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Locke 2

Commentary on The Second Treatise of Civil Government

The history and nature of the Two Treatises

The introduction of the Two Treatises was written latter than the main text and until this century gave people the impression that the book was written in 1688 to justify the Glorious Revolution. We now know that the Two Treatises of Civil Government were written during the Exclusion crisis and were probably intended to justify the general armed rising which the Country Party leaders were planning. It was a truly revolutionary work.

Supposing that the Two Treatises may have been intended to explain and defend the revolutionary plot against Charles II and his brother, how does it do this? What do reflections on the state of nature and the state of war have to do with distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate civil government?

The First Treatise of Civil Government is a polemical work aimed at refuting the patriarchal version of the Divine Right of Kings doctrine put forth by Sir Robert Filmer. Locke singles out Filmer's contention that men are not "naturally free " as the key issue, for that is the "ground" or premise on which Filmer erects his argument for the claim that all "legitimate" government is "absolute monarchy." -- kings being descended from the first man Adam. Early in the First Treatise Loc ke denies that either scripture or reason supports Filmer's premise or arguments. In what follows, Locke minutely examines key Biblical passages - so Locke's emphasis in the First Treatise is on refuting Filmer's scriptural claims for the divine right of kings doctrine. Reason has the subordinate role.

TheSecond Treatise provides Locke's positive theory of government - he explicitly says that he must do this "lest men fall into the dangerous belief that "all government in the world is merely the product of force and violence." Locke's accou nt involves several devices which were common in seventeenth and eighteenth century political philosophy -- natural rights theory and the social contract. Natural rights are those rights which we are supposed to have as human beings before ever government comes into being. We might suppose, that like other animals, we have a natural right to struggle for our survival. Locke will argue that we have a right to the means to survive. When Locke comes to explain how government comes into being, he uses the idea that people agree that their condition in the state of nature is unsatisfactory, and so agree to transfer some of their rights to a central government, while retaining others. This is the theory of the social contract. There are many versions of n atural rights theory and the social contract in seventeenth and eighteenth century European political philosophy. These influenced both the American and the French revolutions.

 

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