TWO TREATISES ON GOVERNMENT: SECOND TREATISE
Of the State of Nature
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, 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 bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
The Founders of the United States relied heavily on the work of John Locke, including his critical assumption of the existence and preeminence of God. In a recent article (read the entire piece HERE) for Literary Life, Melissa Cain Travis said the following:
In other words, nothing can’t produce anything–from nothing, nothing comes. All things that have come into being must be traced back to a source that has existed from eternity (if the dreaded infinite regress is to be avoided). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is roughly the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which states: Anything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence.
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book The Great Books Reader:
The Second Treatise of Government implies to the not-even-careful reader that there must be a First Treatise. That earlier work by Locke was a devastating critique of the argument for an absolute monarch, based mostly on biblical history. Locke was careful to show that nothing in the Bible, or of Christianity, denies humans the right to revolt against a bad government; nothing gives the king absolute power.
Locke finished off serious defense of “divine right” in the English-speaking world, showing not only that philosophy can make progress but also that average citizens can notice that progress.
All the same, that he meant to build a Christian political philosophy does not mean he succeeded. Read Locke and ask yourself if he did. Or did he inadvertently help to bring on the toxic secularism of our own time?
Is America untethered from its founding religious principles or does its structure accommodate atheism?
Join the discussion on Facebook HERE
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
Notions of the Public Good
THE POLITICAL POINT IN LOCKE
In modern American politics, everything is open for debate. The efficacy of a candidate, the impact of a tax measure, even the legitimacy of government itself is up for discussion. While valued, political debate often is taken for granted, an assumed privilege born out from the fundamental characteristics of a democratic republican government. Americans talk about government because they believe citizens play a fundamental role in making sure that the government fulfills its function.
The notion that humanity is capable of forming, reforming, and critiquing political society is an idea that gained remarkable momentum in Western political thought during the Enlightenment. In particular, the works of John Locke, influential in the shaping of American political thought, sought to demonstrate that legitimate government comes from the people and operates for the public good.
Locke’s political works begin, not with the rights man has, but with the fact that he was created. Thus, in the Second Treatise, he makes various assertions about man’s political nature and the impact this nature has on the formation of government. Man’s common creation informs man’s essential and political nature. Locke’s writings demonstrate that, at its best, political theorizing is an engagement with man as he is and not as he ought to be; a task of construction, not merely critique.
Published anonymously during his life, Locke’s political writings largely grew out of his own observations of the unrest that plagued England during his lifetime.
[H]is life spanned one of the most tumultuous periods of English history. He was ten years old when England became divided by civil war and still at Westminster School when Charles I was executed nearby in 1649. He lived through the subsequent interregnum when various governments of the Commonwealth and Cromwell’s Protectorate were in power, the subsequent Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and the radicalization of English politics in which he was sufficiently implicated so that he was forced into exile for most of the 1680s—returning only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
(Introduction to Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration: John Locke, ed. Ian Shapiro [New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2003], x.)
As an empiricist, Locke valued the role of observation in the development of any fundamental idea. What he observed was that existing notions of government were insufficient to maintain peace and prosperity.
The volatility and instability of government during Locke’s age led him, and many others, to generate commentary not only on how government should run but also on the essential elements of the beginning of political society in general. Many of these theorists turned to the Bible in support of their conclusions.
Locke respected the Scriptures, but he soundly rejected the arguments of political absolutism and divine right that many contemporaries argued were found there.
In his First Treatise, Locke discussed the significance of God having created Adam, and the type of political power and responsibilities this creation incurred. For Locke, man necessarily exists in a state of self and other—that is, all men are created by God, and no man exists without other men.
This common creation, then, results in equality of freedom. No man can claim any higher source for his existence than God; no man can claim any legitimate authority over any other man because all men are created. Similarly, common creation creates the “obligation to mutual love amongst men” (Second Treatise, §5). The rights or powers man has are an outgrowth of this reality.
According to Locke, man in the state of nature, prior to the formation of political society, has two basic powers (or rights): the power to preserve his own life and the life of others, and the power to punish someone who has caused harm. Within political society, man yields these powers, in varying extents, to the political community. Through express consent, man yields the power that is necessary for the formation of government.
Locke claimed that the purpose of all this power yielding is the public good, or “the good of every particular member of that society, as far as by common rules it can be provided for” (First Treatise, § 92). The concept of public good woven throughout most of the Second Treatise must be read in light of Locke’s primary notions of man, of reason, and of freedom; all the foundational elements that contribute to his political theory are interconnected.
By establishing “public good” as the object of political society, Locke also placed it as a limit:
[T]he power of society . . . can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good . . . to be directed to no other end but the peace, safety and public good of the people. (Second Treatise, §131)
Even Locke’s axiom of majority rule in a political society stems from a desire to properly utilize the power that’s been transferred from the individual to the society. It’s not that the majority gets to decide what’s best, based on their own interests against any minority political interests; rather, the majority is bound by the very responsibility of the public good.
In so far as self and other are interdependent for Locke, even in a state of nature, it’s a rational conclusion that government’s primary responsibilities, once formed, are aimed at maintaining and providing for the preservation and flourishing of the whole, not just the individual. For John Locke, the public good is the point of political society.
Jamie Y. Whitaker Campbell, JD, is an assistant professor of Humanities and Law in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University; she also teaches American Constitutional Law, focusing on the development of individual liberties within the American justice system.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).