Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw the expulsion of James II from the throne of England and the triumph of Whig principles of government. James had been accused of abandoning the throne and thus violating the original contract between himself and his people. Two years later, John Locke’s Of Civil Government: The Second Treatise appeared in Two Treatises of Government and was looked upon by many as a tract that justified in philosophical terms those historical events. The first treatise had been an argument against the view that kings derive their right to rule from divine command, a view held by England’s royal family the Stuarts, especially James I, and defended with no little skill by Sir Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha (1680).

After rejecting Filmer’s thesis, Locke looked for a new basis of government and a new source of political power. He recognized that the state must have the power to regulate and preserve property, and that to do so it must also have the right to punish, to use the death penalty and all lesser ones. In order to carry out the laws passed, the force of the community must be available to the government, and it must also be ready to serve in the community’s defense from foreign injury. Political power by which the government performs these functions ought to be used only for the public good and not for private gain or advantage. Locke then set out to establish a basis for this power, a basis that he considered moral and just.