Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 4 : Of Slavery | Summary



Locke begins this brief chapter by distinguishing between natural liberty and liberty in society. He defines natural liberty as freedom from any dominating power or existence under the rule of the law of nature. Liberty in society is existence under a legislative power that has been formed by consent of the commonwealth. Again, Locke takes issue with Filmer, who asserted that liberty was the freedom for everyone to do exactly as he pleased, unrestrained by any laws.

Next, Locke asserts that no one can rightfully take his own life. Such an action blatantly conflicts with the law of nature's requirement of the preservation of men as much as possible. Therefore, it follows that no one can voluntarily enter into slavery since such a state is equivalent to death. Locke concludes that not even the ancient Israelites in the biblical Book of Exodus sold themselves into slavery in Egypt, but rather into drudgery. They were not, properly speaking, enslaved, since they did not exist under an absolute, arbitrary, and despotic power.


Commentators have pointed out that Locke uses the word "arbitrary," in this chapter and elsewhere in the treatise, in two slightly different senses. The word may have its modern meaning of "decided upon a whim," or it may have a somewhat broader meaning of "decided upon someone's choice." The latter meaning seems intended in the final sentence of Section 22, for example.

The argument about voluntary entry into slavery in Section 23 is pointed. No one, Locke declares, can give away more power than he himself possesses. No one possesses the power to rightfully take his own life because the law of nature forbids such an action. Because no one possesses this power, it follows that no one can rightfully adopt a life of slavery, since slavery is equivalent to death. It would follow from this that men do not have the right to voluntarily consign themselves to the rule of an absolutist, arbitrary overlord.

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