John Locke is commonly thought of as the “father of limited government” and the progenitor of the rights-based tradition of political philosophy called “liberalism.” He is often contrasted with the absolutism of Hobbes: Locke’s government is minimal where Hobbes’s government is all-powerful, Locke’s State of Nature is good and benign where Hobbes’s state of nature is a “war of all against all” leading to a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and that Locke’s political society is one of abundant freedom whereas Hobbes’s is one of subjected tyranny so as to avoid that ills of the state of nature. That reading of Locke is completely fatuous and mythical; anyone who actually cares to read and understand Locke will quickly realize why Locke is generally described as “the wolf Hobbes in sheep’s clothing” in political philosophy despite whatever your government civics textbook said in high school.
Locke’s famous political treatise is Two Treatises of Government. The first treatise is his critique of the insufficiency of the political theory of Robert Filmer, who was a Tory divine-rights political philosopher. The second treatise, which is where Locke outlines his actual response to his critique of Filmer, is not a critique of Hobbes, as some wrongfully think, but a critique of Aristotle and Richard Hooker (in part), a response to Filmer (in part), and is the continuation of the revolutionary social contract tradition begun by Hobbes – though Locke never mentions Hobbes and will make a slight pivot away from Hobbes’s state of nature which is Locke’s very own sleight of hand. As Leo Strauss said in Natural Right and History, if liberalism is the doctrine of the state guaranteeing the rights of citizens, Hobbes is the first political theorist who can be called “liberal.” The difference between Hobbes and Locke are like two sides of the same coin – which is to say no difference at all.
Chapter I: The Purpose and Power of Government
The opening of the second treatise is just a restatement of Locke’s critique of Filmer and why Filmer is wrong. But what Locke says at the close of the first chapter is very telling, and we quickly realize Locke is not the granddaddy to “libertarianism” as contemporary American libertarians (who aren’t even libertarians historically and philosophically) like to claim. “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 defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”
In this quote, Locke basically sums up what liberalism is all about. The concept of the political is about the establishment of legal positivism – the “right of making laws with the penalties of death.” Positivism, in philosophy, is the view that the law can mold, or shape, people to desirable outcomes. We also know what that outcome is for Locke, “the regulating and preserving of property.” Right away Locke confers onto the government the power to make laws with the penalty of death, implying that the purpose of law is corrective behavioralism, and that law has the power to simultaneously “regulate” and “preserve” what it deems necessary to regulate and preserve – which, in the context of property and the producerism that Locke defends throughout the text, means the right to regulate and preserve the acquisition of material goods.
Furthermore, the power of the political to enact its laws is done in the name of the public good. This is not all dissimilar from Rousseau’s “public will,” even though Rousseau strongly disagrees with the account of the state of nature and social contract presented by Hobbes and Locke. So, right away, we see that Locke is stating that the commonwealth is held together by political power, and the purpose of civil government is power itself. So much for the idea, in the first chapter of reading Two Treatises, that Locke is the father of limited government (which he is not, Aristotle and St. Augustine have better claims to being the progenitors of limited government than does Locke).
Chapter II: The State of Nature
Having established what the purpose and right of political power is, Locke then turns to his infamous discussion of how to understand why government has the power that it does. His answer, following Hobbes, is to posit that there was a “state of nature” prior to civil society. In this move, Locke is equally discussing the nature of human anthropology – which we have looked at principally through St. Augustine on this site – but our primary interest in Two Treatises is less Locke’s anthropology and more his political philosophy (at least as it stands in this reading of Locke’s second treatise).
Those high school textbooks lied to you when they said Locke’s account of the state of nature is one that is benign and good. That’s actually Rousseau’s account of the state of nature. Locke’s account of the state of nature is simultaneously Hobbesian and anti-Hobbesian. For Locke, we have unlimited freedom and equality in the state of nature. By this he is referring to the power of action. Our freedom is the power of doing, it is not an ontological or teleological state of being (per the classical philosophers), but one that is premised on the prevailing theories of “matter in motion” that are coming out of the British empirical tradition and rise of the “Enlightenment.” Thus, for Locke, our freedom is principally found in the power of action. We all share in this power of action in the state of nature – without any laws, which is to say boundaries – and therefore we are perfectly free in the state of nature. As Locke writes, “We must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bound of the law of nature.”
This is pretty good, except that other people exist in the state of nature too. And we will also have to address what Locke means by “law of nature” because it is not the same thing as “natural law.” Locke’s “law of reason” and “law of nature” is the same thing. The law of reason is self-preservation, or self-survival. This is why Locke writes, even though we have unlimited power in the state of nature, we “[do] not [have] liberty to destroy [ourselves]” (actual text: “yet he has not liberty to destroy himself”). This is because the law of reason recognizes life, but not necessarily others’ life, but only my own life.
Self-preservation is both the law of reason and the law of nature, “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.” This is the most important quick sleight of hand in reading Locke. And few people recognize it.
Locke states that the law of nature governs over even reason. Reason is subject to the recognition of self-preservation. Because it is reasonable not to harm myself, it stands to reason, Locke is arguing, that when we universalize the law of nature, we realize that we should do not harm others in their life, health, liberty, or possessions. One will also note that happiness is conveniently left out of Locke’s formulation, and that Locke’s formulation is tacitly materialistic – with the understanding that life and health is of the body, liberty is about action-theory, and possessions is obviously about material things that one has under his dominion. Locke, then, asserts that the law of nature which is self-preservation. But self-preservation runs into a problem if we are a-social and solitary individuals as Locke’s anthropological account seems to indicate.
This is why Locke follows this up by saying that in the state of nature we recognize the law of self-preservation, and that the law of self-preservation would become the law of non-harm if we were not in competition with others. The problem is precisely that, however – when we are not in competition. But we are in competition with others in the state of nature. This is why we will eventually leave the state of nature (Locke discusses further reasons later on, especially in Chapter 9). “Everyone is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.” Right there Locke is foreshadowing that the goal of the social contract is to eliminate “competition” which ruins the law of self-preservation. Since self-preservation is solely about the self, I care not about others. Locke breaks with the classical philosophical tradition and its anthropology defended in Greco-Roman and Catholic philosophy that humans are naturally social animals who desire community by natural habit and inclination. Wrong, Locke says. He essentially agrees with Hobbes’s account that we are individualistic beings out for ourselves and only ourselves.
The state of nature, then, is one that degenerates into conflict. I have the freedom to come into conflict with another, in the name of my own self-preservation, “And thus, in the state of nature, ‘one man comes by a power over another.’” In Locke’s state of nature, we take the law of nature into our own hands as we become the Judge, Jury, and Executioner of anyone who has “transgressed the law of nature.”
Locke’s set up of the law of nature, which is self-preservation, is his metaphysical justification for the rise and establishment of civil authority. The purpose of this authority is to recognize the law of nature – the law of self-preservation – and establish laws and courts which keep humans separated from each other. Liberalism, then, operates – paradoxically – on the principle of atomized separationism even though it simultaneously recognizes any “liberation” from the state of nature is not possible unless humans come into a compact with each other and therefore a collective is necessary in order to achieve progress, but that progress is purely motivated by the self. The “law of reason” tells us, in other words, that there must be a better way to live than to be stuck in constant transgressions of the law of nature in the state of nature.
So while we all have an unlimited state of “executive power” in the state of nature, the constant fighting, tripping over one another, the “transgressions of the law of nature” (because we’re not being “reasonable enough” in other words) is what will mandate the formation of social contract society. We don’t like to have to be judge, jury, and executioner, we would rather live in peace producing and consuming from our property, rather than have to deal with all the “problems” of the world, so to speak, so as a result we decide to form the civil magisterium to take this responsibility from us. This is key: we forfeit freedom in order to live in security according to Locke. It is the same principle in Hobbes, though through a more grizzly and gruesome depiction of the state of nature than the fear and tiresome responsibility of having to punish those who breach the law of nature in Locke’s account.
The right of self-preservation knows no boundaries in Locke’s depiction of the state of nature. This is why the social contract will establish boundaries for us. Only through the establishment of boundaries, e.g. laws of “regulation” and “preservation,” can we actually live in accordance with the law of nature and law of reason, which is universal peaceability through the principle of self-preservation.
Chapters 3-4: State of War and the Condition of Slavery
Having highlighted the state of nature, which is our “natural state of being” according to Locke, he turns to the state of war and state of slavery in chapters 3 and 4. According to Locke, the state of war is not the same as the state of nature. The state of war is when we live in the state of nature but do not live in accordance with the law of nature and law of reason (universal peaceability through recognition of universal self-preservation). As Locke reiterates, “it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war on him.” Locke is saying that the state of war nullifies the state of nature, and the law of nature – which, if it is self-preservation, I should do whatever is necessary to defend myself. But Locke also realizes that this is a negation of another person’s freedom, and their right to self-preservation. When self-preservation collides, we tumble into the state of war.
This is the inherent contradiction of liberalism: self-preservation invokes life, but only my life. This self-centeredness seeks, as Jean Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, that I am the center of the world. Others’ do not matter, especially their lives in relationship to my own. Whoever has the most power, will be the one who survives. But if others are operating under the same law of nature and reason that I am – self-preservation – then when I recognize this, I come into a compact with the other. The problem, for Locke, is that in the state of nature I am so self-absorbed that I cannot recognize that the law of nature and reason applies to others and that they are operating under the same pretense as I. But once I “become reasonable,” in other words, I recognize that others operate under the same principle that I do. In this recognition, I extend a hand of humanizing grace – compassion – to the other. We agree to set aside our conflict, erect some boundaries, and live peaceable as neighbors each pursuing my own self-interest within the confines of the parameters (fences) established by the social contract. This is why the social contract becomes the civil magisterium, with the right and power to do what Locke said the purpose of the political is at the end of Chapter I.
“To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to Heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is authority, a power on earth, from which relief can had by appeal, there is continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.” Locke humanizes, here, the Calvinist principle of the Covenant of Grace – that act of compassion from God to man. However, it is between man to man. Furthermore, we see that Locke asserts the state of war is the product of pluralism, that is, difference. Pluralism – that is, difference – needs to end in order to live in civil society peacefully without the threat of the state of war. For Locke, we are all really the same. (And only in recognizing sameness can we avoid the difference that leads to conflict.)
Finishing Chapter 4 where he began Chapter 3, in recognizing the state of war seeks to enslave others so as to have peace, Locke argues against slavery in one of his more redeeming moments in Two Treatises. Locke does not argue against slavery on moral grounds, but on the grounds of equal liberty in the state of nature. No one, in the right mind, or right liberty, would ever subject themselves to the authority of others. However, to the victors go the spoils.
Therefore, the establishment of slavery is the result of the state of war and the use of force. Slavery is not a natural condition as it would nullify the very assumption of equal liberty in the state of nature. But because we often engage in war with each other in the bid of self-preservation, the loser becomes enslaved to the victor. Slavery, then, is not a natural condition in the state of nature – it is the product of force and the state of war, which is not natural according to Locke because it is not in accord with the law of nature itself. That is to say that slavery, while not a “natural condition,” is a historical condition. Slavery is a product of history.
The redeeming aspect of Locke, on this account, is that some took Locke’s presentation of slavery in favor of abolitionism. (Others equally took Locke as justifying slavery on the grounds that it was a product of history.) The abolitionist argument from Locke is simple: slavery is not a natural condition of civilization. It is an unnatural one. Therefore, it should be eliminated if our society is meant to reflect, more perfectly, mankind’s state of natural condition.
Furthermore, in Chapter 4, Locke also states that “The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established by consent, in the commonwealth.” Locke is saying that our liberty is subject to the commonwealth legislature, which we of course consented to – which he further explains in Chapters 8 and 11. This is done with consent because our consent means we’re being rational, living in accord with the “law of nature” which is the “law of reason” which is subject to the law of nature. The legislature, then, is the manifestation of the law of nature in civil society according to Locke.
Conclusion: Chapters 1-4
When we return to reading Locke’s Two Treatises, we will turn to his defense of property, which is central to the purpose and role of government in Locke’s account. However, if you actually just read Locke, instead of reading Wikipedia or other sites that lie to you about Locke’s political theory, you will realize he is not the father of limited government at all. He also doesn’t deviate, in any significant manner, from Hobbes’s account of the state of nature. Locke begins the second treatise by justifying the rise of the state through the law of nature and law of reason. This is not the same as the natural law of teleological happiness as Greco-Roman and Catholic philosophy and anthropology maintained. Instead, it is the law of self-preservation which becomes universalized through the establishment of the civil magisterium.
Locke’s work is not about “limiting political order,” it is fundamentally about justifying political order – even if it is not the divine patrimony of Robert Filler or the need, in the formation of the initial social contract, to absolutism per Hobbes. Of course, Locke is still a true liberal philosopher – if liberalism is understood as the doctrine in which the government is what establishes and “protects” our rights and liberties because we are incapable of doing this ourselves. This is important to assess between the break between “classical” political philosophy and “modern” political philosophy: classical political philosophy was about the cultivation of virtue and the maintenance of political order because we are, at heart, “political” (social) animals who live in a city and that our happiness is, in some way, dependent upon having a good and orderly regime; modern political philosophy is about the justification of state power, why we need the state, and why our liberty is dependent upon the state.
This is the conundrum of Locke and of liberalism. “Ideally,” self-preservation should become the universal moral law that leads to complete non-harm of oneself and of others. However, self-preservation, Locke equally tells us, degenerates into a state of war where all transgress the law of nature in the pursuit of their own self-preservation which leads to a “war of all against all.” This is what will lead to the establishment of civil authority. The State is what saves us and progresses us out of the state of nature which often degenerates into a war of self-preservation. In law and the State the law of self-preservation actualizes its more humane side, but if left to us without law or the State, chaos is what rules the state of nature.