John Locke and His Second Treatise on Civil Government

The influential English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an anti-absolutist. This meant that he was against an absolutist monarchy, unlike the rest of Europe. Locke wrote many works, among which were his two main treatises.

The First Treatise on Civil Government was a response by Locke to Sir Robert Filmer´s work Patriarch. Locke argued against Filmer on the topic of the divine right of kings.

Locke’s most famous writing is the Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690). The main topic of this work is the ‘state of nature’. This is a pre-political condition, or a state before the institution of a civil government. In the ‘state of nature’ there is natural law, a law of right and wrong that has been established before all time. (To see more on this read this article: The Levellers)

Another aspect of the ‘state of nature’ is that every person, down to the smallest child, has rights: individual rights. Among them is the right to punish those who interfere with your rights.

Self-ownership was another main facet of the ‘state of nature’. Like the Levellers, Locke declares that you own yourself, and therefore you and no one else has a right to your physical body. The first declaration of this idea was given by Henry Ghent in the thirteenth century.

The idea of self-ownership leads to that of private property. While you own yourself, you can also own other things. Locke says that in order to own something you must embed your own ‘work-and-sweat’ into it. However, later Locke declares that in order to own something you must not only work on it, but improve it.  If the property moves into other hands, whether by sales, inheritance or other means, the new owner doesn’t have to improve it to own it.

John Locke

John Locke

In the ‘state of nature’ Locke says that there are inconveniences. Inconveniences in this sense are much stronger than the meaning we give it today. Today an inconvenience is a small setback. In Locke’s time, however, an inconvenience meant a problem, often times a big one. There are three main inconveniences in Locke’s ‘state of nature’, which he says can be remedied by creating a third party as judge: a civil government. The three inconveniences are:

  • There is no body of universally recognized law we can appeal to
  • There is no reliable law enforcement
  • People are bad judges of their own cases

When a government is then instituted to remedy these inconveniences, we delegate some of our individual rights to it, such as the right to punish those who harm you. The government then fills that office as judge and the one who metes out punishment and restitution.

Locke says that people must give their consent to abide within a civil society (with a government), and therefore leave the state of nature. This is called ‘Tacit Consent.’ The philosopher then changes and states that only the majority have to agree. He gives an example of an argument a government would use to validate this idea. It is still used today: “You’re not leaving the government, so I guess you’re okay with it.”

However, Locke does not want an absolute monarchy to serve as government. This is because there is no third party to judge in an absolute monarchy. The king is the judge. The whole purpose of a government is to create a third party. Without this we are still in the state of nature, because the monarch is not resolving the inconveniences.

So, can the government be overthrown? Locke says that if it does not serve its purpose of resolving the inconveniences of the ‘state of nature’, then it can be overthrown and replaced.

These are the views of John Locke, a seventeenth century English philosopher, in his work the Second Treatise on Civil Government.



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