Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 18 : Of Tyranny | Summary



This chapter opens with a pithy comparison linking it to the previous one. Locke says that "usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to." He continues, "so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to." A tyrant pays no attention to the law, but only to his own desires.

To support his assertions about tyrants, Locke resorts to an unexpected authority: the speeches before Parliament of King James I (reigned 1603–25). In three citations, James upholds the "weal of the public," that is, the common welfare. Locke even calls this monarch "that learned king, who understood the notion of things."

Locke comments that it is erroneous to believe that only monarchies can go astray in the direction of tyranny. He cites as historical support two examples from the ancient world. He points out the 30 tyrants of Athens (late 5th century BCE) and the "decemvirs," or the 10 commissioners of Rome (mid-5th century BCE).

Locke then proceeds to consider various ramifications and objections. First, he considers the validity of any opposition to a monarch. Here he emphasizes that a monarch possesses authority only by virtue of the law. All unlawful exercises of power may be lawfully resisted. If someone employs power to prevent an appeal to law against unlawful acts, that person is clearly acting in a tyrannical fashion.

Locke concludes the chapter with a colorful comparison. He compares a trend in government toward tyranny to the course of a ship tending on its sea journey toward Algiers in North Africa. At that time, Algiers was proverbial as a corrupt and dangerous center of piracy.


Locke's citations of King James I in this chapter may seem disingenuous. In the view of modern historians, James (reigned 1603–25) was a vigorous supporter of divine right and absolutist monarchy. Yet in his public speeches to Parliament, he affected to uphold a more humble stance. Was Locke aware of this stance as hypocritical? Or did he disingenuously take advantage of the political context of James's remarks to quote him to his (Locke's) own purpose?

The answer to this question is hard to decide. In describing James I as "that learned king," Locke certainly conforms to most 17th-century profiles of this monarch. Among other works, James composed two political treatises in which he expounded his own views on absolute monarchy. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Locke used the citations in the Second Treatise in an extremely pragmatic way.

In Section 201 of this chapter, Locke employs two allusions to ancient Greek and Roman history that may require explanation. The first is to the "thirty tyrants of Athens." The reference is to the end of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431–404 BCE), in which Sparta vanquished its arch-enemy. The Athenian defeat was aggravated by the Spartan imposition of oligarchy, or the rule of the few. An ultraconservative group, led by Critias, ruled Athens oppressively for about a year until they were driven out.

Locke's second allusion is to the "decemvirs" (Latin for "ten men") who ruled Rome during the period 451–449 BCE. This special committee of rulers was charged with the task of resolving conflict between the patricians (nobles) and plebeians (commoners). Although they developed a code of laws called the "Twelve Tables," the commissioners became tyrannical and were forced to abdicate.

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