Are we social or solitary by Locke's reckoning? How can we use his argument to oppose Aristotle's idea of humans essentially being social or political?

I have read the chapter 2 'Of the state of nature' of his book Second treatise but am not able to figure out his argument about humans being essentially individual, before political communities happened, in the state of nature.

1 Answer 1


You are comparing across the centuries two philosophers with different preconceptions. But I think I detect the core of your question; I offer the following answer.

Textual references are to Aristotle, The Politics, Sinclair, T. A. (Translator); Saunders, Trevor J. (Revised by). Published by Penguin Random House. ISBN 10: 0140444211 ISBN 13: 9780140444216. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. P. Laslett, 3rd ed., Published by Cambridge University Press (1988) ISBN 10: 0521357306 ISBN 13: 9780521357302.

Aristotle Aristotle recognises that human beings essentially need one another. In several respects, specified in Politics I.2, 'they are incapable of existing apart from one another'. The formula of the human being as a political animal (zoon politikon) makes a more advanced and specific point than this, namely that full human flourishing, the good life, can only be achieved in and through a life of active citizenship in a polis or city state.

Two points are involved here. (1) There is an inherent human sociality and (2) human flourishing consists in a life of 'virtue', intellectual and ethical, which is attainable solely via the environment of the polis. We attain the intellectual and the moral virtues (aretai ethikai, aretai dianoetikai : Nicomachean Ethics, III-VI) only in and through this environment.


Locke equally recognises that human beings essentially need one another. He stresses that human beings have individual natural rights in the state of nature, and that they have these rights under God and independently of any political arrangements. Such arrangements, ‘civil government’, are legitimate just so far as they protect these rights.

The state of nature, before the advent of civil government, is however, not one of asociality. We have individual rights but we do not live in isolation or in grudged occasional co-operation with one another. At its best the state of nature is ‘a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation’ (ST, III.19). It is a state of equality and liberty. To explain :

It is a state of liberty : ‘a state of perfect freedom [for persons : GT] 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’ (ST, II.4). It is also a state of equality in the following sense : ‘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 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’ (ST, II.4).

It has ‘inconveniences’, though – three, exactly (II.13). Without an impartial and final arbiter to protect the rights of the individual, each person in the state of nature has ‘the Executive Power of the Law of Nature’ (ST.II.13). This means that although our natural rights are underpinned by the Law of Nature, to which we have access by the use of reason (ST, II.6), without a ruling authority we are left to our own devices in settling disagreements about our natural rights and what the Law of Nature dictates. The result is (1) that each person is his or her own judge; (2) each person can act to prevent a violation of the law of nature; and (3) that there is no guarantee that in punishing a violation of the law of nature, revenge and excess will not take the place of justice. The state of nature is thus one, not of war and misery as Hobbes supposed in Leviathan (1651) but of insecurity.

The solution to this problem is one in which individuals resign to a ruling authority just so much of their rights as is necessary to protect their natural rights. These are the rights to ‘life, liberty and estate’ (ST, VII.87), subsumed by Locke under the heading of ‘property’. What must surrendered is the ‘the Executive Power of the Law of Nature’. Talk of resigning and surrendering rights is subject to a proviso. If the ruling authority fails to protect the citizens’ natural rights, it betrays its trust and can lawfully be deposed.

Aristotle and Locke

  1. Locke’s stress on the possession of individual natural rights in the state of nature does not imply that individuals are asocial, solitary, only grudgingly co-operative. There is no basis in Locke’s text for any such notion. His account of the degree of co-operation in the state of nature is not markedly different from Aristotle’s account of pre-political life in Politics, I.i and ii.

  2. Locke holds that in the state of nature individuals have rights which are completely independent of any political organisation or authority. The civil power exists purely in order to protect those pre-existing rights. For Aristotle, the moral emphasis is on an ethics of character or virtue ethics as it is now widely called. From his perspective the political organisation or authority of the polis does not protect pre-existing rights, since there are none, but provides the educational environment for the acquisition and exercise of the ethical and intellectual virtues, so that the individual achieves the human good – an excellent state of mind and character as outlined in the Nicomachean Ethics.

  3. It is worth noting that Aristotle and Locke are in agreement, even if they use different terms, that political rule is not to be construed on the lines of non-political models. Locke is emphatic that the ‘magistrate’ (political ruler) stands in a different relation to his or her subjects from that of a master over servants, father over children, husband over wife (!) and lord over slave (ST, II.i.2). Aristotle makes the same point at Politics I.i with reference to political rule as distinguished from the rule of a household manager or a master of slaves.



John Dunn, Locke, Published by Oxford Paperbacks (1984) ISBN 10: 0192875604 ISBN 13: 9780192875600.

D.A. Lloyd Thomas, Locke on Government, Published by Routledge (1995) ISBN 10: 0415095336 / ISBN 13: 9780415095334.

T.J. Saunders' commentary and notes in Aristotle, The Politics, Sinclair, T. A. (Translator); Saunders, Trevor J. (Revised by). Published by Penguin Random House. ISBN 10: 0140444211 ISBN 13: 9780140444216.

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