- John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Essay Two, Section IV, Paragraph 22
“This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to, and closely joined with, a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together. For a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot by compact or his own consent enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another to take away his life when he pleases… Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service; and he does him no injury by it.”
2. I selected Locke’s writing on slavery because when I first read it, it felt contradictory to itself. I didn’t understand how the passage could begin with the assertion that “freedom… is so necessary to, and closely joined with, a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it”, and end by explaining how one can do exactly that. Even more, he claims that he who has been denied his right to freedom has been done no “injury”. Locke considers it Natural Law that all are free from “superior power”, and even states that no man is even powerful enough to give consent to slavery, so what allows the exception?
A closer reading revealed what I’d missed: The second part of the same sentence that establishes necessary freedom, which goes on to say that “he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together.” What could one do to forfeit life? Locke explains that it is forfeited by “some act that deserves death.”
3. To further understand the passage and connect it to the rest of Locke’s reasoning that informs it, I referred back to Section III of Essay Two, “Of the State of War”, to identify what Locke determines as an act deserving of death. There are many things, most reasonably among them is someone’s initial threat upon another’s life, thus justifying death as retaliation. However, it gets increasingly vague and resultantly dangerous. He eventually states that “one may destroy a man… for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion, because they are not under the ties of the common law of reason”.
Whether or not it is intentional, the implications of these passages together are colossal. If one diverges from the established, or “common” law of reason, they may be subjected to slavery, and as a comforting and uninjurious alternative, death.
4. Who determines the common law of reason?