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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

John Locke's Second Treatise | The State of Nature

In Locke’s first treatise, Locke destroyed the idea of the Divine Right of Kings which legitimized absolute monarchy. You can check out that video here. With that idea and foundation gone, something had to take its place. In Locke’s second treatise, he builds a foundation for government. Before we can understand government, we have to understand human nature and how people function. He begins with this idea of the State of Nature.

Locke was an empiricist and as he was thinking about the State of Nature, he wasn’t getting his ideas from thin air. He was drawing upon his experience working with the New World in North Carolina (which was very close to a state of nature at that time) and drawing upon other events he had witnessed or read about, such as the English Civil War, and the economy of the United Kingdom where he was an advisor to the Lord Chancellor. He knew government, both primitive and advanced. He studied the daily life of Native Americans and the European conflicts with them. He believed that the new world provided a good template for his “State of Nature.” Granted, he had no idea how complex the Native peoples were, and how diverse, but he knew they were unlike England.

State of Nature

For Locke, the “State of Nature is “the state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions.” This is a state of equality, before civil societies came into existence. It isn’t just chaos though. “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Natural Rights.

You should not harm another in their natural rights which are Life... Liberty... and Property. Men have a right to Life because men are “the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business.”

Our bodies are created by God; we don’t own them. And so we must be good stewards and preserve ourselves. So, life is the core right from which all the other rights are derived. All the other rights are made necessary because they preserve life.

Men have a right to Liberty because anyone who can take your liberty can also take your life. Locke States “I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it.” So your liberty ends at the point where it adversely affects my liberty.

Men have a right to Property because “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience.” Now property may be a strange right but Locke explains “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

This is essential appropriating the land and its fruits to preserve life. To appropriate just means to make something your property. You must do it to live and no one has a right to stop you. Mixing your work with something by using your body is what makes something yours.

In Genesis 1:28 “God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This does not give you the right to be wasteful. You can take only as much as you need, and only as long as there is as much and as good for others. But Locke says that nature provides, if we think of the abundance God created.

You may therefore enclose land for expending your own labor but once again you may do this as long as it is not more than you need and there is as much and as good for others. Today we have a hard time imagining this, but Locke was imagining the full abundance that North America offered. Locke also believed that money came into existence in the state of nature and it is a symbol of accumulated work. Money was invented to prevent people from abusing their property rights and it prevented people from taking more than they could afford or more than they “need.” It is to limit property from being wasted.

Locke also saw land that was not being subdued or under cultivation as waste. This land was essentially worthless until man could work it and bring order to it. He believed that North America was effectively being wasted and needed to be cultivated. But this wasn’t entirely true because it was being cultivated by the Native groups living there. Their efforts were not credited by European settlers, however, so we can see how this thinking might be used to justify some bad behavior in history.

State of War

Now, the State of Nature never lasts. When someone renounces natural reason and breaks the laws of nature by trying to harm another’s life, liberty, or property, the state of nature ceases to exist and is replaced with a State of War. Where the State of Nature is a “state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation” the State of War is a “state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction.”

Locke believes that we mainly do get along with one another on a daily basis. God has made us social creatures for our mutual benefit and we shouldn’t fear a more powerful sovereign. The issue is that we bring evil into the world by sinning. Men become angry, prideful, or greedy and harm others. Men are given a choice but when they decide to sin and break the laws of nature, something has to be done.

Who is to enforce these laws of nature? We are. For Locke, God created the State of Nature and made its laws. This made God the legislator. Man acts as the executive. As Locke states “Every man hath a right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law of nature.” This is because every man is equal. Man should “only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint.” This is so we “may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and by his example others, from doing the like mischief."

The problem with this arrangement is that people are not always good judges. They often don’t agree about who has done wrong and how much. We may disagree about how much a neighbor “needs” or about whether one has left as much or as good for others. Men also do what is right in their own eyes. The potential for disputes is endless and these disputes would keep leading us into a State of War. For Locke, the state of war is the opposite of God’s will for us, and so must be averted. How do we prevent the State of War? let us know below.



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Locke, John. The & Second Treatise of Government: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

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“Patria Potestas | Roman Law.” n.d. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Uzgalis, William. John Locke: Metaphyis Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020.

Woolhouse, Roger. Locke: A Biography: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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