March 20, 2015

March 20, 2015 | Commentary on Political Thought

Reconsidering Locke and the Origins of Modernity

According to one popular account of the decline of Western Civilization, everything was humming along splendidly until the moderns came along and ruined it all. The Greeks, we are told, had essentially given us the correct account of man and politics. Their medieval heirs then tweaked Aristotle’s teaching and harmonized it with the Scriptures. And so the magnificent edifice of scholasticism stood—until the moderns set in motion forces that would lead to the slow, steady, and inexorable decline of the West.

While there is some disagreement among critics of modernity as to who kicked off that doomed enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that it’s a slippery slope from that inauspicious break to the nihilistic cul-de-sac diagnosed by Nietzsche. The truly radical core of modernity, critics contend, while part of the project from its beginnings, only shows itself clearly over the course of time.

In this declinist account, John Locke is often singled out as the lead villain. For Pierre Manent, Locke is the quintessential modern whose work is “central in every sense of the word” to grasping what modernity has wrought. By substituting rights for the teleological conception of human nature, Locke set the stage for the radical emancipation of man: “man and the rights of man form a perfect and self-sufficient circle that contains the promise of an absolutely unprecedented liberation of man.”

Lockean autonomy is particularly corrosive of community and family. According to Patrick Deneen, “an ever more Lockean society would result in fewer families and fewer children.” Ultimately, Lockean man “displaces God and assumes the role of creator and destroyer.” Lockean freedom, according to these critics, is like a poison that, once ingested, slowly but surely kills. And America, infected by Lockeanism at the time of its Founding, now exhibits all the gruesome pathologies of radical Lockean individualism.

Conspicuously absent from most of these laments is any consideration of why modernity arose in the first place. Surely Locke and the other early moderns must have sought to correct what they perceived to be certain defects in the classical or medieval teaching. They no doubt tried to address certain political, moral, and epistemological problems that the older teachings, in their estimation, could not deal with (or perhaps even exacerbated).

It may well be that they were mistaken or that the remedy they proposed proved to be worse than the disease, but any serious study of modernity cannot ignore this paramount question. The widespread failure even to raise this question among critics of Locke and modernity leads them to romanticize the past, dismiss the moderns out of hand, and take for granted the impressive achievements of Lockean liberalism.

All those who distrust Locke and long for a return to the ancients would do well to read Steven Forde’s new book on Locke, Science, and Politics. Forde, a professor at the University of North Texas who identifies with the “devotees of the ancients,” offers a compelling portrait of a “non-Lockean” Locke whose philosophy develops in response to the new empirical science that shattered the classical and medieval worldviews.

Locke and Modern Science

Locke’s starting point, according to Forde, is “the problem created for moral philosophy by empirical modern science and its view of nature.” Building on the insights of Francis Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, and, in particular, his close friend Robert Boyle, Locke concluded that modern science had “shown nature to be matter and motion, devoid of moral content.”

Forde homes in on the problem of species as the main fault line between the old and the new science. For Aristotle and his scholastic heirs, all beings are organized into different species, or “forms.” These universal forms cannot be known empirically, but they can be discerned by the mind. The forms, in turn, set the ends for each individual member of the species, thereby providing, in the case of man, moral guidance.

The new empirical science, adumbrated by William of Ockham and inaugurated by Bacon, denies the possibility of species and of non-empirical knowledge in general. While it recognizes the obvious regularities in nature, it is resolutely particularist. As Locke writes in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: “general and universal belong not to the real existence of things; but are the inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its own use, and concern only signs, whether words or ideas.” Forms and final causes are instances of what Bacon labeled “idols of the mind”: comforting illusions that impose order and finality where there is none.

If there are no species—if nature is pure mechanism—then natural moral knowledge is not possible. Locke’s philosophical project will, therefore, be devoted to re-grounding morality in a new world that is, on the surface, inhospitable to it. Locke’s philosophy offers then not a new answer to an old question, but arises in response to a new problem.

Forde’s engaging account of the contrast between the old and new conceptions of nature is a model of clarity. He allows the reader to see the fault lines clearly, yet is also attentive to the nuances in both camps (for example, when he remarks that some of the Platonic-Aristotelian teaching may have been proposed “ironically or rhetorically”). His is also the first book on Locke’s political philosophy that puts Locke in conversation with the scientists of his age.

Forde’s account, however, leaves an important question unresolved. His argument that Locke’s philosophy was developed in response to modern science would have been strengthened had he considered the main alternative: namely, that Locke wrote to address the theologico-political problem.

The problem, as Locke presents it in A Letter Concerning Toleration, can be stated as follows: “Then at last it appears what zeal for the church, joined with the desire of dominion, is capable to produce: and how easily the pretence of religion, and of the care of souls, serves for a cloak to covetousness, rapine, and ambition.” The intertwining of church and state is a pernicious “seed of discord and war” and “a provocation to endless Hatreds, Rapines, and Slaughters.”

In his writings, Locke was clearly concerned with putting an end to the “Bustle and Wars that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion” by lowering the aims of politics, downplaying the other-regarding virtues, and defanging—but not neutering—religion. Of the five major works he published during his lifetime, three explicitly dealt with religion or the Bible (A Letter Concerning Toleration, the first of the Two Treatises of Government, and The Reasonableness of Christianity).

Forde devotes scant attention to these works. The reader is left wondering what is truly primary for Locke: the new understanding of nature put forward by modern science or the political problems occasioned by the commingling of Aristotelian politics and biblical salvation? Did Locke perhaps embrace the former because it helped to address the latter? Or did he pursue the two tracks separately? This is the only important omission in an otherwise excellent book.

Locke and Modern Politics

Regardless of his ultimate motives in embracing the modern understanding of nature, Locke still had to erect a moral teaching on it. His solution was a “new” natural law imposed on an amoral nature by a moral God. Natural law “no longer means a law inherent in nature, as it formerly did,” Forde explains. “In reality, natural law is divine law.” Theology thus becomes for Locke “the indispensable philosophic foundation.”

Natural rights and self-ownership are, therefore, not the bedrock of Locke’s philosophy. The foundation is natural law, whose overarching command is the preservation of mankind. The “preservation of all mankind, as much as in him lies,” writes Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, “is everyone’s duty, and the true principle to regulate our religion, politics, and morality by.”

Through a careful interpretation of the Second Treatise and the unjustly neglected treatise on education, Forde brings to light the “non-Lockean” Locke: a Locke for whom duties ultimately trump rights. A Locke concerned with the common good, not with the emancipation of the individual. A charitable Locke who, Forde explains, recognizes “an unmistakable endorsement of a duty to share with those in need” and whose pedagogy aims to cultivate a “true liberality and a true regard for others.”

Forde, of course, acknowledges that Locke does not always give this impression. He calls the tension between the charitable Locke and the individualist, laissez-faire Locke “the greatest paradox presented by Locke’s moral teaching.” Forde, to his great credit, does not resolve this paradox, as so many others do, by simply dismissing the non-individualist Locke as exoteric rhetorical fluff. He repeatedly points out that neither the Essay nor Some Thoughts Concerning Education is couched in the language of rights.

As for the emphasis on rights in the Second Treatise, Forde argues that “conferring individual rights upon rational creatures, entrusting—and charging—them with their individual welfare, is the most effective way to advance the general welfare.” Too much emphasis on “a strong duty to charity could even stigmatize the acquisitive drive upon which the machinery of the general good depends.”

Forde brings to light a Locke whose teaching, though less magnificent than that of his predecessors, is neither morally corrosive nor oblivious to the tension between individual rights and the common good. His thoughtful account should force many to reconsider their straw-man understandings of modernity and Locke.

 - David Azerrad is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation and a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Dallas. 

About the Author

David Azerrad, Ph.D. Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and AWC Family Foundation Fellow
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

Related Issues: Political Thought

Originally appeared in Public Discourse