The Civil State In John Locke’s Political Philosophy; It’s Relevance To Nigerian Democracy

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

The Civil State In John Locke’s Political Philosophy; It’s Relevance To Nigerian Democracy


Chapter One


1.0 Background of the Study

1.1 General Introduction

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632 in Warrington, Somerset. His father, John Locke senior, was a lawyer and a small land owner. The family had a puritan and a parliamentary background. He studied at the famous Christ Church, Oxford. He studied sciences, especially medicine under Sir Robert Boyle and was later admitted into the household of the Lord Aschey as his physician and secretary. He later opened up a new chapter in his life and became involved in political affairs of the day.

One of the bases of his political thought was his teaching on the civil state which he best called civil society. In order to demonstrate what a civil society is, he traced its origin to the state of nature from where men unite together to go into civil state. He stated that,

This is done wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people, one body politic, under one supreme government, or else when anyone joins himself to, and incorporates with any government already made….1

From the state of nature, people enter into civil state through consent, to surrender their right of enforcing the law of nature to the society for them to setup a lawful form of government they thought fit2.

Democracy being a system of government under which the people exercise the governing power either directly or through representatives duly elected by them3, is taken to be one of the forms of government which people in the civil state may choose to set up. There is need therefore, to explore the ideals of the civil state by John Locke, and to bring out its relevance to the practice of democracy in the Nigerian setup.


1.2 Statement of the Problem

In the light of the above explication, it is good to ask the basic question:

what are the problems of Nigerian democracy? Some of the problems are: the failure of leadership, inadequate checks and balances of the arms of government, lack of security of life and property, and violation of human rights. These problems among others make Nigerian democracy to be in shambles. Every Nigerian is in one way or the other affected by this difficult situation facing the Nigerian State, and it is every one’s duty to make maximum effort towards solving these problems for the actualization of the ideals of democracy in Nigeria. Therefore, the ugly situation of Nigeria democracy is the problem that motivates the research.


1.3. Purpose of the Study

Following the afore-mentioned problems, the aim of the study is to first of all explore John Locke’s teaching on the elements of the civil state, and to demonstrate the necessity of this teaching in solving the problems facing Nigerian democracy. In other words, this work seeks for the relevance of John Locke’s notion on civil State, to the practice of democracy in Nigeria.


1.3. Scope of the Study

Taking cognizance of Locke’s vast contribution and discussion in philosophy, this study is limited to his teaching on the civil state, and its importance to the remedy of some of the posing problems of democracy in the Nigerian State.


1.4. Methodology

The method of the work is expository and evaluative. This means that Locke’s Civil State is explored and it is evaluated by showing its relevance to Nigerian democracy.

For proper comprehension, the work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one serves as the background which explicates the introduction, the statement of the problem, the aim, the scope, the method as well as the literature review. Chapter two treats the origin of John Locke’s civil state, which is traced back to the state of nature. Also Locke’s view of right to private property is stated in this chapter. In chapter three, Locke’s civil state is exposed properly, with its basic features like the purpose of the civil state, the separation of powers of government, the extent and limit of representation, and the dissolution of government. In chapter four, how the ideals in the Lockean Civil State can be of good help in tackling some of the problems facing Nigerian democracy, is duly considered. Finally, chapter five deals with general evaluation and conclusion.


1.5. Literature Review

In order to properly explain Locke’s notion of civil state, there is need to explicate the views some other thinkers have about the civil state. A. Appadorai quoting R. Maclver in his book The substance of Politics stated that:

The state is an association which, acting through law as promulgated by a government endowed to this end with coercive power, maintains within a community territorially demarcated the universal external conditions of social order[1].

He agreed with Herbert Spencer that “the state is nothing but a natural institution for preventing one man from infringing the rights of another; it is a joint-stock protection company for mutual assurance5.

Following what is said above, from the ancient period, many philosophers in their political thought have in one way or the other viewed on the notion of civil state. Each of them is influenced by the political affairs of his time, so they have related different views about the civil state. Therefore, the views of various philosophers of different epochs are to be reviewed.

Plato one of the ancient philosophers, in his political thought held that the state originated for the reflection of people’s economic needs. This means that for him, as he is quoted by Stumpf in his book Philosophy: History and Problems, “a state comes into existence because no individual is self sufficing, we all have many needs”6. The state exists for the service of

needs of men. In other words, “men are not independent of one another,

but needs the aid and co-operation of others in the production of necessaries of life”7. He divided the citizens of the state into three classes, namely: the guardians who are the rulers, the auxiliaries who are the soldiers of the state, and the common people who provide the material needs of the state.

Aristotle also in the ancient period stated that the state is natural to man. As he is quoted by Stumpf, “it is evident that the state is a creature of nature and that man is by nature a political animal”8. This made him to state that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god”9. The state for him exists for an end, and this end is the supreme good of man. This means that, “the state comes into existence for the bare end of life, but it continues in existence for the sake of good life….”10

Thomas Aquinas in the medieval era viewed the state as a natural society, which has at its disposal the necessary means for attaining its end, which is the common good of the people. For him “… the government of the state is instituted to secure the necessary conditions of the common good”11. This means that,

The state’s function is to secure that common good by keeping the peace, organizing the activities of the citizens in harmonious pursuit, providing for the resources to sustain life, and preventing as far as possible, obstacles to the good of life”12.

Hooker a renaissance period thinker whose teaching had much influence on John Locke, viewed the emergence of the state as a natural inclination in man to live in society, and this is only achieved by common agreement of the individuals involved. This according to Copleston means that “the establishment of civil government thus rests upon consent, without which there was no reason that one man should take upon him to lord or judge over another”13.

Furthermore, in the modern era, Hobbes according to M. Sibley in his book, Political Ideas and Ideologies, viewed the emergence of the civil state as,

When men contract with one another to leave the state of nature, they then enter civil society where the equality of nature gives way to subordination to the ruler14.

For Hobbes the sovereign is not a party to the contract, he only accepts his power from the contractors and he is absolutely free to act in any way he sees fit, subject only to the primary law of nature that he preserves himself.

Rousseau, another philosopher of modern period, viewed that in the civil state each person gives up his natural liberty in order to gain civil liberty in common with others under the supreme direction of the general will. Rousseau’s own view of the civil state according to M. Sibley, is that, “a legitimate civil state… implies that men have given up their natural freedom and have exchanged for it a civilized freedom broader and more certain than that which they previously enjoyed”15.

Finally, the foregoing is the concise conceptions of philosophers on the civil state. With these in mind, it is proper to examine John Locke’s exposition of this topic.


Chapter Five


5.0 Evaluation and Conclusion

5.1 Evaluation

From the foregoing, it can be said that Nigerian democracy is still far from realizing the basic principles of democratic government. A democratic state should be a state where the rule of law reigns, so that nobody is above the law. Security of lives and property, protection of human rights, and adequate checks among the arms of government, are also the basic requirements of true democratic state. But the Nigerian case is quite different. This is not unconnected with the type of leaders that control the affairs of the country. Most of them take leadership as an opportunity to fulfill their selfish ambition, rather than rendering selfless services to the people. It is as a result of these problems facing Nigerian democracy that Locke’s teaching on the civil state is explored and necessary recommendations made, for the actualization of true democracy in Nigeria.

Although the ideals of the Lockean civil state are recommendable for the change to true democracy in Nigeria, there are some limitations which can however be spotted. In other words, there is need to evaluate and point out some defects of his view, in order not to swallow his teaching hook, line and sinker.

Firstly, whether Locke’s notion of the purpose for the transition from the state of nature to the civil state is actually realized, is difficult to understand. He describes the state of nature as the original state of man where there is equality, peace and freedom. But he argues that it is because all does not obey the law of nature that the civil society is formed, in order to take care of the inconveniences. Yet human experience still shows that not even in the so-called civil society that all men obey the laws, implying that the people in the civil state still encounter many inconveniences.

Secondly, individualism seemed to have been promoted by Locke’s theory leaves much to be desired. He placed the purpose of the state so much on the protection of the individual property, thereby neglecting some how the propagation of common good. Therefore, in the state that is based on supremacy of the individual over the community, some times the sense of individualism makes people desire only to satisfy their selfish desire.

Another defect of the Lockean civil state is that of the tacit consent. When an original contract is made, it does not necessarily mean that it must bind the descendants of those who initially entered in the contract. This is because, it limits the freedom of the descendants to know and consent to the terms of the state. In addition, though Locke’s theory about majority rule is quite commendable because it is the basis of true democracy, it can be put against Locke that he takes for granted that majority will always be right in taking any decision.

Despite all these limitations found in Locke’s theory, the merits of the theory have made it necessary to recommend it to any democratic set up with particular reference to Nigeria. The Lockean theory on the civil state has shown that men are borne free and equal, and its foundation is traced back to the state of nature. That has helped in freeing of individuals from the hands of tyrannical governments, by making them to realize that it is the people that should willfully set up the government they want, for the proper protection of their rights. In other words, that men first of all contract among themselves to enter the civil state, before setting up a government, explicitly shows that the state rests not on the consent of the ruler but the ruled. This has become an important factor in the development of modern democracy. Therefore, the theory reminds the government of those human purposes which the state can serve, and which alone can justify its existence.

Furthermore, the theory has helped in establishing the fact that all men naturally have rights, which are inalienable to them. He specifically referred these rights to that of life, liberty and estate. It is for the protection of these rights that the government is set up. The government with the people has the task to seek for them and defend them. It is therefore, when the rights of the people are duly protected that the state achieves its purpose.

Moreover, Locke’s view that with the power of majority the people elect their representatives that establish laws and executives that execute the laws has become applicable in the modern democracy. This can be seen in the separation of powers of government to prevent those in power from being tyrannical. Therefore, Locke as earlier mentioned is regarded as the theoretical architect of modern democracy.


5.2 Conclusion

The positive aspects of Locke’s civil state are very much necessary for the actualization of true democracy in Nigeria. It is true that the problems facing Nigerian democracy are many and look insurmountable, but with the proper application of the ideals of the Lockean view much positive results will be realized. “According to Locke, government is for the people, made through the will of the people and therefore must seek the well being of the people”1. This means that government is established through the consent of the people as a trust, and the government works for the common good of the community. This is achieved when the representatives elected by the people judiciously carry out their duty of rendering qualitative services to the people. As stated earlier, it is when the Nigerian leaders realize that they are elected to seek and act for the well being of the entire community, rather than working for their selfish desires, that true democracy is lived in Nigeria.

Finally, for true democratic freedom, peace and progress to be actualized in Nigeria, security of lives and property, and the protection of human rights are to be highly taken into action. This will go a long way in ensuring the welfare of the people, all for the common good of the Nigerian People.


The Civil State In John Locke’s Political Philosophy; It’s Relevance To Nigerian Democracy


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