John Locke and Two Treatises of Government Term Paper

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John Locke and Two Treatises of Government

Locke's Conception of the State of Nature vs. The State of War

In "Two Treatises of Government" Locke strives to present the notion that a government grounded in the consent of the populace does not necessarily "lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, Tumult, Sedition and Rebellion"(Book II, Chapter I, Sec.25). Locke suggests all of mankind operates on the Law of Nature, within which reason prevails. This Natural Law dictates that all people are equal and independent, and an individual must never harm another in his "life, health, liberty or possessions" (Book II, Ch.II, Sec.6). Natural Law wills the peace and preservation of mankind, and, in essence, is justice.

Locke argues that all people exist in a State of Nature under the influence of Natural Law.

This implies that the natural state of mankind is one of freedom. All people are free to direct their own affairs and property within the confines of Natural Law. The State of Nature embodies the Law of Nature, and exists according to its principles. According to Locke, the State of Nature is one of harmonious peace, and this peacefulness is the result of Natural Law.

The State of Nature is a state of freedom, but is not an absolute carte blanche. An individual existing in a State of Nature does not have the right to destroy the life or livelihood of another unless it is in punishment for an offence against mankind. Locke explains that W) hen his own preservation comes not in competition,...(an individual must) preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another (Book II, Ch. II, Sec.6).

In this state, the preservation of mankind is key, and all must be done to ensure the perpetuation of existence according to Natural Law. This preservation is achieved through the maintenance of a natural, peaceful state. Conflict, argues Locke, is unnatural and distinct from, and opposite to, the State of Nature. When people in a State of Nature exercise their freedom against Natural Law, and hence against the preservation of mankind, conflict results, and thus a State of War exists.

According to Locke, the State of War is unnatural, and therefore opposite to the State of Nature. Since the preservation of mankind is a basic principle underlying the state of nature, any destructive intentions toward mankind are in violation of Natural Law. Locke describes the State of War as "a state of enmity and destruction" (Book II, Ch. III, Sec. 16). The State of War occurs when individuals act against reason, and therefore against Natural Law. In order to avert a State of War, people have the right to destroy those that threaten their "Lives, Liberty and Estates" (Book II, Ch. IX, Sec. 123), what Locke collectively terms as Property. People have this right in order to ensure the preservation of mankind. Those individuals who threaten to destroy the Property of others do not operate according to reason, and are therefore in opposition to Natural Law, and hence the State of Nature.

In order to avert a State of War, according to Locke, the compact that establishes civil society must adhere to Natural Law, and combine the freedom of the State of Nature with the justice of Natural Law. Therefore, violations of the Law of Nature must be punished in order to stave off a State of War. Since all people are equal and all people observe the Law of Nature, all have a responsibility to enforce the law in order to deter transgression. The aim here is to maintain mankind in a State of Nature, and to "preserve the innocent and restrain offenders" (Book II, Ch. II, Sec. 7). Punishment, in Locke's view consists of reparation and restraint.

The State of Nature and the State of War are distinctly opposite from each other. Locke states:

T) he plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded are as far distant as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another. Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war" (Book II, Ch. III, Sec.19).

This distinction further describes the polarity between the State of Nature and the State of War, and mankind's propensity to exist within the constraints of Natural Law.

Locke argues that societies are formed in order to preserve the freedom of the State of Nature. He states in Book II, Chapter IX, Sec. 124, "The great and chief end therefore, of Men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property." If, however, the governing body is destructive toward mankind, the people have the right and responsibility to uphold Natural Law and oust the offender. Revolt of a populace against a corrupt government would restore mankind to its natural state, which is one of peace and mutual preservation.

Contrary to Locke's view, one may argue that societies are formed on the basis of mutual protection rather than mutual preservation. According to this view, the State of Nature is not in opposition to the State of War. These two states are actually descriptions of the same thing. The natural state of mankind is one of disharmony and conflict, and peace is unnatural. The State of Nature is a state of sin. Proponents of this viewpoint may argue that without social order, mankind exists in a State of War and perpetual conflict. Constant fear characterizes this natural human state, and all people are self-seeking enemies of each other. Evidence of this violent State of Nature may be found in the everyday behavior of people carrying weapons in case of the need for self-defence, or locking their doors at night, despite the existence of law enforcement. Hobbes was one of the most famous adherents to this brutish and violent view of mankind.

In opposition to Locke, this view sees conflict as the natural state of mankind, and that civil society is structured accordingly. This position argues that society was developed to protect civilians from their destructive nature. Any revolt against the government, which according to this viewpoint constitutes absolute rule, would result in a regression to mankind's natural state of tumult and conflict, and thus uncontrolled chaos. It may be argued that Locke himself identifies with this view in response to the advent of money, which spawned acts of greed and destruction. In Book II, Ch. IX, Sec. 123 Locke notes that the enjoyment of the property (mankind) has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a Condition, which however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: And 'tis not without reason, that he seeks out and is willing to joyn in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unite for the mutual preservation of their


In this statement Locke described essentially two different states of nature: one before and one after the introduction of money. It seems that Locke was acknowledging the potential for a conflict-ridden natural human state, and that after the advent of money, the distinction between the State of Nature and the State of war disappears, rendering them equal and the same. This would put Locke in agreement with those who take…[continue]

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