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Will the Real John Locke Please Step Forward?

Hilarius Bogbinder shows how Locke’s intellectual identity changed over time.

“In the beginning, all the world was America”
(John Locke, Second Treatise, Para 49).

There is an almost theological sense of poetic sensitivity in this line by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government (1689). Certainly, there are many who link the English empirical philosopher with the New World. Merle Curti, a historian of intellectual thought, perhaps summed up the majority view when he called Locke ‘America’s Philosopher’ (The Great John Locke, p.107, 1937).

The Founding Fathers revered Locke. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) states that, “government is instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These words seem to be lifted from Locke in a way that borders on plagiarism: “The liberty of man in society is to live under no other legislative power but that established by consent in a commonwealth” (Second Treatise, Para. 22).

But John Locke was not always a poster-boy for liberty. For starters, he never in his life acknowledged his authorship of The Two Treatises of Government. Yet, while he didn’t admit he wrote the book, he nevertheless recommended it as essential reading. As he said in a letter, “Property I have nowhere found more clearly explained than in a book entitled Two Treatises of Government” (Locke to the Rev. Richard King, 25th August, 1703).

Full of himself he might have been to write that, but it was understandable that he was cautious and careful not to reveal his authorship. Like Thomas Hobbes a generation before, Locke had lived in exile for political reasons. Having opinions that challenged the monarchy could be dangerous.

Outwardly, he did not seem like a political animal. Yet nor was he your average philosopher. While a don at Christ Church College, Oxford, he taught Classics (Latin and Greek literature), but also dabbled in scientific experiments, and had an interest in medicine, although his application for a degree in the subject was declined. He even wrote a short treatise with the telling title Classification of Beer. Famously an empiricist, who believed that we learn through experience, he expertly guided his readers through the ales of his country: “Home-made drinks of England are beer and ale, strong and small” (Quoted in King, The Life of John Locke, p.15). His extracurricular interests were not merely confined to drinking. He also liked dancing. He even wrote about it: “Dancing being that which gives grace to motions all of the life, and above all manliness and confidence to children, cannot, I think, be learned too early” (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, p.190). He was even specific that “the jiggering part, and the figures of dances… tends to perfect graceful carriage” (p.191). Though being an educationalist, he was clear – you require teaching and instruction before you can hit the dancefloor: “You must make sure to have a good master, that knows and can teach what is graceful.” This lifelong bachelor seems to have been a lively fellow.

His was a time of upheaval. The eldest son of a small-town country lawyer from Somerset, he won a scholarship to Westminster (then as now, an expensive independent school), so he was a schoolboy in London in 1649 when King Charles I was executed just down the road. He effortlessly passed the entry exam to Oxford, where he taught – with interruptions – all his life. During the republican reign of Oliver Cromwell from 1649-58, he was a student and kept his head down. But his royalist sentiments were clear, and he rejoiced when Charles II returned England to monarchy. He even wrote a poem on the occasion:

“Beauty and order follow, and display
This stately fabric guided by that ray
So now in this our new creation when
This isle begins to be a world again.”
(Two Tracts on Government, ed. by Philip Abram, 1967, p.51)

Poster Boy for Liberty?
John Locke (1632-1704) Poster Boy for Liberty? by Stephen Lahey, 2023

Turning Locke

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this supposed patron saint of American liberty, is that his earliest writings displayed no hint of the ideas that became the basis of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, early on in his career, Locke went to great lengths to defend autocratic rule, especially in Two Tracts on Government (1660) – a book diametrically opposed to, and not to be confused with the later, more famous Two Treatises (1689).

Whereas Edmund Burke (1729-1797) started as a liberal and ended as a conservative, Locke travelled in the opposite ideological direction. There is no indication that the young Locke was anything other than sincere in his defence of monarchy, but his thoughts on the subject were rather conformist. With their reference to the Almighty, they were a good deal closer to Robert Filmer and his monarchical Patriarcha (1680) than to Thomas Hobbes’ more daring Leviathan (1651). The former had defended the right of kings to rule, since they were, in his view, the heirs to Adam, to whom God had granted the right to rule. According to this view, “there exists no more pleasing liberty than to live under a pious king” (Patriarcha, p.69). At one time Locke agreed.

The question of religious freedom was a hot issue at the time, but Locke would have none of it. Using Scripture and no empirical arguments, he concluded that the king had the right to “determine indifferent things in the worship of God and impose them on his subjects” (Two Tracts on Government, p.213). And he added that “the subject is bound to a passive obedience under any decree of the magistrate whatever, whether just or unjust.” He was clear that under no circumstances whatsoever “may a private citizen oppose the magistrate’s decree” (p.220). Later Locke would be famous for stating the opposite, after he wrote that the citizens may rebel when they “are made miserable and find themselves exposed to the ill use of arbitrary power” (Second Treatise of Government, Para 223). In fact his First Treatise of Government (which is rarely read these days), is one long attack on Robert Filmer, in which Locke concludes that the doctrine of the divine right of kings that Filmer was defending is often used as a smokescreen for justifying bad autocratic rule. The truth, “in plain English is to say, that Regal and Supreme Power is properly and truly his, who can by any Means seize upon it” (First Treatise, Para. 79).

So what happened? Perhaps Locke just got wiser? Or maybe he was influenced by other people?

It is fair to say that his chance encounter with the Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683) – the founder of the Whig Party – changed his life. (Much later, the Whig Party evolved into the Liberal Party). Locke became Shaftesbury’s tutor, and the two of them collaborated in writing The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which contained important sections granting rights to minority groups, even to native Americans. But for meeting his patron the Earl, it is doubtful Locke would have adopted such enlightened views. A century later, François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. Voltaire (1694-1778), wrote “Cast your eyes over the other hemisphere, behold Carolina, of which the wise Locke was the legislator” (quoted in Foundations of Modern International Thought, David Armitage, p.96). Yet in reality, Locke was but the nobleman’s secretary, and not the brains behind the idea. But the enlightened Earl spurred the philosopher on to write greater works based on the same view.

Locke stayed with Shaftesbury for a long time. Having finally obtained a medical degree in 1675, he even carried out (successful) surgery on the noble Earl’s bloated tummy, then followed him into exile from 1675 to 1679. After his patron’s death in 1683, Locke again fled when he was suspected, probably wrongly, of involvement in the Rye House Plot, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate King Charles II and his brother James. It was during these years of exile that Locke wrote his more considered works, not just in political philosophy and ethics, but also on epistemology, for which he is justly famous. Like many great thinkers before and after (Augustine, Hobbes, and Kant, to name but three), John Locke thus wrote his greatest work at what would nowadays be almost retirement age. He was fifty-eight when he published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). His Two Treatises of Government was published anonymously at the same time.

Thinking Without Prejudice

John Locke was the first of three famous ‘British Empiricist’ philosophers. The other two were George Berkeley (1685-1753), and David Hume (1711-1776). An empiricist is someone who draws their conclusions from observable facts. Thus Locke based his philosophy on what he knew from experience. Indeed, he’s famous for saying that we start thinking with a clean slate – a tabula rasa in Latin – although his actual words, were, “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished?” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book XXIV, Chapter I, 2). But the gist is the same, and there’s no need to be pedantic.

Locke younger
Locke younger

It is customary in philosophy to contrast Locke and the empiricists with ‘Rationalists’ such as René Descartes (1596-1650), who base their thinking on pure reasoning. This is a useful starting point. Contrasts help. But there are more things that unite the two men than there are issues that separate them. Descartes wanted to start with, “I think, therefore I am” – “Je pense donc je suis”, as he wrote in French, (Discours de la Métode, Part IV, 69, 1641). Locke, interestingly, agreed, but did so on empirical grounds – although, indeed, his reasoning was rather similar to that of the Frenchman: “I think, I reason, I feel pleasure and pain; can any of these be more evident to me of my existence? If I doubt of all other things, that very doubt makes me perceive of my own existence” (Essay, Book IV, Chapter IX, 3); or, in paraphrase, ‘I doubt, therefore I am’. Locke’s starting point was individualistic, and this is hardly surprising. In a sense his epistemology and its corresponding metaphysics marked the beginning of philosophical theories of the self – an entity that he described as “that conscious thinking thing… which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure or pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself” (Essay, Book II, Chapter XVII, 19).

Having established that we exist (because we doubt), Locke went on to divide the world into primary and secondary qualities. Fundamentally, all physical objects have primary properties of “solidity, extension, figure, and mobility” (Essay, Book II, Chapter VIII, 9), and secondary qualities, “which the power of reflection impose upon them… such as colour, taste, smell, and sound, that is qualities… produced in us… by the operation of insensible particles on our senses” (Book II, Chapter VIII, 13). So primary properties are the properties we experience objects to have which they might be thought to have independent of that experience, whereas the secondary properties are those properties of objects that only exist because we experience them, such as the various sensory qualities objects evoke in us, such as the colours they appear to have.

Given that he was the philosopher of individualism, it would be easy to extrapolate from his individualist epistemology to his political theory. And certainly, it was the individual who was at the centre of his economic and political theory. What Locke primarily wanted to show here was that the individual has rights. These rights, it should be admitted, do not follow directly from his theory of the self. But by founding a philosophy based on the individual self, it was easier to grant this individual person personal rights.

His starting point was that every man has a property in his own person: “This, no body has any right to but himself.” From this he deduced that, by extension, “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his” (Second Treatise, Para 27).

Why, we might ask? Because, Locke answered, “whatsoever then he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and so enjoined to it something that is his own and makes it his property” (Second Treatise, Para 27). Put differently, when you work a plot of land, it becomes part of you or an extension of you; and to then take it or its produce away from you would be tantamount to slavery, since part of you is now that land and its produce.

Locke older
Locke older

This was a new move in politics, and one which, in turn, would be the basis for the ‘Labour Theory of Value’, on which both Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) would erect their respective (and diametrically opposed) economic philosophies. Still, it ought to be noted that Locke inserted a caveat, in that there were limits as to how much property you could have. In Two Treatises of Liberty he wrote that “One should only be entitled to, as much land, as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of” (Second Treatise, Para 32). However, in a later, lesser-known work, Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and the Raising of the Value of Money, he changed his mind and allowed the accumulation of unlimited wealth – as long as it was converted into money.

So whether Locke is to be seen as an exponent of rampant greed is an open question. It is also debatable if this patron saint of American freedom is also an evangelist of fundamental rights in other areas, such as freedom of expression.

Certainly in many ways he was prescient, but in other ways he was very much a product of his time, as all philosophers are. His book A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) (originally written in Latin as Espitola de Tolerantia) is often hailed as the original manifesto of the freedom of speech and consciousness, or the first statement of human rights. There are undoubtedly passages in the book that point to this interpretation; for instance: “The business of laws is not to provide for the truths of opinions but for the safety and security of commonwealth, and every particular man’s goods and person” (p.11).

So far so good. But this protection of the freedom of speech, or even of thought (or in Lockean language, of ‘person’) was not to be extended to everyone: “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God”, he wrote. Locke justified this particular intolerance on pragmatic grounds, namely that, “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are bonds of human society, can have no hold on an atheist” (p.64). Whether this is a view that still chimes with his being ‘America’s philosopher’ is an open question, which might even divide the US Supreme Court.

Locke Unchanging

Locke is often, and justly, cited as a proponent of popular consent. He certainly was that; but in a way that was different from the popularist caricature. He was revolutionary in saying that, “if a controversie arise betwixt a prince and some of the people, in a matter where the law is silent and doubtful, and the thing be of great Consequent, I think the proper umpire in such a case, should be the body of the people” (Second Treatise, Para 242). This seems almost like a case for Swiss-style referendums. In fairness, there was a caveat (as was often the case with Locke), for he went on, “when the society hath placed the legislative [power] in any assembly of men, […] the legislative [power] can never revert to the people while that government lasts” (Ibid). So Locke was in fact a defender of representative government, not of direct democracy. Very much like the Founding Fathers of the 1787 United States Constitution, who preferred republicanism to democracy.

Locke was a man of his time not least in matters concerning religion. In his theological writings, he was closer to Kierkegaard than to Kant:

“The evidence of our Saviour’s mission from Heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles he did before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God, and unquestionable truth”
(The Reasonableness of Christianity, p.213, 1695).

In many ways John Locke was not like us; but he was a man who still speaks through the ages. Much as we may disagree with him, he had a preceptive eye for the unchanging nature of many things, not least of politics. He lived in an era of intolerance, at a time when people were mortally divided over beliefs. Yet his words seem almost prophetic when he wrote that “narrowness of spirit has undoubtedly been the principle occasion of our miseries and confusions” (A Letter Concerning Toleration, p.11).

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2023

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born writer and translator. He studied politics and theology at Oxford University and lives in London.

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