'America's Philosopher' Review: The Key to John Locke

Via:  Vic Eldred  •  2 weeks ago  •  5 comments

By:   Barton Swaim (WSJ)

'America's Philosopher' Review: The Key to John Locke
The political thinker who mattered most to a revolutionary generation spoke in a language they had no difficulty understanding.

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S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

One way to sum up postwar American politics is to say that conservatives try to stop liberals from breaking the liberals' own rules. The "rules" in this formulation are those of liberalism in the broadest sense: constitutional principles, the rule of law, rights-based protections.

"Liberal" regimes aren't supposed to impose a particular understanding of the Good on their citizens; they're meant to ensure local and individual freedoms and enable citizens to figure out what the Good is for themselves. But some liberals—typically the highly educated and privileged sort—tend to forget they are liberals and try to define righteousness for everybody. They do this by reallocating citizens' wealth according to their own ideals, regulating private economic behavior, dictating to local communities how they should govern themselves, imposing protean codes of correct speech and behavior on everybody else, and so on. Conservatives, in this admittedly biased way of putting it, are there to stop liberals from indulging these illiberal impulses; to remind them, in other words, that they are liberals, not potentates.

Not everyone considered themselves good liberals, of course. On the left, communists, socialists and other radicals of the 20th century rejected liberalism as an invention of capitalism and Cold War ideology. On the right, a confederation of Catholic intellectuals in the 1960s and ’70s sought to burst the bands of liberalism and establish a more overtly moral political order. More recently, the progressive left has largely given up on the idea that everyone, including people whose opinions and customs progressives find loathsome, deserves legal protections. Among conservatives, a group of “postliberal” intellectuals, resolutely traditionalist in religious outlook, have proposed scrapping liberalism altogether by regulating markets and expanding state power in ways that shore up “communitarian” values: i.e., by doing what the political left has been doing for 70 years but in a “conservative” way.

In debates over liberalism, the name of one political philosopher nearly always gets thrown around: John Locke (1632-1704). It was Locke who, in the “Two Treatises of Government,” formulated a conception of the state that derived its legitimacy from the consent of the people, protected private property, and ruled through representational government. Locke wrote his two-part book at a time of intense political volatility—perhaps around 1680, during the reign of the restored monarchy of Charles II, though the work was published in 1689, just after the Glorious Revolution. The “Two Treatises” was among the first great attempts to envision a form of government in which one conception of the Good would not be permitted to traduce all the others. Locke, it’s fair to say, was the archetypal liberal. 

The subject has particular relevance for Americans, who for many generations have been taught that the Founders were deeply influenced by Locke. Claire Rydell Arcenas gets to the question of Locke’s effect on the Founders in “America’s Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life,” but her book isn’t only about Locke’s influence; mainly it chronicles Americans’ remarkably consistent esteem for a 17th-century English philosopher who never set foot in the New World.

One thing is clear early on in Ms. Arcenas’s story: Americans really did read and admire Locke. But his popularity in the New World derived initially, in the early and mid-18th century, from the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” In that work—a much heftier one than the slim “Two Treatises,” running to 500 or 600 pages in modern editions—Locke denied the existence of “innate” ideas; the mind at birth, he held, was a blank slate, and all human knowledge was gained through experience and observation. “At Harvard,” Ms. Arcenas finds, “Locke’s Essay was read and taught by individual tutors decades before the faculty voted in 1743 to include it as part of the formal curriculum.” 

The “Essay” found its way onto library bookshelves across colonial America. Newspapers quoted memorable lines from it. People argued over it in clubs and debating societies. Scarcely less popular in the American colonies were the “Letter Concerning Toleration,” in which Locke made the case for a circumscribed religious pluralism, and “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” in which the lifelong bachelor offered advice on raising and educating children.

In “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” to take one astonishing instance of the lengths to which Americans would go to heed Locke’s counsel, the philosopher suggested that a child should “have his Shooes made so, as to leak Water; and his Feet washed constantly every Day in cold Water.” Edmund Quincy, son of the Bostonian politician Josiah Quincy III, recalled in a biography of his father that his grandmother took Locke’s advice seriously. “Locke was the great authority at that time,” Edmund wrote of the 1770s; and so “Mrs. Quincy caused her son, when not more than three years old, to be taken from his warm bed, in winter as well as summer, and carried down to a cellar-kitchen, and there dipped three times in a tub of water cold from the pump. She also brought him up in utter indifference to wet feet,—usually the terror of anxious mammas.”

Why the craze for Locke in 18th-century America? Here Ms. Arcenas, a professor of history at the University of Montana, is unhelpful. “America’s Philosopher” appears to be a version of the author’s doctoral dissertation, and perhaps for that reason she offers complicated interpretations when simple ones would do. On the matter of Americans’ reverence for Locke, she begs the question. Locke was treated as an authority because he was recognized as a man of “clear reasoning and honesty” and because he had a reputation as an “educational and childrearing guru.” He was treated with reverence because he was revered.

But the reasons for Locke’s popularity in Revolutionary America aren’t hard to divine. One is that he was Protestant. His religious views may have been heterodox in some respects, but he openly avowed his Protestant faith, and there is no reason to believe—as modern scholars, projecting their own areligious attitudes onto Locke, have often done—that those avowals were insincere. Revolutionary-era Americans would have associated Locke with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the ascendant Protestant king, William of Orange: The philosopher had been exiled by the quasi-Catholic monarch Charles II in 1683, and the preface of the “Two Treatises” claimed that the book vindicated William’s legitimacy. All this would have made Locke highly acceptable to the overwhelmingly Protestant reading audience of 18th-century America.

The other reason Americans loved their Locke is even more obvious: His ideas accorded with their own. The “Letter Concerning Toleration” envisions something like the kind of Protestant pluralism Americans would create for themselves in the Constitution. The “Two Treatises” posited a just republic based on consent and conceded the right of the people to overthrow a tyrannical government and form a more just one. And the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” implied a fundamental equality between farmer and noble, shoemaker and statesman.  

Why can’t Ms. Arcenas simply say that Americans liked Locke because they basically understood him? I guess because that would be too obvious, and who needs academic historians to state what’s clearly the case? Later in the book, when she takes up Americans’ response to Locke in the mid-19th century, she notes that Southern slaveowners didn’t so much care for him. Why? Because “his most famous thought experiments—the state of nature and social contract, articulated in the Second Treatise—emphasized the idea (catastrophic to their pro-slavery arguments) that men were born equal.” So slaveowners in the 1850s understood Locke, but Americans of the 1770s liked him mainly because he had a great reputation? 

When Ms. Arcenas attends to one of the key questions of the book—did Locke influence the famous first lines of the Declaration of Independence?—she again feels the need to make the simple complicated. She does this by framing the question in an absurdly simplistic way: “We imagine Jefferson, in Philadelphia in 1776, quill poised, with Locke’s Second Treatise at hand, ready to compose the Declaration’s opening lines.” Who is “we”? Nobody I know.

Ms. Arcenas points out that Locke in the “Second Treatise” doesn’t use the line “life, liberty and property,” as is sometimes claimed. His words are “Lives, Liberties and Estates,” and he goes on to call all three “by the general Name, Property.” That’s a fair point. But it’s hardly a reason to think that Jefferson didn’t take the three-part noun phrase from Locke. We know—and Ms. Arcenas acknowledges—that Jefferson deeply admired Locke and had certainly read the “Two Treatises” closely. 

“Did Locke, through Jefferson’s pen, give life to the United States?” she asks. “In a word, the answer is no.” But the answer, on her own evidence, and with all due caveats, is clearly yes.

Put the Declaration and its phrasing aside. And grant that the influence of philosophers on world events is always complicated, partial and difficult to trace. Still it’s plain, or plain to anyone not writing an academic monograph, that the main body of Locke’s philosophy—his rejection of divine-right monarchy, his ideas on consent and religious toleration, and his insistence that all human minds come into the world equally bereft—found expression in the War for Independence and all the consequent Founding documents.

Ms. Arcenas has done valuable work in documenting Americans’ affection for an empiricist philosopher. Her discussion of 20th-century scholarly debates over Locke’s significance, from Leo Strauss to J.G.A. Pocock, are accurate and well-expressed. Throughout the book, though, you sense that nobody can ever draw on Locke in a way that gains the author’s approval. Mid-20th-century liberals like Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. formulated an “American political tradition” in which Locke played a founding role, but they were “mostly white men” writing “social, economic, and political conflict out of American history.” Conservatives of the same period insisted that Locke’s emphasis on private property was essential to the preservation of democracy, but “it seems not to have mattered that Locke was no democrat himself, nor that the Founding Fathers who kept his ideas alive were not particularly sympathetic to democracy either.” You wonder, in the end, why anybody should bother reading Locke at all. 

In a short epilogue, Ms. Arcenas recalls staying in a rented apartment in Montana. The place had a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) displayed on the front porch. Inside was a small library. At eye level, “sandwiched between volumes on the history of the pistol and the US Constitution, stood John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government.” Ms. Arcenas tells this story with a hint of derision and takes the image as one more sign that Locke is used as a “partisan pawn in debates over the political heritage of the United States and its commitment (or not) to minimal government and individual rights.” 

I’m not sure. The trans-Atlantic liberal order Locke helped to bring about finds itself under assault from all sides by people determined to replace it with tyranny of one kind or another. A guy who keeps a copy of the “Two Treatises” next to the Constitution and a history of firearms may well understand the greatness of John Locke and the value of liberalism better than anybody.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial-page writer for the Journal.


jrGroupDiscuss - desc
Vic Eldred
Professor Principal
1  seeder  Vic Eldred    2 weeks ago

Was he the first liberal?   Maybe the best of them?

The Book is:

America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life

Professor Principal
2  JohnRussell    2 weeks ago

John Locke believed that natives did not own the land they lived on because they did not put up fences or chop down a lot of trees and plow. In his view, a settler could go into Indian territory, build a log cabin, fence off a plot of land, plant on it, and then he owned it. Locke even calculated what size plot of land would qualify for default inhabitant ownership. 

I think when you are a philosopher your conclusions have to be applicable to everyone. Locke's conclusions were applicable to settlers but not to the indigenous, and as such are incomplete. 

Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
2.1  Drinker of the Wry  replied to  JohnRussell @2    2 weeks ago
I think when you are a philosopher your conclusions have to be applicable to everyone. Locke's conclusions were applicable to settlers but not to the indigenous, and as such are incomplete. 

What's the philosophical basis for that thought?

Professor Principal
2.1.1  JohnRussell  replied to  Drinker of the Wry @2.1    2 weeks ago

Western European philosophical principles dont apply to everyone? I'm shocked. 

Drinker of the Wry
Freshman Principal
3  Drinker of the Wry    2 weeks ago

What are your philosophical principals?


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