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Two Treatises Of Government by Locke: Summary & Explanation

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  • 1:06 Who Was John Locke?
  • 2:01 The First Treatise
  • 2:45 The Second Treatise
  • 3:47 Locke and Human Rights
  • 5:21 Locke's Impact
  • 6:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
John Locke's ideas about government and human nature became the starting point for modern political theory and, ultimately, the American Revolution. Locke's concepts of freedom, law, and the purpose of government were foundational to the modern conception of democracy.

Inspiring a Revolution

Today, our country has a very specific political process. You know the drill - every four years, politicians face off and try to win the votes of the American people and claim their spot as the nation's leader. It's practically American tradition to complain about election year, with its non-stop political ads and campaigning. But can you imagine if this process didn't exist?

In the late 1600s, the concept of 'government' meant one thing - monarchy. The idea that individuals were all equal - or at least, had an equal claim to rights and freedom - was a fairly alien one. In 1689, however, a book appeared that laid out a contrary theory, one which claimed exactly that - and started the world towards revolution and what we today call 'democracy.' That book, Two Treatises on Government, a work of political philosophy intended to push forward the ideas of contract theory and natural rights was written by a person who probably would've been somewhat shocked by what his ideas helped create, a century later--John Locke.

Who Was John Locke?

John Locke, a well known political philosopher from the 17th century initially responsible for many modern political ideas, was born in 1632 near Bristol, England, to a fairly affluent family. He was well-educated and graduated from Oxford with a degree in medicine. To call Locke only a doctor, however, would be somewhat inaccurate - Locke was interested in a wide array of topics, including law, government, and philosophy.

Locke's major work in this area was Two Treatises on Government, which was published anonymously in 1689. It's important to remember when Locke was writing these ideas; just a year before his book came out, the nation was convulsed by the Glorious Revolution, where the king, James II, was overthrown (at least in part because was Catholic). So, while the power of the monarchy was unquestioned, the idea that common people could have some degree of control over the government was gaining strength.

First Treatise

The 'first' treatise of Locke's book was an attack on a contemporary religious philosopher, Sir Robert Filmer. Though the argument is based in religion, there's some overlap between these ideas and the 'second treatise' on government. Filmer was arguing that Adam, the first man in the Bible, had absolute authority over his children, their children, and all succeeding people throughout history, since his power was ordained by God.

Locke thought this was absurd. While granting that Adam had authority over his own children, as all parents do, he argued that saying only 'the heir of Adam' could have authority over all human society was impossible, since proving the authenticity of inheritance was impossible.

Second Treatise

It was in the second treatise that Locke really laid out his theories about power, governance, and reason. A popular idea at the time was the concept of the 'state of nature,' (spread largely by another English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes). The state of nature put forth that human beings, in their original form, existed in a condition of absolute freedom and equality. Now, Hobbes claimed this 'state' was actually really bad - since freedom meant not only that you could do what you wanted, but also that anyone else could, too (like rob you, and kill you).

Locke agreed that the 'state of nature' had existed, but he thought that human beings could exist pretty well in such a condition, since people - when left alone - have a tendency to order and organize themselves. People, Locke claimed, naturally give up some share of their freedom in exchange for security, protection, and safety - all the things that governments offered. So, the best kind of government, to Locke, was one that restricted the least amount of freedom.

Locke and Human Rights

On the subject of rights, Locke was decades ahead of his time. Locke claimed that there were natural rights, or entitlements human beings had merely because they were human, rights that no one could take away or rightfully eliminate. There were essentially three: life (each person effectively 'owns' him/herself), liberty (your right to do, more or less, what you want with that life), and property. If that sounds familiar, its because in 1776, Thomas Jefferson (who was profoundly affected by Locke's writing) adapted it for the Declaration of Independence's famous guarantee of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'

The best government, to Locke, was the one that guaranteed these three rights. Since monarchy was inherently illogical (see the first treatise), Locke pioneered an idea about how governments are formed that became hugely influential. According to Locke, people form a social contract, an agreement between themselves and their leaders. 'We'll agree to do what you say,' the people agree, 'as long as you serve our best interests and protect our natural rights.' If a government fails to do that, Locke claimed, the people had the right to alter, adjust, change, or even abolish their governments.

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