Societal-Political Philosophy 101

John Locke (1632-1704)
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A Very Important Philosopher in the Age of Reason

Locke On Government:


Locke's views on government are expressed in his work Two Treatises of Government. In summary, with this work, Locke defended the proposition that government rests on popular consent and rebellion is permissible when government subverts the ends (the protection of life, liberty, and property) for which it is established.

Locke's First Treatise was a systematic and almost labored attack in detail on Sir Robert Filmer (1590-1653), and especially on Patriarcha, a work published in 1680. Patriarcha was a sustained attack in defense of divine monarchy. It seems that Locke was not so much interested in Filmer but rather was using him as a stalking horse to attack the far more powerful political teachings of Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan (1651).

Locke's Second Treatise, by far, is the more influential work. In it, he set forth his theory of natural law and natural right.  In it, he shows that there does exist a rational purpose to government and one need not rely on "myth, mysticism, and mystery."  Being against anarchy, Locke saw his job as one who must defend government as an institution. Locke's objective was to insist not only that the public welfare was the test of good government and the basis for properly imposing obligations on the citizens of a country; but, also, that the public welfare made government necessary.

Thus the basic purpose for the existence of a government can be summarized as follows:

In Civil Government Locke expounds the Individualistic view of private property, and again lays down the quintessence of Individualism. 'The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.' He qualifies his theory of a Social Compact, Contract or Covenant, by pointing out that 'men when they enter into society give up ... liberty of a kind; yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property,' the power conferred 'can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone's property.'  This masterful qualification of the common good, serves as a complete defense of the 'Glorious Revolution,' which gave the world effective parliamentary government.

Since Locke's time, no government or administration has met even the minimal level of acceptability in peace time. Wars however force a false cohesiveness that usually lasts less than a generation thus leaving Locke's ideal state of grace unattainable.

Locke maintained that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. He further maintained that all human beings, in their natural state, were equal and free to pursue life, health, liberty, and possessions; and that these were inalienable rights. Pre-social man as a moral being, and as an individual, contracted out "into civil society by surrendering personal power to the ruler and magistrates," and did so as "a method of securing natural morality more efficiently." To Locke, natural justice exists and this is so whether the state exists, or not, it is just that the state might better guard natural justice.