In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which we just recently finished reading, the eponymous protagonist declares that “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing.” John Locke’s Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, our most recent read in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, might, without a great stretch of the imagination, be seen as a sort of extended commentary upon this assertion of Hamlet.
Hamlet’s assertion is that the king and the State or body politic need not be seen as identical, especially in the case, as it was with Claudius, of a usurper. The State is an abstraction, where as “the king is a thing.” If Hamlet exacts vengeance for the murder of his father by killing Claudius, then, the attack is not upon Denmark or the people thereof nor upon the ostensibly divinely instituted reign of kings. It is, rather, an attack only upon one individual who unjustly holds the title of king.
While I’m not sure that Locke had Shakespeare in mind as he wrote, his Second Essay is written to make much the same point. Here, Locke argues that “the king is a thing.” That is, while holding certain prerogatives and responsibilities, the king is subject to restrictions of the same kind that bind other members of society. The king is not entitled, any more than the private person, says Locke, to take lives, liberties, and properties away from his subjects. He may deprive those under his rule of these rights while fulfilling his duty to enforce the laws, but he may not do so in an arbitrary manner and for his own benefit.
The result of Locke’s thought, of course, like that of other similarly minded thinkers of the Enlightenment, is the modern proliferation of constitutional monarchies and kingless republics. Of course, Locke’s thought did not arise in a vacuum. The historical antecedents in British and wider Western thought are clear and worthy of acknowledgement. The monumental significance of Locke, though, is not be ignored. As such, it was both fascinating and joyful to dig into this particular Great Book.