Perfect vs. Ideal

John Locke’s State of War raises questions about the meaning of “perfect” in his hypothetical State of Nature.

“Thus, a thief whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat, because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which if lost is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defence and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable” (Chapter III, paragraph 19).

When I first read this passage in the Second Essay of the Two Treatises of Government, I was not sure if I had misunderstood it or if I simply did not agree with John Locke. Given that he describes his state of Nature as a state of perfect freedom and perfect equality, I was under the impression that he is suggesting an ideal world free of sin and chaos. Therefore, when I saw his argument that, in the state of Nature, he has the right to kill someone who tried to steal from him, I was in moral disagreement, not realizing that he is not actually advocating for that world. After further reading, conversations, and reflection, I realized that it is not the state of Nature for which Locke is making his argument, but rather a state in which people give up some of that “perfect freedom” for laws that prevent a state of constant war. (This relates to the idea that humans are not actually free and equal that was brought up in our discussion of the Arthur Brooks’s “Power and Peril of Identity.”) I had gotten too hung up on his repeated use of the word “perfect,” which brings up an important question: does “perfect” mean ideal? In this “perfect” state of Nature, we quickly fall into violence and an “eye for an eye” version of justice, which both Locke and I do not consider to actually be justice at all. Locke’s ideal world involves compromise, which certainly does not mean perfection. 

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Locke believes perfection, if it has ever existed or will exist at any point in time, would only lead to chaos and evil. Humanity would only feel happy and free for a brief period of time before a single flawed act sent the world into the state of War. I thought of the story Adam and Eve, who lived in a perfect world similar to Locke’s state of Nature that was quickly ruined when Eve ate the apple. If we lived in a perfect world, rather than an ideal one, that apple would be too hard to resist.