When I first took "The Second Treatise of Government" in my hand, I was disappointed because of its size; I had difficulty in believing that this small book of about 100 pages in fact altered the course of history. Evidently, I guess one expects such an important book to possess more grandeur. But after reading this small book, it also influenced me so much that I wrote this article about it. For all things or people we dub today as "liberal" (and I am one of them), almost everything we know about parliamentary democracy or civil rights began with the said book by John Locke.
Locke gives us the modern state with its contemporary meaning, it moves onwards from the secular path caved by Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes but carries Enlightenment to a point that could never be envisaged by them. At an age where the entire Europe was governed by absolute monarchies that claimed to be vested with divine authorities, Locke's thesis that started with the explanation of “Natural law” continued with the claim that all people are equal and that everybody possesses three basic and indispensable rights, which are namely "life, liberty and property". Thomas Jefferson will later incorporate these three components into the “Declaration of Liberty” and render Locke one of founding fathers of United States America (“USA”).
Locke was born in 1632 in Bristol, England in a puritan family; his father was a country lawyer that fought for the Parliament during the English Civil War. Locke began to study scholastic philosophy in Oxford University but he didn't like the subject much; he shows more interest towards empirical philosophy and the contemporary philosophers of the age like Descartes, and this interest of him will later push him into medicine. Locke looked for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury's home at Exeter House in London and served as his personal physician. When Lord Shaftesbury was put into trial on the grounds that he was involved in the "Rye House Conspiracy" against King Charles the II; Locke consequently thought that his life was in danger and fled to the Netherlands in 1683 and stayed there until 1688, until the Glorious Revolution when William took the crown. 1689, he published “The Second Treatise of Government” anonymously. The book did not attract much attention at the beginning, and half a century would be needed for the disclosure of its impact.
It would be wise to begin from “The First Treatise of Government” before discussing about “The Second Treatise of Government”. Locke wrote this book in response to "Patriarcha; the Natural Rights of Kings" by Sir Robert Filmer; in sum, the book is a counter-thesis to Patriarcha. Filmer, who was declared Chavelier by Charles the First and who was awarded by a fortune, is more royalist than the king, so to say. He claims that he is of David's descendants, to whom God gave ruling authority, and that therefore, he possesses an unquestionable and divine governing right on his citizens. Locke's first treatise is a criticism of the theses contained in Patriarcha and throughout his entire book, Locke responds to Filmer's thesis beginning with the fact that nobody could truly know David's descendants. In the first treatise, Locke explains why absolute monarchy is wrong and in the second treatise he explained what should replace absolute monarchy with a plain and concise language. The second treatise can be summarized with the following main headings.
Natural Thesis of Law, the Hobbesian and Lockean Approaches
The Second Recital begins with the "Natural Law" thesis. Natural Law is a hypothesis that is based on people's lives during the primitive life on earth, before States emerged. In natural life, the primitive person has the right to punish others that harm him or his property. The Concept of State means that the primitive person has, and within a social agreement, transferred to the State the rights he owns for punishing personally. Hobbes handled this subject shortly before Locke and whereas these two philosophers shared the same opinion on the people's right of natural life and citizens' transfer of their "personal punishment" right to the State, they nevertheless diverged on the most fundamental issue. In Leviathan, which describes the pre-State life where natural law prevailed, Hobbes describes this life as "short, brutish and nasty"; according to Hobbes, people were in a full state of war before the introduction of the State. Only a State under the iron fist of an authoritarian leader can, and through absolute monarchy, govern these wild people who incessantly fight with each other. On the contrary, Locke defines the pre-State primitive life as "peaceful and calm", meaning that people only fight back when they are attacked within the natural life and in exchange, they generally pursue a peaceful life. At this point, the Hobbesian philosophy that advocates absolute monarchy and the Lockean philosophy that advocates liberalism diverge from each other. Despite the 300 years' period elapsed since then, the foundation of all conservative and liberalist regimes is based on the assumption that questions whether wars & chaos or order & peace will prevail if people are set free. Still today in the United States of America, the Republicans has a Hobbesian philosophy and a conservative approach, Democrats pursue a Lockean and liberalist approach. In fact this fundamental separation, meaning the doctrine of natural law, and the converse positions taken by Hobbes and Locke, represent today the main belief behind the policies of all conservative and liberalist regimes & parties in the entire globe, not just the USA.
The Legitimacy of the Government
In the second treatise, Locke states that governments are only legitimate if and only if those being ruled give their consent, the governments exist for protecting the liberty of their citizens. This may seem very natural to us now, but when we consider the year when this was said, we can understand the importance of this event; who knows what the French King Louis the XIVth, who said "l'état c'est moi" ("I'm the state"), thought when he heard about this thesis of Locke, or how furious the British King Charles the IInd got when he read that his rule depended on the consent of people. This was one dangerous and revolutionist phrase that could be worded for the 17th Century.
Three fundamental and inalienable rights: life, liberty and property:
Locke continues his thesis on natural law with the assertion that all people are equal and they possess three fundamental and inalienable rights. Rights of life, liberty and property. Later, Thomas Jefferson will incorporate these 3 rights into the US Constitution as "Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness". We may even see the second treatise as "the Capitalist Manifest" in that it considers property as one of most basic human rights. Deeming ethical "property ownership and trade", which was on the contrary considered "unethical" by the Church during the middle ages, the emergence of a trading community, Locke's legitimization of the property and property accumulation rights (savings and creation of capital) as the most basic humans right in the 17th century will altogether lay the foundation, on which Adam Smith will base the Wealth of Nations in the 18th century, meaning the foundations of the modern economy. According to Locke "God has given the world to the industrious and rational". All these will inscribe Locke’s name into history, and will constitute the first steps that lead to the "Night Watchman State", which will become the foundation of the libertarian view in the future; the State only exists for protecting the liberties, lives and properties of the citizens, it has no other authority or duty and the best State is therefore the smallest one.
Franklin, Adams and Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence
(Jean Leon Ferri, 1900)
Criticism of the Treatise
Personally, my biggest challenge with the Second Treatise is that Locke tried to explain everything through revelation. During Locke's years in Oxford, he was called the monument of silence because even his closest friends did not know his political views. It makes perfect sense; If you have very sharp and bold views that can cost your life, you may choose to keep them to yourself. Let alone, Locke wrote down what he thought, even anonymously. You may feel a bit strange when you are reading Locke, Sometime Locke may seem to take back what he had just said in the previous page while trying to support his ideas with revelations.
Let's touch upon the most important criticisms on the contents; surely, the first criticism is that Locke only defended the rights of the property-owner middle class, of which he was also a member. Maybe the disappointing point for Locke's readers is not the book's contents but Locke's personal life: As Locke wrote all these liberalist lines, he was a partner of a company that conducts slave trade from Africa to America (what I do right now is called "Ad Hominem", and it’s definitely wrong, whatsoever...). Another point that should be discussed about is the extreme importance attached by Locke to property; from the current set of values possessed by an ordinary US citizen and even from the US Laws in effect, you can see the importance of property.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, Locke is the very person expressly writing that all people are equal and have the rights of life, liberty and property, and the government's main duty is to protect these rights. This will alone enable him to alter world's entire history; but Locke does not stop at this point, he states in his thesis that a legitimate government can only be formed by the consent of those being ruled and if the citizens believe that the Ruler abuses his authorities, they can then revolt, and concludes by stating the segregation of duties for the first time in history (as opposed to the general belief, he has done this before Montesquieu). So that the genie is now out of the bottle and Locke has prepared the foundations of enlightenment related to the political philosophy; the French and American Revolutions will take place in the following centuries, the American Constitution of 1787 will be based on Locke's principles, the absolute monarchies in Europe will be collapsed one-by-one, and relying on the liberalist principles of Locke, first constitutional monarchies and later modern states based on parliamentary democracy will be established.