Locke opens the Second Treatise by referring to the First Treatise, in which he refuted Sir Robert Filmer’s arguments upholding the political theory of patriarchalism, or, the divine right of kings. Filmer claimed that God gave Adam authority and dominion over the world, but Locke disagreed. He noted that it was impossible to find the actual heirs of Adam who had, according to Filmer, this right of succession to the throne.
The lines of descendants from Adam cannot be determined because this information has been lost in history. All of the families and households and nations in the world have an equal claim to this power and inheritance; no one individual or family can actually prove that they are entitled to authority because they are Adam’s legitimate heirs.
Locke’s First Treatise and its manifold rebuttals of Filmer’s propositions being thus clear, he reaffirms that Adam’s “private dominion and paternal jurisdiction” are not the basis of political power. Filmer’s theory may lead some to view government as merely derived from violence and force, and believe human beings dwell in a state no better than that of the animals with a perpetual threat of descent into chaos and conflict. Since he cannot accurately explain the rise of government and who is and who should be the authority, Locke will spend the rest of the Second Treatise addressing these questions.
Locke takes care to distinguish political power from that of the power of a father over his child, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave. Even though one man may exercise multiple or even all of these powers at a time, it is important to understand the distinctions between them.
Locke’s definition of political power is thus: the power to make laws and to define the punishments for greater and lesser crimes, regulate and secure property, carry out the laws, defend the commonwealth from foreign threats, and exercise the aforementioned powers only for the public good.
While it is not impossible to read and understand the Second Treatise without reading the First, it is necessary to be at least familiar with its contents. Sir Robert Filmer was an English political theorist whose Patriarcha, or the Natural Rights of Kings was probably written in the 1640s and published posthumously in 1680. Its main argument was that God gave Adam dominion over all things, including all other human beings. This dominion was also found within the family structure, thus the absolute rule of a monarch over his people was mirrored in the father’s absolute rule over his family. A divinely ordained absolute monarchy was the legitimate source of political power.
Locke’s preface to the First Treatise clearly presents his negative opinion of Filmer’s work, averring “there was never so much glib nonsense put together in well sounding English” and “[his work has] mistakes, inconsistencies…and want of Scripture proofs.” First, there was a problem with the fatherhood component of the theory, which suggested that Adam’s heirs received their authority from him as their father; it was God, not Adam, who was truly creating life and therefore this aspect of Filmer’s work was invalid. Furthermore, a father ruled over his family jointly with the mother and did not have complete and unmitigated power. Secondly, Adam was only given dominion over the beasts of the land, not his fellow human beings, and the world is actually held in common (a phrase Locke will use many times in the Second Treatise) among all men. Thirdly, even if one believed that Adam’s heirs should rule, it is impossible in the present age to trace who exactly these heirs might be. History has lost this genealogical basis for political power.
Locke’s first chapter thus reminds the reader that patriarchalism as a theory for political power is unsound and he will set out his explanation for the rise of government. Several major themes are presented right away- the distinction between the relationship of a sovereign and his people and other relationships that feature a putative superior and inferior, the components of political power, and what the end of political power should be.
Locke’s rejection of patriarchalism meant that there is no Scriptural basis for, per example, a father’s absolute rule over his wife or child or servant. The Second Treatise’s sixth chapter, “Of Parental Power” explicitly states this view and has even come to the attention of contemporary feminist theorists for its views on women and power dynamics within the family and society at large.
The components of political power are few, according to Locke- making laws and carrying them out, devising punishments for transgressions serious and minor, protecting property, and defending the commonwealth from foreign threats. Clearly, an absolute monarch exercises power far beyond this scope and thus is violating the rights of his subjects. This definition of political power ends with a succinct explanation of what political power’s ultimate goal is- the public good. Absolute monarchs tend to exercise their power capriciously and in regards to their own self-interest. This violates the natural rights of men and is therefore an invalid system of government.
While brief, Locke’s first chapter to the Second Treatise is significant for its clear and straightforward introduction to some of the major themes and concerns he will take up in the rest of the text.