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Locke’s Political Philosophy

September 15, 2022

John Locke’s Second Treatise, written between 1676 and 1682, presents grave difficulties. It lacks rigorous argument and does not defend the assumptions and concepts upon which it is based, concepts such as the law of nature, state of nature, and the social contract.

Locke argues that man and the world he inhabits are the work of an infinite maker who is God. Man has reason which was given to him in order that he might use it to his advantage and convenience. By use of his reason man can discover his private advantage; and this private advantage, wondrously, due to God’s design, is conducive to public order, the common good.

Perhaps because Locke’s analysis of human nature and community is restricted to the passionate level where man seeks advantage and convenience, he defines the best ruler as the prince who aids the acquisition of property and its right use. Such a prince, Locke says, is “godlike, ” by which he probably means that by protecting property and its right use the prince is following God’s design for man. God intended for men to seek their own advantage, their happiness, in conditions and circumstances conducive to that pursuit. If this design is followed and these circumstances of order are secured, all will be well.

This emphasis on private advantage presents problems for an interpretation of the meaning of Locke’s “law of nature” since earlier in his life he had rejected the idea that a person’s private interest is the basis of the law of nature. Locke did not think that thelaw of nature was simply a question of utility. On the other hand, he argued that there was something more than private interest to be found in the pursuit of one’s private good since the protection of private property is the law of nature. This unique property ethic permeates the Second Treatise.

Property was broadly defined by Locke to include life, liberty, and estate. As such, it conveys a sense of the purposes of life, as Locke saw them. The law of nature was the rational rule by which man lived out his life within these overarching acquisitive purposes. The law of nature “obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”

The origin of property is in labor, and this labor by which something external is taken and made one’s own is a law of nature. The law of nature favors men who are acquisitive, rational, and industrious creatures, just as God prefers men such as these over those who are quarrelsome and contentious.

Men of Locke’s generation believed that they could attain certain knowledge about how men should behave. They posited that man ineluctably seeks his advantage, and his advantage is to be found in property; thus, they concluded, a government which protects property is the best government. The preservation of property is the common good. This particular view of the common good, however, limits what is common in community to the aggregate of individual private goods; individual appetites. Locke ignored the insight of Classical philosophy that the common good is knowable only to the good man, whose judgment is the standard and measure of what is right by nature for himself and for the community of men.

Because Locke has no equivalent view of the best man, except the “godlike” prince, he is reduced to perceiving justice and the common good in terms of property and of the property owner who is a good citizen because he rationally calculates his private pleasure and pain.


Like Thomas Hobbes, Locke insisted on thinking about politics from the perspective of the pre-political state of nature.

Why talk about the state of nature? Is it not a fantasy, and a fiction, a crutch which was fashionable among early modern political thinkers for whom nature had ceased to be a subject of wonder and had become a source of power?

The answer, perhaps, is that Locke was unable to explain political order without it. It does tend to supplement his concept of the law of nature by explaining what standards restrict government. Locke’s concept of the “law of nature” was too circumscribed and vague to limit government effectively.

In the state of nature, man is a social creature, but not a political creature. Locke restricted the use of the term “political” to human consistency in society ruled by a common power. Like all Social Contract thinkers, John Locke was persuaded that “the political” was not an essential attribute of man. The political is an accident, an artifice.

This meant, among other things, that Locke and the Social Contract thinkers abandoned the Classical philosophic inquiry into the political order which is best by nature.

No political rule can be best by nature, because nature is pre-political. What this meant in practical, civilizational terms was, “Rulers, kings, aristocrats, watch out!”

If political existence is the artifice of those ruled, and not the dominion of the anointed of God, then government originates in the very ones who are ruled. If the limits they set for government are broken, then they may just take that dominion away and give it to another, someone who will follow their dictates.

Locke needed the “state of nature” as a rhetorical aid. For that reason, perhaps, Locke is somewhat impatient with those who belligerently ask, “Why talk about the state of nature if there is no proof that there ever was such a state?”

 Locke replies that if we reject belief in the state of nature, we may as well disbelieve that men whose histories as adults are recorded, but not their childhood, ever had a childhood. Everything in existence has a beginning, and the state of nature, he argues, is the beginning of men before they entered into civil society. If one has any doubts, he says, look at America and the Indians there who live in the state of nature.

The state of nature, Locke tells us, is a condition of perfect freedom. Men are free to do whatever they wish to do and are limited only by the law of nature. The law of nature governs not only the state of nature, but also civil society. However, civil societyis different from the state of nature because in the state of nature every man is the executor of the law of nature. Thus everyone may punish transgressors of that law. In civil society punishment is meted out by the government. The state of nature for Locke is not a licentious condition because most men follow their reason, which is the law of nature, and are its executors upon those who do not. The law of nature, which governs the state of nature, creates, we infer, obligations to one another because breaches of the law of nature would ultimately, if permitted to continue, lead to our own destruction, which is against the law of nature. Life for Locke, we infer, was pleasurable and thus good.

Locke argued that while the state of nature lasted, life was fairly good. There were natural boundaries in it which tended to confine human appetite. Man’s property was limited by what he could use. Since his right to anything to which he put his labor was shielded by convenience and utility, he would not take more than was necessary to survive.

But the state of nature was inconvenient.

It lacked a neutral judge to execute the law of nature, and private execution tended to err, or not be executed at all. Moreover, someone invented money one day and that invention allowed the “natural” limits upon property to disintegrate.

 No longer were spoilage and utility hindrances upon man’s acquisitive instinct. Thus property became large and extensive. Men came to hold lands which they could not work. And lands which they could not work were insecure lands, the title to that property no longer being their own labor. By corrupt and vicious men, furthermore, the condition of man in the stale of nature soon degenerated.  Out of this story Locke concocted his chief standard for limiting government: property. The reason we left the state of nature and compacted to form a civil society, Locke writes, is that we wanted our property protected. When government breaks that original agreement to protect our property, therefore, we have a right to revolution.

The state of nature understood as an imaginary pre-political condition, not only performed useful functions in the speculative systems of such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, it also embodied the methodical attempt of modern philosophy to overcome Classical political philosophy.

The state of nature allowed Locke to ignore all previous history and philosophy and in this sense was an analogue of his conception of the mind as a blank tablet. It also provided him an opportunity to skirt the reality of evil with a new myth of the Fall. The origin of the Fall in money which commences the disintegration of man’s pre-political condition provides its own savior in newly constituted civil society based on the consent of acquisitive men. Guided by an unlimited quest for worldly goods, Locke visualized a type of man, becoming dominant in the late seventeenth century, who would give up his quest of heaven in exchange for a heavenly world. If the full range of political community is not really symbolized in Locke’s concept of the pursuit of private ends by private, economic men, it is at least a semblance of community, in contrast preferable to the disorder of England wracked by religious wars. England at the time Locke wrote his Second Treatise was much like a small town after a revival meeting. Exhausted from excesses of the spirit, the visions of the New Jerusalem now past, the citizens are ready to settle down to the less spiritually tiring, and perhaps more pleasurable fare of business as usual. Locke’s Second Treatise captured this exhaustion of the soul in English culture and gave it a political credo by which to live.

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