Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 7 : Of Political or Civil Society | Summary

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Summary

Locke begins this chapter by tracing the origins of civil society back to conjugal society. He returns to the voluntary union of a man and a woman with the goal of procreation and the continuation of the species. God has made sure that human conjugal unions last longer than those of other creatures, although sometimes a separation may occur. Such a society, though, may be clearly distinguished from political society. Conjugal society is confined to a household and does not involve extensive, let alone absolute, authority.

Locke next turns to the topic of domestic governance and discusses the society or relationship between master and servant. Although the "domestic rule of a family" may, at first sight, look like a "little commonwealth," it is far from being so in actual reality. In a household the head of the household retains many of the rights associated with a monarch, including the right to punish and control his "subjects" and the property of the household.

Locke then considers political society in detail. He first affirms that man possesses by nature a power to preserve his life, liberty, and possessions (or property). A political society must contain within itself the power to preserve property and to punish offenses. This condition, in turn, requires that every member of a political society has, by consent, surrendered his natural power to the community. The society itself becomes the "umpire" that settles disputes. Locke says those in civil society "have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies ... and punish offenders." Those who do not meet these conditions still exist in the state of nature.

The legislature of a commonwealth has the power to make laws, Locke says, as well as the power of war and peace. The commonwealth also has an executive power to enforce the laws.

Locke then flatly asserts that absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society and cannot be a form of civil government. Absolute monarchs remain in the state of nature with respect to their subjects. However, the purpose of civil society is to avoid the disadvantages of the state of nature. To confirm the truth of this statement, Locke appeals to his readers to scrutinize history.

Locke concedes that, ostensibly, subjects can appeal to the law and plead with judges to decide disputes. But it is illusory to believe that any restraint whatever exists for an absolute monarch. In closing the chapter, Locke asserts that in civil society no man is immune from the laws.

Analysis

Locke has two underlying purposes in this chapter. First, he wants to reinforce his argument that paternal power and political power must not be confused. Second, he wants to drive home the point that absolute monarchy is completely inconsistent with civil society. For both these purposes, it is critical that people have a clear and correct understanding of what civil society really is.

Locke reverts to the family or household in the early part of the chapter, discussing the "conjugal society" of a man and a woman. Such a household, especially when it expands to include children and servants or slaves, may superficially resemble a political society in miniature. However, Locke draws attention to important differences.

In the crucial Section 87, Locke explains in specific detail what he means by political or civil society. It is a voluntary joining together of men, and Locke does mean to exclude women. They wish to preserve their lives, liberties, and properties, thus avoiding the drawbacks of the state of nature. To achieve this goal, men consent to give up their natural power. They surrender it not into the hands of a monarch but to the community, which becomes the "umpire" of disputes.

Everyone in a civil society relinquishes his power to the community to enforce the laws and to punish offenders. The community itself possesses both a legislative and an executive power (Locke will discuss the nature and interaction of these in more detail in Chapter 12).

Locke concludes the chapter on a forceful note with an unqualified assertion: absolute monarchy is inconsistent with the very notion of a civil society. He remarks that "some men" (presumably the supporters of theorists like Robert Filmer) regard absolute monarchy as "the only government in the world" (Section 90). Whatever flatterers may say and however illusions may be created and propagated, an absolute monarch remains in a state of nature with respect to his subjects.

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