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Second Treatise of the Government

An Essay Concerning the True Origin, Extent and End of Civil Government

By John Locke
15-minute read
Second Treatise of the Government: An Essay Concerning the True Origin, Extent and End of Civil Government by John Locke

Locke’s Second Treatise offers an in-depth analysis on the origin of our right to liberty and the rights of governments. It shows how, by respecting the laws of nature, we can limit the power of government to best protect ourselves and our property from destruction or worse, tyranny.

  • Anybody interested in politics
  • Anybody interested in the history of ideas and philosophy
  • Anybody interested in the foundations of liberalism and democracy

John Locke (1632-1704) is one of the world’s most important political philosophers. Considered the “father of classical liberalism,” Locke was an influential thinker during the Enlightenment period, and his ideas on philosophy and civil government inspired other major personalities, such as Voltaire, as well as many American revolutionaries – ideas that are still alive and influential today.

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Second Treatise of the Government

An Essay Concerning the True Origin, Extent and End of Civil Government

By John Locke
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Second Treatise of the Government: An Essay Concerning the True Origin, Extent and End of Civil Government by John Locke
Synopsis

Locke’s Second Treatise offers an in-depth analysis on the origin of our right to liberty and the rights of governments. It shows how, by respecting the laws of nature, we can limit the power of government to best protect ourselves and our property from destruction or worse, tyranny.

Key idea 1 of 9

In the state of nature, we have absolute freedom and the right to protect ourselves and our property.

Imagine waking up in a society where there are no government institutions and no laws.

Such a state is what political philosophers call the state of nature.

In the state of nature, all people are free and equal; there is no person or authority that holds power over you – no one to tell you to pay your taxes or parking tickets.

What’s more, everyone in a state of nature follows the same laws, namely the laws of nature, a code of ethics granted by God which is – through human reason – inherent in each of us.

It is this law which tells us not to harm others, and to preserve ourselves and the rest of humankind. In this sense, therefore, all people are free and equal.

Given that we may preserve ourselves in a state of nature, we must also have the right to defend ourselves. In a state of nature, as in any other social constellation, there will necessarily be people who inflict harm on others, such as through theft or violence.

We have the right to defend ourselves and our property against these individuals.

However, in defending ourselves, we must still act reasonably. This means that we may only punish others to get reparation for our losses and to deter offenders from future crimes, without being heavy-handed.

For example, if someone stole your banana from the lunch room refrigerator, in a state of nature, you would be allowed to both take the banana back and demand a cookie as reparation.

Furthermore, you might punish the thief by taking three more cookies from him, to deter him from committing further crimes. However, it would be unreasonable for you to beat or murder him – no matter how delicious or precious that banana was.

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