Introduction to Locke

Introductory Lecture to Locke (1632–1704)

Why John Locke?

1. He was the most representative thinker of the era and an exponent of natural rights.

2. He has proven to be timeless.

3. He is part of the Western canon, in which he is a benchmark to judge other contemporary thinkers in terms of their explanatory power concerning the human condition.

4. He can be used to justify revolution against tyrants.

5. He has outstanding literary qualities since he was a great stylist who argued the natural rights/law political philosophy to its logical conclusions.

6. Leo Strauss in the twentieth century was an exponent of his philosophy at the University of Chicago.

7. Locke epitomized Whig arguments versus the Tory philosophy of the divine right of kings.

He read René Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton, who were his contemporaries.

The Two Treatises of Government dealt with the Revolution of 1688, in which Parliament triumphed over the Stuarts and James II. William of Orange and Mary Stuart acquiesced to rule in conjunction with the legislature, acknowledging the need for the consent of the people.

Sir Robert Filmer was attacked in the First Treatise. He wrote the Patriarcha, published in 1680, which argued for the divine right of kings, supposedly the direct heirs of Adam.

Thomas Hobbes, who wrote Leviathan in 1651 advocated despotism as the only alternative to anarchy. In the Second Treatise, Locke attacked this position. He said the state of nature is pre-political but not pre-social. Locke said it was peaceful, in contrast to Hobbes, who described it as a war of all against all.

The law of nature is a fundamental concept for Locke in which four points are raised:

1. It was a state of objective rule.

2. It emanated from God Himself in its objectivity.

3. It was accessible to reason.

4. It was prior to positive laws.

Locke was more concerned with individual rights than with responsibilities. These rights basically were to pursue life, liberty, and property, particularly property. Locke had a liberal interpretation of property. He thought that one could only own what he had applied his own labor to in either land or goods; hence property was limited to what one could consume in a modest way. Too, property incorporated the concepts of lives, liberties, and the estates of men.

The inconveniences of the state of nature creates government by social compact.

The social contract has the following components:

1. Men surrender only their right to enforce the law of nature, and it had to be agreed to unanimously.

2. It excludes rulers from the contract, which is between individuals. Hence, the ruler was a trustee and the people were the beneficiaries with the ultimate power.

3. The social contract could be drawn up only once. Thereafter, it endured by tacit consent.

4. There was to be majority rule. Minorities were left exposed to possible majority tyranny.


Locke made a distinction between society and government, but really they must have evolved simultaneously to punish offenders of the natural laws. Locke was ambiguous on this point.

There had to be separation of powers. Representative government must have enough power delegated to the legislative, executive, and federative functions of the polity to be effective. There was to be a reserve for emergency powers, which would be checked by the right to revolution by propertied men. Again, there is the problem of minority rights in which individuals of conscience can be confronted by a tyrannical majority.


There are two basic criticisms of Locke:

1. He wrote bad history because we cannot find a state of nature in which men ever behaved rationally. This was the criticism of David Hume. In other words, the state of nature is a logical construct to be used for the sake of rhetoric and the illumination of how to conduct limited government. It never had historical reality.

2. Men by nature are not rational, but rather aggressive and driven by unconscious impulses unbeknownst to the protagonists of history. Just read the plays of William Shakespeare and the works of Sigmund Freud to bear this point out.


In the final analysis, John Locke epitomized the liberal persuasion until the mid-twentieth century with the advent of the welfare state. Then liberalism became very statist as opposed to its formerly individualist, pro-property bent of political philosophy.