Understanding John Locke
Understanding John Locke is the perfect philosophy study guide for reading Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Professor Houlgate takes the student along with him in a clear account and exploration of Locke's main theories about the nature and origin of political power, the state of nature, the state of war, the law of nature, the social contract, the origin of private property, the distinction between political, paternal and despotical power, the legitimate placing of political power, the separation of legislative and executive power, and the conditions for justifiable revolution. The book concludes with a postscript comparing and contrasting some of the political theories of Locke and his ancient Greek predecessor Plato.John Locke is the intellectual father of two revolutions: the Whig revolt against absolute monarchy in 17th century England and almost 100 years later, the revolt of the American colonies against British rule, culminating in the founding of the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Mason and James Madison all ranked John Locke as one of the most influential thinkers they consulted during the American revolution and the formation of the liberal constitutional state that emerged from it. The primary vehicle of this influence was John Locke's Second Treatise of Government.
Here is a sample of a chapter from Professor Houlgate's Understanding John Locke study guide:
Ch. 13 The impossibility of absolute monarchy
Locke begins his analysis by defining the idea of ‘absolute,’ and then shows that the concepts of ‘absolute ruler’ and ‘civil society’ are contradictory.
What makes rulers absolute is that they have the power to make and execute their own laws. What makes a society civil is that there is a person or persons to whom everyone in the society can appeal in the event of a dispute.
Now if a subject of an absolute ruler has a disagreement with the ruler, then by definition of the word ‘absolute,’ there is no common authority to whom they can both appeal to adjudicate their dispute. If there were such an authority, then neither party in the dispute could call themselves ‘absolute.’ But if there is no such authority to whom they can both appeal, then the ruler and all of his subjects are in a state of nature relationship with each other and ipso facto, they are not in a political or civil society. In Locke’s words, “for wherever ant two men are, who have no standing rule, and common judge to appeal to on earth, for the determination of controversies of right between them, then they are still in the state of nature.” (Second Treatise, §91).
There are at least two valid argument forms we can use to exhibit Locke’s argument about the impossibility of absolute monarchy..
The first argument is disjunctive syllogism:
1. Either an absolute monarchy is a relationship between ruler and subject in civil society or they are still in the state of nature.
2. If ruler and subject are in civil society, then there is a common authority to whom both can appeal when there are disputes between them.
3. In an absolute monarchy there is no common authority to whom ruler and subject can appeal when there are disputes between them.
4. Therefore, an absolute monarchy is not a civil society.
4. Therefore, in an absolute monarchy, ruler and subject are still in the state of nature.
The second valid argument form that Locke can use is a hypothetical syllogism.
1. In an absolute monarchy, there is no common authority to settle disputes between ruler and subject.
2. If there is no common authority to settle disputes, then there is no civil society.
3. If there is no civil society, the people are still in the state of nature.
4. Therefore, in an absolute monarchy, the people are still in the state of nature.
The second test of the soundness of an argument is to determine whether the premises are true. In most cases, this means analytically true. For example, premises 1 and 2 in the second argument are true because they define necessary conditions for the concept of ‘absolute monarchy’ and ‘civil society.’ Locke’s argument against absolute monarchy is a classic example of analytical philosophy.
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