Locke's Two Treatises

Little recognised at first, and published anonymously, Locke's theories proved influential to the next generation of political thinkers

Who was Locke?

Born in rural Somerset to a lawyer father, John Locke (1632-1704) is celebrated as an empiricist philosopher, but is also remembered for his political theories. He studied medicine at Oxford and while working as physician and private secretary to Lord Ashley (later Earl of Shaftesbury, founder of the Whigs) he became involved in politics.

At various times he had to flee England for his own safety. Shaftesbury fell out of favour with Charles II, who suspected his loyalty, and Locke was in similar danger by association. Locke also knew some of the people implicated in the Rye House Plot, so when one of them (Algernon Sidney) was arrested, Locke fled abroad. He had already composed several political tracts, but these were not published until after the accession of William and Mary. Only after his eventual return to England in 1688 did his most influential work appear, including An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Two Treatises of Civil Government; and A Letter Concerning Toleration.

What was the political atmosphere after the Restoration?

Through the mid-1600s, when England had been rocked by civil war, the execution of the king, the establishment of a republic, and the restoration of the monarchy, many people had to think hard about the true nature of an individual's rights and freedoms. But the Age of Enlightenment had yet to dawn, and those who promoted their ideas about rights and freedoms would find their lives in danger.

It was not until after the Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights that thinkers felt sufficiently free to express their views without fear of persecution. Their ideas contributed to a growing understanding of political and human rights that would one day see a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What viewpoints did Locke put forward?

Thomas Hobbes's concept of a social contract, as outlined in his landmark book Leviathan, inspired many who took it in new directions. These included Algernon Sidney, who was executed for treason, but most notably Locke.

In Two Treatises of Government (1689), Locke rejected Hobbes's natural state of anarchy, but agreed that the state is a human artifice brought together by common consent. Locke argued that, in God's eyes, everyone was created free and equal, but that individuals give up some of that in exchange for the benefits of a governed society. He believed that the basic (that is, inalienable) human right was to property, which covered life, liberty and possession (or “estates”). In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke also argued that no one is born with any basic beliefs or understandings but that everything is learned by experience. There are though, certain innate feelings, notably a desire for happiness and an aversion to misery.

What were the principles proposed by Locke?

  • Everyone is created free and equal but relinquish some of this for the protection of society 
  • All individuals have a right to life, liberty and property 
  • Slavery is not a natural state but may be suffered by those who break the natural laws
  • All individuals have a natural desire to pursue happiness 
  • There should be religious tolerance 
  • A government should be based on popular consent 
  • There is a right to rebel if government does not protect life, liberty, and property

What influence did his books have?

Locke kept his authorship of these works anonymous and they received only limited attention when published, but the importance and readership grew with time, and especially beyond the shores of Britain in the American colonies.

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