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John Locke: State of war and state of nature are opposites

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Thomas Reid: State of nature versus state of war

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John Locke
From Second Treatise of Government

The state of war is a state of enmity and destruction. So when someone declares by word or action – not in a sudden outburst of rage, but as a matter of calm settled design – that he intends to end another man’s life, he puts himself into a state of war against the other person; and he thereby exposes his life to the risk of falling into the power of the other person or anyone that joins with him in his defence and takes up his quarrel. [S]uch men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no rule except that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey – dangerous creatures that will certainly destroy me if I fall into their power.

So it comes about that someone who tries to get another man into his absolute power thereby puts himself into a state of war with the other, for such an attempt amounts to a declaration of a plan against the life of the other man. If someone wants to get me into his power without my consent, I have reason to conclude that he would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and would destroy me if he wanted to; for no-one can want to have me in his absolute power unless it’s to compel me by force to something that is against the right of my freedom, i.e. to make me a slave…

This is the plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war. Some men – notably Hobbes – have treated them as the same; but in fact they are as distant from one another as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation is distant from a state of enmity, malice,
violence and mutual destruction. A state of nature, properly understood, involves men living together according to reason, with no-one on earth who stands above them all and has authority to judge between them. Whereas in a state of war a man uses or declares his intention to use force against another man, with no-one on earth to whom the other can appeal for relief.

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