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Discussion of Two Treatises of Government

We choose one book per month to read and discuss philosophically as a group.

January 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt

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March 2019 Philosophy Book of the Month: Final Notice by Van Fleisher

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Discussion of Two Treatises of Government

Post by Scott » January 16th, 2010, 2:26 pm

Please use this thread to discuss Two Treatises of Government by John Locke. If you have not read the book, please do not participate in this thread until you have read it.

What do you think of the book? Would you recommend it to others?

Personally, I find Locke's writing difficult because its old and non-translated.

Nonetheless, I think it is especially interesting from a U.S. perspective considering the influence of Locke's ideas of consent by the governed and equality of man at least in the lip service paid by the rebels and the basic political philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, whether one agrees with them nearly wholly or just in part, I think Locke's writings create a historical philosophically political justification for revolution against any government but self-government.

What do you think?


What do you think of the following quote from the Second Treatise:
John Locke wrote:A criminal who, having renounced reason ... hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or tyger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security. And upon this is grounded the great law of Nature, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.
I think that quote can provide a poetic justification for the use of defensive violence. But it frightens me in that I think it could also be interpreted to support vengeance for vengeance sake, represented politically in draconian legal codes and harsh totalitarian regimes. Of course, the comparison to dangerous animals leads me to the former interpretation; who would want to get revenge for revenge sake on an animal, i.e. punishing it not to protect people and not as training but for vengeance?
Last edited by Scott on February 10th, 2010, 5:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by athena » January 20th, 2010, 2:15 am

I think it would be very hard to appreciate Locke's arguments without knowledge of the history that made his arguments so important. When I learned of the history that lead to Locke's arguments, the book was much more interesting.

Unfortunately, I had to return the book to the library so I can not double check, but didn't Locke follow the argument you quoted, with an explanation of how government raises us above that brutish level of existence? It seems to me he argued that government establishes a civilized order, that replaces brutish behaviors with rule by reason. That as civilized humans we need to rely on the court instead of taking matters in our own hands, as would happen before civilized order were established. However, a court may rule that a murderer is as a mad dog, not as a civilized human. An unfortunate fact of life, is not all humans behave as are civilized humans, but then in such cases, it is up to the courts to decide the man's fate.

I think this argument plays back on the kings, who themselves used killing to secure their power. I think Locke was saying, in a very diplomatic way, that kings should not have this power, to take life. King James, who believed he had divine right to rule, had claimed he had the right to take a person's life, and Locke is arguing only the court has this right. That taking another's life should not be self serving, but should occur only when through the court, reason decrees it necessary. That is to say, the history behind his argument is important to understanding his argument.

In the words of King James:
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods. There be three principal similitudes that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God; and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a king is truly Parens patriae, the politique father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man.

Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destrov make or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both souls and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, thev have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only. . . .

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Post by Jerry » January 23rd, 2010, 4:59 pm

I purchased a paperback 1993 edition of the Laslett translation shortly following its release. It is reasonably readable.

I feel as Athena, a history of Locke’s era is very helpful. The back and forth (Tory-Whig) during his time surely played a heavy role in his philosophy; his father was a Whig parliamentarian and a captain in its military. John Locke apparently began adulthood sympathetic to the monarchy and gradually swung toward democracy and republicanism. It seems also that his comments in another letter; ‘Concerning Toleration’ the simple statement, ‘everyone is orthodox to himself’ describes much about his sentiments and is expressed throughout his writing of this thread.

The English kings, notably James I, expressed themselves as direct descendents of Adam which gave them their power of authority. That is difficult reasoning to me since so are we all, at least in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Locke refuted that claim yet he held deeply felt Christian beliefs by accounts I find. I agree with Athena here.

From the quote you cite; ‘A criminal who . . .’ I have no difficulty with. He speaks there his notion of natural law which he supplants with civil authority once agreed to by the people. Our laws revert to it only when civil authority is unavailable at the moment of necessity. But it is later challenged in legal jurisdiction to assure its appropriateness. I believe our justice system is adequate to assure that protection rather than vengeance was the objective.

In this writing, as in practically all past era histories, the more striking to me is the changing ethic of societies. It seems the more distant back in time the more absolute the character of people. The biblical account that Joshua could slaughter every soul
And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.
(Jos 6:21 NKJ), with full felt justification.

Presently we concern ourselves that it is terrible torture to have a man stand in the corner listening to loud music for an extended time. Locke himself was a major share holder in a slave trading company. In other type tolerations, I wonder that we could survive life with the westward bound wagon trains imagining their diet of putrid meats and dried vegetables they probably consumed with delighted appreciation. We have life very soft and protected to try and relate to the past times with good understanding.

In all regard, I am glad you posted this reading for discussion. It is valuable to gain understanding of our U.S. beginnings. You surely are right in stating justification against governments other than self promoted ones. Here though, even republics could become oligarchies in practical applications if the citizen does not remain aware and involved. We are just now at high anticipation of whether government should have greater or less influence in our daily lives. It is good that such is debated loudly and enthusiastically. In this I am more sympathetic to individual liberty and responsibility.
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Post by athena » January 23rd, 2010, 10:46 pm

Jerry, I did not realize Locke was involved in the slave trade, so I googled it. ... y-lec.html

Shaftsbury was enormously interested in trade and the colonies. He considered trade crucial to the stength of the country. Shaftsbury was also instrumental in founding the Carolina colonies. At Shaftsbury's behest, Locke served as secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas and as Secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations. As Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations, Locke collected information from all over the world about the colonies and trade for the English government . As Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas he was involved in a commercial enterprise which may have influenced Locke's views about colonies, economics and government.
The slave trade was very important to Enland, as its ship took manufactured good to Africa and traded them for slaves, which were carried to the colonies. When the slaves were delievered to colonies, products from the colonies were picked up and delivered to England.

For whatever reason, despite what Locke said of labor and ownership and what he said about slavery, his ideals and ideas of human rights, did not apply to Africans. I feel angry about this. It would be nice to discuss his reasoning with him.
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Post by Jerry » January 24th, 2010, 8:12 am

Athena - aint it so intriguing.

I can only think that Locke’s views on property reflected what he thought can be considered property. It is why I clumsily tried to discuss changing ethics. He must not have considered Africans as full human. That moral carried into the U.S. constitution under the count of congressional seats by their fractional count allotting jurisdictions. Consider Marcus Aurelius very majestic writings of the second century compared to his practical and conquering life as emperor. That period has the conquered foe as slave regardless of race, most often the Gaul. In fact, we have not overcome the tendencies yet. Witness amendment 13, 15 and finally 19 ratified in 1920 providing women suffrage; even eligibility to vote on reaching the age of war draft not until 1971. We continually evolve. It is why it is so hard to read Locke with understanding and why we are trying this moment. Sometime in the distant future our descendents will have difficulty understanding authors of our era. They will probably feel anger toward our transitional lack of proper virtue. Locke is fun to contemplate over and, in a way, permits us a feeling of superiority. It will be short lived.

I sure hope this thread continues. I would appreciate many views to improve my own.
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Post by DeathByThought » November 19th, 2010, 1:56 pm

I had the same place underlined which you quoted Scott :) It should be kept in mind that we do not or at least should not kill animals but we "put them to sleep". We do not exact revenge or restore justice by destroying them. We eradicate them because it's practical from the standpoint of our own safety and well-being. Beasts do not declare war upon mankind, neither do beastmen. Animals are put down because it's not worth the effort to (re)integrate them with human society (talking about domestic animals here) if they have for some reason, turned against it. A man rarely crosses paths with a tiger, and if he does, it's most likely the man's own fault if the tiger should attack him. If it should enter a populated are - sure thing, put him down that instant.

Even though man may turn to into a beast, this problem shouldn't be addressed ideologically or as some kind of a principal. Beastmen do not declare "war against all mankind". Beastmen are as tigers, they do not take responsibility. So either we make them responsible by turning them back to men or we put them down just like the animals they are. The latter does not serve as an example for anyone because beastmen do not understand it and normal men do not need it because normal men do not kill.

Reading Locke really inspired me. It made me reevaluate my own political attitudes and activity. It also made me ponder about how the world's riches and resources have become private property or how our mutual property is being sold to us with providers earning large profits.

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