John Locke and the Two Treatises of Government.

John Locke was a political scientist writing in the late 17th century whose works would become very influential indeed. Locke’s primary writings emerge from a curious point in history. The Two Treatises of Government were written sometime before the deposing of James II and the ascent of William of Orange and published in 1689. The Two Treatises of Government were written as a refutation of absolutism and to showcase Locke’s beliefs on the role of government.[1] Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke does not consider man to be inherently self-interested, fickle or brutish, but instead we are inherently “good”. Society has instead warped us to act this way. If it is a problem of nurture, rather than nature, it may be corrected.

The basis of Locke’s arguments stem from Biblical law and theory. The first such law being that God gave the world to Adam and his descendants for their use. The key point of this phrase being that God did not give the world to only a select few of Adam’s children (divine right monarchists) but to all. We all have a common claim to the Earth and its fruits. The most natural and important claim however, is that in Man’s claim to property in one’s own self. As Locke states “…every Man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”[2]    Man then has the option of investing his labor into a natural resource, creating personal property.

Similar to Hobbes, Locke believes in the formation of government through a social contract. The difference lies in that in the Lockean model, collective relinquishing of power of the community is done so to form a civil government, one that is accountable, rather than a divine right monarch. The primary role of this civil government is to protect life, liberty, and property, from those who are unwilling to live by the confines of reason.[3] This creates an impartial arbiter to mete out justice, a limited government built on reason and reciprocity.

[1] [1] Roger B. Manning, E.A Reitan, Henry L. Snyder, Frederic A. Youngs, Jr. The English Heritage, Volume I: to 1714, 3rd edition (Wheeling: Harlan Davidson Inc. 1978), 156.

[2] Locke, John, “Two Treatises of Government”, Student edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 138-140.

[3] Ibid, 272.

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