Philosophy Political Philosophy

John Locke’s “Second Treatise,” Part III: The Origins of Political Society

The sixth Chapter of the Second Treatise is one of Locke’s more self-explanatory chapters.  The exoteric reading is very straightforward: the naturality of parental authority is a precursor to civil authority.  As Locke writes at the end of the chapter, “it be a sufficient proof of the natural right of fathers to political authority, because they commonly were those in whose hands we find, de-facto, the exercise of government: I say, if this argument be good, it will as strongly prove, that all princes, nay princes only, ought to be priests, since it is as certain, that in the beginning, ‘the father of the family was priest, as that he was ruler in his own household.’”  Locke’s entire commentary on the natural law of obedience to one’s parents was really a set up to establish why authority is something natural.

This is further backed up by his commentary on the tabula rasa which is less noticed in the chapter – especially from readers unfamiliar with philosophy proper.  Relying on the parental authority, Locke states that part of the reason why parents serve as guiding hands for children is because children are not yet mature and reasonable creatures.  That is, they possess no compass.  They are born with blank-slate minds.  While this seems very reasonable to assert, we must also remember what the tabula rasa entails: we have no innate ideas of anything.  We do not have any comprehension of beauty, love, or nurture.  Thus, our ideas of beauty, love, nurture, or anything else, are derivative of the guidance we receive from parents (or the law).  This is a complete rejection of innate ideas and a priori epistemology that was common in Western philosophy from Plato through Christianity.

Locke’s positivism is on display with regard to the nature of the law and how it helps mold people toward a desirable end.   “For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation, as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under the law.”  Thus, for Locke, law shapes and directs us to our proper interest and serves the general good of all those under the law itself.  Without the law, we would be lost.  You can see how the law serves as the instrument that informs the mind as to what their proper interest is and what the general good of society is.  (This is called “instrumental liberalism in political philosophy.)

In this manner too, parents serve as reflections of the law before the law takes over the responsibility of parents.  This is critical to understood.  Locke, then, disagrees with Aristotle that family is the basis of civilization and civil society.  Law is.  Law replaces the family.  Much like how civil authority replaces the family.  The role of the family is nothing but a precursor – a middle ground – to the formation of civil society out of the state of nature.  If we recall, family emerges out of the law of reason (self-preservation).  Family serves the purpose of self-preservation until the emergence of civil society from which law and government replaces parents as the natural stewards of guidance.  This is why family becomes obsolete and is replaced by law and government – it follows the pattern of progressive evolution toward something superior to the family.  In essence, you do not “own” your children.  The State does.  You do not instill values into your children.  The State does.  Parents merely acted as precursors to the State before the formation of civil authority. (One might just look at contemporary England as the perfect example of Lockean political thought having reached its internal and logical fruition.)

Chapter 7: Political Society as Self-Preservation Manifested in “Civil Society”

After having established the origins of parental authority as a precursor to the formation of civil authority, Locke turns his attention to how political society forms out of the state of nature.  He starts by continuing a commentary on the nature between the family – or conjugal relationships.  Locke argues at the beginning of Chapter 7 that marriage is not really a union between male and female for the purpose of wholeness or love, but is instead the coming together of male and female for the preservation of the human species.  Thus, marriage itself is about self-preservation.  Through a man’s seed, and a woman’s womb, humanity endures.

Sex is about preservation.  And political society is about preservation.  Locke then compares human behavior, concerning the role of sex, colonies, and preservation, with those of “the birds” and other animals, “The same is to be observed in all birds, whose young needing food in the nest, the cock and hen continue mates, till the young are able to use their wing, and provide for themselves.”  The implication here is eventually we become “self-sufficient” or capable of taking care of ourselves.  We are, at heart, a-social and solitary animals who only come into the commonwealth, or community, for some means of preservation and nothing more.  It is a compromise, a secularized “act of grace” between humans.

Civil society, then, represents the actualization and manifestation of the Law of Nature.  This is when multiple persons recognizes the mutuality of preservation among others, and thereby enter the compact of preservation with one another with the promise of maintaining boundaries between each other so each can peacefully work their property without fear or loss.  Politics, then, is principally about the use of force for the preservation of property for the end of bodily consumption, “The community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties; and by men having authority from the community, for the execution of those rules, decides all the differences that may happen between any members of that society concerning any matter of right; and punishes those offences which any member hath committed against the society, with such penalties as the law has established.”

Furthermore, politics, is about punishment, “And thus the commonwealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it.”  More importantly, the commonwealth takes on the power we forfeit to it from the state of nature.  This is why the commonwealth accrues power (over time) in Lockean political theory.  Yes, it is “minimal” in its original conception, but it grows in power over time.  This becomes more visible in the forthcoming chapters.  But as Locke writes, “But though every man who has entered into civil society, and is become a member of any commonwealth, has thereby quitted his power to punish offences against the law of nature, in prosecution of his own private judgment; yet with the judgment of offences, which he has given up to the legislative in all cases, where he can appeal to the magistrate, he has given a right to the commonwealth to employ his force.”  In reality, the State takes on our will and authority for us.  Thus the Lockean conception of the political is “naturalistic.” The State does what we would have done in the state of nature, the only difference is in the social contract we establish magistrates, legislatures, and judicial offices, and other rules via constitutions, to employ the use of force as judge, jury, and executioner, which natural reason dictated to us in the state of nature.  But it is a transfer of responsibility.  In this way, Locke foreshadows Rousseau’s “general will” (though the two take that concept in different directions).

In this way too, politics – civil society – represents progress because we, as individuals, are no longer burdened by having to take on this responsibility in the state of nature which prevents us from working our property, building up our property, and advancing ourselves through property acquisition and consumption because we are bogged down with “taking matters into our own hands” in the state of nature.  Through leaving the state of nature, progress is seen in the formation of political society which produces a modicum of order whereby we work our property and consume the things which we make (which is rightfully ours as Locke argued back in Chapter 5).  Preservation writ-large, which actualizes through the force of peace established by the commonwealth’s social contract, is the foundation of political society.

Chapter 8: “The Beginning of Political Society”

Having outlined the movement toward political society and the nature of the political, along with how “family” is really about self-preservation – and especially the preservation of the human species – Locke finally turns his attention to the “beginning of political society.”  Chapter 8 starts with a re-affirmation of the solitary nature of humanity, and then turns to outlining what political liberty and what the “will and determination of the majority” means for the political.  It is important to remember that Locke’s “natural liberty” of the state of nature is also perfected liberty (an idea he borrows from Augustine: natural liberty vs. perfect liberty) but conflates the two together (whereas in Christianity natural liberty is our state of will/voluntarism and perfect liberty to be found in union with Christ).

Locke, therefore, is arguing that political liberty is not the same as natural liberty, though some natural liberty (like property) gets brought into the political (but only the “essentials” of natural liberty, which is property).  “The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is 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.”  Like Hobbes, Locke’s political vision is one that is about peaceable consumption, safety, and security.  (Though Locke and Hobbes differ on what type of government best achieves this, they agree on the basic principles; which is why they are viewed as two sides of the same coin in political philosophy circles.)

For Locke, the “will of the majority” is always in the legal right.  In this way we can describe Locke as something of a democrat.  Much like how ancient theorists saw republicanism as compatible with monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, we can say that Locke’s “will of the majority” is compatible with monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.  “And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to every one of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it.”  And who and how do we give this consent?  Locke later states toward the end of the chapter, “And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government.”  We have consented as the preserved offspring of those original founders who established the commonwealth in the first place because we are now reaping the benefits of the social contract that was long-ago established.

Throughout the chapter Locke also examines whether he can provide an answer to the critics looking for such a state of nature which undergirds Locke’s theory.  While Locke admits that historical data and writings cannot be found, he argues from political anthropology and by pointing to America as the example of where the state of nature is still visible (vis-à-vis the Native American tribes).  As he says, the fact that monarchy seemed to be the historical norm does not violate his political views, instead it affirms it – that is, the need for a government of some type.  The simple fact of history that there is government, commonwealths, monarchies, republics, and guilds, and so on, are all evidence for Locke’s basic principles.

Contained in this sub-narrative of chapter 8 is also a proto-historicist argument.  In short, Locke is seeing the commonwealth of dispersed authority as progress away from the singular rule of monarchy.  Political order, then, progresses even if all political orders – be they monarchies or commonwealths – share the same foundational need coming out of the state of nature.  Locke maintains that monarchy is insufficient in comparison to the dispersed and devolved commonwealth.  Thus, he is also making a utilitarian argument about politics.  The more utilitarian and efficient political order is the best.  “Such a constitution as this [speaking of monarchy] would make the mighty leviathan of a shorter duration than the feeblest creatures, and not let it outlast the day it was born in: which cannot be supposed, till we can think that rational creatures should desire and constitute societies only to be dissolved: for where the majority cannot conclude the rest, there they cannot act as one body, and consequently will be immediately dissolved again.”  Therefore, Locke’s utilitarianism in politics is predicated on order and stability, which he also associates with what the will of majority seeks.


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