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Political theories of John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) is a first liberal author, attempts to develop a system of government in which the rights of the individual are preserved. By limiting state power, men will emerge from a state of submission specific to the absolutist powers. It is through the creation of a right to which they will have consented that men will become free.


Little known, Robert Filmer, in his Patriarcha, strongly defends absolute monarchy. Considering that man is not free by nature, he cannot, therefore, even choose his government since the State is of divine origin. The absolute power of the monarch having been given to Adam, who himself transmitted it to the kings; they ultimately derive this power only from God. Power is, therefore, a transferable heritage asset that gives all power to the one who holds it.

In reaction against this work, Locke refuses the various theses retained by Filmer; a controversy then arose over the nature of power and the freedom of the individual. From these considerations, Locke will be able to imagine a State which, unlike European absolutist States, preserves the rights of the individual.

In order to create such a state, Locke starts from the state of nature, an idea widely used at the time when trips to foreign universes fascinate; one believes, in fact, to find there the man in the wild state, such as it was before any civilization does not come to break it.


According to Locke, The state of nature is prosperous and happy. The state of nature knows the property. This consists not only in material goods but also in freedom and life. Regarding material goods, Locke considers that the land was given in common to all men; despite this, men can acquire a share of the land, through work. The work carried out on the earth makes it possible to tear it away from nature; the man thus passes to an exclusive property thanks to his work. As long as there is an abundance of land, anyone can legitimately appropriate land; on the other hand, it becomes more difficult when there is little left. Thus, in the extension of natural laws, men must leave to others enough land necessary for their conservation. The man should also take only what is necessary for him in nature, only for the purpose of its own preservation. Limits of the right to property, therefore, exist and are based on natural laws.

In this state of nature, men are happy and equal. Why then do men want to get out? Quite simply because of two elements that disturb this state of well-being:

The arrival of money

Money gradually arrives at the state of nature and corrupts people by allowing them to accumulate wealth. While goods by nature were lost, money can accumulate, which ultimately makes it possible to increase its goods without this being necessary for its conservation. Inequalities thus appear between men, which necessarily lead to possible conflicts.

The absence of a judge

In the absence of an impartial third party, the men settle their conflicts themselves. In order to ensure their own conservation and that of others, they may resort to any means. They themselves interpret the natural law as they see fit, and then apply it to punish those who break it. No entity is, therefore, present to say the natural law and make it respect. It can lead to a war between men.

These two elements entail the need for men to create an entity capable of resolving conflicts linked to the absence of an impartial judge. But the constitution of civil society should not for all that deprive men of their natural rights.


Locke accuses the absolutist state of making men servile, who prefer to submit to an authority they fear only because it protects them.

The people delegate their powers to the rulers, but they retain their natural rights. Civil society is only the means for man to better ensure the protection of his natural rights. Thus, in addition to the law that will be created by civil society, natural rights will be added, positive law being only a means of protecting the latter.

A social contract is created between men and the government. The convergence of everyone's wishes thus leads to the creation of civil society; each individual giving part of his sovereignty to the new power. Men freely consent to the constitution of a government. The contract thus created would thus have gradually been passed on to subsequent generations.

Before Montesquieu, Locke imagines separation of powers based on three functions:

The legislative function: since men cannot agree alone on the interpretation of natural law, a third person must give a clear interpretation that can be applied to all. Thus created, civil laws make it possible to make natural laws effective. They will be created by a specific body.

The federative function: it ensures external security through the use of diplomacy. The state of nature did not allow men to have an impartial third party. Civil society creates a judge.

The executive function: administration and justice must execute the laws.

But power is not given to those in power irreversibly. When the power in place no longer respects the natural rights of the individual, they can indeed resist.

Locke demonstrates in the Letter on tolerance that religion, and with it, personal beliefs must be tolerated. The separation between Church and State must then exist. Unlike Hobbesian thought, personal values ​​and morals must be based on a doctrine of tolerance. If the State must, on the one hand, allow human religious wills to exist, it is to avoid the failure of the government. However, he expresses reluctance to certain principles contrary to morality in matters of religion: he does not accept atheism, or any religion contrary to the customs of the country, nor a Church which will be subject to an authority other than usual, nor the one who would grant himself certain privileges. Locke seeks to know under what circumstances individual freedom can be erased depending on the political institutions put in place. Thus, it announces the beginnings of political liberalism. Ownership is, therefore, an element already acquired from the state of nature; men are by nature owners, and therefore relative to the economy. So the economy would be a sector preceding the social state. In this sense, the state power must not encroach on what men already have, and be content to preserve the fundamental rights of men, without intruding into economic relations. He will only exercise functions relating to civilian life. This system will, according to him, increase the wealth of society. Thus, Locke places limits on state power by creating a separation between the organs. His theory distinguishes between legislative, federal, and executive powers, which do not have the same importance. If the law is to come originally from the people, the delegation to a higher entity makes the legislative power a supreme right. As the people are the source of all power, absolutism cannot be tolerated. A moderate government will be the only possible regime.


The authority put in place must necessarily respect the purpose for which men constituted it, that is to say, the protection of natural laws. Men indeed undertake to respect the laws in exchange for the protection of their freedom; human freedom is not total, but subject to laws, as it already is in the state of nature. When the government does not respect natural laws, men can oppose their right of resistance to oppression.

Locke brings, according to this reflection, the notion of "trust" in his analysis, which means that the people give authority its confidence, its consent. Otherwise, it would not be legitimate in order to avoid any despotism. Power is not really possessed; it is only attributed to itself. Locke believes that no regime is ever safe from tyranny. Thus it is necessary to impose resistance against power.

This right comes from the idea of ​​a higher standard that constitutes the natural right of individuals. The latter cannot allow their right of conservation to be violated. They will then resist the government and recreate a new one.

But the right of resistance has been the subject of strong criticism because it is likely to lead to civil war, with men overthrowing the government when they wish. To these criticisms, Locke replies that men prefer to live peacefullyJohn Locke, without risking provoking a state of war; they have no real interest in deliberately training it. The infringements of natural law will have to be very serious for men to oppose their right to resistance.

Author: Vicki Lezama

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