The significance of reason is discussed both in John Locke’s, The Second Treatise of Civil Government, and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, Emile. However, the definitions that both authors give to the word “reason” vary significantly. I will now attempt to compare the different meanings that each man considered to be the accurate definition of reason.
John Locke believed that the state “all men are naturally in ... is a state of perfect freedom” (122), a state in which they live “without ... depending upon the will of any other man” (122). It is called the “the state of nature,” and it is something that is within us at birth. The state of nature is a law made by God, called the Law of Reason. This law gives humankind liberty, freedom, and equality and stresses that no man “ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions” (123). According to Locke, the law of reason is the basis of man as well as society. It restrains men from infringing on the rights of others. In this state, there is no need for a central authority figure to govern the actions of people, for it is the people, themselves, who impose the “peace and preservation of mankind” (124). One can have perfect freedom as long as one does not disturb others in their state of nature; in this “state of perfect equality ... there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another” (124). Men, thereby, have the power to “preserve the innocent and restrain offenders” (124) and punish those who transgress against them and disturb their “state of nature.” Thus, all men are their own “executioner[s] in the law of nature,” or the Law of Reason.
While all men are in charge of their own will according to the Law of Reason in which they are born, some men do, in fact, break or reject this law, which causes them to enter into a state of war with the others. People reject the law of nature for many reasons, especially when their ideas and opinions differ. When people reject the law, two things can happen; the first is that one could enter into a state of war with someone else, and the other is that one could choose to enter into a state of society. It is reason that ultimately leads a person into the state of society through a social contract.
In these societies, it is reason, the law of nature, which governs mankind. Reason is not flexible because it is God’s law and it is set in stone. This reason gives you the social contract, leading to life, liberty, and happiness. To Locke, it is crucial for men to enter into the social contract as soon as possible. Since we are born into the state of nature in which the law of reason governs us, it is easy for us to enter into society when we are young. This is because that very society is based on reason, not upon feelings or intuition. When men leave their state of nature and conform to society and the government, they give up their right to punish others, as they see fit. Instead, the social contract exists to protect people from those who transgress by inflicting due punishment to offenders through the force of the government. Since every person mutually agrees to live amongst the rules of the contract, it protects the good of the majority. The government thus works to benefit the good of the people.
The best kinds of government, Locke believed, are absolute monarchies, because they don’t take their citizens out of the state of nature. Societies, in fact, are in a form of the state of nature, themselves, so people don’t have to give up their “rights” to reason by entering into the social contract. Reason still exists where conformity flourishes. It doesn’t diminish but is actually enhanced by the merging of natural law (fundamental law) and positive law (the law of the majority of others).
John Locke believed that conformity is what enhances society. His ideal was for everyone to be fully integrated into the social contract. In order to accomplish that, Locke stressed that parents need to teach their children how to labor early on. Children must learn abstract reasoning as soon as possible