Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 8 : Of the Beginning of Political Societies | Summary

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Summary

Locke starts this chapter by recapitulating his argument that political societies are formed by the consent of their members. He then discusses majority rule, which he considers essential for a unified society to exist.

In the bulk of this chapter, Locke considers two objections in detail. One, history offers no examples of independent and equal men meeting together to set up a government. Two, men cannot rightly perform such an act, since they are born under a government and have no right to set up a new one.

Locke observes that it is not surprising that history has so little to say about humanity existing in a state of nature. However, it is a matter of historical fact that free and independent men set up a political society in Rome, Venice, and Sparta. Commonly, the government was in the hands of a single man, but this aspect does not undermine Locke's thesis. People could place authority in a king without necessarily believing that he ruled iure divino (Latin for "by divine right"). Locke provides additional examples of men living in troops in the Americas. He quotes from the Old Testament to show the consensual process of selecting a military leader, a judge, or a king among the ancient Israelites. The key element in all these cases, according to Locke, is consent.

Locke also responds to the second objection. He points out that fathers do not have the right to control the choices made by their descendants. These descendants are born free. Once again, Locke stresses consent as the vital ingredient in the formation of a civil or political society.

Analysis

Locke devotes most of this chapter to answering objections and presenting counter-arguments. Such a technique reinforces the persuasive power of his treatise. The first objection he deals with is essentially historical. Locke flatly overturns it with the common-sense observation that history is understandably silent about very early times. He then adds historical examples that confute his critics' arguments. Once again, he makes some intriguing references to America. He remarks that America "is still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (Section 108).

In Section 111, Locke refers to the "golden age," a classical allusion. It virtually took on a life of its own with the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture in the 1400s and 1500s. The Greek poet Hesiod (8th century BCE) told, in his poem Works and Days, of five ages of humankind: gold, silver, bronze, heroic, and iron. This panorama of human history commenced with harmony and bliss. It then ranged steadily downward into conflict, scarcity, and crime. The myth was embellished by the ancient Roman poets Virgil (70–19 BCE) and Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), among others. During the Renaissance, the myth of the golden age enjoyed renewed popularity. In his brief discussion, Locke even quotes a phrase from Ovid: amor sceleratus habendi (Latin for "the accursed love of possession").

In answering the second objection, Locke again relies on history. He points out that history is full of examples of men setting up new forms of government. This arises from the evident fact that parents cannot compel their descendants or deprive them of their liberty. Significantly, Locke appeals to the "law of right reason" when he asserts that a child is born a subject of no country or government (Section 118).

In answering both objections in this chapter, Locke once again relies on the key concepts of consent and compact.

Two allusions in Section 98 call for comment. The first is to the ancient Roman statesman Cato the Younger (95–46 BCE). He is said to have walked out of a theatrical performance to protest what he considered its indecency. The second is to the biblical sea monster Leviathan. Locke's readers would have recognized this as the title of Thomas Hobbes's treatise on political philosophy, published in 1651.

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