Sovereignty by Donation: John Locke’s First Treatise of Government

Quotes taken from the New American Bible
Locke’s Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett

In the previous chapter John Locke discussed Sir Robert Filmer’s assertion that Adam had sovereignty over his children by creation. This next chapter, Locke discusses Filmer’s assertion that Adam had sovereignty by donation from God. There are by two methods Locke discerns from Filmer that Adam would have sovereignty: God gave Adam dominion over all the wild beasts and thereby was monarch, or that he had dominion over all creatures. Locke asserts that God did not give Adam authority over man, or his children and that he did not give him sole dominion over the beasts.

John Locke first examines the claim that Adam had sovereignty by having sole dominion over all living things. The Book of Genesis indicates in the first two chapters the order in which living things were created. On the 6th day God created what can amount to domesticated animals, and He created the wild beasts and reptiles. It is after the creation of the beasts and reptiles, and before the creation of Man, that God says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Locke draws specific attention to God’s usage of the word “them” when speaking of man. In normal linguistics this can be noted to say that God was speaking of the plural, and at this point in time the word “man” could be used in reference to either a single person of the male gender or all humans. Thus Locke argues, God gave all man guardianship over the cattle, animals who crawl on the ground, and the wild beasts. Locke also wishes to draw specific attention to note that at verse 28 God does not say to subdue cattle, but rather only those living things that move on the ground. From this Locke points that the Septuagint distinguishes that the living things that move on the ground can be divided into wild beasts and reptiles. Two verses before at 26, Locke points out that God states to create man to rule over creation, in the list provided by Moses of the things man is to have rule over wild beasts are left off.

A certain interesting distinction can be pointed to here, at one point man is given control over the natural and at another only over the political. Wild beasts are the distinction between the natural and political, as according to Aristotle man is either a beast or a god outside of the city. However, the most important aspect to God’s list of what man, or in Filmer’s point of view Adam, is to have dominion over God leaves off man both times. It is clear from this that God intended for man to share in his dominion and rule over the natural life, and is to subdue nature. Of the power granted to man initially, man is not granted the authority to kill. This does not come until Noah and his Sons receive their edict from God to replenish the Earth and eat of animals. The proclamation made to Noah and his Sons can more properly described as a political edict, because at this point man is given authority to kill–something that was left off from the initial proclamation.

Yet still, man does not receive the authority to rule over each other. In Locke’s opinion, if the reader is unable to see that Adam is not sovereign over the world, then they should see it when that same charter is claimed to be given to Noah. Noah does not have children after the flood, only his children do. When God gives His proclamation to Noah, his sons are present as well and receive the same proclamation. That being said, all men are equal after the flood with the same authority. Within this state outside of society, all men are granted dominion over the earth to subdue nature. No one man has authority over another, as Locke points that David in the 8th Psalm does not acknowledge that God granted Adam sovereign authority. By nature we are all equal in our authority.

Likewise, Eve is given the same dominion as Adam because God speaks of man in the plural sense at verse 28. At this point there were only two creatures who fell under the definition of man: Adam and Eve. Clearly, if God spoke in the plural and there were only two humans then both would have be granted the same dominion, not just the one. Eve, as man, has been created similar to Adam, “The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…'” (Genesis 2:23.) Eve is an identical copy of Adam, she is fully man just as Adam is fully man. As such, Eve too is created in the Image of God and Locke states, “For wherein sover else the Image of God consisted, the intellectual Nature was certainly a part of it, and belong’d to the whole Species, and enabled them to have Dominion over the inferiour Creatures…” And therefore Adam lacks dominion over all living things, and only over those of the sea, and air and over cattle, wild beasts and reptiles.

Locke has asserted for the first time in a clear and percise manner that all men are created equal and that there is no natural government; man must consent to being ruled and is not naturally born into the precondition of being ruled. Man is not given the authority to take life until after the Flood, when God grants Noah and his children the authority to eat meat and to take the life of one who sheds the blood of man. The idea that man must consent to being governed is shown through England’s Manors. The Lord of the manor only has authority over the natural things, not over his tendents. He can order the slaughter of a calf, but not over those men who inhabit his land. The Lord of a Manor only has the authority granted to him by those who consent to his rule, no more or less. This is a strict departure from Hobbes who grants the Magistrate any authority once one consents to his rule. The only time man is able to refuse the Magistrate is when that Magistrate attempts to take the life of a subject. Locke is specifically stating here that man is given the authority to rule over another man by consent only, and that consent to be ruled is limited to what has been agreed upon.

As such, Locke has now asserted a design for his State of Nature where there is no government except the individual and that all are granted common rule over the earth. He has also demonstrated that man is given command to subdue the earth, which will become the authority to perfect nature in his Second Treatise. All men are created into a world of equal freedom and authority, only when entering into society does man consent to relinguish some of that freedom and authority but never more than what has been agreed upon.

Locke’s First Treatise: Sovereignty by Creation

Quotes taken from Locke: Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett

At this point John Locke takes to task Sir Robert’s attempt to give Adams sovereignty of the world and man by his creation. The first struggle Locke faces is Sir. Robert’s assertion that to suppose natural freedom in mankind means to deny Adam’s creation. However, this is a subtle use of words that Locke writes concerning this assertion by Sir Robert. Locke states, “For I find no difficulty to suppose the Natural Freedom of Mankind, though I have always believed the Creation of Adam…” Anyone who reads this passage cannot help but notice the use of suppose and believed and how different they make the meaning of his thought. Supposition comes from the use of one’s reason while belief does not. To suppose implies that one can logically think it through and find proofs while belief does not. Therefore, Locke is stating contrary to Filmer that Natural Freedom of Man Kind cannot be denied because reason can attain them whereas reason cannot attain the creation of Adam.

Next Locke presents the second issue,  that by Appointment Adam was made governor of the world by God. There are three instances in which Locke states this Appointment was possible: “Providence orders, or the Law of Nature directs, or positive Revelation declares…” Of these he denies that Providence could have been the appointment of Adam, which will be discussed momentarily. The Law of Nature and and positive Revelation are two interesting terms for Locke to use. We can simplify and attempt to understand this better if we change positive to it’s other meaning: law. The Law of Nature we know is a bastardization of the Natural Law and of the Natural Right, which proceeded the Law of Nature in previous epochs. The most direct ancestor of the Law of Nature is Natural Law, which St. Thomas articulates in his Treatise on Law. The Natural Law is the way in which the Eternal Law, or Providence, participates in human reason. By denying Providence, Locke has denied that God participates in the reason of man all together. Positive Revelation, or the Bible or Divine Law comes directly from the Eternal Law and informs and corrects both the Natural Law and the Human Law.  The Law of Nature removes the Eternal Law and Divine Law and supplants it with a temporal understanding.  Locke excludes a discussion of Adam’s sovereignty by Creation by denying both the Eternal and Divine laws as a source of political authority.  If Adam’s sovereignty was granted to him prior to creation through Divine Providence, then it would mean Adam would have been governor from the moment the Eternal Law came into be. It would be silly he asserts for Adam to have received his governorship over the world by Providence, because there was nothing to govern.

Locke then looks at Sir Robert’s assertion from the Law of Nature perspective. Locke argues that to assert Adam’s governorship by the Law of Nature is like saying that Man is governor over his children by right of nature. However, in this instance Locke points that Adam could neither be governor of the world, nor father when he had no government or children to make him governor of the world or father by right of nature. However, Sir Robert’s responds to this by asserting that Adam was not governor in fact but in habit. Yet, let us look at the problem of making Adam governor of the world by his creation through a different method.

Locke asserts Adam could not have been made governor of the world by his creation because he has no government; government does not come until the Fall, which is long after Adam’s creation. In fact, if one looks at the Book of Genesis they will find that government does not exist among Adam, Eve and their two sons. In fact government is not created until Adam’s son Cain slays Abel and is banished to the land of Nod by God. Cain is the founder of the city, not Adam, which makes Cain-a killer- the founder of the City according to Moses. This is why Sir Robert’s assertion that Adam gains governorship over the world by creation. Cain, not Adam, is the first governor that we encounter in the Bible. In fact, the children of Adam reject government until the Jews insist God give them a king. They are enslaved by the greatest government of the day- the Egyptians. A murderer, a betrayer to his family and his God is the founder of the City. The City is founded  upon sin according to the Bible.

Adam was made king of the world by his creation, not a king in fact, but a king in act which according to Locke means he was no king at all. This same argument, made by Sir Robert Locke will argue, means that Noah too was king of the world by his creation because it was his destiny to outlive his brethren. Belief in Adam’s creation and to suppose Natural Freedom of Mankind do not counteract each other according to Locke. Because Adam’s creation did not mean he was absolute ruler of the world as has been shown, one can still suppose the Natural Freedom of Mankind.


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