Locke’s (somewhat Hobbesian) Second Treatise

[Note: No promises, but this post will likely make more sense if you first read my post on Hobbes’s Leviathan. There will not be an exam.]

Okay, so previously, I said that the neat contrast that’s often drawn between Locke and Hobbes doesn’t really work so well because they’re not as far apart as one might think. Let’s not go too far with this though; there are some differences there, which are worth looking at in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.

Today, most readers will skip the First Treatise because here Locke dismantles Sir Robert Filmer’s argument that the right to rule was inherited directly by certain men from Adam’s dominion over the earth via the male line; one can imagine how much esteem that argument is held in today, or even how many of us remember Sir Robert Filmer. But it does set up the Second Treatise: if political power wasn’t inherited from the first man, where does it come from? Where did people ever get the notion to set themselves above one another?

Like Hobbes and Rousseau, Locke begins with man in a natural state, which he defines as one of perfect freedom and equality where man lives according to his reason, which in turn forbids him from harming any other man in his life, liberty, health, or possessions. In other words, Locke sees man, created by God, as being fundamentally rational, as opposed to Hobbes’s emphasis on the passions. Note too that Hobbes treats ‘natural man’ as a sort of thought experiment, while Locke is drawing from what was then known about native tribes in the Americas. It’s interesting to think that modern democratic philosophy in the west was inspired in part by reports of European contact and interactions with aboriginal Americans (think of Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville as well). Let’s note though that neither Hobbes nor Locke, nor Rousseau or Thomas Malthus for that matter, ever left Europe.

Locke’s golden age isn’t as peaceful as it might first seem; he draws a strong contrast between the ‘state of nature’, that is of reason, to the ‘state of war’, which arises whenever someone violates the security of another. There are no exceptions. By putting himself in this state of war, the transgressor signs his own death warrant, or something like it, because before civil society the aggrieved individual may respond by destroying him, according to Locke. The highwayman who steals your possessions has declared himself “dangerous to humanity” and you can kill him. In a sense this is “Old Testament” morality because the transgressor has violated the natural order set down by God and is so destroyed, but it’s specifically prior to a legal code of the sort found in Leviticus or Deuteronomy.

What changes all of this, according to Locke, Rousseau, and the Book of Genesis, is the development of agriculture, and from that, private property. According to Locke, property is of two sorts: that which we take from the earth and increase the value of by our labor, and that which is ours already from birth, namely our life and liberty. Locke is rightly remembered as a key theorist of innate rights. But, given that foraging communities typically spend considerably less time and effort in securing food than agricultural ones, and their lives tend not to be much more brutish, short, and cruel, why start farming at all? Locke’s answer is that God created man, as a rational being, to be industrious and to cultivate the land. Note, however, that the Bible tells us the life of toil and want that came with farming was God’s punishment for man’s transgressive, Promethean curiosity.

Complicating matters further, man invented money, which allowed him to amass much more than his neighbors and created all of the enmity associated with keeping up with the goddamn Joneses. This greatly increased the incentive to kill and steal, which could have only led to an endless cycle of people destroying each other for sparking a state of war. In other words, it’s Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes– every man a George Zimmerman. War might come quicker in Hobbes (basically as soon as people live near each other), but no matter how you slice it, Locke leads us back to Hobbes.

A problem one has with Locke’s vision of human civilization is that he emphasizes the rationality of men created in God’s image, and yet the development of civil society seems, on some level, to be a step down from the state of nature. Nomadic, foraging communities are actually less vulnerable to periods of famine than farming communities for a very simple reason: they can just keep moving to where the food is. They’re also healthier: one of the interesting advantages the Mongols had over the “Chinese” cities they conquered was their meat-based died and constant physical exercise put them in better condition than the grain-based, sedentary communities they fought. Was it worth giving up to avoid a bit of violence? The development of coins and private property, similarly, seems to have been more trouble than it was worth, which is hardly answered by the idea that men are, by God-given nature, industrious.

Ultimately, though, Locke sees all of human development as a series of rational steps. In order to prevent this war of all against all, we need law, for “where there is no Law, there is no Freedom. For Liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others which cannot be, where there is no Law.”[1] Simple enough. Hobbes describes this a bit more starkly- all human flourishing is snuffed out by war- but the argument is the same: the basis of law is to protect our lives. We enter into civil society by consenting to it because the alternative is worse.

Who, then, enforces the laws? For Hobbes, the ideal head of state was a King because his own needs coincide nicely with those of the state. Locke pleasingly counters this by noting that the problem with the state of nature is that it makes every man his own judge, in spite of his being biased in all conflicts towards his own interests, and this instead of giving him an external authority whose rulings must be obeyed. Therefore, every absolute prince is in a state of nature and absolute monarchy “is inconsistent with civil society.” It’s hard to overstate how radical this is for the era: Hobbes gives just cause to depose absolute monarchs; Locke gives good reason not to have them in the first place. Both give cause for doing away with states. As Michael Ignatieff asks: “What is the chapter on the dissolution of government in Locke’s Second Treatise but a justification of revolution when essential freedoms are usurped?”[2]

In fact, both treatises on government are a grenade lobbed at the existing structure of authority. In 17th century England, authority is patriarchal and Locke takes the time to attack patriarchal authority at home as well, arguing that both mother and father have reign over the child at home until they reach the age of independence when this ends. Locke is more radical than Rousseau in making this argument: patriarchy is not consistent with liberal society; if you want to talk about the “crisis of Islam within modernity” this is it. But don’t get too comfortable if you belong to any of the religions of Abraham. In western modernity, patriarchy is a lifestyle choice and a countercultural one at that.

So, really both Hobbes and Locke make a radical argument: instead of power and authority being given by God to kings, they come by the consent of the governed who can choose to rescind them by the fault of the governing powers: a king in Hobbes and a parliament in Locke. Lee Cameron McDonald  draws a distinction between them in that, for Hobbes, “the need for power or the fact of power was its justification; for Locke, the subject’s consent was its justification”. This is clever, but seems wrong. We could maybe say that Locke bases this contract in the protection of rights, while Hobbes emphasizes order, and that would be true enough too; except, Locke also emphasizes order and Hobbes is no stranger to rights. In both texts, the stress is placed on two ideas: consent and security.

Both ideas are problematic. First, Locke on the general will: “And this every Man, by consenting to make one Body Politick under one Government, pits himself under an Obligation… to submit to the determination of the majority…”[3] One senses that the “will and determination of the majority” serve roughly the same function in Locke as the absolute sovereign in Hobbes, and of the two we’d likely find it preferable, had not Publius seen the problems with both. Because we also sense there’s a useful fiction at the core of this, particularly when applied to a national context, and perhaps “useful” is just being nice.

Raymond Geuss pinpoints two fictions that have “ruled the occidental imagination for too long,” namely, “the phantasm of an ‘absolutely automous subject’ that underlies all variations of Kantianism,” and… “the fantasy of an overarching consensus that runs through all existing theories of a social contract.”[4] Certainly, to some extent, we’re going to play along with this “fantasy” because it is useful, or at least more useful than challenging the “will and determination of the majority” in every instance. However, in Locke, the entire social contract, and society itself, hinges upon this general will, which derives from a natural law in line with human reason; a notion that is itself deeply troubled in the century after Freud; men are guided as strongly by irreason as reason and history is lousy with examples of societies in which the general will was schizophrenic and at odds with any sort of natural law, or just nonexistent. A cynic might say there are more examples of this than the Lockean ideal.

So what is to be done? If we recognize the severe limitations of an overarching consensus, the answer seems to be to severely limit those instances in which the general will can actually apply itself. In fact, I think we see an attempt to do just this in the Federalist papers. It has been said that the Papers were an attempt to find a “Lockean solution” to a “Hobbesian dilemma.” Instead, I think the brilliance of Publius was to see the flaws in both Locke and Hobbes.

We could say, mostly fairly, that Locke limits the application of the general will to matters of security. One fair argument is that Locke, and by extension, the liberal tradition, errs in favor of individual rights in every instance that safety is not threatened. Locke believed that laws should curb anti-social behaviors but that liberty should consist of the ability to do anything not prohibited by law. Few of us are so liberal-minded as to argue that theft or murder should be considered individual rights. But, as libertarians will be quick to point out, “safety and security” are moving targets and susceptible to manipulation by elites, or by society at large.

So, the problems are baked in the bread of liberal society; and yet, until we can come up with something more conducive to human freedom and flourishing, we’re forced to address them in every generation. We haven’t come up with it yet.


Endnote: Future posts in this vein will discuss Rousseau’s Social Contract and how “Publius” addressed these problems and the genius of the Federalist papers. Next up, however, I’d like to cover Milton’s Paradise Lost for my canon-blogging project.

[1] Second Treatise, Chapter VI: # 57

[2] Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil, p. 91. (Actually, I think Ignatieff ran for office in Canada as the lesser evil and lost!)

[3] Locke, Second Treatise, # 97.

[4] Raymond Geuss, Politics and the Imagination, p. 78.

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7 thoughts on “Locke’s (somewhat Hobbesian) Second Treatise

  1. A welcome return to Blogging the Canon.


    “…foraging communities typically spend considerably less time and effort in securing food than agricultural ones, and their lives tend not to be much more brutish, short, and cruel, why start farming at all? Locke’s answer is that God created man, as a rational being, to be industrious and to cultivate the land. Note, however, that the Bible tells us the life of toil and want that came with farming was God’s punishment for man’s transgressive, Promethean curiosity.”

    What is your answer?

    And is the premise that the question rests on non-trivial? Agriculture allows for specialization, which allows for positive utility gains for the society.

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    • What is your answer?

      I’m hoping Mike Farmer weighs in on this one. The best I can come up with is that there’s a human instinct for possessing things close at hand and agriculture satisfies that drive.

      And is the premise that the question rests on non-trivial? Agriculture allows for specialization, which allows for positive utility gains for the society.

      That’s interesting. Would the first farmers have thought any of that? Locke might have thought so, but he was definitely aware of existing tribes that had not made the choice. It’s just hard to guess why people made the switch, although we know it was monumental when they did.

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      • I imagine it’s not a choice at all. I almost agree with the Marxists that agriculture was probably forced upon quasi-slaves. But whatever light we read the dawn of agriculture in, it eventually doesn’t matter whether societies chose agriculture or not, since agriculture allowed for specialization (specifically proto-engineers and proto-soldiers) so that agricultural societies out-competed hunter-gatherers.

        That is, I’d argue for thinking of agriculture development as a random mutation.

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