Overview of Second Treatise

Locke begins by discussing the state of nature.  It is governed by the law of nature (reason) and it is characterized by perfect freedom as well as equality.  In chapter three Locke describes the state of war and tells us that it is very different from the state of nature. 


1. What is the essential character of the state of war?

It is the reason of destroying the potential threats of destruction. It is having a design on another man’s life.

  1. What differentiates it from the state of nature?
    1. State of nature is reason of freedom and equality, while state of war is reason of enmity and destruction.
    2. The lack of a common judge puts men into a state of nature, while the use of unlawful force against a man’s person creates a state of war.

A state of nature involves men living together according to reason, with no-one on earth who   stands above them both and has authority to judge between them.

Whereas in a state of war, a man uses or declares his intention to use force against another man, with no-one on earth to whom the other can appeal for relief (Locke, chapter 3, 19).

  1. Can the state of war exist in civil society?

The state of war cannot exist in civil society.

The use of unlawful force against a man’s person creates a state of war; however, in civil society, every one of the members has given up their natural power of preserving the property and punishing the offences themselves, passing it into the hands of the community in all cases.

Everyone forgoes his executive power of the law of nature, giving it over to the public. The state of war doesn’t exist while the commonwealth is the only legal authority to make laws and to decide war and peace.

The state of war can exist within civil society–anytime when one is threatened and there is no authority present to appeal to. It is temporary, though, and ends as soon as an authority (e.g., the police) is present.


What is the character of the state of nature for Locke?  Is it a peaceful place, conducive to man’s preservation?  Or it is a violent place, full of uncertainty and grave danger?  Answering this question has everything to do with what the purpose of political society is in the first place, and with character politics must have.  As Locke has described it, the character of the state of nature would seem to depend on the force of the law of nature—reason—in the majority of men’s souls.  If the law of reason is followed for the most part, things might be fine.  If not, then it might be a terribly dangerous place.

  1. Where does Locke come down on this question of the overall character of the state of nature? Explain with references to the text.

The state of nature is governed by a law that creates obligations for everyone. People are all free, independent and equal. Everyone has the right to prevent his processions from destroy while no one has the authority to punish someone for something bad that he has done (Locke, 6).  In the state of nature everyone has the power to enforce the law of nature (Locke, 12, 13).

Civil society sets up a known authority to which every member of that society can appeal when he has been harmed or is involved in a dispute; however, in monarchy, people don’t have such an authority to appeal to for the settlement of their disputes. Therefore, they are still in the state of nature. There’s no common and fair judge and umpire in monarchy (Locke, 90&91).

In a state of nature, the only appeal is to heaven. People don’t have authority to solve every little difference between contenders except for war. It is also the reason why people put themselves into society and leave the state of nature (Locke, 21).

People give up their absolute freedom and subject to the control of someone else’s power because they are more willing to get rid of fears and dangers. In the state of nature, their possessions are constantly exposed to invasion by others. Their states are unsafe and insecure. Everyone has to subject to the law which both protect their possessions and limit their absolute freedom (Locke, 123).


In chapter 4, Locke takes up the question of slavery, in which Locke speaks of the natural liberty of man.  Here we get a fuller discussion of the true character of freedom.   Contrary to most modern common opinion, freedom is not doing what one wishes, living as one pleases, or not being tied by any laws. Rather, freedom—both the state of nature and in civil society—is living under the rule of law, and in particular, the law of nature, reason.  Living freely, then, means living rationally.


Chapter 5 takes up Locke’s unique and all-important discussion of property.  Locke says that accounting for how property arises is a very great difficulty. 

  1. Explain how property arises. How does anything become our own in the state of nature? Explain how it works.

God gave earth to everyone in common. Everyone has the right to survive. Everyone has the right to food and drink and such other things as nature provides for their subsistence and revelation.

Every individual man has a property in his own person. The labor of his body and the work of his hands are naturally his. He makes it his property by mixing his labor with it when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in.

Every individual could make the natural things excludable with mixing his labor in.


Locke goes on to say that there is a natural limitation on how much property we can have.  That is, we can have as much as we wish as long as (1) “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” and (2) “as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage before it spoils.”  So there is no unlimited acquisition of property by nature.  In fact, the acquisition of property would tend to be very limited, as most of what we need in order to preserve ourselves (the first dictate of the law of nature) tends to spoil fairly quickly.  

However, something changes, which allows for the unlimited acquisition of property.  This invention overcomes the two limitations noted above and so one can accumulate as much as one wants.  There is, this way, no natural or moral limit on the pursuit of property. 

  1. What changes, what is invented?

People’s labor changes the value of land. Labor affects the value of everything.

The invention of money changes people’s demands of larger possessions.


In chapters 7-9, Locke describes the purpose of political or civil society, which is the preservation of property (in the broad sense that he construes it).  Based on the prior discussion, we can now acquire unlimited property without moral restraint, so the very purpose of the political community is the protection of that which is so essential to our self-preservation.  According to chapters 8 and 9, political communities are formed by consent: “every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it…original compact” (§97).  This is the social contract theory of how political communities are formed.  And people can consent in two ways: expressly and tacitly.

  1. How does this invention work?

People put a value on money based on their tacit agreement.

Money is a durable thing that men could keep without its spoiling. Men also would use money to exchange for the truly useful but perishable supports of life.

  1. How exactly does it overcome the two limitations above?

Money makes it possible to continue and enlarge one’s possessions.

First, it solves the problem of leaving enough in common for others. People could use their extra possessions to exchange for money while they provide enough necessities for others.

Second, money is a durable thing that men could keep without its spoiling. Money is the substitute of perishable supports of life. It solves the problem of make use of to any advantage before it spoils.

  1. What is tacit consent and how does it work?

Locke thinks that a man gives his tacit consent to the laws of that government and is obliged to obey them while that enjoyment lasts, if he owns or enjoys some part of the land under a given government (Locke, chapter 8, 119).

When a man first incorporates himself into any commonwealth he automatically brings with him and submits to the community the possessions that he does or will have.

Someone could enter into society with his possessions being regulated and secured by the laws of the society; meanwhile, he tacitly consents to be obliged to obey the government.


Once people have formed a social compact through consent, they can then agree to form any kind of government they want on the basis of a majority decision that is binding on everyone.  (Locke’s discussion of why majority rule is reasonable is contained in section 96.)  The three fundamental options that they have are a democracy, an oligarchy, or a monarchy (chapter 10).

  1. Describe the essential character of each of these types of political power. Why are legislative and executive to be separated from one another according to Locke? Why are executive and federative to be combined?
    1. Legislative power has a right to direct how the force of the commonwealth shall be employed for preserving the community and its individual members (Locke, chapter 12, 143).
    2. Executive power is used for seeing to the constant and lasting enforcement of the laws that have been made and not repealed. It involves the enforcement of the society’s laws upon all its members.
    3. Federative power has the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all transactions with individuals and communities outside the commonwealth. It involves the management of the security and interest of the public externally.

Legislative power and executive power need to be separated because people will exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they had made once they have both powers of making laws and enforce laws; In addition, the laws will only represent laws makers own private advantage instead of the public interest.

Executive and federative powers need to be combined. The two powers protect people and their processions by enforcement internally and externally. If the executive and federative powers were given to different groups of people, they might act separately. Putting the force of the public under different commands may cause disorder and ruin.

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