Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter VII: Of Political or Civil Society


God did not create man for him to be alone; his natural inclination is to be in a society with other men. The types of relationships include those between a man and wife, a man and his children, and a master and servant. The relationship between a man and his wife was the first society created (i.e., Adam and Eve), and it did not only exist for the purpose of procreation but to provide mutual assistance, affection, and the ability to better nourish and educate children. Procreation also leads to the continuation of the human race so parents’ obligation is not just to beget children, but also to raise them. A woman may become pregnant again even while she is raising her older children, necessitating the father’s continued presence and provision. God wanted this union of man and woman to last longer than that of other species because through it they would be able to better their lives.

Locke does posit that this situation would make it reasonable for a husband and wife to separate once their duty of raising their children was over. It is only natural that in a marriage the rule, or last word/decision, should be placed in one member: that is, the man. However, his power over his wife is not absolute and if she wants to break their compact and separate from him, it is her natural right to do so. In a society where there is a government, the government only has the power to mediate disputes between the husband and wife. Only in societies where the husband had absolute authority over his wife could an absolute ruler have any other such control over his subjects’ marriages. Matrimony in general does not require absolute power be instilled in the husband.

Locke then moves on to the relationship of master and servant, as he discussed the relationship between parent and child in the previous chapter. There are obvious differences between servants and slaves, for servants are only under a master’s power temporarily and do not absolve their life and liberty. A family and an absolute monarchy may appear similar on the surface, but they are definitely different from each other. The father’s power, as the previous chapter detailed, is relatively brief and does not extend to his wife’s, children’s’, or servants’ lives, liberty, or property.

Locke continues the discussion of how a family is different from a political society. Men are born free and equal to other men; they have perfect independence to manage their life, liberty, and property as they see fit and punish any man who attempts to breach the laws of nature. Political society, however, can only exist when men agree to give up their right of managing property and punishing transgressors to the consented-upon authority figures. Men who reside in a society where there is an established law and agreed-upon executors and enforcers of the law live in a civil society with one another. Those who do not have a common appeal are still in the state of nature.

The commonwealth, then, now has the power to devise punishments for transgressions of the law and, above all, preserve the property of the members of society (property being lives as well as possessions). Those who consented to the formation of the commonwealth agreed to give up their own ability to judge and punish, and thus we find the origins of legislative and executive power of civil society. To clarify, these powers are to decide when and how to punish violators of the law, and what vindications or reparations are to be made when violations occur. When men consent to give up their natural rights of punishment, civil society is created. They are now authorizing the government to make laws for themselves and for the good of society. Whenever there is any judge on earth for men to appeal to, civil society exists. When there is not, the state of nature persists.

Locke claims that an absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society and really is not civil government at all. The point of a civil society is to have an agreed-upon authority to appeal to, but an absolute monarch does not have to appeal to anyone. He is the law and there is no one to whom he must account. In fact, when there is an absolute monarch without any authority to appeal to, he is still in a state of nature with his subjects. Unfortunately, these subjects do not have the ability, as they would in a true state of nature, to protect him and defend his rights.

In absolute monarchies as well as other governments, the subjects do have the right to appeal to the law. However, in absolute monarchies, this right of appeal and subsequent punishment of offenders does not exist due to love, affection, or charity on the part of the monarch. It is only present because the monarch needs to preserve those who toil for him and bring him profit. The monarch can judge disputes between two subjects, but there can never be a dispute between a subject and the monarch. It is ridiculous that men should decide to form a society where all but one is subject to the laws. Locke’s analogy is that men want to avoid danger from pole-cats and foxes but set themselves up to be devoured by a lion instead.

In the final section of this chapter, Locke acknowledges that men can view themselves in a state of nature when their absolute ruler is outside the bounds of civil society and when they no longer have any appeal on earth. It is possible that at first, a ruler seemed excellent and virtuous and deserved to have natural authority, but as time went on either he or his successors violated the natural freedom of his subjects. Only a collective governing body, such as a parliament or senate, could remedy this situation. No one would be superior to another or exercise too much power. In a civil society, all men must follow the laws or they will be once more in a state of nature, and, as Locke concludes, civil society and a state of nature are certainly not one in the same.


Locke’s description of a conjugal society, i.e., a marriage between a man and a woman, was forward thinking. He utilized the standard Aristotelian thesis of marriage, a union made for sexual desire, reproduction, and employment, and he acknowledges that beyond those components are mutual affection, assistance, and nourishment of children. For Locke, marriage is not merely utilitarian; there is an element of love to it. Just as a father’s power over his children is not absolute, a husband’s power over his wife is not absolute either. He even allows for divorce if the man and woman have completed their obligation to raise their children. The point of discussing conjugal society is to contrast it with that of political society. Locke strongly differentiates between the two, for the man and woman have equal power within their marriage and neither one gives up their natural liberty.

In both the previous chapter and the present one, Locke takes pains to distinguish between a familial structure and a political one. Paternal and conjugal relationships do not legitimate absolute rule. In this chapter, Locke develops the idea of consent further, although chapter VIII provides a more thorough discussion. Briefly, a political society can only be legitimate if men agree to give up their natural rights and form a compact. This is the first major discussion of the social contract theory, although Locke does not refer to it explicitly as such. Men consent to a government so there will be a common authority figure to appeal to as well as laws to protect themselves and their property.

Locke’s scathing critiques of an absolute monarchy continue. He explains how an absolute monarchy is simply at odds with civil society and cannot be considered a legitimate form of government. In order for a civil society to exist, all men have to be equal and they all must consent to follow a commonly understood and agreed-upon law. An absolute monarch has no one to appeal to; he is completely above the law. He may allow his subjects the right of appeal (Locke reminds his readers that this is not due to love or affection but merely due to the need to protect those who bring him profit), but he himself is omnipotent. Most significantly, when men lack this appeal—if a monarch seizes a man’s property without any repercussions, for example—then he can be said to be back in a state of nature.

This chapter outlines a more in-depth portrayal of the alternative to an absolute monarchy. First, those who are governed must consent to their dominion. Second, there must be limitations on the rule of the authority figure; he must not be above the law. Third, a way to accomplish the first two ends is to place rule in a collective governing body, such as a parliament or a senate. Both a parliament and a senate can be defined as legislative bodies; they are comprised of multiple individuals who must compromise in order to perform the law-making function. This is the first time in the text that Locke specifically refers to a governing body of this nature.

As a seventeenth century citizen of England Locke was keenly aware of the power of Parliament, which coexisted with a hereditary monarchy. Through the influence of his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, Locke became affiliated with Whig ideas. The Whigs were a political party in Parliament who opposed absolute rule and advocated constitutional monarchism. Their main contribution during Locke’s lifetime was the propagation of the Exclusion Bill, which would exclude the Duke of York from the throne for several reasons, one of them being his advocating of absolute rule. The Exclusion Bill did not make it through the House of Lords, and due to other suspicions of rebellion and dissent, many important Whigs lost power. This historical background is significant to an understanding of how Locke was personally familiar with absolute rule and how he developed his philosophical ideas in this milieu.