Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 2 : Of the State of Nature | Summary



In the state of nature, before the advent of civil societies or civilization, human beings were all free and equal, according to Locke. Their freedom, however, did not entail the license to injure others. Thus, Locke distinguishes carefully between liberty and license.

Locke supports his comments about the state of nature by referring to the "judicious" Sir Richard Hooker (1554–1600), a British theologian and philosopher. He had authored a well-known book, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie (1594–97). Locke quotes extensively from Hooker to the effect that there is a natural instinct among men to love one another as well as to love themselves.

Locke asserts that there is a natural law of reason. According to this law, no one ought to harm anyone else, since we are all equal and independent in the state of nature. In addition, everyone has the right to punish lawbreakers. As Locke says in Section 8 in this chapter, "Every man has a right to enforce the law of nature and punish offenders." Punishments are meted out to criminals to restrain them and to prevent future offenses, Locke declares, and injured parties have the right to obtain reparation.

In the state of nature, says Locke, everyone has the power to kill a murderer. Such a person has rejected "the common rule and standard" given by God to mankind.

Locke considers a possible objection. He says men are naturally prone to partiality as well as to violence. These emotions will lead them to favor themselves and their friends on the one hand and to punish others too severely on the other. In Section 13, Locke responds to this argument by framing a hypothetical comparison. He compares the state of nature to a government controlled by an absolutist monarch whom no one can hold accountable. Locke asserts that the first is infinitely preferable.

Locke closes the chapter with another citation of Richard Hooker. He then remarks that all men are naturally in a state of nature until they consent to join some sort of political society.


Inquiry into the "state of nature" and speculation about its relationship to more recent civilization was common in the later Renaissance and the early Enlightenment. The French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), for example, explored the issue in his Essays (1580), especially "Of Cannibals." This work, translated into English in 1603, is often thought to have had an impact on William Shakespeare's characterization of Caliban in The Tempest (1611).

In the mid-17th century, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) devoted considerable emphasis to the state of nature in his classic work of political philosophy, Leviathan (1651). John Locke never refers specifically to Hobbes. However, Locke's view of the state of nature, in which every human being is both equal and free, may have been influenced by Hobbes. It is just as likely, however, that Locke was primarily concerned with the views of Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1588–1653) in Filmer's book Patriarcha (1680). These views Locke went to considerable pains to refute. Both Hobbes and Filmer defended absolutist monarchy, a position that Locke vigorously rejected.

Locke's emphasis on rationality and reason in this chapter (and throughout the treatise) is notable. In Section 6, for example, he identifies reason as the law that governs the state of nature. In Section 8, he refers to reason and "common fairness." Such an assumption on Locke's part about the state of nature is worth pondering. He might easily have characterized the state of nature as anarchic, chaotic, or brutish—after the manner of Thomas Hobbes.

In Section 11 of this chapter, Locke discusses murder and its punishment. He alludes to Adam's elder son Cain, whose story is told in Genesis 4:1-16.

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