11. Locke’s Concerning Civil Government

“In the history of human liberty, Locke’s essay Concerning Civil Government stands out not only as a great contribution to political theory, but also as an effective instigator of political action. It is a stirring pronouncement of the principles of the English ‘bloodless revolution’ of 1688, which brought about fundamental innovations in the British constitution. It also set the stage for the American Revolution of 1776 by furnishing inspiration to the writers of the Declaration of Independence.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 123)

Although this series of posts is on readings discussed in volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, I’m including this post on John Locke’s Concerning Civil Government, which is discussed in volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, because of its importance in the development of political theory and, as pointed out in the above quotation from Adler and Wolff, as an instigator of political action.

In their guide to reading Concerning Civil Government, Adler and Wolff discuss the significance of the date of its publication, the differences between the views of Locke and Thomas Hobbes on the origin of the state, and Locke’s concept of property and reflect on five problems posed as questions for readers of the essay to think about. Here I’ll just sketch Locke’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the three topics which they discuss. The sketch of Locke’s life, which is drawn mainly from the biographical note in Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, pages ix-x), is long and may be just skimmed or even omitted.

Locke’s Life

Born in Wrington, Somerset, on August 29, 1632, John Locke was the oldest child of a respectable family with Puritan leanings. In 1652 he won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford. Although the Puritans had introduced some reforms in Oxford life, the curriculum was still the traditional one of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, and moral philosophy, which Locke found insipid. Nonetheless after receiving his B.A. degree in 1656, he remained at Oxford to take his M.A. degree and then became successively lecturer in Greek, reader in rhetoric, and in 1664 censor of moral philosophy. Those activities not fully occupying his attention, he also read Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and engaged in experimental science in collaboration with Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, who was a close friend. Soon after he began the study of medicine and, although he didn’t get a medical degree until a later date (1674), by 1666 he was engaged in occasional practice. It was also at Oxford that Locke became interested in political questions such as the constitution of society, the relation of church and state, and the importance of religious toleration.

Although in 1665 he interrupted his medical studies to serve as secretary to a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg, Locke turned down another diplomatic post that he was offered on his return. However in 1667 he accepted an invitation from Lord Ashley, whom he had met at Oxford in 1662, to become part of his household staff in London as his personal physician. He served Ashley in various capacities for the next sixteen years, including becoming secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations which Ashley established after he became the first Earl of Shaftesbury and the lord high chancellor of England in 1672. Locke’s many practical duties in London didn’t prevent him from pursuing his scientific and philosophical interests. He frequently held informal gatherings for the discussion of questions in science and theology. On one such occasion, a question arose concerning the “limits of human understanding” to which he undertook to provide an answer and, writing off and on, finally published twenty years later as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

When the Earl fell from power in 1675, Locke withdrew from public life, going to France where he tried to restore his health and to work on his Essay. When the Earl again rose to power in 1679, Locke returned to England and resumed his former activities. However when the Earl’s plotting against the King led to his exile and death, Locke fell under royal suspicion and in 1683 he sought refuge in Holland. There he rapidly formed many new friendships and settled down to complete the Essay, in 1687 publishing an abstract of it. He was likely involved in planning the Revolution of 1688, having friends among the English refugees and being known to William of Orange, and returned to England in 1689 in the same ship which carried William’s wife, Princess Mary.

Although Locke was offered several responsible positions in the new regime, he preferred to devote himself to his writings and accepted only the comparatively light task of commissioner of appeals. Within four years he completed and published his most important works: First Letter Concerning Toleration, Two Treatises of Civil Government, the Essay, and Some Thoughts on Education. Prompted by ill-health and dissatisfaction with the course of public affairs, he retired in 1691 to Oakes Manor in Essex, where he lived as a guest of the Masham family and continued to work on his writings and to be occupied with political problems. Upon reestablishment of the Board of Trade and Plantations, he reluctantly accepted a post as one of the commissioners. This office absorbed all the time his health permitted him to spend in London from 1696 to 1700, when constant illness compelled his resignation.

Locke’s last years were spent quietly in retirement at Oates Manor, occupying himself with biblical studies and writing a commentary on the epistles of St. Paul. Many of his friends visited him there. He died on October 28, 1704, while Lady Masham was reading the Psalms to him. She wrote of him, “His death was like his life, truly pious, yet natural, easy and unaffected.”

Significance of the Essay’s Date of Publication

Locke’s Concerning Civil Government treatises were first published in 1690, the year after William and Mary ascended to the throne of England. He’d written them in Holland, where he’d lived in exile from 1683 to 1689. In his preface to them, he expresses the hope that they would “establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William‒to make good his title in the consent of the people, which, being only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin” (quoted by Adler and Wolff in An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 125).

In the first treatise, Locke argues against the theory that monarchs rule by divine right. In the second (the one we’re considering), he argues that governments derive their authority from those whom they govern. “Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust?…To this I reply, The people shall be judge” (Concerning Civil Government in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, page 81). Thus the people had the right to replace James II with William of Orange.

The Origin of the State

Locke defines political power as “a right of making laws…for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good” (Concerning Civil Government, page 25). He maintains that such power (and the government which it wields) comes into being as a result of a contract made by people who’d previously lived in a non-political condition. Thomas Hobbes, whom I considered in “Hobbes’s Leviathan,” also had such a social contract theory, but Locke differed from him on what it involved.

Both Hobbes and Locke called the condition in which people lived before making the contract the “state of nature.” In “Hobbes’s Leviathan” I defined the state of nature as “a primitive condition in which there was no king, no law, and no civil society” and quoted from Leviathan to show that Hobbes viewed it as a state of war. Locke viewed it instead as a state of liberty in which people could “order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man” (Concerning Civil Government,  page 25). Locke himself points to the difference between his and Hobbes’s conceptions of the state of nature: “Here we have the plain difference between the state of Nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are one from another” (Concerning Civil Government, page 29).

Both Hobbes and Locke viewed people as giving up rights when they entered into the social contract. “For Hobbes, man is in such a miserable state naturally that he gives up all rights [except the right to life and self-preservation, which according to Hobbes he can’t give up] upon entering civil society, in order only to be safe and protected from the lusts and passions of other men” {Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 128). But Locke doesn’t view people as giving up all rights upon entering civil society, saying: “But though men when they enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of Nature into the hands of society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of society, yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society or legislative constituted by them can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one’s property by providing against those three defects above mentioned that made the state of Nature so unsafe and uneasy” (Concerning Civil Government, page 54; the three defects are lack of an established, settled, known law; lack of a known and indifferent judge; and lack of power to execute the law).

Locke describes the actual formation of political society as follows: Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate [the state of nature] and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.” (Concerning Civil Government, page 46).

Locke’s Concept of Property

In the last paragraph I quoted Locke as saying that one of the reasons for men’s uniting into communities is for “secure enjoyment of their properties.” In Chapter V he takes up the question of property in detail, considering how it comes about that anyone has private property or owns something to the exclusion of all others. He summarizes his view thus: “[T]hough the things of Nature are given in common, man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it) had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own and did not belong in common to others” (Concerning Civil Government, page 34). Note that according to Locke “property” consists not only of a man’s land and goods but also anything else that is his, including his life and liberty, his stating this in the following passage: “Man…hath by nature a power..to preserve his property‒that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Concerning Civil Government, page 44).

Adler and Wolff comment:

“Since man has a natural right to property in this wider sense (i.e., life, liberty, and estate), the state cannot take it away from him, but must protect his right to it. The [American] Declaration of Independence echoes Locke, substituting, however, ‘pursuit of happiness’ for ‘estate’: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men….’” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 130)

One of the problems which they pose questions on is what the significance of the substitution is. They suggest that the reason might be that “pursuit of happiness” takes in more than “estate,” arguing “If pursuit of happiness requires a man’s estate to be secure, then the Declaration of Independence affirms that to be part of man’s inalienable right; but if other things are also required, it also asserts his right to those” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 134). Whether they are right or not, clearly Locke’s Concerning Civil Government was a source of inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, as affirmed in my opening quotation from them, and thus set the stage for the American Revolution.


2 thoughts on “11. Locke’s Concerning Civil Government

  1. Allison

    Thank you for the summary of Locke’s life. I found it enlightening to learn that Locke often withdrew from public life to dedicate his time to studies and writing, or at least this is what he preferred to do when possible. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, he became an extremely influential person in history.


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