is far too much brilliant substance between these two treatises for me to reduce it so far; we have only scratched the surface of what there is to discuss in just these two pieces, which are but a fraction of Locke's writings. Yes, he can be a little heavy on the commas, and yes, he sometimes drifts into opaque prose, but his arguments are brilliant and coherent, and once you get into the writing he is not difficult to read. We will doubtless be discussing his ideas more in the future, but the best idea for now would be for you to go find a copy of his Two Treatises of Government and give them a read very soon. They really are brilliant.

Profile Image for John.
594 reviews19 followers
June 16, 2019
In the first treatise, Locke goes against Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book defending monarchy via scripture, giving the king a scriptural claim to power. Locke uses scripture against him to show that Filmer is mistaken, and ends up defending the individual(or in the sense of family, the parents) as the one with legitimate power over his own life. IT's more theology than political philosophy, so it is understandably not going home as an argument with the modern atheist. In the second treatise, he then has to give us the solution, so this is kind of the system in the making that later inspired western governments. There are clear lines one can see, but also lots of details and not very well argued points that I think has to be taken lightly although they may be of interest to some. Even if God is still the prime legislator, theology is less part of the arguments - which is good. I had a slight issue with Locke's use of the world property as he means sometimes individual property ut other times commonwealth property so it was not well defined. Other times he questions his broader thinking less than optimal and thus may misjudge his own solutions by misjudging peoples reactions. Still, its a great introduction from one of the minds behind modern politics. Other than that, between passages of lesser interest to me, there are many instances and moments of brilliance that I savored.
Profile Image for Diem.
450 reviews132 followers
April 3, 2016
This is not the first time I've signed this book's dance card but it is the first time that I've read the first treatise. It is an energetic decimating of the political theory of someone that no one cares about anymore. That's how bad the theory was. And I have to say that I'm not sure it was the best use of Locke's time and effort to debunk it. But perhaps that's just the perspective of time speaking.

I didn't mind the read, though. Locke is sometimes quite funny in his disgust and I was up anyway.

The second treatise needs no further accolades from anyone. It is foundational. Whether I accept it or not is largely irrelevant so I won't go all first treatise on it or any of its salient points. It's got a good beat and I can dance to it so what else really matters?

Edited to add:

O.M.Gravy. I forgot about the introduction. That was a wee bit painful. You have to fight for it. You might perish in the attempt. It might not be worth it.

On the plus side, if you do fight your way through it and then a couple weeks later you get your feelings hurt in a way you never saw coming, you can always look back and say, "Okay, this doesn't feel great. But is it worse than that time I read the introduction to 'Two Treatises'?" And, your answer will be certainly be, "Oh, hell no." So, there's that.
Profile Image for ZaRi.
2,322 reviews762 followers
September 19, 2015
"For if it be asked what security, what fence is there in such a state against the violence and oppression of this absolute ruler, the very question can scarce be borne. They are ready to tell you that it deserves death only to ask after safety. Betwixt subject and subject, they will grant, there must be measures, laws, and judges for their mutual peace and security. But as for the ruler, he ought to be absolute, and is above all such circumstances; because he has a power to do more hurt and wrong, it is right when he does it. To ask how you may be guarded from or injury on that side, where the strongest hand is to do it, is presently the voice of faction and rebellion. As if when men, quitting the state of Nature, entered into society, they agreed that all of them but one should be under the restraint of laws; but that he should still retain all the liberty of the state of Nature, increased with power, and made licentious by impunity. This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions."
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