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Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: John Locke, Fearless Philosopher

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

John Locke, Fearless Philosopher

John Locke was born August 29, 1632 in Wrington, England. His father served as captain of horse in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War. Locke’s father’s stature allowed him educational opportunities many English children could only imagine. Locke began his education at Westminster school in 1646. As a junior (1652), Locke attended Christ Church, Oxford where he studied the philosophy of Aristotle but preferred Descartes’ theories.

In 1666 Locke’s interests turned to science. Two years later he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society. Around this time Locke had a chance encounter with Lord Ashley. Lord Ashley was so impressed with Locke that he asked Locke to go with him to London and work as his personal physician. This job offer turned out to be much more than an opportunity to be the doctor for one of England’s wealthiest men; Locke was brought to the pinnacle of English society and politics. When Lord Ashley became the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1672, Locke’s stature was raised even more.

In 1674 Shaftesbury left the government and Locke Returned to Oxford to complete his Bachelor of medicine degree and medical license. Shortly thereafter Locke moved to France because of the warmer climate for health reasons. Locke used this opportunity to study the French culture in general and French Protestantism in particular. At this time, the Edict of Nantes, a policy of religious tolerance, was in force. Locke wrote his observations in a journal, many of which would later become part of his essay titled: An Essay concerning Human Understanding.

In 1679 Locke returned to England and briefly served Shaftesbury holding another public office rife with turmoil. Whether or not Locke was involved in any wrong-doing is not clear but in politics, perception becomes reality whether the perceptions are true or not. Fearing for his personal safety, Locke left England and settled in Holland in 1683. Though he was out of England, Locke was still within the reach of English authorities. Locke became a vagabond assuming aliases, meeting with his friends secretly, and generally keeping a low profile.

While in Holland, Locke met other English fugitives who were preparing for an English revolution. The liberal theologian and scholar Philip van Limroch, was among the revolutionaries and became a close friend of Locke’s. A short time later, a more liberal government took hold in England after King James II was deposed in what historians would later refer to as The Glorious Revolution of 1688. The balance of power shifted from the king to the Parliament. Locke was no longer an enemy of the state but welcomed back with open arms for his dedication to the cause of liberty.

Locke returned to England in February of 1689. The new government wanted him to serve as an ambassador to either Berlin or Vienna but this time Locke decided to serve at home as commissioner of appeals. Locke’s final public office he served as commissioner of trade and appeals from 1696 to 1700. Four years after retiring from public service, the man whose philosophy concerning life, liberty, property and religious tolerance which partially inspired a revolution in England, died October 28, 1704 at the age of 72. Locke’s influence did not stop in England however. Locke’s works inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution nearly a century later and continues to inspire great thinkers today.

Locke’s Writings
Locke’s Writings are as relevant now as they where in the late 17th century. As I scanned over sections of his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, I found some valuable passages explaining the role of government, rights of the individual, and perhaps the most compelling case for church and state separation from a Christian point-of-view that should make sense to people of all beliefs. This is by no means an exhaustive review of Locke’s works but a mere sample. For the readers’ convenience, I have broken down these passages by topic from these two works. From Two Treatise of Government: Of the State of War, Of Property, Of Paternal Power, and Of the Extent of the Legislative Power. The remaining passages are from Toleration.

From Two Treatises of Government, Of the State of War (Chapter III) :

Sec. 16. THE state of war is a state of enmity and destruction: and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate settled design upon another man's life, puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other's power to be taken away by him, or any one that joins with him in his defence, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power.

This is the kind of reasoning we should embrace in this war on terror. The Islamofascists have clearly stated their intentions to make war against the United States and Israel time and time again. Iran politicians continue to chant “Death to Israel; Death to America.” These people want us dead; therefore we have the right to defend ourselves. Based on Locke’s war philosophy, attacking Iraq was absolutely the right action to take whether or not WMD was present at the time. Saddam used these weapons on his enemies and on his own people and repeatedly violated the terms of the end of the first Gulf War. This constituted a perceived threat to the life, liberty, and property of Americans, especially in wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 (although Al Qaeda apparently had no operational ties with Iraq and likely had no role in the attacks).

Rather than focus on one state power warring against another, Locke defines the state of war on the individual basis. What is moral for the state is moral for the individual: a state of war occurs when one’s life, liberty, or property is threatened by another.

Sec. 17. And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for no body can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it; so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me. He that, in the state of nature, would take away the freedom that belongs to any one in that state, must necessarily be supposed to have a foundation of all the rest; as he that in the state of society, would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth, must be supposed to design to take away from them every thing else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.

Section 17 raises a couple of other issues. Locke continues on the theme that when someone takes or threatens to take liberty from another, the aggressor has brought about a state of war. In this case, Locke deals directly with slavery. Anyone who enslaves another should expect retaliation. Based on this logic, it is very clear to me that ‘selective’ service and conscriptions are in themselves acts of war because conscription is a form of slavery (according to the previous section). Individuals ought not be forced into service for his or her country. If a national security threat is perceived by enough individuals, they will volunteer to protect their country against the state of war brought against it (our military is and always should be a voluntary force).

Sec. 18. This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.
In other words, the aggressor must be prepared to die as the aggressor no longer has the right to his life while putting another in a state of war. This is why the individual has the right to bear arms – to defend himself when another brings a state of war against his life, liberty, or property.
From Two Treatises of Government, Of Property (Chapter V):

Sec. 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.
This should be required reading for anyone appointed to the courts. Maybe this is not to the letter of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, but I think the spirit of the amendment can be summed up in this section of Locke’s Treatise. Then again, this concept might be too difficult for many politicians to understand. This means the government has no right to take my house, tell me what I can or cannot put in my body, or require me to extend my life longer than I choose. My property is not the government’s but mine alone. The only time the government or anyone else can deny my life, liberty, or property is when I bring about a state of war against another. Seems pretty logical to me.

From Two Treatises of Government, Of Paternal Power (Chapter VI):

Sec. 54. Though I have said above, Chap. II. That all men by nature are equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of equality: age or virtue may give men a just precedency: excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level: birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom nature, gratitude, or other respects, may have made it due: and yet all this consists with the equality, which all men are in, in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another; which was the equality I there spoke of, as proper to the business in hand, being that equal right, that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.
In layman’s terms, Locke is saying that he recognizes that as a practical matter, men are not equal. We are born with unequal physical features, encounter unequal challenges, have unequal life experiences, in families of unequal wealth and status etc. As a matter of individual liberty, however, no man has the right to take the liberty of another (this would be an act of war). In the eyes of the civilized law, all men are equal.

Sec. 55. Children, I confess, are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it. Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them, when they come into the world, and for some time after; but it is but a temporary one. The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they art wrapt up in, and supported by, in the weakness of their infancy: age and reason as they grow up, loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.

Sec. 61. Thus we are born free, as we are born rational; not that we have actually the exercise of either: age, that brings one, brings with it the other too. And thus we see how natural freedom and subjection to parents may consist together, and are both founded on the same principle. A child is free by his father's title, by his father's understanding, which is to govern him till he hath it of his own…
If only I had read this prior to writing my series on children’s rights! Much like the problems I ran into, Locke identifies the problems but also has difficulty defining exactly where the parent’s rights end and the child’s begins. Basically, he is saying that the more the child matures and reasons, the more rights the child has until the child is ready to face the world independently. But how many teenagers think they are ‘mature’ and ‘reasonable’ and therefore deserve ‘independence’ and ‘rights’? What does this mean for people who have mental disabilities?

From Two Treatises of Government, Of the Extent of the Legislative Power (Chapter XI):

Sec. 138. Thirdly, The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be supposed to lose that, by entering into society, which was the end for which they entered into it [...] Hence it is a mistake to think, that the supreme or legislative power of any commonwealth, can do what it will, and dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure. This is not much to be feared in governments where the legislative consists, wholly or in part, in assemblies which are variable, whose members, upon the dissolution of the assembly, are subjects under the common laws of their country, equally with the rest. But in governments, where the legislative is in one lasting assembly always in being, or in one man, as in absolute monarchies, there is danger still, that they will think themselves to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community; and so will be apt to increase their own riches and power, by taking what they think fit from the people: for a man's property is not at all secure, tho' there be good and equitable laws to set the bounds of it between him and his fellow subjects, if he who commands those subjects have power to take from any private man, what part he pleases of his property, and use and dispose of it as he thinks good.

According to Locke, the main purpose of government is “the preservation of property” therefore; it is absurd for people to form governments that desire taking property from its citizens. To prevent government from arbitrarily taking property, the government should be made up of individuals who are subject to the same laws, respect the laws, hold power temporarily (am I hearing an argument for term limits here?), and share the same interests as the rest of the community (I’m not quite sure how to determine that. Maybe this is where character comes in.).

Sec. 141. Fourthly, The legislative cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands: for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others. The people alone can appoint the form of the common-wealth, which is by constituting the legislative, and appointing in whose hands that shall be. And when the people have said, We will submit to rules, and be governed by laws made by such men, and in such forms, no body else can say other men shall make laws for them; nor can the people be bound by any laws, but such as are enacted by those whom they have chosen, and authorized to make laws for them. The power of the legislative, being derived from the people by a positive voluntary grant and institution, can be no other than what that positive grant conveyed, which being only to make laws, and not to make legislators, the legislative can have no power to transfer their authority of making laws, and place it in other hands.
How many government agencies could we get rid of if we demanded the legislative branch follow section 141 of Treatises? The legislative branch pawns off the most controversial issues to the courts and other bodies (i.e. the FCC). This gives politicians plausible deniability when one of these unaccountable and unelected bodies makes an unpopular decision.

From A Letter Concerning Toleration:

…by the pretences of loyalty and obedience to the prince, or of tenderness and sincerity in the worship of God; I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth... (para 4)
Locke was certainly right about that one! We have failed to set the proper boundaries between religion and state and the court dockets are full of these ‘controversies’ with no end in site.

It is not committed unto him [the civil magistrate], I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other…(para 9)
Did you hear that Judge Moore, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson? You do not have the authority to compel others with the force of law to your religion. What if you are wrong and my convictions are right? I strongly encourage anyone who routinely agrees with any of these individuals on church and state issues to read Locke’s Toleration in its entirety.

These considerations, to omit many others that might have been urged to the same purpose, seem unto me sufficient to conclude that all the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come. (para 15)
There you go. If you are so concerned about my soul, use your powers of persuasion not the powers of government.

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated. (para 70)
In other words: non-Christians have rights too!

Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors, all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. The Church which "judgeth not those that are without"[9] wants it not. And the commonwealth, which embraces indifferently all men that are honest, peaceable, and industrious, requires it not. Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal and trade with us, and shall we not suffer him to pray unto and worship God? If we allow the Jews to have private houses and dwellings amongst us, why should we not allow them to have synagogues? Is their doctrine more false, their worship more abominable, or is the civil peace more endangered by their meeting in public than in their private houses? But if these things may be granted to Jews and Pagans, surely the condition of any Christians ought not to be worse than theirs in a Christian commonwealth.(para 76).

This passage should give us some idea of the level of religious intolerance of that era. While the idea of ‘allowing’ the individual to freely exercise his or her beliefs according to his or her conscious seems reasonable to most of Western Civilization today, this was a radically liberal statement in Locke’s time. For many centuries Europeans had to be prepared to switch religions every time a new government assumed power (or at least had to exercise their religion in secret) for fear of death.

Surely, John Locke would be impressed with the religious freedom we enjoy now. On the streets of nearly every American town or city, a variety of places of worship can be found. On the same street it is not uncommon to find a Catholic church, Mormon church, Jehovah’s Witness church, Jewish Synagogue, a Mosque, a Buddhist Temple, and Protestant churches of every denomination. Believers from each of these churches often socialize with each other at lunch after services are over. We even have ‘interfaith’ prayer services from time to time with representatives of each of these religions.

All these things are a result of the religious tolerance and church/state separation philosophy Locke wrote of. This is why religious tolerance and church/state separation is so important: we do not want to return to a time where individuals of a different belief from the majority are treated as second-class citizens or even worse, as criminals.

John Locke was a fearless philosopher because he dared to challenge the notion of Divine Right and advanced the rights of life, liberty, property, and religious tolerance for all individuals. Locke advanced his philosophy with great risk to his personal safety. By the end of his life, his philosophy began to take hold in the minds of many Europeans. The seeds of liberty were brought to the Americas and took root in the minds of colonists who would demand the same rights of the motherland. The free world owes a debt of gratitude to the memory of John Locke for the clarity he brought to the cause of freedom.

Complete Works of John Locke
An Essay concerning Human Understanding
A Letter Concerning Toleration
Two Treatises of Government
Some Thoughts Concerning Education

About the Fearless Philosophers Series
The purpose of the Fearless Philosophers Series is to introduce the reader to past and present individuals who advance freedom of thought, reason, and individuality despite the popular beliefs and fallacies of their time. Some of the fearless philosophers I plan to include are Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Ayn Rand, Frédéric Bastiat among many others. As in this post, I will examine the writings of these individuals and apply them to issues we continue to debate today. As always, I encourage readers to respond with their observations about the individuals I write about, their philosophies, and my thoughts as well.


Blogger Raven said...

Holy Lord that is alot of writing! I promise to read it as I am sure it took a month to write and format correctly. I just wanted to let you know I bookmarked the site based on a couple things. 1. The article: "Anyone Who Believes America is Winning the Drug War Must Be High" and 2. "The First Amendment Explained: Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses"

Happy Thanksgiving!

10:51 PM  
Blogger Stephen Littau said...


The length of this post is a concern of mine as well. My hope is that it is still worth reading. I have been researching Locke off and on over the past couple of months in preparation for this post. I'm looking forward to reading your responses to the post once you have finished reading it.

I'm glad you thought enough of my writing to bookmark my site. The posts you mentioned are among my personal favorites.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The post is long bu Locke deserves it. Next to Adam Smith he had more influence over Jefferson and Franklin than any other man of learning. Large segments of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights come (through Jeffeson and Franklin) from Two Treatises of Government. Which I read over 4 decades ago in a Fresman Poli Sci class. If you have not read it and want to know what America is about(or has been about for 230 years) you should read it; as well as Wealth of Nations. Both can be found on the net and either read online or downloaded.
Whil the D of I is mostly a reault of Adam Smith the first 2 Ammendments of the jBill of Rights are a result of Locke's influence on Jeffeson, I have considered myself a Lockeian for over 45 years and wish more people were aware of his works.
Great post!

7:38 PM  
Blogger Krishna said...

I must say....
u provided me with a lot of info.
but an u send me his contribution to the french revolution
i would b very thankful 2 u.

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