Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Main Ideas


State of Nature

By the state of nature, Locke means the primeval human condition before the advent of civil society or government. All persons born into the state of nature, he asserts, possess equality and freedom. People's liberty in the state of nature, however, should not be confused with license to do whatever they please.

According to the natural law of reason, Locke declares, no person has the right to harm any other person. In the state of nature, people have the power to enforce this law by punishing offenders. A murderer, for instance, may rightfully be killed.

Unlike some other Enlightenment writers, notably the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), Locke does not idealize the state of nature. He does not present it as resembling the biblical Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. For Locke, the state of nature is a realistic condition in which equal, independent men live essentially on an individual basis. This preserves their lives and punishes those who injure them as best they can.

Compared to life under the rule of absolute monarchy, existence in the state of nature is infinitely preferable, says Locke. Given the course of human development, though, men acquire a strong motivation to quit the state of nature and to form civil societies. This motivation is their safety and security.

Civil Society

The beginnings of civil society may be traced to human beings' concern for their safety and security, and especially to their concern for their property. Civil society is a cooperative endeavor. Men join together, voluntarily surrender some of their freedom to the community, and live under some form of government. Such government may be a monarchy, a democracy, or an oligarchy. What forms of civil society have in common, however, is that they possess a legislative power to make laws for the community as a whole. Such a civil society, or commonwealth, also has an executive power to enforce the laws.

Civil society is rooted in the natural power men possess to preserve their life, liberty, and possessions. It also may be likened—though not confused with—conjugal unions and the relationship between master and servant.

For Locke, absolute monarchy, in which the ruler lives under no restraint, is inconsistent with civil society. In civil society, no person is above, or immune from, the laws.

Civil society has one overarching aim. Locke sums it up by citing the Latin adage, "Salus populi suprema lex esto," or "The safety of the people is the supreme law."


Consent is a crucial element in the constitution of civil society. Locke repeatedly emphasizes that no government can be legitimate without the consent of the governed. When independent and equal men form a civil society and institute government, they voluntarily surrender a portion of their liberties to the community. For example, they give the commonwealth the right to make laws, to enforce the laws, and to mete out punishments to offenders.

Thus, according to Locke, men make the transition from the state of nature to life in a commonwealth through a consensual act. They surrender some of their freedom in exchange for improved safety and security. Civil society may fail in its objective, or a government may violate the trust and consent of the people. In those cases, the people have the right to dissolve their government and to institute new government.

Consent is thus essential to Locke's fundamental concept of government. In a monarchy, the governed may, by their own consent, place authority in the hands of a royal power. They may not necessarily believe that the monarch rules by divine right or should be able to exercise absolute power.

Property and Liberty

By property, Locke means individual ownership. How does such ownership come about? In Locke's lengthy exegesis in Chapter 5, he singles out labor and industry as the critical components that bring property into existence.

Locke gives the homely, common-sense examples of gathering acorns and apples. These foods might originally be considered as owned in common by all men. When an individual invests his labor in gathering them from the forest, they properly become his own—set apart from the common store.

Are there any bounds or limitations set on property? Locke answers that there are, by the law of nature, which endorses reasonable use without waste and thus discourages hoarding. Nature sets limits to property by restraining the amount of men's labor and also the amount of men's need.

This natural equilibrium began to change, though, with the invention of money. Money afforded men the chance to expand their property beyond their needs and beyond the short duration of most useful objects.

Liberty and Law

On the surface, liberty might seem to be constrained by law, but Locke takes the position that it is law that makes liberty possible. He points out that the supreme power in a civil society or commonwealth is the legislative power. Other powers (for example, the executive power and the federative power) are necessarily subordinate. Laws, in Locke's view, are the backbone of civil society.

It is the business and responsibility of the legislative power to make laws. The laws make it possible for people to "enjoy their properties in peace and safety" (Chapter 11). Locke asserts that the first and fundamental natural law, which governs even the legislature itself, is the preservation of society and every person within it.

For Locke, law is coupled with liberty even in the state of nature, where the natural law of reason makes men both equal and free. By the natural law of reason, no one should injure other people. If offenses do occur, men have the right to punish offenders.

When men join together voluntarily to form a civil society or commonwealth, however, they surrender some of their liberty to the community. They do this, actually, so that law can sustain their security and safety more effectively. By this reasoning, then, law is also coupled closely with liberty, since it makes liberty possible in civil society.

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