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The Second Treatise on Civil Government (Great Books in Philosophy) Paperback – March 1, 1986
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Political Power and Natural state: He explains the need for civil government; by detailing life with the absence of civil government. This is the premature state of an entity; through this one can see the need and a role for a government structure. He begins by defining political power; which is the right of making laws with penalties varying with the nature of transgression. The laws are maintained for the preservation of property; the enrichment of the community and its defense.
He determines the need for civil government by expressing the state of society without a government. To maintain harmony; there is a need to maintain equality; this is the state of nature. The chief end for the human species is survival; to attain it we need life, liberty, health and property. These are natural rights that we have in a state of nature before the introduction of civil government, and all people have these rights equally.
The Natural State personifies a state of utopia; as it does not account for the realistic issues of violations of this natural state. There are no police, prosecutors or judges in the state of nature as these are all representatives of a government with full political power. In addition to our other rights, we have the rights to enforce the law and judge on our own behalf. We may intervene in cases where our own interests are not directly under threat to help enforce the law of nature. Still, the person who is most likely to enforce the law under these circumstances is the person who has been wronged. The basic principle of justice is that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. When victims are judging a crime; they likely to judge it of greater severity than an impartial judge. As a result, there will be miscarriages of justice.
Slavery: Is the state of being in the absolute or arbitrary power of another. On Locke's definition of slavery there is only one way to become a legitimate slave. In order to do so one must be an unjust aggressor defeated in war. The just victor then has the option to either kill the aggressor or enslave them. Locke tells us that the state of slavery is the continuation of the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive, in which the conqueror delays to take the life of the captive, and instead makes use of him; only in this condition is slavery legitimate. Illegitimate slavery is the state in which someone possesses absolute power over someone else without just cause. Locke holds that it is this illegitimate state of slavery which absolute monarchs wish to impose upon their subjects.
Property: In evolution of the state of nature to civil government. It is the account of nature and origin of property, which leads to the explanation of why civil government replaces the state of nature. In discussing the origin of private property Locke begins by noting that God gave the earth to all men. Locke holds that we have a property in our own person. And the labor of our body and the work of our hands properly belong to us. The state of evolution for property is hunter/gatherer to agriculture to introduction of money; each development provides more flexibility and removes limitations of trade; creating economical inequality. The inequality may cause quarrels which increases the numbers of violations of the law.
The institution of civil government comes about because of the difficulties in the state of nature. Rather clearly, on Locke's view, these difficulties increase with the increase in population, the decrease in available resources, and the advent of economic inequality which results from the introduction of money. These conditions lead to an increase in the number of violations of the natural law. Thus, the inconvenience of having to redress such grievances on one's own behalf become much more acute, since there are significantly more of them. These lead to the introduction of civil government.
Social Contract Theory: Locke's argument for the right of the majority is the theoretical ground for the distinction between duty to society and duty to government. When the designated government dissolves, men remain obligated to society acting through majority rule. It is entirely possible for the majority to confer the rule of the community on a king, oligarchs or an assembly. Thus, the social contract is not linked to democracy; still a government must perform the legitimate function of government.
Civil Government: The aim of such a legitimate civil government is to preserve, so far as possible, the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its citizens, and to prosecute and punish those of its citizens who violate the rights of others and to pursue the public good even where this may conflict with the rights of individuals. In doing this it provides something unavailable in the state of nature, an impartial judge to determine the severity of the crime, and to set a punishment proportionate to the crime.
The book, which lacks an introduction or conclusion, may be challenging for modern readers. Locke's writing covers a wide range of topics; conquest, paternal power (i.e. the power that fathers have over their children), despotical power and his over-arching central concern, property.
The main ideas of the book are that government exists by the consent of the governed who found government for the purpose of securing their lives, rights and property. Locke frequently contrasts people who live in a state of nature (i.e. no government; people enjoy considerable personal freedom) and those that live under government. Under Locke's view of the social contract, men give up give up the unlimited freedom they enjoyed in the state of nature so as to secure their life, limb and property more securely under government. There is also some discussion of the idea of separation of powers; what is interesting here is that Locke does not use the traditional formulation (i.e. executive, legislative, and judicial), rather he discusses executive, legislative and "federative" (by which he means the conduct of self-defense and foreign policy) powers.
The type of government that Locke describes more closely resembles the system employed by Britain and Canada, more than the United States. He conceives of a monarch or prince at the top of the government (as in Britain and Canada; the Monarch is the Head of State), with the legislature representing the people (Parliament) and so on. This is not to deny that this book still holds value for Americans, as other reviewers have pointed out.
All that said, I would not recommend this particular edition of the book. The lack of introduction to put Locke in his historical context can make the book difficult to understand and some of Locke's 17th century references will simply be skipped over by most readers. However, if you simply want a copy of the book that is plain and plan to quote from it, this edition is quite useful. Each paragraph of the book is numbered allowing a researcher to precisely footnote information.
Locke is one of the most influential philosophers of all time. In his Second Treatise, Locke lays the foundation for what has become modern western civilization. Locke's arguments are fully developed as he addresses his two greatest adversaries, Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes. Though his critique of Filmer's `Patriarcha' is primarily addressed in the First Treatise and only summed up in the first chapter of the Second Treatise, his ideas of the `tabula rasa,' refuting the divine right of Kings is the foundation of the essay.
Locke also gives a profound critique of Hobbes, as he sets forth the true `state of nature.' Locke's rational and logical conclusions make his ideas extremely easy to understand. This is a must read, since having a clear understanding of Locke's state of nature, state of war, property, power, political and civil societies, conquest, usurpation, and tyranny are fundamental to understanding the history and politics of America.