Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 3 : Of the State of War | Summary



In this chapter, Locke argues that everyone has a right to destroy anyone who is bent on destruction. It is the same as killing a dangerous wild beast that is not "under the ties of the common law of reason." Anyone who tries to oppress another or make him a slave is hostile to that person's survival.

This principle justifies killing a thief. Such a person may even mask or deny his true intentions. Locke argues that it is still lawful to treat him as if he has entered a state of war and to kill him if possible.

Locke contrasts the state of nature with the state of war. The key distinguishing mark is the use of force or the intention of using it. Toward the end of the chapter, Locke foreshadows a major transition in human development. The impending prospect of a state of war offers a rationale for men "to put themselves into a society and leave the state of nature." In the state of nature, the only appeal against injustice or oppression is to heaven. In a society, men have recourse to an authority or power on earth that can grant them relief.


In this chapter, Locke singles out force as the key distinguishing factor that periodically threatens to upset the state of nature. Force, he says, is the prime motivator driving men to form a society or government.

The argumentation in Section 18 may seem strained to some modern readers. After all, in most modern legal codes the punishment for theft is not typically death. It is also hard to understand how Locke would propose to discover a disingenuous man's true intentions. Locke would probably respond that the use of force by a would-be criminal is the key factor here. People who use force against others are placing themselves in a state of war. The crime of theft should also be understood as an assault upon property. The idea of property is one of the most important concepts in Locke's treatise. Therefore, by extension theft is an attack on the property owner's liberty.

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