Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter VI: Of Paternal Power


In this chapter, Locke takes up the subject of paternal power, which he would prefer to label “parental” power. He objects to the notion that all parental power is invested in the father. Scripture itself places power in both the father and the mother and requires children to obey both. This propensity to consider parental power contained wholly within the father is done by those who wish to uphold an absolute monarchy, which is also based upon placing the power in a single individual.

Locke addresses the idea of equality and concedes that some situations elevate one man above another, such age, virtue, excellence, birth, and alliance, etc., but the laws of nature proclaim that all men are equal to each other in terms of natural freedom. Children are born to this state of equality but do not possess their natural freedom until they attain adulthood, upon which point their parents’ jurisdiction over them ceases. While Adam was born into this world a fully formed adult, his descendants are born as helpless and ignorant infants. Since they cannot support themselves, their parents are obligated to provide nourishment, care, and education.

The law of reason governs all men, but children are not equipped to understand this law. They are not free either, as they cannot consent to the law of reason. Locke defines the law as not simply a limitation but as something that guides an intelligent and free man to what is in his best interest and does not restrict him more than what is good for mankind in general. If a law is too restrictive, too limiting, too confining, it should be abolished. Without laws there can be no freedom, but Locke counsels his readers not to confuse freedom with every man being able to do whatever he pleases; freedom is actually the ability to make decisions regarding one’s person, actions, possessions, and other property without another man’s interference as well as to avoid being subject to another’s absolute power.

As children do not understand reason, their parents are obligated to raise them. God gave men free will, but since children do not have the capacity to direct their free will, their parents must act in their best interest until they reach maturity. Only in this state of maturity can a man understand what the law is and what his freedom under it entails. Even if the father is removed from the picture, a parental surrogate should be provided until the child reaches maturity. At this point, whether the child resides in a state of nature or under an organized government, it is free. If the child is a lunatic or an idiot, they cannot be said to have reason or an ability to understand the law and act within its bounds; therefore, they remain under their parents’ care.

Growing older brings with it rationality and freedom. Natural freedom and subjection to one’s parents are not mutually exclusive. Even adherents to Filmer’s theory of the divine right of kings must understand that if a king were to die and his infant son succeeded him, there would still be a period where tutors, councilors, and governors had to rule in his stead until he attained maturity. It is not until one reaches a certain level of maturity that a government demands of him fealty or submission. Sending a man out into society before his reason can guide him is no less than abandonment to wretchedness.

Locke now moves into a discussion of whether or not the father has absolute power over his offspring. Simply begetting a child does not bestow upon the father this absolute authority. In cases where a woman has multiple husbands, or the husband and wife separate, or the father dies, it is clear that paternal power as the patriarchalists view it is invalid. The mother has the same ability to make and carry out rules just as the father would have been able to. Furthermore, the father’s control only exists until the child reaches maturity; he has no control over the child’s life or property. It is temporary.

Even though the child may have control over his life and property, he is not exempted from the requirement that he honor his parents. The child certainly does not have to submit or obey his parents absolutely, but it is necessary that he honor, esteem, respect, and care for those who nourished and educated him in his state of ignorance. This nourishment and education comes naturally to parents because God instills within them “tenderness for their offspring.” This duty of parents to nourish and educate is mirrored in the duty of children to honor and respect, although the latter requires a little less obedience and is incumbent upon older children, not younger. Even if a father sends his son to be apprenticed by another, he still is due the honor of his son. This is also the right of the mother. Locke reiterates that a parent’s power is not absolute; the father and mother have no control over their child’s property, actions, or life once they are of age.

Locke then makes an important distinction between political and paternal power. If all political power were paternal, a child would have only an obligation to his prince, not his parents. However, all princes still must honor their own parents just as his subjects honor their parents.

The only way a father can be said to have more parental power than the mother is because he has the power to bestow his estate upon the child of his choosing. If the land that is bestowed is under a government, then the child that accepts his inheritance is also subject to the laws and conditions of that government. This is not a right particular to fatherhood but one particular to anyone who gives another a tract of land (another example being that of a Frenchman that leaves an Englishman land).

Conclusively, a father’s power over his children extends no further than their state of youthfulness and does not give him the ability to exercise power over the child’s property, actions, or life. Locke does account for the earliest period of human history, where the vastness and wildness of nature separated families from one another and led them to invest the father with executive power simply to have any government at all to stave off chaos. However, this was not due to any inherent paternal right but by consent of his children. Any punishment doled out was not by nature of paternal power but by the executive power of the law of nature. This state of affairs led to hereditary monarchies because when the father died he left his power to his natural heirs. Locke concludes that those who would accept this argument must also concede that princes should be priests, as fathers in the earliest families were also priests of their household.


There are a lot of interesting points for discussion in the sixth chapter of the Second Treatise on parental power. The first is the concept of tabula rasa, or, blank slate. Locke does not use this phrase explicitly but alludes to it in section 56, where he writes that the descendants of Adam are born as infants, “weak and helpless, without knowledge or understanding.” Locke was one of the foremost philosophers to advocate this belief; in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding he articulated that the human being enters life with a mind that is devoid of any knowledge or understanding until sensation and reflection allow simple ideas to form that later lead to more complex knowledge. This is opposed to the philosophical ideas of Augustine and Descartes, the former claiming men came into the world with original sin and the latter claiming that men were born with the innate, basic ability to reason. The theory of the tabula rasa reinforces Locke’s premise that parents must care for their children until they reach the age of maturity because they do not have the knowledge and ability to reason for themselves.

A second interesting element of this chapter is Locke’s general optimism regarding human nature. In previous chapters, he expressed this same optimism in his discussions of how in a state of nature a man would treat others as he wished to be treated. In this chapter, his optimistic view of mankind is evinced in his discussion of how parents care for their children. He writes in section 67, “God hath woven into the principles of human nature such a tenderness for their offspring, that there is little fear that parents should use their power with too much rigour.” This suffices as a generalization, perhaps, but does not seem to work as an absolute. Not all parents are completely self-sacrificing, nourishing, and rational.

Where this chapter has really attracted scholarly attention, though, is in the content regarding women and the family. There has been a copious amount of interest in the question of whether or not John Locke was a proto-feminist. Clearly the Second Treatise stated that men and women had equal power in their marriage and in raising their children. It also denounced patriarchalism as a system of government; unlike what Filmer believed, all authority was not paternal and the divine right of kings did not find legitimacy in the familial structure. Locke found no scriptural evidence for absolute rule of Adam’s heirs, a father over his children, and a husband over his wife. In addition to seeing no scriptural basis for paternal power, Locke found problematic the idea that custom, tradition, or historically established practices meant that fathers should rule. In section 103 of the Second Treatise, he wrote, “an argument from what has been, to what should of right be, has no great force.” If historical practice is not rational, it cannot be upheld.

Locke does appear forward thinking in his acceptance that divorce was a possibility for a conjugal union in which the purpose of raising children has been served. However, he also understand that in a marriage there may need to be one member with final judgment in areas of dispute and that tradition necessitates that the man should possess this power. Scholar Ruth Grant sees parallels between Locke’s bestowal of conjugal power in the husband and the bestowal of political power in the majority of the community. Placing power in the hands of the husband or of the majority is a tradition, not a legitimate and natural requirement; it can only be accomplished by forming a contract, whether conjugal or civil. Even when a woman does consent to this conjugal relationship, her husband does not gain the power to rule absolutely over her.

Furthermore, being a father is conditional. If a father leaves his children or if the wife chooses to separate from him, he loses control of them. Locke makes it clear that the father is not an absolute monarch and thus fatherhood cannot be used to justify the absolute rule of a sovereign.

So, does this mean that Locke can be considered a proto-feminist? Grant does not believe this case can be made. She says that Locke only addressed the issues of women and children to combat Filmer’s theory of patriarchalism and did not take up the separate issue of women’s inequality. He does not assent to women’s political subordination but there are no alternatives given or further discussions on what their political participation should be. It is documented that Locke did not share many men’s contemporary viewpoints that women were intellectually and spiritually inferior, and certainly did not believe that they were born into a state of paternal authority. Women enjoy the same natural freedom and are owed the same protection of their liberty. While Locke was assuredly not an advocate for women’s rights in a modern sense, his writings did set out a clear and logical argument for not subjecting women to absolute rule.