Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: In the former, The false Principles, and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and his Followers, Are Detected and Overthrown. The latter is an Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government.

Printed in London, 1690.

Is man by nature good or evil? Is he benevolent or does he envy others for their possessions? And what form of government is best suited to guarantee the safety and prosperity of its citizens? Since the 17th century, many European thinkers tried to answer these questions. A prominent idea was that of contractualism, i.e. the idea of people consenting to form a body of state by means of a social contract. The philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all addressed this idea but drew different conclusions from it. Today’s topic will be how Locke conceived of human nature and how he envisioned the ideal social contract.

The State of Nature

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1578-1679) lived at about the same time. And what a time! The 17th century was characterised by profound political changes. Within a few decades, England saw the execution of the monarch Charles I, a republic, a military dictatorship, a return to monarchy and, finally, a peaceful revolution. In light of this tremendous turmoil and many different models of government that were experimented with in a short period of time, it hardly seems surprising that they dealt with this issue quite extensively.

Hobbes’ philosophy was strongly influenced by the experience of the English Civil War and he imagined the state of nature as a war-like, anarchic chaos, as a “war of all against all”. According to Hobbes, the only way to control this state was an absolutist sovereign who could enforce order with the sword if necessary. Locke, on the other hand, maintained that certain rules applied even in the state of nature, above all the rule of reason. He believed that man could behave rationally of his own free will, which means, for example, not harming others and respecting their property.

Where Does Property Come From?

An interesting question is that of how man can acquire property according to Locke. In the state of nature, everything belongs to everyone, or rather to God. However, according to Locke, whenever a person exerts labour, for example by picking an apple and eating it, that person makes the common good his own, he appropriates the apple. If he does this on a large scale, he can cultivate fields, exchange natural produce for money and build up private property. If man already acts rationally in the state of nature and can even build up a working economic system, an important question arises: Why would he need the state then?

Well, although Locke believes people to be able to behave in a peaceful and civilised manner under certain circumstances, this doesn’t mean that they will always do so. There is a constant danger of them becoming envious and wanting to deprive others of their property. That’s why they join their forces in order to better protect their lives, their freedom and their property. A little less freedom, a little more security.

The first of Locke’s treatises attacked this work of the English philosopher Robert Filmer. Filmer defended the absolute divine right of kings in the English monarchic tradition.

Thus, we see that Locke doesn’t believe the social contract to be necessary for the survival of man, as it is according to Hobbes, Locke’s social contract is a voluntary step taken by the individual as they hope to gain an advantage from it in the long term. The fact that Locke believes the main task of the state to be the protection of the integrity and the freedom of the individual explains why he is often referred to as the founding father of liberalism.

No to the Divine Right of Kings

Having established why life in a state is preferable to life in the state of nature, we have to ask ourselves who may have the right to rule and why. From the first of his Two Treatises of Government we already know who Locke does not consider legitimate rulers: monarchs claiming the divine right of kings. He refuted the hypothesis that God chose Adam to be the absolute ruler of the world and that modern kings could therefore indirectly claim this right within the context of hereditary monarchy. Locke maintained that God had only granted Adam the right to rule over the earth and the animals, but not over other mankind.

Thus, a government is not legitimated by God but by fulfilling its task of protecting human freedom. If the government fails to do that, it loses its right to rule and may be deposed – by force if necessary. To Locke, it isn’t important whether the government takes the form of a monarchy, a republic or any other as long as it adheres to the rules of the contract and does not become a tyranny. Because – and that’s of fundamental importance – the contract is binding for both parties.


The Right to Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence

The concept that a bad government could break the social contract and could be dismissed for that was revolutionary! It provided American colonists with the theoretical foundation to cut loose from Britain’s rule – and to cancel the contract with George III, so to speak. For, according to the colonists, George III hadn’t fulfilled his duty of protecting the well-being of his citizens overseas but had made life difficult for them for years. The list of grievances attached to the Declaration of Independence of 1776 by its authors was long. The colonists complained about having to feed the King’s British soldiers, about having to pay ever new taxes and duties without representation in parliament in return, about court trials without due process and much more. For them, the government of George III had turned into a bad government. And thanks to Locke’s writings, they could finally justify why that granted them the right to revolution. Thus, some passages of Locke’s work were incorporated almost verbatim into the Declaration of Independence, which states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government …”

The War of Independence was to last until 1783, but in the end the thirteen colonies triumphed. The United States of America was born as a federal republic with a new George leading it: George Washington, the first elected president of the USA.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Here you can find the English text of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

If you would like to read the full – but very concise – text of the American Declaration of Independence, you may do so here.

Find out more about Thomas Hobbes and his life’s work in this book review on Bookophile.

Also on Bookophile: an introduction to Rousseau’s social contract.