Redefining Rebellion: John Locke’s Slight of Hand

HomeArticlesRedefining Rebellion: John Locke’s Slight of Hand

John Locke took the concept of rebellion which had a rich history in political philosophy and deftly assigned to it a new meaning that was useful for his political theory. But Locke failed to fully disclose the transformative nature of his conception of rebellion. Instead, he attempted to make his idea of rebellion appear to be consistent with traditional thought. This manipulative use of language in order to make a new idea appear traditional is Locke’s way of concealing from his readers the novelty and ideological nature of his political writings. If Locke is America, as is readily accepted in academic circles, then Locke’s definition of rebellion is important.

Rebellion is his justification for resistance. And the popular acceptance of his use of the word may explain how there have come to be rights-claimers of many stripes in America–from minority rights, through hippie or fringe group rights, to demands for such personal rights as the asserted right to an abortion. How else might people have come to gain that peculiar eagerness for demonstrating in favor of their “rights” that can be seen today on any news broadcast?

And one may also note those self-styled libertarians–mimicking Locke–who stridently endorse property and other individual rights, placing them ahead of everything else. They have adopted “rights” slogans without having considered the proper limits of these rights in the light of man’s fulfillment only as a participant in the life of the community.

This is the sort of word-game played by theoreticians afflicted by what Eric Voegelin diagnosed as pneumopathology: literally an illness of the spirit, and more specifically, one in which the full range of reality is truncated–by excluding God and the soul–for the sake of fostering an impossible but beckoning wholly intramundane existence.

Voegelin’s Assessment of Locke

Voegelin was indeed quite critical of Locke on those occasions when he wrote about him, labeling Locke among “the most repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of humanity”1 because Voegelin saw Locke as “an ideological constructor, who brutally destroys every philosophical problem in order to justify the political status quo.”2

The philosophical destruction is concealed behind such benign Lockean phrases as:

“By the philosophical use of words, I mean such a use of them as may serve to convey the precise notions of things, and to express in general propositions certain and undoubted truths, which the mind may rest upon and be satisfied with in its search after true knowledge.”3


“The chief end of language in communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end, when any word does not excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker.”4

Voegelin’s reading of Locke as a panderer for the Whig political agenda is affirmed by the way Locke’s resistance theory is constructed. Instructive here is Locke’s handling of the phenomenon of rebellion because it puts individualistic liberalism on philosophically thin ice. It is a lesson for our times–a lesson showing what happens when people indulge in linguistic constructions that are not empirically grounded.

Locke’s New Definition of “Rebellion”

Locke develops a comprehensive theory of resistance, which he legitimates, in part, by coining a new definition of the word ‘rebellion.’ He defines rebellion twice in The Second Treatise. First, in the context of an unjust conquest, Locke writes that “shaking off a Power, which Force, and not Right hath set over any one, though it hath the Name of Rebellion, yet it is no Offence before God, but is that, which he allows and countenances.”5

Locke suggests that “though it hath the name,” this is not actually the proper conception of the word. And later on he argues that it is those who abuse power who are “guilty of Rebellion,” writing that “those who set up force again in opposition to the Laws, do Rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of War, and are properly Rebels.”6 This second definition replaces the traditional conception of rebellion, asserting that rebellion is the abuse of power. Thus Locke’s new definition of rebellion asserts that the true rebels are tyrants who exercise political power for purposes not countenanced by society’s precepts, and he both admonishes tyrants and justifies resistance.

Classical Thought is Ignored

Even though Locke denounces fundamental alterations to society, as would occur in a civil society under the rule of a tyrant, his idea of society is fundamentally altered since his idea of insurgency is advanced in ignorance of or despite the classical political philosophers. In Classic thought, society was viewed as a group of individuals who share a way of life. Polis (the city) was sustained by paidea (education); the society existed because individuals were educated for a shared way of life that was conducive to their collective, not individual, preservation and prosperity. Political philosophy retained  this communal viewpoint through Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker and even through English justifications for resistance up to, and including, the majority of Whig arguments in Locke’s own day.8

Modern Revolution

Societies that have been influenced by Locke, such as the United States, have accepted his arguments as the basis for revamping the social milieu. When these sought changes conflict with traditional values, Locke’s theory permits the innovators to justify precisely those societal changes condemned by Locke’s conception of rebellion. In fact it is precisely what may be called the modern form of political revolution, identified and denounced by Locke himself as a rebellion against properly constituted authority, which Locke’s arguments for resistance back-handedly facilitate.

The modern form of political revolution occurs when social values and mores are fundamentally altered. This understanding runs contrary to the classical way of defining revolution, revolution understood as a political act associated with a “recurrence to fundamental principles,” as described for example by Donald Lutz:

“going back mentally and in discourse to recapture the principles that inform and animate our constitutional system, to reconsider these principles in the light of altered circumstances and commitments, and either to reaffirm in contemporary language and symbols what still speaks the truth to us or to alter and then ratify formally modifications or additions to these principles.”9

But as contemporary political scientists now like to argue, “real revolution is the change in the social attitudes and values basic to the traditional institutional order.”10 Or they argue that a revolution produces “broad and sweeping changes in society.”11 Such a “school of thought” describes the modern conception of revolution as “fundamental alteration.” Taken literally this would mean the old principles would never be reaffirmed after having been supplanted by the new social attitudes. In contrast to Classical political thought which relies on traditional communal orientation, Locke’s justification for resistance against tyranny is founded on individual, rather than, communal sources of moral order.

Revolution as Revulsion Against Limits

Such revolutions appear to be derived from revulsion against the limits of existence and not political discontent in the usual sense. When people resist tyranny they attempt to restore traditional governing principles, but when they encourage sweeping changes in society they are not restoring anything; rather they are undertaking revolution as suggested by Locke.

In fact Locke subtly advocates that very type of sociopolitical movement described here as the modern revolution. Locke does not merely provide a theory of resistance against government; he provides a theory of existential resistance, a way of justifying individualized acts of resistance not only against certain features of society that are unjust but also against those features that are endemic to society because of the limits of human nature.

Because Locke fails to limit justified resistance to explicitly political cases, because he does not restore a lost order but rather articulates the ideals for a new order, he prefigures the political revolutionary who seeks to overcome human limitations rather than resolve political antagonisms. The fuzzy nature of his resistance theory is the product of its spiritual disconnectedness: it has always been a system waiting to be abused.

Redefining Despotism by Slight-of-Hand

Locke uses despotical power as his example to justify the morality of resisting a power when it exceeds reasonable limits. Locke’s first definition of rebellion occurs in the context of despotical power: the “shaking off a Power, which Force, and not Right hath set over anyone.”

Although Locke will ultimately justify resistance against domestic tyrants by distinguishing his argument from this first definition, it is this first definition which justifies the idea of resistance for reasons few would dispute. With this definition, borrowed from foreign affairs, Locke accomplishes two things. First, he removes the traditional view of rebellion as being limited to matters of domestic politics.12

Second, because Locke justifies the use of retributive violence against higher powers in the universally accepted proposition that resistance against invading foreigners is valid, he not only modifies the traditional conception of rebellion in a useful manner (in a direction he wishes to move), but also bases the idea of justified resistance on premises his audience would accept without question.

He then works his way around the traditional view which had understood justified rebellion as resistance against domestic tyrants, but only in certain circumstances.13 Locke’s second definition of rebellion occurs in the context of absolute power. Absolute power is the power, gained through brute force and trickery, to have other individuals’ persons and possessions under one’s control.

Locke asserts that absolute power violates individual’s fundamental rights to freedom. Locke’s second definition of rebellion asserts, therefore, that rebellion is “an Opposition, not to Persons but Authority, which is founded only in the Constitutions and Laws of the Government,” therefore:

“those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justifie their violation of [the Constitutions and the Laws of the Government], are truly and properly Rebels. For when Men by Entering into Society and Civil Government, have excluded force, and introduced Laws for the preservation of Property, Peace, and Unity amongst themselves; those who set up force again in opposition to the Laws, do Rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of War, and are properly Rebels.”14

According to the second definition, those who “set up force again” and “bring back again the State of War” are rebels. This type of rebel renounces the constituted laws of his society in favor of the possible absolute power he stands to achieve through the introduction of a state of war against society. This type of rebel seeks absolute power and consequently never has justice on his side. Locke’s framing of the idea of rebellion allows him portray the tyrant as the rebel.

This is a definition coined by a careful writer.15 This definition allows the connotation of rebellion to retain its classical meaning–the uprising of a faction aimed against the common good of society. The word rebellion is vilified, giving Locke the appearance of agreeing with renowned classical sources. Simultaneously, the idea of resistance against government is justified, effectively breaking Locke from the classical position regarding the impropriety of insurrection against government. By drawing the tyrant as the rebel and the resisters as lawful defenders of society, Locke is able to justify the violent deposition of government in a manner that would not have been countenanced by classical political philosophers, while making the argument appear as if classical political philosophers would have approved it.

If Locke had said what he meant–that the feeling of oppression in an individual’s mind justifies resistance against authority–he would not have found support from classical sources. Socrates, most prominently, participated willingly in his own execution when it was ordered by a decision he believed to be unjust though lawfully rendered by the civil authorities. Plato insisted in The Republic that “faction is a wicked thing and members of neither side are lovers of their city.”16 Aquinas, too, suggests that the long term communal stability of a society is better defended by tolerating small or occasional bouts of tyranny: “it is more expedient to tolerate milder tyranny for a while than, by acting against the tyrant, to become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself.”17

Flashes of Natural Law as Bait for the Hook

Locke’s apparent dedication to the classical perception of natural law is for ostentation. The natural law flashes in Locke’s theory are the bait and not the hook; the individualistic justification for resistance against societal rulers is utterly lacking in the traditional natural law philosophies. Locke suggests returning to tradition while changing the tradition in the same stroke; his arguments did not restore the English precepts of ordered liberty under representative monarchy, they founded new and radically individualistic precepts.

Locke’s arguments facilitated a subtle dissolution and new founding of English liberty on less ordered and more radically individualistic premises than had been traditionally countenanced; the order of western society and the western soul were revolutionarily deformed by Locke in so doing. Individuals interpret Locke’s resistance theory in a radical and individualistic manner because Locke justifies a very preemptive resistance argument.18

Locke encourages resistance upon the perception or feeling by an individual that a ruler is behaving tyrannically. This theoretical construction does not encourage individuals to consider the extent of their obligations to society, or whether laws they may perceive to be unsavory should be followed nonetheless. In Locke’s theory, mild inconvenience can justify political resistance.

Locke argues that when absolute power is actually established over a society it is too late for that society to attempt to resist the tyrant. Hence Locke divides the specific instances when resistance might be justified into two camps, the difference between the two being whether or not absolute power has been established. In the first situation, resistance is futile because the legislative power in society has been altered.19

How Snubbing the Legislature Establishes Tyranny

Locke provides five examples: first, a person may set up arbitrary laws in place of those established by the legislative power of society;20 second, a person may hinder the assembling of the legislative;21 third, a person may change the way that the legislative is elected;22 fourth, a person may subject the society to a foreign power;23 fifth, the executive may neglect his duty so that established laws cannot be executed.24In each of these instances, an individual, almost always a Prince or the individual possessing executive power, executes a power that is properly reserved for the legislative power. Successfully undertaking any of these five possibilities produces absolute power, and thereby dissolves society. These are not instances that validate resistance; these are instances where resistance is most readily called for but they are also instances in which it may be too late to successfully resist.

Shackled Men Offer Poor Resistance

Because shackled men make for poor insurgents, Locke’s theory of resistance is a preemptive theory of resistance:

“In these and the like Cases . . . the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new Legislative. But the state of Mankind is not so miserable that they are not capable of using this Remedy, till it be too late to look for any. To tell People they may provide for themselves, by erecting a new Legislative, when by Oppression, Artifice, or being delivered over to a Foreign Power, their old one is gone, is only to tell them they may expect Relief, when it is too late, and the evil is past Cure.”

“This is in effect no more than to bid them first to be Slaves, and then to take care of their Liberty; and when their Chains are on, tell them, they may act like Freemen. This, if barely so, is rather Mockery than Relief; and men can never be secure from Tyranny, if there be no means to escape it, they are perfectly under it: And therefore it is, that they have not only a Right to get out of it but to prevent it.”25

Locke insists that men act “as soon as they can:”

“But whatever Flatterers may talk to amuze Peoples Understandings, it hinders not men, from feeling: and when they perceive that any Man, in what Station so ever, is out of the Bounds of the Civil Society which they are of; and that they have no Appeal on Earth against any harm they may receive from him, they are apt to think themselves in the state of Nature, in respect of him, whom they find to be so; and to take care as soon as they can, to have that Safety and Security in Civil Societies, for which it was first instituted, and for which only they entered into it.”26

Escaping the Slave Ship

According to Locke’s argument, a society that fails to judge appropriately when resistance is needed runs the risk of ending up under the absolute power of a tyrant. Locke communicates this idea through the metaphor of the man who would prudently attempt to escape from a ship that was carrying him toward a destination in which he will become enslaved. This man must attempt to escape before the ship arrives at Algiers, because if the ship arrives at port his fate is sealed:

“if a long Train of Actions shew the Councils all tending that way, how can a Man any more hinder himself from being perswaded in his own Mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the Captain of the Ship he was in, was carrying him, and the rest of the Company to Algiers, when he found him always steering that Course, though cross Winds, Leaks in his Ship, and want of Men and Provisions did often force him to turn his Course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the Wind, Weather, and other Circumstances would let him?”27

It is therefore prudent to act on the “feeling” that one “may receive harm.”28

The absolute power of a tyrant dissolves society much in the same was as an unjust conquest dissolve society.29 It is in cases of unjust conquest where “Great Robbers have the power in their own possession, which should punish Offenders.”30 The only recourse in this situation, Locke asserts, is “patience”: “Justice is denied, I am crippled and cannot stir, robbed and have not the means to do it.”31

The sons of the conquered will likely have to “repeat” their father’s attempts to get out from under the subjection of an absolute power.32 Locke thus very strongly intimates that it is not the actual dissolution of government which justifies resistance, but the determination in the consciences of the citizenry that the government may become dissolved in the near future. Resistance must come before the dissolution of government, because the dissolution of government by those with malicious intentions facilitates the dissolution of society.33

Three Instances Justifying Preemptive Resistance

The other situation where Locke’s second definition of rebellion may occur, therefore, is when the government violates the “trust” of the society members.34 This is the situation in which the populace fears the government may attempt to dissolve the government established by society.

Hence, in addition to the five instances of actual absolute power listed above, Locke outlines three instances in which the trust between society members and rulers may be violated. Because these are merely attempts at tyranny, absolute power has not actually been established and it is still practicable to put down such attempts. These instances therefore account for the justifiable exercises of preemptive resistance. There are two instances in which the legislative may violate its trust, and one instance in which the executive may violate his trust.

First, the legislature may “endeavour to take away, and destroy, the Property of the people.”35 Second, the legislature may “endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People.”36 Finally, the executive may violate his trust:

“when he either employs the Force, Treasure, and Offices of the Society, to corrupt the Representatives, and gain them to his purposes: or openly pre-ingages the Electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has by Sollicitations, Threats, Promises, or otherwise won to his designs.”37

In these cases, if the people detect the actions of the malicious ruler he may be ousted before establishing absolute power over his society; because he is still endeavoring for absolute power and has not yet attained it resistance against him may plausibly succeed.

Locke thus develops a new resistance argument justifying preemptive resistance on the basis of perception and feeling. Locke is reluctant to refer to the act of exercising the right of preemptive resistance as “rebellion.” Rebels according to Locke’s second definition, “properly rebels,” are tyrants who wield absolute power over a society. The rebel, in this sketch, is the tyrant who has ruled in a manner different than the manner in which the society members perceive that he should rule; those who actually resist the tyrant are not rebelling but defending their society.

Neglecting the Common Good

Locke’s re-founding, like many pneumopathological systems, is a matter of emphasis. Respected classical political philosophers had always emphasized individual welfare, hence their emphasis on something Locke neglects: a virtuous life. But a virtuous life meant that the good of the individual was often seen as balanced against or seated within the good of the community at large. Although Locke encourages individuals to look after their own welfare, he does so in a way that is too easily interpreted selfishly.

Locke’s message is to fear tyranny and to act upon a perceived violation of trust before it is too late; it would have been completely against Locke’s political agenda to point out that seeming and being are sometimes different; his point was to foment distrust against a king, his treatise was propaganda and not a philosophical inquiry into the extent of an individual’s obligation to society. He does not wish individuals to consider that laws in even good societies do not serve as panaceas for every woe under the sun, and that a successful society cannot plausibly be founded on fear and distrust. He didn’t mention these points because they were contrary to his political agenda.

The Well-Being of the Community

My point is not that individualism is an inauspicious principle or that every rights claim is unjust. My point is that any good principle is demeaned when it is interpreted selfishly for political gain instead of with a view towards the community’s welfare and Locke’s resistance construction does not permit us to see the difference between the two motivations. Countless groups in American society demonstrate, protest, and otherwise badger the balance of society for their self-interested rights, justifying their demands through the Lockean argument that to perceive a right is to be entitled to that right.

American scholars had always been interested in Locke, but after the Second World War the American interest in him expanded greatly: his Second Treatise began being taught to every undergraduate, thousands of scholarly articles and books celebrated him, and, at the same time, rights based laws and Supreme Court cases concerning individual rights expanded greatly and continue to expand. For all the obvious good in expanding human rights another, less obvious  concern is often lamented but rarely diagnosed correctly: Locke’s thought has become an ideological force and as a result preemptive resistance is visible, wide spread and perhaps even dangerous in American society.

A hippie, lying across the Brooklyn Bridge attempting to derail the economy in which we all must earn our living and which could only be made worse by his actions, does not find himself in such a foolish position without  some sort of thought, however short-sighted. The possibility of such naive enthusiasts adopting ideologies and acting on them is very real, yet this possibility does not relieve us of the obligation to learn to act so that both the individual and the community might thrive.



1. Emberley, Peter and Barry Cooper, trans. and ed.  1993. Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press.

2. Emberley and Cooper (1993), 96.

3. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (Abbreviated here as ECHU, followed by book number, chapter number and section number),  Alexander Campbell Fraser, ed.,1959.  John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 volumes.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., ECHU III ix 3.

4. ECHU III ix 4.

5. Locke, John. Second Treatise, Peter Laslett, ed.  2003.  Two Treatises of Government. 13th reprint.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., §196.

6. Second Treatise. §227, §226.

7. C.f., Franklin, Julian H.  1978.  John Locke and the Theory of Sovereignty: Mixed Monarchy and the Right of Resistance in the Political Thought of the English Revolution.  Cambridge, London, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.  93: “. . . the way for [Locke’s resistance theory] is already prepared in Locke’s account of the origin and nature of government.”

8. C.f., Franklin (1978), 104, regarding Whig justifications for resistance. Exceptions to the rule of clinging to traditional justifications for resistance crept up in England during the English Civil War; see, notably, George Lawsons’s Politica sacra et civilis (c.f., Franklin, 1978: 53-86).

9.  Lutz, Donald S. 2006.  Principles of Constitutional Design. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.1.

10. Yoder, Dale. 1926. “Current Definitions of Revolution,” The American Journal of Sociology 32, 441.

11. Elton, Godfrey. 1923. The Revolutionary Idea in France, 1789-1871. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. Inc., 4.

12. E.g., Plato distinguishes between faction and war in the Republic (Plato. W.H.D. Rouse, trans. 2008. Great Dialogues of Plato.  New York: Signet Classics, 314), 470a.

13. E.g., Aristotle. Carnes Lord, trans. 1984. The Politics. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1301al19-1316bl26.

14. §226.

15. c.f., Franklin (1978), 113; Cranston, Maurice. 1957. John Locke, A Biography. New York.;
Strauss, Leo. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 206.

16. 470d.

17. §44; c.f., Franklin (1978), 96.

18. Locke founds the law of nature on the ideas of material convenience and self-preservation; these had been constitutive elements of classical natural law theories as well, but classical arguments were more complex and communally oriented. Locke’s definition of the law of nature is also an important part of Locke’s pneumopathological method, but cannot be handled in the space here.

19. §212

20. §214

21. §215.

22. §216.

23. §217.

24. §219.

25. §220.

26. §94.

27. §210.

28. This is a radical break from traditional views on resistance, which had insisted occasional or slight bouts of tyranny should be tolerated by the people for the communal good (e.g., Aquinas argues in On Kingship that “it is more expedient to tolerate milder tyranny for a while than, by acting against the tyrant, to become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself” [§44, pg 24]. Plato insisted in the Republic that “as it is now understood, [faction is] whenever something like this happens and a city is divided against itself. If both parties lay waste the farms of each other and burn their houses, the faction is thought abominable and both parties unpatriotic, or else they could never have brought themselves to ravage their mother and nurse.” [470d] c.f., Franklin [1978], 96). (Aquinas, Thomas. Gerald B. Phelan, trans. 2000. On Kingship: To the King of Cyprus. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.).

29. §212.

30. §176.

31. §176.

32. §176.

33. §212.

34. §221.

35. §222.

36. §222.

37. §222.

Scott Robinson

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Scott Robinson is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView, Assistant Professor of Government and Assistant Director of the Center for Law and Liberty at Houston Baptist University. He is currently working on a book on John Locke’s political rhetoric and its long-term impact on American political thought.