Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 15
Locke – I: Intro, State of Nature and Natural Rights
Hello and welcome everyone. In this lecture today, we are going to start with a new thinker
John Locke. And John Locke is in the social contract tradition. They argued for a form of
authority or state sovereignty that was based on consent. In that sense, the state or its
sovereign power was an artificial entity based on the contract among the equal man. When
they came together to manage their common affairs to maintain order and peace in society,
they constituted a civic or civil authority. That constitution of civil authority was based on
John Locke was part of that social contract tradition which argued that a state is an artificial
entity. We are going to have three lectures. In the first lecture, today, we will focus on John
Locke’s personal life and his eventful pursuit of political philosophy. His influence in
shaping the political discourse in England. And, in the second part of the lecture, today, we
will focus on his idea of ‘state of nature’ and how that conception of a ‘state of nature’ was
different from Hobbes that we have discussed in the previous lecture.
And we will conclude today’s lecture, by discussing his views on natural rights particularly
his views on the right to life, liberty, and property. In the second lecture, we will particularly
focus on his text, Two Treatises on Government, and how he argued what is the limited form
of government? What are the limits? Why do we need government in the first place? So, and
how this limited government was constituted through the covenant? That we will discuss in
this second lecture.
And in the final and concluding lecture on Locke, we will focus on his justification for the
right to dissent. Locke in that sense is the first social contract theorist who provided the
individual with the right to dissent from the rule. So, what is the justification for the right to
dissent? We will discuss in the third and concluding lecture on John Locke. We will then
discuss or critically assess the contribution of John Lock to the western political philosophy.
Let us begin with Locke’s views on a ‘state of nature’ and natural rights in today’s lecture.(Refer Slide Time: 03:38)
If you locate Locke in the intellectual tradition in western philosophy, he appeared to be a
philosopher of modern liberalism. And liberalism has argued about certain rights of the
individual as the autonomous, independent being, the state and its authority is based on the
will or consent of this individual which is self-defining, individual autonomous subject and
the existence of a state is to protect their rights.
So, Locke and his philosophy, you will find the reflection of these liberal ideas and he
extended the social contract tradition that we have discussed while discussing Hobbes.
Hobbes is the first modern philosopher in that sense who argued that a state and its
sovereignty was the artificial construct and not a representative of divine ideas or divine
rights of the king. That did not provide the legitimacy of the modern state and sovereignty.
Legitimacy is derived from the consent of people. And in Locke also we have the extension
of this kind of argument on state and sovereignty.
Locke like Hobbes demolished any divine right theory of the state or the sovereign power.
So, the power of the state and its legitimacy were not derived or cannot be legitimized based
on the divine right of the king or monarch. That was the basis of the theological discourse on
the state. So, why we should obey the sovereign. We will discuss it in the next lecture while
we study how Locke had distinguished between the governance of family or paternal
government in the household from the political government. He made a clear distinction
between these two forms of governments in the household or family or state in the political
society.In that sense in Locke is similar to the Hobbesian conception of the state as an artificial legal
and corporate entity. Its legitimacy was not derived from the divine right of the king. But on
the consent of the rule. His compelling account of the limited government and its legitimacy
was based on the consent of the governed. All kinds of government or rulers derived their
legitimacy, not from the religious discourse or theological discourse on the divine right of the
king. But on the consent of the government and then become the basis of modern liberal
democratic forms of government.
Today, in much modern liberal democracy, the frequent election where electorates or voters
as the individual political-legal subject having an equal right that is of ‘One man one vote’,
‘One vote one value’. So, this kind of procedure for electing the government is the source of
legitimacy of the modern government. And this is practiced in modern liberal democracy
across countries. This Lockean argument about the legitimacy of government based on the
consent of people and the government is limited government. That is something radically
different from the Hobbesian conception of absolutist monarch or power of the state.
Unlike Hobbes, Locke was a theorist of a limited government. His political philosophy
became the basis for modern liberalism and its discourse on politics such as individual
autonomy and their inalienable rights. The modern liberal discourse on politics is based on
this fundamental premise that an individual as an autonomous subject has certain inalienable
rights and the state as a necessary evil. So, the state is evil but a necessary evil. That means a
state is required to maintain order and ensure the terms of the contract and peace among the
citizens. But it is a kind of evil which prevents the exercise of freedom and liberty on the part
of the individual.
The modern liberal discourse on the state as a necessary evil and that government is the best
which governs the least. That means the idea of minimalistic government or state’s
legitimacy rests on its capacity, to maintain law and order and protect individual rights. These
are some of the basic tenants of the modern liberal discourse on politics. That is individual
has certain rights as an autonomous subject. The state is a necessary evil. But then, the state is
best which governs the list. That means the minimalistic state and state’s existence is for the
protection of individual rights, for the maintenance of law and order.
The law is the primary function of a modern state even today is seen as in the maintenance of
law and order. So, the coercive apparatus of the state like police and army is there to maintain
law and order. And then leave the maximum areas of individual life, free from state interference and that will lead to the pursuit of economic trade, business, commerce that will
lead to prosperity in the society. These kinds of arguments or the tenants of these arguments
you will find in Locke’s philosophy. Thus, Locke’s justification for the individual’s
inalienable rights, right to life, liberty, and the property has now become the basis of any
discourse on modern state and politics.
When we discuss modern state and politics, we necessarily talk about certain inalienable or
fundamental rights of the individual which a state must protect. Locke argued about these
rights as the right to life, liberty, and property. Locke led a very eventful life and witnessed
much of epoch-defining events and scientific discoveries in the seventieth and eightieth
century England and Europe. It was a time when there was a kind of new search for the
knowledge or source of political stability. As we have discussed in Hobbes and Locke is
somewhat contemporary of Hobbes.
In England, there is a lot of political churning or factionalism among different groups:
royalists, parliamentarians, representing the interest of the aristocrats, the Catholic Church,
and the protestant ethics. There was a kind of instability in the political domain and search for
a new source of order and stability, and also simultaneously, there were discoveries in the
fields of knowledge, science, and discoveries. Locke was developing his political theorization
in the context of these epoch-making events in the political field and the scientific
He was rightly regarded as the most influential modern English political philosopher who
was against all forms of absolutism and this is in contrast to Hobbesian justification for the
absolute rule of the Monarch or the sovereign body. In contrast, Locke was critical of any
form of absolutism whether it is temporal in the forms of political power or spiritual in terms
of Church or religious authority. Thus, all forms of tyrannical authority Locke criticized, and
his arguments for liberty and equality among the man and religious tolerance was the basis
for the modern discourse on state and politics.
The fundamental premise of modern state and politics is that all individual that inhabits
within the territory of that state or equal and have certain liberties or freedom. A state must
protect those liberties and freedom. And also, his views on religious tolerance that means
how the state should not interfere in the religious matters or matters of belief among its
subjects. Whether the subject should follow one religion over the other or practice in that
particular form or any other form, the state should not interfere in those matters. When we talk about these things even today in the modern state, you have its roots in Locke’s political
However, Locke was criticized for justification of extraction of resources from the colonies
and ironically a theorist of individual autonomy and free will, Locke himself had an
investment in the slave trade. That we will discuss when we critically assess Locke’s political
(Refer Slide Time: 14:04)
Now, we briefly look at the personal life of Locke. His period was between 1632 to 1704. So,
John Locke was born in 1632 in England. This period was a turbulent time politically in
England’s political history and this turbulence or instability or anxiety was a result of the
tension that was growing between the royalists and parliamentary forces. It culminated in the
civil war that led to the beheading of then Charles I and parliamentary forces controlling
political authority or exercising the political authority.
There was the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Also, simultaneous tension was unfolding
within the religious forces that supported the Catholic Church or those who were in favor of
protestant ethics, among the parliamentarians and royalists. Locke was growing in that
political context, where there was lots of tension or conflicts among different kinds of
political authorities whether religious and political parliamentarians. The parliamentarian
forces were trying to limit the absolute power of the monarch. Thus, Locke further fought on
the side of parliamentary forces in the English war. Locke after completing his schooling from the prestigious West Minster School joined Christ
Church College at the University of Oxford. As a fellow of the college, Locke decided to
study medicine. So, this study of medicine profoundly shifted his political philosophy and his
preference for careful observation and application of past experiences in resolving the
challenge of the present. It was derived from the methods he learned while studying
medicine. The study of medicine shifted the political philosophy of Locke particularly his
focus on observation.
When developing a theory of knowledge of politics, the observation is the guide for such
theorization and the precedent or past as a source for resolving the conflict of the present is
something that he learned from medicine. He was equally influenced by the scientific
developments of seventieth and eightieth century Europe. This you can connect with the
previous lectures on Hobbes, where we have discussed that Hogg, Copernicus, Decades,
Francis Bacon, Newton, and Galileo brought what a new discourse on knowledge,
philosophy, mathematics, geometry, and astronomy.
Locke on the one hand was developing his thoughts in the context of political instability and
discoveries in the field of knowledge and philosophy. The study of medicine had influenced
Locke’s later professional life or career. It occurred when he cured Earl of Shaftsbury who
was the leader of the parliamentary fraction from the liver disease. So, he operated on him
and cured his liver disease. Locke subsequently joined his household and worked as his
So, much of his political thinking and theorization developed out of this association with Earl
of Shaftsbury who was the leader of the parliamentary fraction. And on many contentious
issues, he advised the Shaftsbury. There was the belief that much of the liberal ideas or
republican ideas that we had in Locke’s philosophy was shaped or influenced by his
association with the Earl of Shaftsbury. Thus, this association with Earl profoundly shifted
his political philosophy as well as his professional and political life.
And he gradually came from the academic life of teaching and theorizing on politics, Locke
played an influential role in legislating many laws or arguing in favor of certain contentious
laws. So, this association with Earls of Shaftsbury allowed Locke to enter the public and
political life of England.(Refer Slide Time: 19:09)
This you can find when you look at Locke’s early writings and later matured works. So, in
his young days as a fellow at Christ College, Locke was like Hobbes a supporter of absolutist
monarchy. He believed it to be a justifiable price that one needed to pay for the maintenance
of relative peace and order in society. He regarded the human condition as that of conflicts
and hostility which required the existence of a strong authority for peace and order to prevail.
So, this was his young political speculation about the need for an absolutist monarch or the
authority to maintain order and peace in a condition of conflict and tension that characterized
human life. Such views were expressed in Locke’s early writings such as Essays on the Laws
of Nature which he wrote in 1616. However, these absolutist views particularly and he was
known as the theorist of limited government. His change after association with Earl, when he
lived a life in exile in Holland under the reign of James II.
In Holland, he realized the value of religious tolerance and there were political strife and
tension. Because of the religious belief among Catholic or protestant ethics. So, the monarchy
believing in the authority of the Catholic Church wanted to assert the superiority of Catholic
over protestant ethics. Nonetheless, they were willing to give concession to the protestant,
whereas the dissenters were arguing that the tolerance or expression of religious belief should
be seen as a right of the individual rather than concession from the royalty.
Thus, much of the English civil war or political instability was the result of religious
intolerance. So, the parliamentary forces or monarchy was constantly at the loggerhead also.
Because of the religious belief or intolerance to accommodate or to interact with each other. This value Locke learned when he went to Holland and realized that how religious tolerance
would lead to prosperity in the society. These views, he expressed in an Essay on Toleration
which he further wrote in 1889 as the second, later on, toleration. So, the idea of religious
tolerance became the basis of Locke’s political philosophy and much of his political treatise
is set to be based on his religious premise.
The year of glorious revolution 1688 was a turning point in the professional career of John
Locke. His work bought him a considerable reputation in the intellectual as well as political
life in England. He was a member of the Board of Trade and Commission of Appeals. His
‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ and I will strongly recommend you to read this
text to understand how human being learned something new. Is it something based on his or
her innate capacity to reason or intellect or it is based on the human experience through
sensation and based on those sensations human capacity to reflect or reason that leads to
This particular essay I will strongly recommend you to read that is ‘Essay Concerning Human
Understanding’ that made him a household name and perhaps, the most influential political
philosopher in England and Europe. Locke had very delicate health. But the eventful life
filled with strains and controversies. So, with Newton and many other scientists or certainly
the political fractions, Locke had many differences of opinions. He spent his last years quietly
in Essex, where he died in 1704.
His major works are an ‘Essay on Toleration’ in 1667, ‘Second Letter on Toleration’ which is
more famous than the previous letters, and part of the 4 essays on toleration which he wrote
in 1889. Two Treatises of Government, in 1689. An ‘Essay Concerning Human
Understanding’ 1690, ‘Thoughts on Education 1693’, ‘On the Reasonableness of
Christianity, 1695’, where he expressed similar opinions as that of Hobbes, where he talked
about how Christian religion cannot provide the political stability or ensure the political
obedience from the individual as an autonomous or equal member in the society.
However, his Two Treatises of Government was regarded as his magnum opus and much of
the discussion that will have on the course of three lectures on Locke was based on these
treatises on Two Treatises of Government.(Refer Slide Time: 25:21)
Locke provided an excellent philosophy of education. He believed in the role of ideas at a
young age on individual character. He wanted children to associate with the right ideas and
that shifted the character of an individual in later life. So, we focus on the political
philosophy of Locke. But he was equally involved in theorizing about politics or
understanding the source of human knowledge.
On education, he thought that the children should associate with the right ideas especially
when they are young and in contrast to the rationalist argument on human knowledge based
on an individual’s innate faculty of reason. And intellects of many scholars or the rationalist
will argue that human source of knowledge is the reason or the intellect. And this reason and
intellect are innate to the human being.
In contrast to such arguments, Locke who an empiricist becomes another tradition of thinking
about knowledge and production of correct knowledge in modern Europe. Locke as an
empiricist argued in contrast to that rationalist argumentation believed the source of
knowledge as human reason and intellect that is innate to the human being. Locked believed
in the production of knowledge through experiences. And experiences are the true source of
human knowledge or human understanding.
He believed that we all start as a blank slate. When we are a child, we are like a blank slate or
what is also called the Tabula Rasa. We do have no prewritten values, understanding, or
judgment. This we all develop through our experiences. It is through sensation. So, the
sensation is the first thing that we as a human child use to make sense of our surroundings. It is through sensation that we first make sense of our surroundings and the world in which we
live and these sensations of the world give us experience and for the appropriate knowledge
of the world, we must combine the experience with the reflection.
Then we use the reason and intellect for developing the appropriate knowledge of our
surroundings and how to improve that surrounding. How to make life better? How to lead a
more satisfying life? These are all that propels human beings, guided his conduct and this
conduct or knowledge is based not on some innate human qualities. But human beings
develop it through sensation, experience, and reflection.
In Locke, we also find a kind of the theological premise of his political philosophy that is to
say his belief in the religious ideas shifts much of his political philosophy. This theological
understanding is first expressed in his ‘Essay on Toleration’. He further developed and better
articulated in Two Treatises on Government. He believed in god as the creator of human
beings and they have the right to choose which god to believe in. How to practice their
religion? And in contrast, to royalist argument that such freedom to choose and practice
religion should be seen as a royal concession.
Locke siding with the dissenters believed that it should be rather a matter of right which the
state must protect and uphold. So, his argument about human belief or faith in a certain
religion, and forms of practice is the individual right where a state should not interfere. In
England, because of this argumentation, the royalist accommodated or excepted the
difference of religious practices among its subjects. But such differences royalists argued
should be seen as their concession. Whether as the dissenters were arguing that such
differences are the rights of the individual and not the royal concession.
Locke while arguing about the toleration sided with the dissenters and wanted the monarch or
the state to not interfere in the religious matter of the individuals. He preferred Christianity.
But objecting to the use of force or coercion in the matter of religious beliefs which according
to Locke should be a matter of individual choice or individual right, to choose which god to
believe in and practices to follow.
In Locke, you have this argument about religious toleration based on this innate belief in the
human capacity, according to the will of the god and in this pursuit of action of belief in
certain gods and practices, a state should not interfere. A state should not use force to convert
the individual or to force an individual in believing certain practices and gods. So, the force cannot be the basis of religious authority or cannot be the basis or true religion. It should
come out of individual choice. That is the basis of his limited government or the government
based on the consent of people and not on the force or coercion as we have in Hobbes’
justification for the absolutist monarchy.
According to John Dunne, the roots of Locke could be traced in his essay. Dunne wrote that
the necessary autonomy of individual religious judgment had been proclaimed to the world of
politics. This individual autonomy and religious judgment were for the first time expressed in
the world of politics by Locke. The transposition of this theme from theology and
epistemology to social and politics made each man the final judge of how far the society in
which he lived had succeeded in avoiding force the avoidance of which was its sole end.
The purpose of human life or authority is to control or enable the individual maximum areas
of life, where he or she can exercise his liberty or freedom without interference or limits. This
theological premise was then we have in Locke’s political treatises also. On religious
tolerance, he argued that individuals should be free to choose any religion or practice any
form of religion.
The state should not use the coercive apparatus for the individual in believing certain things
or not believing in certain things becomes the basis of his ideas on the limited government
which should be based on consent and not on coercion.
(Slide Refer Time: 33:35)
However, this theory of religious toleration was somewhat problematic in the sense that he
did not extend this idea on religious toleration to Catholics as according to Locke. The Catholics were more loyal to foreign authority in Rome. If you think about Christianity as the
seat of the Catholic Church or Catholic religion, Catholic ideas on god or religion are based
in Rome and all the temporal power or monarchs are loyal to the church there in Rome and
the national loyalties became subordinated to this overall loyalty to the church seated in
So, this idea of religion in Locke was not extended to those who were Catholics and the
monarch in England was their private life believer in that Catholic Church or Catholic
religion. Secondly, he did not extend it to the atheist who does not believe in any god.
According to Locke, those who are atheists do not have any firm belief. Therefore, those
atheists could be a danger to the authority and security of the state and society.
There were problems in his account on religious toleration. Nonetheless, it becomes the basis
for a plurality or diversity in society. How state should navigate that plurality and diversity?
So, there were limits to his ideas on religious toleration. Nonetheless, it opens up new ways
of doing politics by managing the religious pluralism and diversity that exist in any society or
Now, we move onto his ideas on ‘state of nature’ and as a contract theorist, Locke uses
similar ideas like Hobbes such as ‘state of nature’ and contract of consent to develop his
theory of natural and inalienable rights of the individual, limited government and right to
dissent. So, all these fundamental ideas in Locke are the inalienable rights of the individual,
the limited government, and when an individual has a legitimate right to dissent against the
government. All these ideas in Locke were based on the social contract tradition. The
government was formed based on a contract among the free and equal members out of their
voluntary participation in the contract with other equal and free members in the society.
However, Locke’s views on the ‘state of nature’ were radically different from the Hobbesian
‘state of nature’. So, the ‘state of nature’ is again as I have said in my lectures on Hobbes is
not a real or historical state of life. It is a theoretical idea or hypothetical idea that how human
beings would behave in a ‘state of nature’ that is the state of life, where there was no
common authority, no civil authority, or arbitrate to execute the laws. Thus, life in such a
state was defined differently by Hobbes and Locke.
In Hobbes, we have seen life in the sense of a civic authority or a sovereign would be nasty,
brutish, and short. There would be a perpetual war of each against all and there would be a constant threat to life. There could not be the opportunity for long-term pursuit in trade,
agriculture, and business. So, the ‘state of nature’ for the social contract tradition became a
theoretical premise to justify, to elaborate upon their understanding of government or the
basis of legitimacy of such government and their power.
The ‘state of nature’ should be understood in that sense in contrast to the Hobbesian ‘state of
nature’ as a perpetual war of each against all. Lockean ‘state of nature’ was the realm of
perfect freedom and equality. So, there was no war. There was no tension. There was no
threat to life and liberty in the ‘state of nature’ as Hobbes argued. In the Lockean ‘state of
nature’, everyone was free and he or she enjoyed this freedom to the maximum level without
any coercion. All of them were truly equal in the sense they could be the same legal and
It was a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and
persons as they think fit. They were the individuals who were free and equal members of
society. So, these free and equal members in society, according to Locke, in a ‘state of
nature’ would lead a life of perfect freedom. That means, they could do anything or dispose
of their possessions or their persons in any manner they think fit. There was no interference.
There was no coercion on their action or pursuit of their actions in terms of disposition of
their possessions and wealth within the bounds of the law of nature or love of nature.
One condition, one limit that was there in the ‘state of nature’. It was the idea of love of
nature and without depending upon the will of any other man. So, except the laws of nature,
there was no limit to human action, to the pursuit of his or her actions in the ‘state of nature’.
The only condition that Locke put before the human actions or individual freedom was the
laws of nature except that there was no threat from other individuals. There was no coercion
from other individuals and that made life in the ‘state of nature’, according to Locke as the
state of perfect freedom and equality among the citizens or subjects.
It was also a state of equality, wherein all power and jurisdiction were reciprocal and no one
having more than the other. That was also another conception or characteristic of Lockean
‘state of nature’, where there was a kind of mutual or reciprocal relationships between and
among the free and equal members. They were all free to do what they think was fit without
subjecting themselves or their action to any other man would and none of them possess their
physical or intellectual power in greater number than that. In that sense, there was a kind of
equality in the ‘state of nature’, where everyone was free to pursue what they think was fit or desirable to them. There was no coercion and threat from others as we see in the Hobbesian
‘state of nature’.
(Slide Refer Time: 41:33)
Thus, the Lockean ‘state of nature’ was peaceful and the mutual trust in the laws of nature.
So only thing that governed the conduct of free and equal individuals in the ‘state of nature’
was their mutual trust in the laws of nature that guided the interactions between the
autonomous and free individuals. So, this idea of autonomous and free individua
Log in to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Diploma in the Founders of Western Political Thought online course
Sign up to save your progress and obtain a certificate in Alison’s free Diploma in the Founders of Western Political Thought online course
Please enter you email address and we will mail you a link to reset your password.