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Philosophy Project Topic: The Justification of Rebellion against Despotic Power in John Locke’s Political Philosophy: An Appraisal



Dating back from history, man has always sought and developed methods and systems of organizing himself. He does this according to what is befitting to his true nature as a rational and political being. He remains always a rational animal and can only realize himself fully in a well organized political state. How well organized or how he could organize his political society is one of the problems for political philosophy. That is, the problem of an ideal state. That the establishment of a perfect or ideal political society has always eluded man is an undeniable fact. However, the fact remains, in his nature, there is this nostalgia of yearning towards the perfect or ideal state. That this craving had led him to fashion several methods and systems aiming at ideal state is very evident in the numerous theories of the state we have in human history.

It is part of human civilization to aim at the perfect. Man is to set before himself the model for the best life in the political society or civil state. Political philosophers unanimously agree on this aim of man, – the ideal state. They differ, however, in their proposed methods or means of achieving this goal. According to Karl Popper, in his The Open Society and its Enemies, Plato was the first person who asked the fundamental question in his Republic “who shall rule the state”?      As a contribution towards attaining this goal of man – the ideal state – and as a reaction to the above questions, John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government opined that, the government should hold the mantle or facade of leadership but “the sovereign (authority) of every civil society should belong to, and remain with the people, hence they have the right to remove any ruler or government that is no longer serving their interest, as stipulated in the constitution of the community”,[1] since  the constitution is a community.[2] Based on these points John Locke justifies rebellion against despotic power.

This work has it as a target to x-ray this position of John Locke in relation with other philosophers’ views. This is to determine how correct John Locke is in justifying rebellion against despotic power.  This work has been divided into four chapters. Chapter one will look into the background to the problem, scope of the study, purpose of the study, and explication of basic terms. In chapter two we are going to review the positions of other philosophers on rebellion. Such philosophers like: Aristotle, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean Jacques Rousseau will be considered. Chapter three exposes Locke’s justification of rebellion against despotic power. Chapter four being the final chapter is evaluation and conclusion.

1.1 Background to the Study

It is a fact that, in social life, every human being belongs to one social group or another. To live in isolation is contrary to human nature. And again, because of the self insufficient nature of man, he cannot do very well without others. Hence, Aristotle states that he who has no need of others is either a god or a beast.

Fundamentally, the society is divided into two groups; the ruler(s) and the ruled. It is the duty of the rulers to pilot the administrative affairs of the society. However, there have been great controversies among political philosophers on how to rule the society well. Their divergent views led to the emergence of two camps: the absolutists and the non-absolutists. The former are of the view that the rulers should have absolute powers in the community; while the non-absolutists hold that rulers should be placed under some limitations of power. For the non-absolutists, the authority of the rulers should be checked by the common good of the society. In other words, the authority of the rulers ends where the common good stipulated in the constitution stopped, or simply, the rulers ought to act according to the constitution.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

Man, since his origin, has always been on the move trying to solve one problem or the other. Man lived with problems, man still lives with problems and man will continue to live with problems. Evidently, the nature of man is the very cause of these problems. Man is an unpredictable being. No wonder Battista Mondin defines man as an impossible possibility[3]. Which implies that man is a problem unto himself.

Many philosophers down the ages have tried to answer questions raised by Plato in his Republic: Who is to rule the state? How can the society be organized very well? In answer to these questions, many political philosophers came up with different theories of government. These theories include:  oligarchy, democracy, monarchy, tyranny etc.

Though, there are differences in their opinions, they have some views in common.[4] For instance, all of them agree that the society is divided into two; the ruler(s) and the ruled; and again, the rulers have it as their duty to direct the administrative affairs of the community.

Obviously, this agreement created many other political problems, that of determining whether sovereignty belongs originally to the ruler or the ruled. What determines the sovereignty of a government? And, where does the authority of the sovereign begin and where does it end? As a response to these questions, Thomas Hobbes and his group (the absolutist) are of the view that the sovereignty of the government is determined by the consent of the people, as stipulated in the constitution. In other words, if the government is acting according to the constitution, then its sovereignty is valid; otherwise, it has no authority. To the second question they hold that the sovereignty begins with the consent and the mutual agreement among the people, but it has no end or limit. This implies that the government has an absolute authority over the people in the society.[5]

On the contrary, however, John Locke and his group (the non-absolutist) accept the views of the absolutist to an extent. They agree with their view that the sovereignty begins with the peoples consent, but they reject the view that the sovereignty of the rulers has no limits. Locke and his group argue that the authority of the government ends where the constitution stops; that is, there should be limitations on governmental powers. For them the good of the society stipulated in constitution should be their watch dog. They should act according to the constitution. As stated by Locke, against the constitution there is no authority.[6]

In trying to solve this last problem, the non-absolutist landed into another big problem. One may ask, owing to the assertion of the non-absolutist, what should be the position or how would the masses react when the ruler becomes a despot or a tyrant? To this question Locke answer that the ultimate solution is rebellion or revolution. For him, since the ruler is no more working according to the mind of the people, and by so doing he brings evil to the society, he leads the people back into the state of war, the people cannot but resist him.

And whoever in authority exceeds the power force he has under his command to compass that upon the subjects who the later not, ceases in that to be a magistrate and acting without authority may be opposed as any other man by force invades the right of another, given him by the law, and makes use of them.[7]

Here lies the relevance of his philosophy of rebellion. Our essay tries to see to what extent Locke reasonably justifies rebellion against despots.

1.3 Purpose of the Study

As a continuation of the philosophical endeavor which predates the pre-Socratic era, this work aims to x-ray the nature of governmental power; and again to examine John Locke’s contributions towards solving the problem of how to rule the society very well. In justifying Locke’s position, the work targets laying basis of a progressive society. It wants to convince all that it is only in mutual understanding and relationship, equality before the law and respect for human dignity that we can achieve a peaceful society.

1.3 Scope of the Study

—This article is incomplete———–This article is incomplete———— It was extracted from a well articulated quality Project, Research Work/Material

Topic: The Justification of Rebellion against Despotic Power in John Locke’s Political Philosophy: An Appraisal.

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[1]J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government ed. By G. Mark. London: Cambridge Everyman Press, 1924, pp.190-191

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Bk. II, Ch. 1, 1260b


[3] B. Mondin, Philosophical Anthropology, tran. By M. A. Cizdyn. Bangalore: theological publication, 2005, p. 19

[4] Social Contract.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2009 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008


[5]  F. W. Coker, Readings in Political Philosophy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938, p.374


[6] J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. By G. mark. London: Cambridge Everyman Press, 1924, p. 220

[7]J. Locke, Ibid.,  p.218


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