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John Locke and Jean-Jacques A Rousseau Property Understanding Comparison Essay

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The notion of politics belongs to the notions of everyday life and it may be defined from many aspects. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, politics is defined as the art and science of government, the art and science concerned with guiding or influencing government policy, and the art and science concerned with winning and holding control over the government. Also, politics could be viewed concerning business as the competition between rival interest groups or individuals for power and leadership just as in a government. Politics is sometimes characterized as artful and dishonest practices to gain power and control. Generally speaking, politics aims at getting power for exercising control (Encyclopedia Britannica). However, the means of obtaining power vary from one leader to another and from one community to another. The means of gaining power and control and the legitimacy of such power are usually enshrined in the political philosophies of certain communities.

There is a great correlation existing between the control of resources and the political power in a given society. When a community vests a few individuals with power, these people are in a position of influencing the distribution of resources. As such, great thinkers’ political philosophies are usually intertwined with ideologies relating to property ownership. Politics as an aspect of life will be applied when the resources are involved. Political philosophy is also vital for liberalization and revolutions as they stir up the thinking of the oppressed to stand for their rights. Revolutions give the lost control back to those who ought to possess such control.

Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy that evaluates and analyzes a nation and the related concepts such as political obligation, the constitution and social justice (Encyclopedia Britannica). For anyone coveting to be a great and successful politician, exploring the thinking of the great political philosophers becomes an indispensable feat. Such readings help the potential politicians to gain a better appreciation of politics as far as these philosophers help to bring out what a good political life is and hand down to the current generation heritage of concise reflection on the meaning and vitality of politics.

Political philosophy comes from the western world. The ancient political thinkers and philosophers of the western world include Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These great philosophers showed a great sense of commitment and excellence and believed strongly that human happiness could be attained in the wider political community. Each of the philosophers is known for their distinct work and contribution to political philosophy. For instance, Plato is known for his dialogue “On justice” where he defines the notion of justice as the harmonious control of different statuses in the political society. Plato further argued that cities could only be in peace when they are governed by philosophical kings who could apply their knowledge and do what is right. Plato also emphasized the relevance of education and intellect in solving the challenge of power and justice.

Another philosopher who made a great contribution to politics and philosophy is Plato’s student Aristotle who was taught by his teacher to be unrealistic in his view of a just community. He believed that the best system would entail a blend of democracy and oligarchy. Plato and Aristotle depict two paradigms of the debate on how political models could be used to guide the actions of society and the need for being real in politics.

This study will draw a comparison between two great thinkers whose philosophical works have continued to act as a reference point for modern political philosophers. The study will compare and contrast John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Basic Political Writings” concerning their political philosophies and the ownership of property. Firstly, the study will cast light upon the backgrounds of the two philosophers which will be followed by an analysis of their ideas separately and finally a comparison will be drawn.

Historical background of John Locke

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, Somerset in England. He was a wealthy Puritan lawyer who participated in the English Civil War and fought for the Cromwell. His father also referred to as John Locke was a cool-tempered man and devout. John Locke was educated in the Westminster School before proceeding to Oxford where he became a lecturer in his later years. Most of John Locke’s contemporaries advised him to join the Church of England but his heart desired to devote his life to sciences including meteorology and chemistry. Finally, he pursued medicine and became a well-renowned practitioner of his years.

Locke worked for Anthony Ashley Cooper, who later became the first Lord Chancellor, as his secretary and physician in 1667. During this time, he met many great men of England, a feat that exposed him both to great knowledge and trouble. For example, the relationship between Locke and Shaftesbury became the reason for Locke’s deportation to the Netherlands in 1683 as far as Shaftesbury accused him of unfaithfulness.

The development of events in Locke’s life connected with his continuous effort for human liberation gave him a legacy of becoming one of the pioneers of modern thinking. He was a great philosopher who contributed largely to politics, psychology and governance.

Locke’s contemporaries advised him to document the shortcomings of human judgment which took him twenty years. This was fueled by his intrigues in psychology. The glorious outcome of his twenty-year work was his Essay concerning Human Understanding. This composition posits that the human mind is usually blank at birth but it is ready to receive new ideas. Locke explains that a child’s mind is fresh and does not have innate notions and thoughts. Therefore in the growth period, the mind captures ideas depending on the knowledge it gets into contact with. Locke pointed out the importance of people’s attitudes to the process of learning. Learning should be treated as a desirable undertaking. In the learning process, Locke explained that character formation was vital as opposed to the pure gathering of information. Locke also engaged in writing about religion later in life.

Locke is widely known for his major works that are very diverse including: ‘On Toleration’ of 1689, 1690 and 1692 years; ‘An Essay concerning Human Understanding’ of 1690; the two treatises ‘On Civil Government’ of 1690 and ‘Some Thoughts concerning Education’ of 1693, and; ‘The reasonableness of Christianity’ of 1695.

The Two Treatises of Government (1690) made John Locke recognized as one of the most influential political philosophers. They were composed to vindicate the glorious Whig revolution of 1688-89. In contrast to the elaborate eloquence of Hobbes, Locke’s Letter on Toleration (1689) was written in an open and simple urban way. Locke died on October 28, 1674, in Oates, Essex.

John Locke’s political views

Locke’s legacy as a modern thinker takes him more as a political philosopher than a psychologist. Locke believed that individuals naturally possessed some major rights such as the right to life, the right to liberty and own property. He argued that rulers obtained their power among people through the people’s consent. As such, the government should be viewed as a contract between rulers and subjects. It implies that the subjects have to dispense with some of a trade-off for being ruled. Conversely, the rulers should only retain power so long as they could do it justly (Locke 153). This notion had a great impact on the future of political thinking and is related to the American Declaration of Independence.

Locke made contributions in many areas of life. He was a scholar, a physician and a man of events, an accomplished politician and an experienced businessman. He condoned the strict limitations of mind as a philosopher and his political philosophy could be characterized as a reasonable and moderate one. His political philosophy aimed at looking for a balance among the executive, the judicial and the legislature branches but his attitude to the latter one was quite biased.

John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690)

The first treatise was devoted to the discussion of the Royalist doctrine of patriarchal godly right inherited from Adam. This notion raised arguments about whether the government was an aspect of a divinely ordained chain of beings (Locke, p. 62). The proponents of the royalist thinking argued that if this natural order was broken, a state of anarchy would emerge. As a result, this idea brought much controversy between modern thinkers and their ancient counterparts.

In response to the ensuing controversy, Locke stated that the basic function of political power included the leeway to formulate laws that carry the death penalty and consequently less stringent punishment for protecting property (Locke, p. 81). He also sought to protect the British protectorates from foreign aggression to maintain people’s welfare.

Locke viewed the establishment of a government as entry into a contract between the rulers and the people and where the contract binds both parties (Locke, p. 140). As such, the power of the government is limited and only derives its functionality from the established laws. The purpose of the power vested in the government is to enhance stability for the benefit of the subjects. The government is bestowed with the role of safeguarding the property of its subjects (Locke, p. 115). The existence of property is the main precondition for the existence of laws and not vice versa. The law is established to safeguard property for the public good. The form of government notwithstanding the government’s legitimacy is governed by “declared and received laws” (Locke 165). According to Locke, each person has a property in himself/herself and not even the government can apprehend it without his/her approval (Locke, p. 117).

The attitude by James II towards private property, laws and the protestant faith raised the opposition from his subjects. Locke was an advocate for the rick and the propertied who endorsed James II successor, William III, to power. He propagated a conservative and strict commonwealth ideology that reserved the right to franchises and power to the wealthy class (Locke 192). Accordingly, many contemporary thinkers feel that Locke was not fair enough to the poor because he made them overwork. Locke, just like Hooker preserved the property of the well-to-do in the society against leadership and fundamentalists. He also preferred a blend of the system made of a monarch and mild executive control. He felt that God had bestowed the status of a monarch upon Adam when he gave him the mandate to rule over all the beasts and creation (Locke, p. 14).

Locke was more liberal concerning religious toleration. He posits that a clear conscience given by God to all men is free from fear and equated to the property right (Locke, p. 57). Locke changed his opinion later and supported a government-run under a constitution with the check of the legislature. The objective of such a system is the preservation of property and avoiding unjustified imprisonment and taxation. The government is responsible for all people through the minority political class deemed to represent them.

Locke’s works are a foundation in the development of open-minded political philosophy even though he was a social conformist. Locke sought to help people to appreciate the government and welcome the rule of law. He also called for unbiased judges and supported the toleration of religious views. Locke’s ideology was opposed to dictatorship as a form of running the state and used conformist’s views to advocate for realistic modern rules.

John Locke’s views about property

Locke argues that man has a right by natural reason to eat and drink from what nature affords for self-preservation. He argues that God gave the entire world to Adam to dominate which is later affirmed in the writings of King David when he writes that God has given the earth to all men (Locke, p. 22). The question raised by Locke is how men could have private property after being given the earth as common property to the entire human race. His view on ownership of property stems from this question. Locke advocated for the equality of all human beings and posited that no one should be oppressed or harmed by another. He also justified the ownership of private property and warned that no one has the power to confiscate another person’s property, not even the government.

God has given the world to men in common to make use of it by feeding themselves by what the hand of nature provides. Though the plants and beasts have been given men, there are some means to work on them to make them of use to any person. Locke, therefore, argued that a fruit that is nourished by a wild Indian person must be his and no one could take it from him as it rightfully belongs to him (Locke, p. 123). He further raised the question of the inheritance of property from the parents. He argued that what is given by parents belong to their children rightfully and cannot be taken by someone who is not an heir.

Locke argues that though earth belongs to all men in common, every person has property in himself/herself. The labour of a person’s body and work of his/her hands belong rightful to the person and removing anything nature has provided it may say it is a property. Hence, the virtue of a person applying his labour annexes the natural provision as personal property. In conclusion, Locke viewed all people as equal beings and argued that though nature offers its provisions to all people in common, what people do with the provisions provided with nature gives them the right to own such nature’s provisions. For instance, if a person collects edible fruits from the forest, they become his property though they are available to everyone.

About Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean –Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva Switzerland on June 28, 1772. His mother died a few days after his birth. Rousseau’s father left Geneva when the young boy was ten years escaping arrest for an offence. As a result, Rousseau was brought up by his uncle’s family. Rousseau took off from Geneva and wandered in his teenage until he reached Paris in the year 1772. He did all sorts of jobs to earn for living including being a footman and an ambassador.

His profound understanding has continued to be felt in modern philosophy. Rousseau’s writings were rated as complex and ambiguous. However, his works considered the sentimental aspects of man which he felt was unaddressed by most of his predecessors. Rousseau argued in his former works that civilization worked to dent people’s happiness (p. 64). He explained that a human being was better in his uncivilized state of nature and that the experiences of the society were manmade and defiled hence ripping man off joy. He argued this to increase competition among the members of the society for property (Rousseau, p. 68).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contributions are remembered to date especially in the history of philosophy. His works continue to influence the thinking in political philosophy and moral psychology. Rousseau had a biased and negative opinion that philosophers are dictators peddling self-interests by vindicating their greed behind theories. Rousseau felt that most of the philosophers come up with ways of justifying the actions which are more often oppressive to the people.

In his discourse “Origin of Inequality” in 1755, Rousseau posited that inequalities are of various forms such as rank, power, and wealth and that they are inevitable outcomes of civilization (25). His moving account of human social and political development is a perfect example of the innovative boldness of enlightenment. It stands out as one of the most impactful works of the 18th century. His ideas regarding education have continued to influence education today. He rated learning with the help of books lower than learning by experience. Rousseau proposed that children’s sentiments should be taught before they gain the ability to reason.

Rousseau composed many influential works which were censured constantly and criticised until his death on July 2, 1778. In 1772, he was asked for recommendations by the government of Poland for the constitution which was known as his major last work. Rousseau died on July 2, 1778, of a haemorrhage on a walk in an estate in Paris. His body was buried twice, first at Ile des Peupliers and later in 1794 at Pantheon in Paris together with other intellectuals.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political views

Rousseau composed many memorable works that made a mark in history. For instance, his essay “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts” challenged the contribution of the disciplines in the civilization of mankind (Rousseau, p. 1). Instead, he posited that the advancement of knowledge had made the government very powerful and demeaned human liberty. He added that material gains limited chances of genuine friendship, replacing it with envy, fear and distrust. As such, he advocated for a social society or communism where the property was not owned privately.

Rousseau touched upon the social contract attracted the highest attention as it expounded on the relationship between people and their community (p. 141). As opposed to his former works, Rousseau claimed that the running of a society without law was bound to experience a state of anarchy. The state of nature needs to be regulated using morality or the rule of law. He argued that there are good people only as a result of society’s being there. In the state of nature, a human being is bound to be in recurrent competition with other people. As such, the impetus for joining other people is only possible to solve society’s problems. Rousseau described society as a collective human presence. He defined “the social contract” as a solid agreement by men that sets the conditions for membership in the society whereby those that defy the set expected moral standards are considered as social misfits (Rousseau, p. 141).

Rousseau suggested that morality and politics should be severed. This statement was much criticized by other philosophers. Morality presupposes that a government is expected to act in a moral way towards its people otherwise it loses legitimate control over the people. He also added that the state should preserve freedom as a crucial principle. Rousseau expressed the shortcomings of ‘law and order’ more lucidly than most of his contemporaries such as Diderot and Voltaire (Rousseau, p. 119). He was heavily criticized for his challenges. Later he was converted to Calvinism causing some speculation about his mental condition which was a justified concern for the rest of his days.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views about property

Rousseau published his treatise “The Origin of Inequality” in 1755, positing that the native man was preferable as far as he/she was isolated from the corruption of social societies (p. 25). He argued that the vices emerged from society when a person started to compare himself/herself to other people and became fulsome. Catholic theologians agreed with his observation that the human race had not satisfactorily progressed but disputed with him the presupposition that a human being was innately good. Rousseau felt that material things posed a challenge to the formation of genuine friendship in society. He felt that people came together for the reason of preserving their property because it was easier to do so as a society as opposed to a single person. Rousseau’s ideology was opposed to private property and hence other thinkers viewed him as a proponent of collectivism. Rousseau also critiqued the assumption that the will of the majority is always right. Rousseau argued that governments should exist to protect the liberty of the people, equal opportunities and the vindication of every member of the society.

Rousseau felt that based on the brutality of the state of nature, ownership of property can only be possible in the presence of law or morality (p. 56). This is a different view from the argument of Locke who emphasized the world being a common good where one could own private property. Rousseau feared for the competitive nature of men in the world as a common good to all men. Hence morality and law would govern the competition of men which could be detrimental or lead to a state of anarchy.

A comparison between John Locke’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophies

The teachings on the doctrines held by Locke led to human freedom when they were applied by America’s founders. On the contrary, Rousseau’s doctrines led to death. Rousseau’s is in particular greatly blamed for the gory ending of the French Revolution better known as the Reign of Terror. Secondly, Rousseau and Kant are blamed both separately and together to be philosophers of “counter enlightenment” while Locke is viewed as a thinker of enlightenment. As such, Rousseau, instead of coming up with new ideas, was more inclined to critique other thinkers ideas as opposed to Locke.

Locke posits that the state of nature has a law that governs it and obliges all people because the law teaches all the people to consult it that all human beings are equal and independent; no one ought to oppress or harm another in his life, health and liberty or possessions (p. 35). Thus, he argues that no one should be disadvantaged based on his status in society. He draws this concept from natural reason and the argument that God gave the earth to all men as a common good.

In Locke’s about the state of nature, he argues that there are no salvages or utopian freedom. Instead, he viewed the state of nature as an unmerciful and undesirable situation just like Hobbes. Locke felt the need to use the government systems to strengthen people who are not strong enough to defend themselves against manipulation of the society. Locke’s state of nature is beneficial on the one side and also weak in its inability to protect the government’s subjects on the other side (p. 107). Therefore governments are instituted to govern and secure such rights as the right to property among people.

Rousseau shares the same sentiments with Hobbes and Locke that the state of nature with the help of which a human being is driven is self-preservation (p. 44). It implies that the primary reason why men exploit the provision of nature is to obtain food to sustain their lives. However, Rousseau critiques Hobbes and Locke for overestimating the chances of falling into a state of war. Though Rousseau considers law and morality to be vital, the likelihood of the society being thrown into a state of anarchy is not as high as suggested by Locke and Hobbes.

In Rousseau’s state of nature, a man would be like a savage, whose deeds are majorly determined by their immediate needs such as food, sexual satisfaction, sleep and fears of starvation and suffering (p. 46). As such, he suggests that the savage man would be determined by self-preservation and sympathy. In addition, Rousseau views the savage man as a single human being who can thrive in solitude. He points out that the savage man’s speech is not fully developed and cannot express views on issues and that is why he does not need luxuries or consider anything outside his immediate needs important. Though Rousseau sought to address the emotional side of man, this was a misplaced to view of man as a basic being. The later day management gurus such as Abraham Maslow introduce the hierarchy of human needs which states that the moment when man satisfied their needs they cease to be motivators.

Rousseau was more a proponent of socialism as far as he discouraged the ownership of property. He argues that ownership of property makes people in society start comparing themselves with others. This phenomenon gives rise to evils like jealousy. Rousseau points out that men left in solitude will not be enthusiastic about owning property. On the contrary, Locke argues that the need to own property is derived as a divine gift as far as men make use of the provision of nature to meet their needs (p. 43). Locke goes on to explain that the effort of men to remove something from the state of nature or add a process to it gives an individual the right to own a property and no one has the right to take it from them regardless of their position in the society.

Locke views all people as equal members of society and that God had given the earth to men as common property. When people mix their efforts, derived from the “property” in themselves, with the provisions of nature then they gain the right to such property. Locke considers the government role as the protection of the private property of the weak subjects. Conversely, Rousseau argues that the government has a moral obligation to its people and the failure to act in the expected pattern would be felt as operating illegitimately.

Rousseau classifies inequalities of various forms such as social ranking, wealth and power in the discourse “The Origin of Inequalities” (p. 25). These inequalities make it difficult for society members to enjoy equal chances of obtaining property. As such, Rousseau prefers a social community or communism where people should not own private property. On the other hand, Locke advocates for ownership of private property from nature’s provision.

Rousseau’s political philosophy suggests that a human being is innately good but has been made worse by the continuous process of civilization. He blames the advancement of education as the cause of strong governments that are likely to exploit their subjects. He argues that the first man having annexed a piece of ground thought of telling people that it belonged to him according to their agreement. This was the beginning of the civilization of the society (Rousseau, p. 23). He suggests that such annexing was likely occasioned by a high social status granted by power, ranking or wealth. With such inequality, the parties involved are not on a level play in acquiring property.


The works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have continued to be fundamental in the works of modern thinkers. Their contribution cannot be underestimated in many areas of life. These great thinkers have contributed to many aspects of life ranging from religion, education, science and arts, political philosophy and literature. These two great philosophers had to overcome criticisms and censures to attain their tremendous success.

Locke’s works on the natural law to own property are very influential even to date as it is very practical in their application. In normal day to day life, people in society often find opportunities that give them things in common. However, what those individuals do to remove them from the state of nature, are considered to be their property. For instance, fishermen who appropriate their “labour” to catch fish from the ocean end up owning the fish. Though the fish in the ocean is a common provision to all people, the effort of removing the fish from their state of nature warrants the fishermen ownership of the fish.

Political philosophies are capable to influence the society where particular people live in. They are responsible for shaping the thinking of society to act in a certain way. As such, great thinkers are capable of shaping the ideologies of certain communities of people. Many political philosophers often conflict with the governments of the day due to their introduction of criticisms of the government of the day. Many revolutions in the world are attributable to the political philosophies of thinkers in society. For instance, the attainment of American freedom from the British is usually attributed to the teachings of the doctrine preached by John Locke.

The need to maintain a state of order in the society necessitated the creation of laws to govern the people in a society. In other instances, as described by Rousseau when he defines a society as the collective human presence, he uses the concept of the social contract to entail the guidelines of becoming a member of society. This implies that political philosophy is crucial in stabilizing society. The laws are intended to help to protect and preserve the rights of individuals in a society. The laws of morality represent what is generally acceptable by the members of a society as the expected code of behaviour.

As observed in this discourse, the analysis of the meaning of property in both John Locke’s and Rousseau’s works enables us to conclude that a thinker’s definition of property is closely related to their political philosophy. First, Locke’s political philosophy encourages the protection of the subjects from harsh treatment by their government. Regarding property, he argues that every person has the right to own property regardless of their position in society. On the other hand, Rousseau considers a government to have a moral obligation to its subjects and failure to act in a moral pattern renders the government functioning illegitimately upon the people. He, therefore, feels that the law’s purpose is to curtail the state of nature to maintain order in society. The government should ensure that the law is followed to have the orderly acquisition of property.

Works Cited

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2012.
  2. Locke, John. . PDF file. 2012. Web.
  3. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. London: Hackett Publishing, 1987. Print.
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