from The Second Treatise of Government
     Of the State of Nature
     Of Slavery


John Locke was born in Wrington, Somersetshire, in 1632 and was raised by his father, an attorney in Pensford. Because of frail health, his early education was completed at home, but he later attended Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1658, he was elected to teach philosophy and Greek, but he found the subjects uninteresting and soon switched his focus to medicine. Locke was made a fellow of the Royal Society after his work in natural and experimental science with scientists such as Robert Boyle. Locke became the physician to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, whose friendship influenced him to enter politics. When Shaftesbury fell from the king’s favor in 1675, Locke moved to France for four years, where he met philosophers who helped to shape his epistemological theories. Shaftesbury fled to Holland after James II became king, where he died; a few months later, Locke also fled to Holland, suspected of complicity in the Rye House Plot. Locke remained in the Netherlands until 1688; during this time, he produced many of his most important writings. He returned to England after the revolution of 1688, when William of Orange became king, and served for 11 years as commissioner of trade and plantations. Locke’s last years were spent with friends at the Masham estate in Essex, where he was the intellectual leader of the Whigs and instituted many governmental reforms; he died there in 1704. Locke’s intellectual influence was far-reaching: he laid the epistemological foundations for modern science, influenced the Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents for the new United States, and contributed to the start of the empiricist tradition and the Age of Enlightenment and Reason in England and France.

During a discussion with friends about ethics and religion, Locke proposed to try to determine what questions human understanding could and could not address. The first drafts of his attempts date as early as 1671; the result—some 17 years later—was called the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a general theory of knowledge and language. Knowledge, Locke argues, is formed out of the accumulation of everyday sensations—this is a central tenet of empiricism; “innate” knowledge is inconceivable.

In the Two Treatises of Government (1689), Locke outlines the principles of politics. He rejects the idea of the divine right of kings and introduces the concept of a social contract: it is the consent of the people that is the basis of the right to rule. While for Locke, claims to self-ownership ground property rights in the labor of one’s body, self-ownership is nevertheless limited. As is clear in the passage presented here, God is the ultimate owner of one’s body: 

For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and
infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one Sovereign Master,
sent into the world by his order, and about his business;
they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last
during his, not one another’s pleasure.

This central argument is supplemented by another descended from Plato [q.v], that one ought “not to quit his station willfully,” that is, one ought not desert the post to which God has appointed him. On both grounds, one is not free to end one’s own life, and one is not free to place oneself in a position where another may take it.

Although in the section “On Slavery” Locke reiterates his view that a man does not have “the power of his own life,” that is, the moral authority to take his own life, he does note that a man convicted of a capital crime—who by his act has forfeited his own life, and whose sentence is delayed by being forced into penal servitude—is able to hasten his death sentence after all by refusing to obey his master. The slave can thus “draw on himself the death he desires,” that is, bring about the ending of his life by provoking others into executing him. Is this a moral argument, perhaps one that, in asserting the claim that in exploiting a convict for slave labor the master “does him no injury,” also implies that because the condemned man’s life is already forfeit, he (unlike other persons) is therefore no longer under an obligation to preserve it? Or is it simply an observation about the practical possibilities for a slave to avoid a life of intolerable hardship? The question of whether this passage is neutral as to the morality of hastening one’s own death sentence remains open to discussion.


John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Government,” Ch. 2, sections 4, 6; Ch. 4, sections 22-23, from Two Treatises of Government, second edition, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960, pp. 287-289, 301-302 [original text only; apparatus not used; spelling and punctuation modernized]. Available from Project Gutenberg Release #7370.



Of the State of Nature

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that the creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all, should by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty…

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure And being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

Of Slavery

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws; but freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together. For a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it:. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, ‘tis in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.

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