The Anti-Absolutist Thesis — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 1)

(Part I of this series)

Locke sets up the necessity of the Second Treatise’s argument by summarizing the conclusions of the First Treatise. The latter was a refutation of the belief in the divine right of kings, which Locke found untenable even from the perspective of a devout Christian. He explains that if the theory of government instituted as the God-given authority of certain arbitrary monarchs fails, we must then determine what the true best form of plausible government is. In so doing, he notably criticizes a view of human nature and the origin of authority that reminds one of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which essentially contended that absolutism (of the sort Locke evidently scorns) is the ideal governor of humans in an otherwise savage “state of nature.” Let me know if this is inaccurate on my part; I have not read Leviathan itself, but I am familiar with its main concepts from a lay philosophical understanding of Hobbes.

He proceeds to emphasize the distinction between political power and other authoritarian structures of his time, principally that of parent over child — such was the patriarchal vision of the role of the state prevalent in the 1600s. The last section of Chapter 1 is an overture of sorts, stating the idea Locke seeks to establish in the subsequent chapters: government ought to exist for the protection of individuals’ and the community’s property (this word used in a broad sense, meaning all that a person “owns” including his/her life and liberties) via laws decided upon by the people according to truths of nature.

None of which is difficult to accept. Although we have yet to see the details of how Locke would execute this philosophy given the chance, his notions of what the state should be and shouldn’t be are common sense. What seems obvious in hindsight was fairly revolutionary in Locke’s era, however, not necessarily because people were either just too stupid to see this or power-hungry sadists. History is more nuanced than that, as societies fall prey to pressures and dogmas. In saying this, I do not mean to excuse the atrocities of the past so much as to warn that we are not above comparable atrocities, most of which we probably aren’t aware are worthy of consideration.

I apologize for the brevity of today’s update. Tomorrow will see more depth, ideally covering the next three chapters.

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One thought on “The Anti-Absolutist Thesis — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 1)

  1. I’ve recently obtained the C. B. Macpherson edition of the Second Treatise. His introduction lends some perspective. Locke was motivated to write this in support of the “Whig Revolution” that resisted Charles II ascending to the throne and instead installed King William. It was a hundred years later that Jefferson used some of Locke’s ideas in the Declaration of Independence that started the American revolution.

    The good thing seems to be that Locke challenged the arbitrary use of power by the king, asserting that government exists by the agreement of free men who grant whatever authority government has and who may revoke that grant when necessary.

    The bad thing is that Locke also believed that only the propertied class had a right to make laws, while all others must obey them. So we should see Locke as a faulty human being and not as a prophet of God.

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