Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Speaking of classics, John Locke’s writing should really be taught more often. His writings and philosophies were, and continue to be, enormously influential, and any American reading his Two Treatises of Government who is not already familiar with it will be immediately stricken by the immense and overt resonance between the US Constitution and the system of government it describes, and the philosophies of government espoused herein. Also, by the number of commas he employs, but when you’re among the most influential political philosophers of the past five hundred years, you get a certain amount of stylistic leeway, or perhaps liberty would be a better word.

Once you get past the surface level, Locke is actually quite amusing, especially when he is critiquing other philosophers. His entire first treatise of government is dedicated to refuting the absolute monarchical arguments of a contemporary philosopher, and he pulls no punches and is unafraid of employing a certain degree of sarcasm to make his points. Whomever claimed that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor had a) never heard my puns, and b) didn’t understand how it could be effectively employed. Not that Locke relies on such tools to make his points. Rather, he falls back upon first principles, presenting cogent arguments for how political power, and polities themselves, arise from the state of nature, and how their origins suggest that power properly resides in the people, not in an absolute monarch.

Many of his arguments, as well as his opponents’, are Biblically based, mixing suppositions and thought experiments about what we might today call paleoanthropology with history lessons, examples, and anecdotes drawn from the Old Testament. Though I am far from a Biblical scholar, I do not consider myself entirely ignorant in such matters, but Locke’s references far exceeded my knowledge in most instances; these are not necessarily the stories which are often referenced today. It is a useful reminder of just how influential religious teachings and thought was upon even secular philosophers who embraced freedom of religion, and it is worth reflecting that many of the rights and privileges which we take for granted today are founded upon fundamentally religious arguments. What this technique allows, and what is by comparison sorely lacking in more secular approaches, is a definitive point of origin, a derivation from first principles, of a given right, which is part of what makes Locke’s writing so satisfying to me (harken back to my thoughts on Milton’s Areopagitica).

After spending the first treatise lambasting a proponent of absolute, unlimited monarchy, Locke turns in the second treatise to what I would consider the more productive exercise of defining, deriving, and justifying for himself the source of political power in any commonwealth (which for his purposes is any society or community). Instead of attempting to describe a single form of government that is more ‘right’ or ‘better’ than all the others, he takes a more open-minded approach, asserting that, although original legislative power derives from the people, they can delegate it in any form, be it to a temporary group of elected officials, or to a life-long monarch. Significantly, he asserts that the people have a right also to rebel against an established government if that established government breaches the parameters by which it was established in the first place, for instance by acting contrary to its ultimate purpose, which is the betterment of the people from a state of nature. This was (and remains) a source of considerable controversy, since no government is going to support the right of its people to rebel against its authority – the closest case might be the United States’ Second Amendment, which, among other reasons, was quietly included as a protection of the peoples’ ability to deny the government a monopoly on the use of coercive power.

As the Athenians before him, Locke is hugely concerned with the dread specter of tyranny. He asserts that any government must necessarily involve an abrogation of freedom in comparison to the state of nature (which he uses throughout the second treatise as a baseline state against which all government and citizen action should be compared), but that government exists to serve the people. If there is a single, most important takeaway from his Two Treatises of Government, it is a cogent, derived argument that government exists for no other reason than to serve the people, to improve their state from what they would experience in the state of nature. That is the role of government, the place of government, the reason that government exists at all, and the final limit upon government, for, according to Locke, if the government fails to serve the people, it abdicates the mandate placed upon it by the peoples’ will, and the people may justifiably create for themselves a new government which will better fulfill that role. I have read perhaps no greater, more vehement, or more direct call the right to overthrow by force their government to be reserved to the people. It is truly extraordinary that it was allowed to be published at a time when freedom of speech was considerably less enshrined and protected than it is in many parts of the world today.

However, Locke should not be limited to a single takeaway. There is far too much brilliant substance between these two treatises for me to reduce it so far; we have only scratched the surface of what there is to discuss in just these two pieces, which are but a fraction of Locke’s writings. Yes, he can be a little heavy on the commas, and yes, he sometimes drifts into opaque prose, but his arguments are brilliant and coherent, and once you get into the writing he is not difficult to read. We will doubtless be discussing his ideas more in the future, but the best idea for now would be for you to go find a copy of his Two Treatises of Government and give them a read very soon. They really are brilliant.

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