Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

Two Treatises of Government
Two Treatises of Government by John Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite my ambitious plan to at least skim the First Treatise, I only read Locke’s Second Treatise.

I was surprised at how much I liked this book, especially since I started out pretty disgusted by Locke’s viewpoint. The two main things that irritated me:

1) His opinion that the primary goal of government is to preserve property. This just felt really materialistic to me. I felt better about this one when I read the parenthetical aside in chapter XV that read, “By property I must be understood here, as in other places to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods,” which I take to mean the intangible qualities of a person as well as the material things he owns. Seems like such an important definition might have been placed a little earlier in the book, but I wasn’t Locke’s editor.

2) His chapter on slavery, in which he asserts that slavery is okay as long as the people taken as slaves first entered into a state of war, thereby forfeiting their natural rights to life and liberty. In the notes to the edition I read, it explained that Locke used this reasoning to justify the African slave trade in the Americas.  It’s a real stretch to claim that every African slave in the Americas in the 17th century was a combatant in a just war against the government enslaving them. Even if this were so, how does that justify keeping their children (and grandchildren) as slaves? In another note, I read that Locke had made part of his wealth in the slave trade, so he had a vested interest in finding a reason why slavery was okay. Unlike with property, there were no parentheticals to help me feel better about Locke’s views on slavery.

As I read on, I focussed more on how Locke’s philosophy fits in with the political situation in England at the time (from James I through Charles I and the civil war, about which I read in David Hume’s The History of England, Volume V; my classics reading is already paying off, even if it is primarily helpful when I’m reading other classics) and on just how much United States government is based on Locke’s philosophy. This really increased my enjoyment of this treatise.

Some of the chapters triggered some very patriotic feelings in me (in my notes about chapter XIX, section 228, I’ve written, “This section ROCKS!”), and I found myself relating many of Locke’s points back to modern situations, like Bush v. Gore, second amendment arguments, and the confiscation of personal property when individuals are charged with drug violations (not convicted of; charged with. And the property isn’t returned if the individual is cleared of the charges, either).

While it’s tempting (for me, at least) to read Locke as a kind of test for our current government, there’s always that memory of his take on slavery. There’s a kind of lingering feeling that he’s taken step by reasonable step and come out past the point of reason, and I worry that I’m missing something important and letting myself be led along because I can’t quite think through all of this as critically as I’d like to. I can’t trust that using his “government must always protect the property of its people” litmus test will lead me to the right conclusions about what our government ought to be doing today.

Still, there was a lot in this book that got me thinking.

One specific question the book provoked was, what is the rule of law during a situation like the American Revolution or the Civil War when the old order has been overthrown but things are still in flux and a new legislative has yet to be put in place? When the legislative structure is dissolved by rebellion, what laws exist among non-combatants until the conflict is resolved? Do people just revert to a state of nature, with no government to which to appeal in cases of unlawful violence or theft?

There were also some awesome quotes. The section I said rocked had this one, in response to those who argue that keeping the peace is more important than fighting against arbitrary power asserted by the government:

“Who would not think it an admirable peace betwix the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?”

And one more, for good measure:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm.”

I thought this one would make a good e-mail signature, but I have a feeling that by putting John Locke at the bottom of all of my e-mail messages I would be saying more than I intend.

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