A Guide to Reading John Locke’s Concerning Civil Government: Second Essay

By Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff

In the history of human liberty, Locke’s essay Concerning Civil Government stands out not only as a great contribution to political theory, but also as an effective instigator of political action. It is a stirring pronouncement of the principles of the English “bloodless revolution” of 1688, which brought about fundamental innovations in the British constitution. It also set the stage for the American Revolution of 1776 by furnishing inspiration to the writers of the Declaration of Independence.

Its central doctrines of man’s natural and unalienable rights, of popular sovereignty, and of the right of rebellion are eloquently set forth in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration. “That all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights,” that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that when government becomes destructive of human rights, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it” — these are the principles (and, for the most part, the words) which Thomas Jefferson and his associates adopted from Locke and put to good use.

While the image of good government that Locke had in mind was a constitutional monarchy, in which the legislative power of Parliament was supreme but in which the king retained certain executive prerogatives, the republican form of government set up by the Constitution of the United States is a more thoroughgoing embodiment of his ideal of government by law rather than by men. All our political liberties are rooted in the rule of law. It is this which makes constitutional government “free government” — government that secures to all of us “the blessings of liberty.” No American can ever afford to forget this basic truth. The reading of Locke’s essay will never permit him to.

I.

Locke’s two essays on government were first published in 1690, the same year in which his Essay Concerning Human Understanding appeared. The date is of some significance, for it is just a year after the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England.

He wrote his political treatises in Holland, where he had gone into exile in 1683, returning to England six years later on the same ship which carried Princess Mary, the wife of William of Orange. In the preface to the two treatises, Locke expresses the hope that these works

would establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William — to make good his title in the consent of the people, which, being only one of all lawful governments, be has more fully and clearly than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin.

The first Treatise on Civil Government is directed against Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, which upheld the theory that monarchs rule by divine right — a right supposedly transmitted from Adam. In the first chapter of the second treatise, Locke summarizes what he has shown in the first, and indicates what the subject matter of the second treatise is. If kings do not govern by divine right, and if government is more than the rule of the strongest (which hardly seems to deserve being dignified by the name “government”), then we must discover some other source for the authority of government. Accordingly, the full title of the second treatise is: An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government.

In other words, Locke did not believe that royal authority was divinely given and therefore unchallengeable. Such a theory, of course, would have given the English throne to James II rather than to William of Orange. But if royal authority is challengeable, if a king may, upon cause, be deposed, who has the authority to say that a king should be dismissed and a new one installed? Who shall be the judge between a king and his people? In Chapter XIX of the second treatise (entitled “Of the Dissolution of Government”) Locke answers the question:

Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust?…To this I reply, The people shall be judge…

This treatise, therefore, is dedicated to establishing that the authority of governments derives from those whom they govern — a proposition which it succeeded in establishing so well that less than a hundred years later we read in the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident….That, to secure these [natural] rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

II.

Locke begins his quest for the legitimacy of government by defining political power:

Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good.

Such power and the government which wields it comes into being, Locke maintains, as the result of a compact made by persons who previously lived in a non-political condition.

Locke is by no means the first political philosopher to have a “social contract” theory. For instance, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had a fully developed theory of this sort. But there are great differences, nevertheless, between Hobbes’s and Locke’s view of the origin of the state.

These differences have to do with the condition of men prior to the formation of the state, and with the consequences that derive from living in a state. If men enter into civil society by making a contract among themselves, then they must first exist in a condition prior to the state. Both Hobbes and Locke call this the “state of nature” — that is to say, a condition which is natural to man. Here we may recall, by way of contrast, Aristotle’s view that the political state is natural to man.

According to Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war; men are either actually fighting each other or threatening each other. In such a state, Hobbes says, there are “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan, Vol. 23, Ch. 13) But Locke does not view the state of nature (Or, presumably, human nature itself) so darkly. Rather, be says, in the state of. nature men enjoy “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Thus, while Hobbes thinks of the state of nature as one of war and brutishness, Locke thinks of it as a state of liberty. For there may be liberty either in the state of nature or in the state of civil society:

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of Nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it. Freedom, then, is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us: “A liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws”; but freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of Nature.

Thus even the state of nature has a law, according to Locke:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which 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…

Locke himself makes his difference from Hobbes quite explicit in the following passage which we may assume has Hobbes in mind:

Here we have the plain difference between the state of Nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are one from another.

From this difference their conceptions of the state of nature follows a difference in their views of the social contract and civil society. For Hobbes, man is in such a miserable state naturally that he gives up all rights upon entering civil society, in order only to be safe and protected from the lusts and passions of other men.

For Locke, too, man has something to gain from entering into the social contract. He enumerates the disadvantages of the state of nature as (1) lack of established and promulgated law, (2) absence of a judge to make determinations according to this law, and (3) lack of power to execute what is in accord with the law. But Locke hastens to add that men do not give up all their rights upon entering civil society:

But though men when they enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of Nature into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of the society shall require, yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society or legislative constituted by them can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one’s property by providing against those three defects above mentioned that made the state of Nature so unsafe and uneasy.

And so he describes the actual formation of political society as follows:

Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.

III.

What Locke has to say about the origin of civil society is also of interest in connection with the concept of property. It is apparent that property is very important in Locke’s political theory. He says that the law of nature commands one not to harm another’s possessions; and he also says that men enter into society in order to preserve more perfectly their liberty and property. Thus the right to property is protected both by the law of nature and the civil law; in fact, one of the reasons for the existence of civil society is the preservation of property. In Chapter V, Locke takes up the question of property in detail. By property Locke means private property; for that is a man’s property which is his own. In this chapter, Locke considers how it comes about that anyone has private property, i.e., owns something to the exclusion of all others. He concludes that it is labor which gives the laborer a right to, or property in, that which he produces or adds his labor to. He summarizes his view as follows:

Though the things of Nature are given in common, man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it) had still in himself the great foundation of property…
Thus labour, in the beginning, gave a right of property, wherever any one was pleased to employ it, upon what was common …

We must realize that Locke uses the term “property” to refer not only to land or goods, but also to anything else that is a man’s own, as the following passage indicates:

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property — that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law…

Since man has a natural right to property in this wider sense (i.e., life, liberty, and estate), the state cannot take it away from him, but must rather protect his right to it. The Declaration of Independence echoes Locke, substituting, however, “pursuit of happiness” for “estate”:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…

IV.

Aristotle said that the political state is natural. Locke says that the natural condition of man is that in which he existed prior to the origin of the state. What is the reason for this difference?

Such a difference of opinion can result from a different understanding of (1) what man is, or (2) what it means for something to be natural.

We can illustrate how differences in these concepts would lead to differences concerning the naturalness of the state. It is completely natural for bees to form a kind of society, as every beehive illustrates. But there are many animals that live solitarily, i.e. not even in packs or herds; nevertheless they may occasionally be found in a group because of special circumstances. As an example of this consider tigers. They ordinarily live and hunt alone, yet they may live in a group in a zoo or menagerie. Such a group is clearly an artificial one.

Whether the state is natural or artificial depends, therefore, on whether human gregariousness is like that of bees, or is something imposed on men by artificial convention. This matter is further complicated, however. For the beehive comes about as the result of completely instinctual action, whereas those who maintain that the state is natural also agree that its origin is not due to instinct but to reason. Thus Aristotle distinguishes between the gregariousness of bees and that of men. Only the latter are political animals, because of their possession of speech and reason.

It is easier to see how differences in the meaning of “natural” affect the question. If “natural” means that which is normal, what occurs always or for the most part, then the political state is natural. If, on the other hand, “natural” means “original” or refers to any condition that is stripped of all complications, additions, and embellishments, or if it is taken to be the same as “primitive,” then a pre-societal or pre-political condition may well be natural.

Does a “social contract” theory require us to believe that there actually was a time when men lived in a state of nature?

It is not always easy to see, in a given author, whether he treats the social contract as a fiction or a hypothesis — as something that must be imagined to have taken place in order to legitimize present governments — or whether be actually thinks there was such a historical event. Locke discusses the question; we shall return to his answer below.

To give some examples of these opposing views, it seems on the whole safe to say that Rousseau thinks of the state of nature as a hypothesis; see for example the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Kant appears to take a similar view in The Science of Right. On the other hand, Hobbes says that although there was perhaps never a time when everyone in the world was in a state of nature, there are nevertheless even now many men in such a condition. (See Leviathan)

Are sovereign nations in a state of nature?

It seems in Locke’s view that they are. And if they are, then this also has a bearing on the previous question. For even if man’s living in a state of nature and entering a social contract turn out to be fictions, a state of nature among nations seems real enough, and so does the need for a social contract among them.

That sovereign nations are in a state of nature can be seen readily. No laws govern them; no nation is secure from the predatory attacks of another; the strongest nation enforces its will. Indeed it seems as though it is Hobbes’s rather than Locke’s conception of the state of nature that applies to nations.

Locke himself writes as follows:

It is often asked as a mighty objection, where are, or ever were, there any men in such a state of Nature? To which it may suffice as an answer at present, that since all princes and rulers of “independent” governments all through the world are in a state of Nature, it is plain the world never was, nor never will be, without numbers of men in that state.

A social contract among nations would, by analogy, require each nation to give up its “equality, liberty and executive power” in order to be more secure, in a society of nations, in its “life, liberty, and estates.” In other words, a society of nations would require each nation to give up its sovereignty. Thus we see that the United Nations is not a political society, for each nation in it maintains its sovereignty, as is evidenced by the right of the veto in the Security Council and the immunity of the member states from the UN’s “interference” in their internal affairs.

Since, according to social contract theories, a state is formed by the consent of all those who were in a state of nature, must the government of a civil society also be based on consent, i.e., must it be constitutional?

The answer is no, or at least uncertain. For Hobbes, although an adherent of the social contract theory of the origin of the state, is also a firm believer in the absolute power of governments once established; while Locke, as we have seen, is an advocate of constitutionalism, i.e., government based on the consent of the governed.

Curiously enough, however, both Hobbes and Locke derive their differing views as to the nature of government from their social contract theories. The difference is explained by their differing views of the state of nature.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is so terrible (nasty, brutish, and short) that men give up everything in order to get away from it. Thus they give up, forever, any rights against the sovereign. Locke, however, conceiving men to have liberties and rights in the state of nature, holds that no man would want to make his condition worse than it was, and therefore maintains that men always retain rights against the sovereign. Their consent, in other words, is conditional upon his executing the trust placed in him.

What, if anything, is the significance of substituting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for “life, liberty, and estates” in the enumeration of natural rights?

Were the writers of the Declaration of Independence any less believers in the right to “estates” (i.e., private property) than Locke? That is hardly likely, if we examine the other writings of the Declaration’s authors and signers.

Nor is it likely that the substitution is altogether insignificant, constituting merely a slip of the pen, or the substitution of a more euphonious phrase for one less so. There was disagreement among the Founding Fathers about the political significance of private property. Franklin, for example, opposing the limitation of suffrage to property-holders, asked, “Why should property be represented at all?”

“Pursuit of happiness” seems to take in a wider territory than “estate.” Perhaps it can be maintained that that was the reason for the change. If pursuit of happiness requires a man’s estate to be secure, then the Declaration of Independence affirms that to be part of man’s inalienable right; but if other things are also required, it also asserts his right to those.


From The Great Ideas Program: An Introduction to The Great Books and to a Liberal Education,by Mortimer J. Adler and and Peter Wolff.

Used Courtesy of TheGreatIdeas.org.