Two Treatises of Government

Two Treatises of Government

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Title:Two Treatises of Government
Author:John Locke
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Edition Language:English

Two Treatises of Government Reviews

  • Kenghis Khan

    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,

    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.

  • Steven Peterson

    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

    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.

  • Diem

    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

    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.

  • Thomas Mick

    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.

  • Drpsychorat

    This book is a must read for understanding social contract theory. Although it is not my cup of tea, it does confront a great many current political issues that were also present in the 17th century. I also liked Locke's. emphasis that government is meant to be supportive of the public & their rights, not the rights of the politicians or corporations.

  • Robert Owen

    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 setting the source of authority for any legitimate government within the consent of the

    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 setting 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 so fascinating is that although it was written over 300 years ago, it will resonate with anyone aware of traditional American notions of “political common sense.” Locke argues that by nature, each 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’s fascinating to read these ideas that today we all take for granted as a proposition 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 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 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, as one can probably imagine, a light read – especially the first treatise. Yet it’s 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.

  • Pinkyivan

    Inoffensive, agreeable, well written, but also rather dull and useless.

  • Lovely Fortune

    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

    was a bit boring, though. I had more fun disagreeing with Hobbes, than I did agreeing with Locke.

  • Kati

    Had to read this for one of my classes this semester, if you guys wonder...*hides in a corner*

  • Natalie Clarke

    This book is almost as dense as I am.

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