Locke David Walsh Life and Legacy: The Elusive Locke John Locke (1632 – 1704) is arguable the most influential of all political theorist. The success of liberal democracy and its embrace even by regimes that are founded on other principles reveals the power of his thought.
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John Locke (1632 – 1704) is arguable the most influential of all political theorist. The success of liberal democracy and its embrace even by regimes that are founded on other principles reveals the power of his thought.
The vision of Locke as a defender of atomistic liberal politics and “possessive individualism” is fading as a more nuanced understanding of his thought that synthesized modernity with the substance of the medieval Christian past is better appreciated.
Locke discovered what was essential in politics and theology as a means of building consensus. From a modern perspective, his formulation of inalienable rights forms the field of legitimate political debate.
Locke, was not a liberal democrat, but sided with the party that opposed royal absolutism.
Locke became most politically active during the succession crisis of 1681 when Charles II sought to secure the throne for his brother James II. The Two Treatises on Government were written during their time but were not published because of the political circumstances.
Locke spent ten years in Holland during this time.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was launched to install William of Orange to the throne of England.
Locke anonymously publishes The Two Treatises on Government in 1689.
James and his supporters were decisively defeated at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.
Locke published A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689 that dealt with the religious dispute at the center of the political crisis of his time.
He published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in his own name in 1690 and established himself as a leading intellectual light.
On The Reasonableness of Christianity was published in 1695 and sought a common ground for Christian faith.
Can we imagine a better political regime than a self-governing society based on the respect for the rights of all? To the extent that we have difficulty coming up with superior alternatives, we live in a Lockean political universe.
Contrary to the common belief that Locke asserted individual rights at the expense of the community, the Lockean individual is firmly embedded within the community.
Natural law teaching was being reinforced the scientific discovery of the laws of nature.
An order of mutual obligation is essential to defend natural rights against those standing outside of a community of mutual obligation such as an absolute monarch.
Locke opposed royal absolutism and required the absolute authority to be part of an agreement of mutual obligations. This position is different than Hobbes who allowed the sovereign to be outside of this community of mutual obligations.
Both Hobbes and Locke’s sovereign depend upon the consent of the people.
Power is important to both Hobbes and Locke, but Hobbes emphasizes it, whereas Locke emphasizes the priority of the moral community.
The Two Treatises emphasize the moral authority civil society exercises over its members with attention to limiting that authority as appropriate.
Locke refuted Robert Filmer’s argument that political authority derives from God and is passed down from Adam to the sovereign of the day. Filmer’s position affirms the divine right of kings.
Locke argues that each man is an inheritor of Adam’s authority and therefore government is based upon the consent of the governed. A person born into a commonwealth has given his or her tacit consent to be governed.
The state of nature is a state of community without government and may suffer from the inconveniences of ineffective administration of justice.
Prepolitical community exists in each individual and from mutual trust and recognition civil society emerges. A sense of common obligation is in each person from the beginning.
The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions. For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one anothers Pleasure. (Second Treatise, par. 6)
Locke’s piety has often been dismissed by those seeing it as a cloak for his secular reasoning, but the more we learn of his motivations, the more difficult it is to make such an argument.
We are bound to preserve ourselves and when not in conflict with that goal to preserve the rights of others as an obligation to God.
To those that say, there were never a state of nature, I will not only oppose the authority of the judicious Hooker, Eccl. Pol. Lib. i. sect. 10 where he say, The laws which have been hitherto mentioned, i.e. the laws of nature, do bind men absolutely, even as they are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn agreement amongst themselves what to do, or not to do: but forasmuch as we are not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of things, needful for such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of man; therefore to supply those defects and imperfections which are in us, living as single and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others: this was the cause of men’s uniting themselves at first in politic societies. But I moreover affirm, that all men are naturally in that state, and remain so, till by their own consents they make themselves members of some politic society; and I doubt not in the sequel of this discourse, to make it very clear.
Is Aristotle right that man is by nature a political animal? That we cannot really be human without living in community with others? To what extent does Locke confirm this by asking us to think about what life would be like without government, in the state of nature?
For Locke, the mutual preservation of rights that constitutes the purpose of civil society is primarily accomplished through the security of property.
Property secures the right to life and right to liberty.
A thief threatens liberty and can be rightfully killed, but the rights to thief’s property are retained by his family whose lives and liberty depend on that property.
God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it), not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labor: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labor on, and whereof there was good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.
How, according to Locke, does property become private when everything is given to human beings in common in the state of nature? Can you think of any other way of distributing property? Reflect on the inherently social character of any conception of property.
Humans are bound together in the state of nature making the step to government relatively simple.
Men cannot be judges in their own case, and an absolute ruler (Hobbes) staying outside the law does not move society to civil society since the ruler remains in the state of nature.
Civil society gives a common measure by which differences may be resolved.
Though kings have played a role in creating civil society, the security of properties is only guaranteed when the Legislature is placed in “the collective bodies of men, call them Senate, Parliament, or what you please.”
The common authority requires a transfer of liberty of the legislative function to from the individual to the community.
“No man in Civil Society can be exempted from the laws of it.”
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offense deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offenses of all those of that society; there and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it.
The community retains the right to overrule its legislative leaders.
The executive power has the power or prerogative to act decisively in the community’s interest even if it breaches the boundaries of law.
No government has the right to obedience from people who have not consented to it. Abrogating this principle removes the possibility of community, a relationship based on anything but force.
Force may not be used against legitimate authority but can be used against unjust and unlawful Force.
Locke defines prerogative as the “power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of law, and sometimes even against it… for since in some governments the law-making power is not always in being, and is usually too numerous, and so too slow, for the dispatch requisite to execution; and because also it is impossible to foresee, and so by laws to provide for, all accidents and necessities that may concern the public, or to make such laws as will do not harm, if they are executed with an inflexible rigor, on all occasions, and upon all persons that come in their way; therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.”
Locke’s recognition of the power of prerogative reveals a tension in his thought between his defense of limited government and the need for executive energy in times of crisis. Can the precarious balance between liberty and security be maintained?
Abraham Lincoln used executive prerogative in his prosecution of the Civil War. Does Lincoln make a strong argument for his use of executive prerogative.
Given Lincoln’s extraordinary use of executive power during the Civil War, some scholars have claimed that he established a constitutional dictatorship. Are Lincoln’s actions consistent with Locke’s view of executive prerogative? Can the notion of a constitutional dictatorship be reconciled with limited and free government?
I grant, that the pride, ambition, and turbulence of private men have sometimes caused great disorders in commonwealths, and factions have been fatal to states and kingdoms. But whether the mischief hath oftener begun in the peoples wantonness, and a desire to cast off lawful authority of their rulers, or in the rulers insolence, and endeavors to get and exercise an arbitrary power over their people; whether oppression, or disobedience, gave the first rise to disorder, I leave it to impartial history to determine. This I am sure, whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the foundation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, is highly guilty of the greatest crime, I think, a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country. And he who does it, is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly.
Locke argued that rights and community were inseparable.
His philosophical and theological works give us insight into Locke’s major project that articulated the above stated truth.
Locke sought the common ground of reason by which all intellectual, moral, and religious disagreements might be resolved.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that embraces a radical empiricism was inspired by the difficulty in finding a common ground regarding philosophical and theological concerns.
By attempting to build up knowledge on the basis of the senses and reflections, Locke undertook a radical enterprise in the service of the principles of morality and revealed religion.
Consider the relationship between Locke and the American founders. The Declaration of Independence virtually quotes Locke in asserting a right of revolution, but the Constitution is completely silent about such a right. Is there such a thing as a right of revolution? If so, what kind of right is it – natural or legal?
Though reason and morality cannot ground themselves Locke rejects theocracy.
Moral and political law require divine authorization.
Divine authorization cannot replace liberty each individual has for self-government.
The liberty of human beings is essential to the meaningful embrace of truth and therefore, tolerance is not an act of weakness, but essential for realizing the highest goods.
If an individual’s conscience conflicts with the law, the individual should willing suffer the price of violating that law.
Moral teachings that are contrary to the morality essential for human society are not to be tolerated.
Treason, Atheism, and Catholicism are not to be tolerated.
Equal rights are essential to the order of Locke’s political community and the community cannot long endure the strains of exceptions.
In a word, whatsoever may be doubtful in religion, yet this at least is certain, that no religion which I believe not to be true can be either true or profitable unto me. In vain, therefore, do princes compel their subjects to come into their Church communion, under pretense of saving their souls. If they believe, they will come of their own accord, if they believe not, their coming will nothing avail them. How great soever, in the fine, may be the pretense of goodwill and charity, and concern for the salvation of men’s souls, men cannot be forced to be saved whether they will or no. An therefore, when all is done, they must be left to their own consciences.
What is the basis for religious toleration? Does Locke propose it because it will lead to political peace or because it is inherent in the freedom of the person? Think about what your answer may suggest concerning the nature of human rights – the core of the Lockean political language that now dominates our world.
The possessive individualist Locke: Most notably argued by Professor C.B. MacPherson, this interpretation tends to emphasize Locke’s teachings on property rights, materialism, and the limited state as fostering capitalist development.
The Straussian Locke: Put forth by Professor Leo Strauss and his students, this interpretation considers Locke to be a Hobbes in “sheep’s clothing.” According to the Straussian reading, Locke conceals the Hobbesian aspects of his political thought by offering a milder view of the conflicts and inconveniences of the state of nature. Locke’s liberalism justifies a strong capitalist state that protects the natural right of property.
The Christian Locke: This interpretation views Locke’s egalitarianism in terms of Christian revelation. It takes seriously Locke’s protestant spirituality as it influenced his political and economic liberalism. John Dunn is representative of this school of thought.
The liberal-communitarian Locke: This is the interpretation of David Walsh, the author of this chapter. In contrast to those who stress the possessive individualist Locke, Walsh emphasizes a more communitarian Locke who seriously applies Christian teachings of individual dignity and free will as the basis of a shared, equal, and free civil society. Locke provides a coherent defense of liberal values anchored in the spiritual dignity of all human beings.