John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government: Section 57

Law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law … however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?)

Commentary on Section 57

  1. Ambrose Mnemopolous Post author

    The Western tradition in social contract theory recognizes two different types of liberty: natural liberty and civil liberty.

    In Sec. 22 (Of Slavery) of his Second Treatise, Locke writes: “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.” Under such conditions, the state of nature is akin to a state of perpetual war. Locke writes: “To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature.” That is, unlimited, natural liberty is essentially useless, since it can be taken at any moment; therefore we trade our natural liberty for civil liberty, which provides material security.

    Writing a hundred years later, social contract theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed a similar sentiment in his classic treatise Of the Social Contract. In Section 56, Rousseau writes: “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to do anything which tempts him and which he is able to attain; what he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that he possesses.”

  2. Ambrose Mnemopolous Post author

    The East Asian tradition offers a similar notion of law “in its true notion.” Sun Tzu’s Art of War, more than it addresses armed conflict, is a manual of strategy and statecraft. Writing around 300 BCE, strategist Sun Bin (a descendant of Sun Tzu) wrote:

    “The point of these statements, which may seem repetitive truisms, is that authoritarian coerciveness is not ultimately effective, whether in war or in peace, if for no other reason that there will always be people who follow natural intelligence whatever others may say. True leaders are not those who force others to follow them, but those who are able to harmonize the wills of others and unify the overall direction of their energies.”

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John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, 1632-1704, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. An early British empiricist, he also contributed to social contract theory, epistemology, and political philosophy. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory inspired the phrase, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," found in the United States Declaration of Independence.