Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter III: Of the State of War


The law of nature dictates that self-preservation is of utmost importance. Thus, if any man is threatened by another he is in a state of war with him and has the right to destroy him. This is similar to being threatened by a wild beast; it is only logical that one may kill a wolf or a lion that threatens him. A state of war also exists when anyone tries to place another under his absolute power by making a slave out of him. The only reason why anyone would want another human being under their unmitigated power would be to compel him to do things he would not do in a state of perfect freedom.

Locke states that it is lawful to take the life of a thief even if the thief did not initially threaten the life or body of the man whom he robbed. If the thief already violated one’s liberty by taking the property of one to whom it belonged, it is reasonable to suppose that he cannot be counted on to desist from taking anything further, including a man’s life. A state of war exists in this situation as well.

Locke strongly differentiates between a state of nature and a state of war. In a state of nature, men live peaceably without a government or earthly authority. Since there is no authority to judge, when one man uses force to deprive another of his life, health, possessions, or property, it is now a state of war. Laws may exist to secure reparations, but a man can defend his own life against an aggressor because there are no reparations possible if he is killed. Similarly, an aggressor may be killed if there is no time to appeal to the law. Clearly, when a state of nature exists and there is no adjudicator, aggression creates a state of war.

When force has ended in a society that consented to be governed, the law is appealed to. However, in a state of nature where there are no laws or judges, the state of war only ends when the innocent man destroys the aggressor or the aggressor calls for peace and makes reparations.

A state of war can also exist in a society with laws and judges if said laws and judges are perverted. In some circumstances, laws can be used to protect those who deserve punishment. Any time the law fails to protect the innocent, this being the true purpose of the law, a state of war exists. The only option available in this situation is to appeal to the ultimate Judge in Heaven.

Locke writes that the aforementioned situation, where a man has no appeal left but to God, is solved by men consenting to be governed by some earthly authority who rules on such violations of the law. He utilizes the biblical example of Jephthah and the Ammonites to demonstrate that Jephthah had no earthly authority to help him and he was forced to appeal to God for judgment.


Locke’s brief chapter on the state of war is an important one. During the 1680s when Locke was writing his Treatises, he was keenly aware of the political turmoil going on in England. Even though most scholars now agree that he was not specifically writing these works to address the events of the Glorious Revolution, his text was a commentary on the problems universally apparent with absolute monarchies. When absolute monarchs act in an arbitrary fashion and restrict the liberties of their subjects, they are creating a state of war. Locke believed King James II was an apposite example of a monarch who created a state of war with his subjects.

There is a conspicuous difference between Locke and Hobbes on the subject of the state of war. For Locke, the state of nature and the state of war were diametrically opposed. Force and other transgressions against one’s fellow man violated the law of nature and sowed chaos and conflict. Only punishment of the transgressor or reparations made could return this state of war to the state of nature. For Hobbes, however, the state of nature and the state of war were one in the same. In the state of nature there was “[a] war of all against all,” and, to once more return to his most famous phrase from Leviathan, life in a state of nature/war was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The optimism and idealism that Locke wrote of are not to be found in Hobbes.

There are also differences between Locke and Hobbes and, unsurprisingly, of Locke and Filmer on the subject of rebelling against a sovereign who violated the law of nature and created a state of war between him and his subjects. Hobbes and Filmer did not believe that subjects of an absolute monarch had any right to rebel whatsoever, while Locke believed that a sovereign who violated the law of nature was susceptible to being overthrown and indeed deserved it. Filmer, naturally, also believed that men could not rebel against their sovereign who was divinely appointed to rule by God.

Another interesting discussion point is that of punishment. In the previous chapter, Locke initiated the issue of punishment. He understands the need for retribution but does not believe that this is solely the purpose of punishment. Punishment can also be reparative, preventative, and restitutive (restitution being both forward-looking, as it provides benefits to those who are being restituted, and backward looking, as it seeks to make right a crime that was already committed). Reason dictates that punishment should not be out of proportion with the crime that was committed; its purposes are to protect and preserve mankind, bring relief to the injured parties, and deter future crime. When a state of war exists between two men and one deserves punishment, it is clear Locke does not think it should only be done to implement “an eye for an eye.”

A final issue is that of Locke’s solution for what a man should do if he is unjustly wronged and can find no redress-be patient and appeal to the ultimate judge, God. If the government does not supply justice to the wronged and the conquerors reign, the conquered have no obligation to be submissive or obedient. However, they should not continue with force because a state of peace does seem preferable to one of continual chaos and violence. God is the only being that can exact justice at this point. The example Locke uses of Jephthah and the Ammonites in the Book of Judges is very relevant to his argument. Jephthah was driven out of Israel by his half-brothers for being the son of a harlot and took refuge in the land of Tob. When the Ammonites made war upon Israel the elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to return and make war upon the people of Ammon. When Jephthah tried to negotiate with the Ammonites and found them hostile and intransigent, he uttered the phrase Locke utilized: “The Lord the Judge (says he) be judge this day, between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon,” Judg. xi. 27. God did eventually deliver the children of Israel from the Ammonites. Thus, this biblical episode is well used by Locke to illustrate his point.