Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 6 : Of Paternal Power | Summary



In this chapter, Locke expands upon the misconceptions encouraged by the concept of paternal power. Paternal power, he asserts, would be better expressed as parental power. Such a reformulation would have the advantage of including the mother, as well as the father, in the process of child-rearing. It would also avoid the confusion of paternal power with political power. This is a blurring of reality that has helped to propagate the acceptance of absolutist monarchy and the divine right of kings. These doctrines are promoted by Sir Robert Filmer. Paternal power, in Locke's view, should not be equated with monarchical or political power.

Children are subject to paternal authority because they need time and maturation to acquire reason. The acquisition of reason, in turn, ensures their freedom. This point is defined at various ages in different societies: Locke gives the example of entrance into adulthood at the age of 21.

Locke makes some additional, important points about parents and children in this chapter. He observes that when a child becomes an adult, he or she is no longer subject to parental authority. After the "imperfect state of childhood," an individual becomes entirely free and entirely rational. It is nonetheless true that a parent may influence a child, even in adulthood. This is because of the parent's ability to bequeath land or other possessions to the child. Men have a general power to leave their estates "to those who please them best," so they exercise an indirect authority over their children. Locke also points out that adult offspring are not formally bound by parental authority after they reach a certain age. However, they do have a custom-hallowed obligation to respect and honor their parents. Thus, one can easily understand the "tacit consent" given by children to parental authority.


Locke's argument in this chapter is complex, but he presents his thesis clearly and forcefully. People have often misinterpreted paternal authority. First, they substitute this term for what should be understood as parental authority. Second, they conflate authority in the family structure with political power. In families, children undergo a process of maturation, gradually achieving reason and freedom under the vigilant authority of their parents.

This process may be clearly distinguished from conditions in a civil society. Absolute monarchy cannot be justified under the guise of identity with, or similarity to, paternal authority because people in a civil society are not children and have matured to the point of reasoned consent. Locke's argument here varies and expands upon the case he has made earlier in his treatise against Sir Robert Filmer's theories of government. However, Locke adds a further dimension by noting the reality of indirect parental influence of children, even during their offspring's adulthood. This indirect influence springs from parents' power to bequeath their estates. It is therefore understandable that children will tacitly consent to parental authority, even though they are not formally bound to do so.

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