Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Quotes


Let him try, whether he can, with all his skill, make Sir Robert intelligible, and consistent with himself, or common sense.

John Locke, Preface

In this passage, "he" refers to a reader who tries to make sense of the political theory of Sir Robert Filmer, a pro-absolutist philosopher. Note the bluntness of Locke's critique.


Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws ... for the regulating and preserving of property ... and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.

John Locke, Chapter 1

This is a seminal definition in Locke's Second Treatise. Note his emphasis on the right of making laws (as opposed to compulsion of obedience), as well as on the preservation of property. Locke also highlights in this passage the public good as his primary concern.


The state of nature ... and reason, which ... teaches ... no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

John Locke, Chapter 2

This general comment on the state of nature exhibits Locke's characteristic confidence in reason. Note that he describes reason as a teacher. Also note that the state of nature does not entitle anyone to harm another person, or to injure life, health, liberty, or possessions.


I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction ... by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved.

John Locke, Chapter 3

This passage is drawn from the opening of Locke's chapter entitled "Of the State of War." It reveals one of Locke's cardinal underlying assumptions. The "law of nature" favors the preservation, rather than the destruction, of humankind. This law gives men the right to retaliate against anyone who threatens them.


Wherever violence is used, and injury done ... it is still violence and injury ... wherever ... not bona fide done, war is made upon the sufferers.

John Locke, Chapter 3

This passage occurs near the end of Locke's chapter "Of the State of War." Locke is emphatic in his condemnation of "violence and injury," even though such actions may be taken under the pretense of legal authority. Regardless, those who make war ought to have as their objects preserving justice and protecting the innocent, who have no recourse against them (and thus deserve even greater protection). "Bona fide done" means "done in good faith."


The grass my horse has bit ... and the ore I have digged ... become my property ... The labour that was mine ... hath fixed my property in them.

John Locke, Chapter 5

Perhaps Locke's most crucial axiom in his discussion of property is the importance of labor and industry. Thus, a person's investment of the work of his hands entitles him to possession and ownership.


In the beginning, before the desire of having more than man needed ... or ... a little piece of yellow metal ... yet the same plenty was still left to those who would use the same industry.

John Locke, Chapter 5

In this passage, Locke hearkens back to a primeval state before the stirrings of human desire for possession. It was before the invention of money, symbolized by "a little piece of yellow metal" (gold). Money allows the individual to amass more than he needs and more than he can typically produce through his own labor.


The end of law is ... to preserve and enlarge freedom ... where there is no law, there is no freedom ... liberty ... cannot be, where there is no law.

John Locke, Chapter 6

The apparent paradox that law is the progenitor of freedom, rather than its repressor, forms a consistent theme in the Second Treatise. Law, according to Locke, is a prerequisite for liberty.


Every man who has entered into civil society ... has thereby quitted his power to punish offences ... he has given a right to the commonwealth to employ his force.

John Locke, Chapter 7

This passage is crucial for the main ideas of Locke's Second Treatise. By entering civil society, Locke declares, men give up some of their power to the community or commonwealth. The punishment of offenses or injuries becomes the task of the community, rather than the individual. Thus, human beings make the transition from the state of nature to the state of civil society. Throughout his work, Locke consistently emphasizes the voluntary relinquishment of individual power, often described by him as the "consent" of the governed.


Men being ... by nature, all free ... no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.

John Locke, Chapter 8

This passage serves to encapsulate Locke's primary thesis: that men consent to leave the state of nature—where they are all free, equal, and independent—in order to unite in a civil society for the sake of safety and security. Such a shift involves a voluntary surrender of liberty, but the trade-off results in a gain in security.


The great and chief end ... of ... uniting into commonwealths ... is the preservation of their property ... in the state of nature there are many things wanting.

John Locke, Chapter 9

Locke is unequivocal here about analyzing men's motivation to form a commonwealth and to submit to government. In the state of nature, it is hard, if not impossible, to defend one's property or one's person from attack and/or injury. Consent to form a government of laws is a worthwhile price to pay for security.


The great end of ... enjoyment ... in peace and safety, and the great instrument and means of that being the laws ... the ... fundamental ... law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power.

John Locke, Chapter 11

Locke identifies laws as the "great instrument" that provides and guarantees safety and security for members of a civil society. He also introduces the concept of the legislative power as the most fundamental component in the structure of government.


For prerogative is nothing but the power of doing public good without a rule.

John Locke, Chapter 14

Locke is here discussing the concept of "prerogative," which, in his day, was often interpreted as a blank check for the king to do as he wished. Locke firmly challenges this idea, asserting that prerogative may be necessary at times since the law cannot foresee all contingencies. Rightly interpreted, it is a delegation of power by the people or their representatives and intended for the public good above all else.


For laws ... by their execution ... [are] the bonds of the society ... when that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude, without order or connection.

John Locke, Chapter 19

The context shows that Locke uses the word "bonds" here in the sense of "ties" or "connections." Without law, he asserts, there can be no justice or government—only confusion.


There is ... another way whereby governments are dissolved ... when the legislative, or the prince, either of them, act contrary to their trust.

John Locke, Chapter 19

Locke's analysis of this cause for the dissolution of government became a key element in the American Declaration of Independence, which asserted the colonists' right to dissolve a government that acted against the public good.

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