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9 - Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2014

Thomas L. Pangle
Affiliation:
University of Texas, Austin
Timothy W. Burns
Affiliation:
Baylor University, Texas
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Summary

In moving from Hobbes to John Locke (1632–1704), we follow a key development within modern political philosophy, entailing the qualified acceptance of the fundamental principles of human nature as articulated by Hobbes, but accompanied by a severe criticism, and rejection, of the way Hobbes implemented those principles in his prescriptions for government. Locke argues that Hobbes has not adequately recognized how easily government itself can become a threat to security and peace – a threat far graver than the threats from groups and individuals in the state of nature. For government has at its disposal more terrible power than is possessed by any individual or group in the state of nature. That terrible power can be abused by the humans who wield it, unless the “mighty Leviathan” (sec. 98) is itself restrained, from within, by some system of checks and balances. Locke took Hobbes’s basic theoretical foundation (the new conception of human nature as extremely dangerous) and argued for building on that foundation a different and safer governmental structure. Locke thus set the agenda for the modern tradition of liberal constitutionalism, constitution framing, and constitutional law. (At the same time, we must not forget that the purer Hobbesian tradition, or what one might call the statist, or authoritarian, rights tradition, has always continued to have deep influence and leading exemplars – such as Napoleon in France; Bismarck in Germany; Atatürk in Turkey; and Putin in Russia.)

Locke’s Rhetorical Genius

With this bird’s-eye view of how Locke departs most obviously from Hobbes, we are almost prepared to turn to Locke’s Second Treatise. But if we are going to understand Locke’s writing – whose true message is more difficult of access than is Hobbes’s – we have to begin by focusing in on an important disagreement Locke has with Hobbes concerning human nature. According to Hobbes, fear – anxiety about security – is the passion that is to be counted upon and built upon. Fear is the passion that can become reasonable, that can link up with and be guided by reason, and can therefore form the basis for a minimal but solid justice. Locke finds this insufficient.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Key Texts of Political Philosophy
An Introduction
, pp. 276 - 306
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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References

Laslett, Peter’s critical edition: The Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

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