John Locke (1623-1704)

John Locke, another English philosopher, expounded his social contract theory in his book, “Two Treatises on Civil Government” (1960), as a defence of the constitutional monarchy which the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had established in England.

Locke on the State of nature’:

Locke does not paint a dismal picture of the State of nature. It was not, as Hobbes held, a State of war and misery. On the contrary, it was, as Locke says, one of “peace, good-will, mutual assistance and preservation”. Men enjoyed freedom and equality in it. Each lived according to his own liking. Unlike Hobbes’s natural man, Lockes’ man in the State of nature was not selfish or aggressive, but social and sympathetic. His attitude towards his fellow-men was that of reason and justice.

Natural freedom was not licence, because the State of nature was ruled by the law of nature, which was the law of reason and justice. “Under this law”, writes Locke, “of which reason is the interpreter; equality is the fundamental fact in man’s relation to one another”. Moreover, man possessed natural rights in the State of nature, based on the law of nature. These rights may be summed’ up under three heads, namely life, liberty and property. ‘Reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it. That being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions”. Here, again. Locke differs from Hobbes, according to whom the law of nature was one of self-preservation. This shows clearly that Locke’s State of nature was a pre-political condition of human life and not pre-social as that of Hobbes.

Although the State of nature was a condition of peace and reason, yet a few inconveniences were experienced in it They were three in number: (1) The law of nature was not defined clearly, because the interest as well as the intelligence of each man differed from others, and each interpreted the law of nature as he liked. (2) There were no competent, impartial and known judges to interpret the law. (3) There was no common authority to enforce it That is the reason why once a dispute began in the State of nature, if it could not be put to an end So, although the State of nature was not a State of perpetual war, as with Hobbes, it was, however, “full of fears and continual dangers”, and man’s enjoyment of natural rights was “very insecure”. This necessitated the institution of civil society or State in order to remove the inconveniences and insecurities of the State of nature.

The Contracts:

Although Locke did not state it explicitly, yet he impliedly said that there were two contracts. The first contract established the political society or State, and the other the government. According to Locke, each individual, finding the State of nature intolerable owing to its inconveniences, entered into a contract.

He agreed with all other individuals to give up his natural right of executing the law of nature and punishing offences against it. But he did not give up all his natural rights, as Hobbes asserted. Moreover, the natural right was given not to a man or assembly of men; as Hobbes said, but to the community as a whole. Locke described it in these words: There and there only is political society where every one of the members has quitted the natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. This society thus becomes, by the act of individuals who form it, vested with the functions of determining as to what are the offences against the law of nature and punish violations of that law”.

After establishing the State, the people entered into another contract, this time with the rulers-the legislature. This is the governmental compact. Locke describes it thus: The legislative power, constituted by the consent of the people, becomes the supreme power in the Commonwealth, but it is not arbitrary. It must be exercised as it is given for the good of the subjects. Government is in the nature of a trust and embraces only such powers as are transferred at the time of the change from a State of nature”. The power of the government is limited to the condition that it is exercised to carry out the “established known laws,” applied by impartial judges.

Locke’s theory of limited sovereignty and right of revolt:

Locke’s contract is a limited contract: for the individual surrounded only part of his natural rights. The power of the State is, therefore, limited; the government cannot exercise unlimited powers, as Hobbes’s sovereign did. As a mutter of fact, Locke did not even use the term “sovereignty” in his book. Instead of it, he used the term ‘supreme power of the legislature’. The idea of absolute, unlimited and inalienable sovereign power was alien to him. As he himself says, The legislative power constituted by the consent of the people, becomes the supreme power in the commonwealth, but is not arbitrary.

It must be exercised as it is given, for the good of the subjects. Government is in the nature of a trust and embraces only such powers as were transferred at the time of the change from a State of nature. The legislature cannot transfer its power to any other person or body. It is but a delegated power from the people, who alone can depose it or a. So, behind the ‘supreme’ legislature stand the people or community as final embodiment of power. If the legislature or government betrays the trust, the people can depose it. The community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody, even of their legislatures, whenever they shall be so foolish or so wicked as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subjects”. Thus Locke defended the people’s right to rebellion, which is the basis of this theory of limited sovereignty. Thus Locke justified the glorious Revolution of 1688 in his country, which ousted the autocratic Stuart kings from power and established Parliament as the sovereign power in England.

Criticism of Locke’s Theory


Locke’s theory has several merits. As H.J.Laski pointed out, Locke is a philosopher of consent His theory of consent has now become a basic principle of the English and American political philosophy. For this purpose he distinguishes the State from the government. The government derives its power and authority from the consent of the people who are ultimately the sovereign. Locke, therefore, emphasizes that “the sovereignty of the State is not the sovereignty of a ruler and that “the will of the State may limit the will and actions of a ruler”. Locke thus gives us a theory of limited sovereignty or constitutional government.

Hobbes made the sovereign absolute, but Locke recognised the fact that there is a power behind the throne, that the exercise of sovereignty ultimately depends upon the consent of the people who obeys it. For Hobbes the sovereign is the State, but Locke clearly distinguishes the government and the sovereign who is the people. The government is a trust and its authority must be employed to fulfil the purposes for which the civil society or State was established. In case it fails to do so, the people have the right to depose it and appoint a new government. The real difference between Hobbes and Locke lies in the reason that Hobbes gives us a theory of legal sovereignty, and does not recognise the existence of political sovereignty, while Locke emphasises the powers of the political sovereign without recognising those of the legal sovereign.

Another contribution of Locke to Political Science is his theory of natural rights. He considers life, liberty and property as inalienable rights of every individual. The end for which the State was established is to secure these natural rights. Although the concept of natural rights is misleading, yet to base rights on the nature of man is justifiable.

The main defect in Locke’s theory is that he ignored the concept of legal sovereignty. He also failed to see that revolution, however desirable, is never legal.