Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 1 : An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government | Summary



Locke reviews the points he had made in the previous treatise about the biblical figure of Adam. God had not given Adam dominion over the world, as Robert Filmer had maintained. Nor had Adam any right to pass such a dominion to his heirs or successors. Since it is impossible to identify Adam's heirs in the contemporary world, no one can rightfully claim such authority.

At the outset of his treatise, Locke proposes to distinguish political power from other types of power. These include paternal authority or the authority of a master over a slave. He defines political power as the right to make laws and impose penalties for the regulation and preservation of property. It also involves the defense of the people from foreign injury. The paramount purpose of political power, Locke asserts, is its use for the public good.


Locke's opening remarks about the role of Adam in the Book of Genesis may seem esoteric today. However, biblical authority was taken very seriously in 17th-century England. Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588-1653) had written Patriarcha: The Natural Power of Kings (1680). He argued that royal power sprang from the natural authority of parents. Adam, being the first father, was also the first king. Filmer attacked what for Locke were indispensable values, like the social compact and the consent of the governed. It was, therefore, in Locke's interest to do all he could to discredit Filmer's theories.

Locke's definition of political power foreshadows some of his most important themes in the treatise. These include the rationale of laws and their relationship to punishment, the importance of safety and security, and the preservation of property. He also included the permanent paramount status of the public good. Affixed to the title page of one edition of Locke's treatise was the Latin adage or maxim: SALUS POPULI SUPREMA LEX ESTO. This meant "Let the safety of the people be the supreme law." This saying is also cited by Locke at the beginning of Chapter 13. There he calls it "certainly so just and fundamental a rule, that he, who sincerely follows it, cannot dangerously err."

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