Second Treatise Of Government Summary

John Locke, C. B. Macpherson

Second Treatise Of Government

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Second Treatise Of Government Summary

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When John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was published near the end of the seventeenth century, England was in a state of political unrest. King William III and Queen Mary II were in power, as monarch King James II had been deposed two years earlier. This period of history is known as the Glorious Revolution, and it followed years of conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the government and the people. Locke’s Second Treatise is widely viewed as having a place among the most important and influential texts ever written about political theory. It is believed to have been a significant factor in shaping the ideals of both the French and American revolutions. Locke claimed authorship of the piece in his will, having allowed it to circulate anonymously during his lifetime. In an edition of the book published in 1980, renowned Canadian political scientist C.B. Macpherson contributed a fifteen page introduction examining Locke’s ideas and why they held and continue to hold such an appeal.

In Second Treatise of Government, Locke examines the evolution of man, beginning with man in the state of nature, where the power of reason and complete natural freedom guided him through life. This he compares to being ruled by a civil governing institution, where control is ceded to legislators and executives. Major concepts that he considers in the course of the text include problems that naturally occur in an absolute monarchy, private property and its protection and limitations, and the need for people to be able to make governmental changes if said government breaks the covenant between the ruling institution and those it governs.

According to Locke, men are born in a state of nature, with each person equal to every other and possessing the freedom to conduct their lives and protect their property. Their actions are guided by the innate desire to preserve mankind and they have the ability to utilize reasoning to do so. The state of nature symbolizes total freedom, but there are times when men prevent other men from being able to protect their property. In instances when, in opposition to the laws of nature, man uses force against other men, the society at large has the right to punish them in an attempt to maintain order and to have the punishment serve as a deterrent to future transgressions.

In those times when men use force against each other, a state of war exists. Ending a state of war entails either the killing of the perpetrator or some sort of recompense. Locke turns to the topic of slavery and says that the only time it is acceptable for a man to be enslaved is in a situation where he has given up his life as a result of having exerted force against one who has then conquered him. The use of absolute power, or of using power in a random manner against another, is never an acceptable course of action in the philosophy of Locke. Absolute Monarchies thus are guilty of causing states of war between the government and its subjects.

When Locke talks of property, he refers not only to a man’s physical possessions, but his life and liberty as well. In the state of nature, the property referred to is primarily a person’s land and the effort exerted to work it. The land a man farms and the fruits of his labor are his property. When a society grows and conventions such as money come into use, a government needs to be established to protect and regulate property. For a government to truly be effective the people must agree to be governed, it cannot be forced upon them and expect to gain support. There is a trade off, a search for a balance, as man seeks protection for his property. Although investing power in legislative and executive branches of government in exchange for giving up some freedom is one structure that Locke examines, he notes that democracy is not the only acceptable form of government that men can turn to. He is clear, however, to stress that absolute monarchies are not in accord with civil society because there are none of the requisite limitations on the power of the ruler. Whenever people give up a portion of their freedom, there must be trust between the people and the party to which power is given.

It is important in Locke’s assessment of the state of nature, and his definition of the state in which some freedom is given up in exchange for a protective governing institution, that man retain the right to remove the government from power. The options then are to bring new leadership to the form of government that had been in place, or develop a completely different system within which freedoms and property are still protected, but not by an oppressive all powerful hand.