Hazem Saghieh

How Do We Avoid Civil War? John Locke's Answer

Like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke’s political ideas were born of the suffering that he had endured during the civil war. He was ten years old when it broke out, and from his school adjacent to the royal palace, he could hear the screams of the masses as Charles I was executed, which left a deep impact on him.

In addition to his subsequent contributions to the debate on tolerance and education, Locke addressed the burning question: “Who ought to rule us?” For him, a good ruler averts civil war, but in order to do so, he must also guarantee life, liberty, and property to his subjects. If Hobbes believes that human nature is the source of the problem, Locke believes it is particular policies and practices in force.

He thus starts his book “Two Treatises on Government” with a polemic directed against Robert Filmer, a royalist writer of the Civil War era who believed that all human authority derives from God. It is God who gave Adam the land but this gift was carved up and distributed with time, giving rise to the king’s authority over his subjects, the father’s over his family, and the master’s over his slaves; authority, here, is always absolute and implies total control over all aspects of the lives of the subjects of this authority.

On the other hand, Locke, who did not recognize “the divine right of kings” despite being a believer, repudiated Filmer’s interpretation of the Bible. According to him, God gave the earth to mankind as a whole, not to Adam alone. As for the powers of the king, father, and slave owner, they are not of the same nature. If human beings are prohibited from destroying and squandering the land that was given to them, then parents should not overstep their role as guardians to their children until adulthood.

This power certainly differs from that which the master has over his slave. Moreover, while the husband is the master of the house (per the masculinity of the time and its patriarchy, including the patriarchy and masculinity of Locke himself), this does not give him the right to decide if his wife and children live or die. As for the power of the ruler, it should be built on the consent of the population, which, in any case, is composed not of children but of rational beings.

Locke goes on to address the “state of nature,” but his image, when contrasted with Hobbes’, seems less pessimistic. Although it was vaguer and perhaps more contradictory, it certainly referred to divine will and God’s creation of human beings in a way that Hobbes did not.

He believed that his view was consistent with the Christian narrative, in which God created human beings naturally equal and free. Free and equal, the people are not the belligerent beings sketched out by Hobbes who render finding a tyrant to rule over and keep the peace between them a pressing duty.

Indeed, they were not necessarily constantly at war, as the reasonable among them must have sought to bring about peace and ensure respect for the natural rights of others. With that, the population cannot remain in the state of nature, as some among them are bound to prioritize themselves and their interests, which could spark conflict and strife. Thus, the population agreed to make limited concessions to the government.

Their decision can be explained by three reasons: the absence of law in the state of nature, meaning that they had to draw up the law themselves; the absence of an impartial judge authorized to settle disputes, which leaves each person making decisions pertaining to themselves for themselves; and the absence of an authority to impose compliance with the law, if laws had been successfully put in place.

Nevertheless, the people have not waived all their rights to governments. They have natural rights to life, liberty, and property that cannot be altered or relinquished, nor can the ruler wrest these rights from them. The fact is that their limited concessions, which allow the establishment of civil society and the formation of a government, are nonetheless contingent on these concessions implying that the rest of their rights are better and more robustly guaranteed.

The government, therefore, upholds security and rights, and it strives to improve the peoples’ conditions, as no one would accept a contract that takes them to a state of affairs worse than that which had previously prevailed. However, accepting an unbiased source of arbitration also demands vesting power not in the executive, but in the legislature, with decisions made by majority vote. In contrast to Hobbes, for Locke, the king is a party to the contract and not a result of it, meaning that, like others, he is bound by the rules and implications of that contract.

However, if the government does not uphold rights, thereby nullifying its legitimacy, then people have an obligation to replace it, even if a revolution is needed to achieve this end. Here, Locke is arguing for the right to resist unjust authorities: absolute rule can’t coexist with civil rule, and this conflict deprives it of its legitimacy and reinstates the state of nature because the population would, in this event, take matters and their fears about this authority’s unbridled exercise of power into their own hands. Furthermore, how can we guarantee that the ruler would not behave capriciously, irascibly, and tyrannically, just like everyone else?

Revolt, then, is a course of action founded in natural law. It is not a disruptive act but one that reinforces the suitable order. It also underlines the need to escape the state of nature, which is brought about, this time, by a maximal political authority, not the lack of an authority. As for the safeguard against chaos and the state of nature here, it is that the population is not so unreasonable as to rise up and overthrow their government for footling reasons or fleeting grievances.

The influence of Locke’s ideas can be seen in the US “Declaration of Independence,” especially the provisions regarding the right to bear arms, which was justified by the argument that the people should keep hold of the means necessary for overthrowing the government.

Other ideas of his, especially his insistence on religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, also left their mark. If it is true that the American Revolution defeated the English, then the Americans, as Edmund Burke later wrote, were fighting in defense of English principles, Locke’s principles, to be precise.

His teachings are seen as foundational to an array of matters. Some saw his work as a prelude to the enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and others linked its pragmatism to the scientific shifts of the seventeenth century in which he lived.

In turn, the “Glorious Revolution” that Locke had praised, which broke out in 1688, a year before his book was published, was portrayed as a victory for Lockian consciousness and, simultaneously, as a foundational event for liberalism. This bloodless revolution not only brought down the Catholic King James II, but also broadened the powers of parliament and strengthened its position in the decision-making process.

And Britain has not been home to a civil war since.