Understanding Locke

John Locke is one of the few major philosophers who can be used to provide a theoretical and moral foundation for American and Western regimes organized around the concept of liberty. Yet, in recent years, revisionist interpreters from literally every perspective have maintained either that Locke is confused and, therefore, not able to provide a foundation for any culture; or, that Locke actually was a relativistic hedonist. It will be argued here, however, that Locke is consistent and nonhedonistic, if one understands his epistemology.

Since Locke is so central for the legitimacy of these regimes based upon liberty, it is not surprising to find neo-Marxists like Macpherson holding that Locke espoused a “possessive individualism,” which ultimately is destructive for these “capitalist” societies.1 But when Leo Strauss, who was dedicated to saving Western civilization from the fate of Rome, concluded that “Locke is a hedonist”2—this is another matter entirely.

As different as Strauss and Macpherson are, they both interpreted Locke as an epistemological rationalist. There are problems regarding whether they are describing the historical Locke or are trying to render his philosophy more coherent. But if the historical Locke was not a rationalist as Strauss and Macpherson understand the term, then it does not necessarily follow that he needs to be made more consistent, or that he was a hedonist.

Modern epistemology—at least until quite recently—has generally demanded that one choose the single rational, empirical, or traditional method that underlies the thought of a philosopher and analyze his ideas on the basis of that method. Locke can correctly be identified as a rationalist. Yet, it is difficult to classify Locke as a pure rationalist in view of the fact he is also regarded as the founder of British empiricism. Moreover, he holds that there are “things above reason,” that these things above reason are a matter of faith and revelation, and that “an evident revelation ought to determine our assent, even against probability.”3 One, thus, can find rationalistic, empirical and revelational aspects to Locke’s epistemology.

The revisionists, however, try to reduce Locke so that he may be dealt with, on their grounds, as a simple rationalist. Strauss, for example, starts with a distinction between rationalism and revelation but then says, since Locke held that belief in a life after death comes from revelation, this cannot be used to understand his rationalistic ethics. He then boldly excludes this aspect of Locke’s thought.4 With this element excluded, he creates a Lockean “partial law of nature,” finds this construction and Locke’s revelation in conflict with each other, and is forced to the conclusion that Locke, as traditionally interpreted, is confused. But since he must be rational (how else could he be so widely respected?) there must be another, “hidden,” interpretation which is rational.5 The hidden interpretation which Strauss finds is that Locke did not take revelation seriously, that he really was a pure rationalist of hedonism and that he was hiding his true rational philosophy of hedonism so that it could be packaged more attractively to appeal to a religious society which held virtue rather than pleasure as its highest goal.

The entire argument, however, rests upon the assumption that some aspects of Locke’s belief can be excluded in the analysis of his philosophy. Another view of epistemology, though, views reason as a synthesis of methods. Although one should distinguish rationalistic, empirical and traditional (i.e. common sense, instinct, faith and revelation) aspects, reason itself is conceived as a total means by which one can understand and evaluate truth. Locke himself distinguished between what can be called rationalism and the holistic conception of understanding which can be called reason.6

If one wishes to understand the historical Locke, i.e. how Locke saw himself, Strauss’ analysis of Locke must be incomplete. As we have seen, Strauss made a rigid distinction between the rationalism and revelation aspects of Locke’s thought and excluded an important element of the latter from his analysis. Strauss even admits his view of Locke is partial; but he could do this since he was not a believer and could not take revelation seriously.7 Strauss also has been widely recognized for his antagonism to the empirical aspect of reason8 and has been accused of not making the critical distinction between empirical description and normative prescription—especially in Locke’s Second Treatise.9 Since Strauss excludes the traditional and empirical aspects of Locke’s thought, this certainly must influence his interpretation of it. But by viewing Locke’s epistemology as composed of three aspects—rationalist, empirical, and traditional—in one whole where all aspects must be consistent, rather than as composed of simple rationalism alone, one can look at Locke’s ethics and politics as he did himself. He did not believe that these kinds of knowledge were obtained solely from rationalism but that one also knew and made judgments on the basis of empirical evidence, common sense and revelation.

Lockean Ethics

To Strauss, the essence of Locke’s ethics is that “life is the joyless quest for joy.” This ethics is even worse than classical hedonism, since it sought pleasure joyfully. Locke’s hedonism is more pessimistic since it tries to avoid a pain which really cannot be avoided, as life is not only without virtue but it is aimless, possessive, hopeless and miserable.10 As Kendall has put it, the “chief point about Strauss’ Locke is that he is a revolutionary against both the biblical tradition and the great tradition in political philosophy.”11 But even if he were a revolutionary against the Torah tradition and Platonic philosophy, this does not necessarily make Locke a hedonist.

To understand Locke one must view him as a Christian influenced, but not exclusively so, by the later pragmatic and naturalistic neo-scholastics like Hooker, Grotius and Puffendorf.

The tradition which seems to have had the most outstanding effect upon Locke’s ethical philosophy was that which based morality upon “the law of nature.” This tradition was very old and widespread. It sprang from the teachings of the Roman stoics, dominated the thought of the medieval scholastics and then found striking expression in several great moralists of the seventeenth century.12

The closeness of this connection seems especially well illustrated in Locke’s recently recovered early essays on natural law where he almost directly quotes Grotius and Hooker on the Divine origin of a natural law which can be known to man through the use of reason.13

Yet, even though Locke’s ethics are based upon philosophy through the neo-scholastics, Santayana also finds that, in his scientific studies of medicine, Locke found Platonic and neo-scholastic rationalism misleading, and even narrowly dangerous to his patients’ health when applied to real world problems. Consequently, Locke always had a high traditional and common-sensical component to his philosophy which refined his rationalism, which very importantly (Santayana says, most importantly) included a sincere and confident Christian faith.14 Indeed, it appears that his major work on philosophy, his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was written with the major purpose of providing “a sound foundation upon which morality and religion could be based.”15

Indeed, the evidence for Locke’s Christianity seems overwhelming even in the face of Strauss’ seemingly powerful argument that he is simply hedonistic. In the first place, Locke himself says that “to give a man a full knowledge of true morality I shall send him to no other book but the New Testament.” How much clearer could one be? Likewise, he wrote that Jesus was Messiah and Savior, that this was the center of reasonable religion, and that men were expected to believe this if they were to be saved for the happiness of life after death in heaven.16 In this way, he spent many years of writing defending Christianity against both intolerant sectarians and Deists in his Reasonableness of Christianity and its later elaborations. And as a result of these efforts, some moderns even call him a “defender of the faith.”17 Furthermore, Locke was orthodox enough to write a discourse defending miracles and in his last years translated and extensively commented upon the Epistles of St. Paul. Moreover, in the latter he specifically noted that true liberty was not hedonistic but should be bound by the obligations of goodwill and love.18

The strongest argument against a scholastic interpretation of Locke, perhaps, is that he was not an “orthodox Christian” and that he was strongly opposed by the orthodox clergy. But this does not mean that Locke was not a Christian but merely indicates that he was associated with the latitudinarian wing of the Anglican Church.19 In some narrow sense this wing might not be considered orthodox, but it certainly was comparatively conservative between the extremes of narrow sectarianism and liberal deism. Locke also did attack the concept of innate ideas as a proof of religion but he almost certainly did this to put religion in a firmer base rather than to attack religion.20

The revisionist critique, though, seems to have been most convincing in finding so-called contradictions, and in Locke’s caution and secret writing.21 Yet, the examples Strauss gives seem very weak and result from the simplification of Locke’s epistemology noted above. For example, Strauss finds a contradiction when Locke says that conscience indicates there is a natural law but also says conscience cannot prove it.22 Yet all Locke means is that since all reason-based knowledge is probabilistic one never can be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt.23 Likewise, the belief that Locke used secret writing, was cautious, and feared to offend the Christian powers in England does not lead to the belief that he did not really believe in natural law and Christianity. Thus, his secret writing seems restricted to “love notes” in his amatory correspondence.24 The model of caution Strauss refers to in his citation for Locke is none other than Jesus!25 And there is a better argument to be made that Locke feared the long term influence of the Deists more than he feared the waning influence of the orthodox wing of the Anglican Church.26

In one sense, Strauss is correct in seeing that Locke did not have the same conception of “natural law” as did the ancients. If the ancients are thought to have found truth from a single reality of nature, Locke did use two realms—an empirical nature of how man tended to act and a moral nature related to how God expected man to act. Indeed, it is from this distinction that the charge that Locke was hedonistic can be seen to have a basis in fact. For Locke did hold that as man actually acted he did so mainly from motivations of self interest. Yet, this hedonistic aspect of Locke’s thought was recognized long before the revisionists popularized it, although in the past it had always been balanced by the understanding that he was also a pious and believing Christian.

As early as 1914 Lamprecht had noted Locke’s hedonism but balanced this with the belief that

Locke’s hedonistic ideas cannot be said ever to have constituted an independent and self-sufficient ethical system. . . . Though he seems to have started by accepting Hobbes’ general psychological background for ethics, he departed from Hobbes at many points. He was too much devoted to the interests of religion to admit much of the materialistic and worldly emphasis of Hobbes. He not only insisted on pleasure of the mind as well as of the body, as if the former had no physiological basis, but also upheld the rewards in heaven so completely outweighing all other pleasures as to be alone worth considering.27

Consequently, Locke merely reemphasized a “hedonism” which had always existed in Christian thought. Thus, in its earliest years the subject of Locke’s extensive study, St. Paul, clearly had taught that one should obey the moral law not only for conscience sake but also for fear of God’s wrath.28 By introducing the idea of Christian hedonism29—i.e. that present pains and pleasures should be measured against eternal punishment and rewards—into his philosophy, Locke did break with classical philosophy and the testament of the Torah, as the revisionists have held; but it was a break implicit in the idea of a life after death. Locke’s radicalism, therefore, was not introduced by Locke but by Christianity.

Locke, like the classical philosophers, believed that acting for the sake of virtue was the highest good. But like traditional Christianity, John Locke also held that acting virtuously out of fear of future punishment from God was better than acting unvirtuously. To Locke, as with Christians generally, Christ was not important because he proclaimed virtue for the first time since Locke knew that virtue was proclaimed both through the Old Testament and by the classical philosophers. What Christ did was to separate Caesar from virtue and to weigh the calculus of free human decision more in the favor of virtue by making men take into account the rewards and punishments of heaven and hell in an afterlife.

To Locke, the resurrection of Jesus and this proof that there was a life after death

changed the nature of things in the world and gave the advantage to piety over all that could tempt it. The philosophers, indeed, showed the beauty of virtue; they set her off so as drew men’s eyes and approbation to her; but leaving her unendowed, very few were willing to espouse her. The generality could not refuse her their esteem; but still turned their backs on her, and forsook her. . . . But now there being put into scales on her side, “an exceeding and immortal weight of glory”: interest is come about to her and virtue is now visibly the most enriching purpose, and by much the best bargain.30

Indeed, Locke held that the “mere probability” of an afterlife should move reasonable men to follow God’s law so that they could enjoy the “infinite eternal joys of heaven” rather than try “to satisfy the successive uneasiness of our desires pursuing trifles” on earth.31

When one considers Locke as a whole the charge of hedonism is misleading. One might as easily call St. Paul or St. Thomas hedonistic.

With Aarnsleff, however, I must agree that “if this is called a utilitarian ethic based upon hedonism, the almost certain result will be needless confusion.”32 The most one could say was that Locke’s “partial law of nature” as abstracted by Strauss was hedonistic (and this may have been Strauss’ meaning);33 but when one considers Locke as a whole the charge of hedonism is misleading.34 One might as easily call St. Paul or St. Thomas hedonistic.35 Indeed, Strauss considers St. Thomas’ scholasticism dualistic and, therefore, epistemologically unsatisfactory.36 Yet the scholastic epistemology used by Locke which encompasses several harmonious aspects is not inherently invalid and if it is to be challenged, it should be on its merits and not by mere assertion. As long as this is not done, it is reasonable to use the more complex epistemology outlined above; and using this it is possible to defend Locke’s ethics from the charge of hedonism.

Since Locke himself used this epistemology, it can minimally be held that he did not see his own philosophy as hedonistic. In his Essay on Human Understanding and his Second Treatise on Civil Government he surely saw himself mainly describing how men acted, not so much how they should act. In a letter to a friend he specifically stated that “I did not design to treat of the grounds of true morality . . . it had been impertinent if I had so designed; my business was only to show whence men had moral ideas and what they were.”37 That is, these were empirical studies of how men actually acted and in the case of the Second Treatise how a government could best be devised to constructively utilize the hedonistic tendencies in mankind. In The Reasonableness of Christianity and in his essays on education, however, Locke does deal with how man should act and these are clearly Christian ethical prescriptions. True morality to Locke was not hedonistic selfishness; it was not even the Christian selfishness of acting well to save one’s soul; but true virtue only resulted from freely following God’s law.38 But, since most men did not consistently keep their minds on God’s law, it was necessary to create a governmental regime which recognized this fact of human nature while still allowing for the free pursuit of virtue.

Lockean Political Philosophy

Revisionist scholarship must hold that there is no virtue in Lockean civil society but only the brutish pursuit of self interest.39 If the preceding understanding of Locke’s epistemology and ethics is correct, though, it is possible to understand his political philosophy in the Second Treatise as based upon natural law values. Locke’s political philosophy simply starts with his ethical view of man, morally equal because created by God, each having an obligation to choose the good. Each, accordingly, is created free but he is expected by God to use that freedom responsibly by following God’s law so that he will merit eternal reward.40

This view of freedom makes only the individual ultimately valuable as all human institutions were simply created by individuals and, therefore, are inferior to them. Some social institutions—and especially the family—are created immediately because of a strong need to live in society. Yet, since they are formed with other free individuals, in the forming of the institutions both parties accept further responsibilities. They are still fully free since individuals themselves choose institutions so that life may have order and a means to sustain itself materially. As the institutions tend to solve these problems, moreover, they become valued and individual freedom becomes freely more limited by the “communion of interest” in these groups.41

This society with full freedom to choose, though, is “very unsafe, very insecure” because not all will accept their responsibility; and this makes the individual very quickly “willing to quit this condition which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers.”42 As society, therefore, is potential because of the existence of choosing individuals, the state is latent in the existence of society as a means to control the violence, force and fraud which take place with enough regularity in society to make it unsafe.

Paradoxically, then, Lockean society is immediately not free but only has what can be called liberty—which is not a situation where everyone is “to live as he pleases”; but is where there is only freedom to live within rules of behavior: first given by divine and natural law and which, when instituted in the state, have been devised with one’s own consent.43

Lockean societies, however, do not follow a single form: the people are free to choose which governmental regime-rules they will live under.44 But, to obtain agreement, Locke assumes (1) that these people must have “some acquaintance and friendship together and some trust in one another,”45 (2) that this trust will then allow them to come together and make a common agreement as to the type of regime all “think good,”46 and (3) that the type they think good must be defined by the value principles they hold which specify the good.

This distinction between society as the repository of virtue and the state as only a means to regulate coercion, indeed, is what defines Lockean society.

The Lockean society which has a government, therefore, is not one which is value-free or without virtue as held by the revisionists. Rather, Lockean society assumes values and is distinguished from others only in the locus of its values and virtue, which are placed in individuals within society as opposed to the state. This distinction between society as the repository of virtue and the state as only a means to regulate coercion, indeed, is what defines Lockean society.47 Hence, in this type of regime, the government is given the very limited, though important, function of only defining and regulating coercion.48 Otherwise, it is to allow virtue to develop spontaneously in society as the result of free decisions of individuals, since society is the higher repository of virtue, honor, esteem, reverence, etc. which are the ends of life.49

Revisionist scholarship, however, maintains that Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government does not contain the language of virtue—or that it “barely” does.50 Yet, the present perspective can explain both why there is little discussion of virtue and why it does appear where it does. To Locke, this treatise is on government and not on ethics or morality. He did write works on these latter subjects and these clearly dealt with values. But this one was primarily about a government which was conceived as different from society, where society was the repository of virtue and government merely the protector of society from coercion. Therefore, virtue would only be considered in the Second Treatise where society came into contact with government. As the revisionists have noted, this is a radical break with the Greek conception which viewed state and society as one and virtue, therefore, intimately related to government. The essentially Christian idea of separating Caesar from society did not really enter political philosophy until the Middle Ages with St. Thomas and did not take its developed form until Locke and the American Federalist Papers.51

Given this, the Second Treatise is comprehensible. After an introductory section which merely recounts the argument of the First Treatise, section 2 immediately says that this treatise will deal with political power and the very next phrase makes the major distinction between state and society—i.e. “that the power of a magistrate over a subject may be distinguished from that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave.”52 The difference between these is that political power involves coercion and these other relations legitimately do not or, if so, it is of a very restrictive character.53

Before the establishment of government men are under the authority of God, “whose workmanship they are,” to follow the “great maxims of justice and charity.” Yet, because they have been given freedom from any superior power on earth,” men do not necessarily follow this law—although God has given reason so that man is not without some guidance even when not following His law. Since the interpretation of reason is equally given to all, though, “the execution of the law of nature is . . . put into every man’s hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law.”54

Since all can use the political power of coercion in the state of nature, this state becomes unsafe. But in civil society government is only given the power to regulate this coercion through the construction of rules of law.

Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where the rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconsistent, uncertain, unknown arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.55

Government remains limited in civil society because God gave man the ability, through work and reason, to subdue the earth and thereby improve his life by the use of private property. Once given this right man would not freely choose to enter society unless his property were secure from expropriation from government. He obtains this security by turning the power of decision over to a type of government to which all have consented. Once consented to, the majority, in some sense, is given the right to act for all.56

It may be objected that turning the right of decision over to the majority would not protect liberty or property. Yet, it is a measure of the importance of values in the Lockean regime that it assumes that the majority will act virtuously.57 Locke does not emphasize structural restraints—though he does mention separation of powers as an assistance—but mainly relies upon the virtue of the people and the virtue of the leaders they consent to. The civil magistrate is not to enter into family relations nor to expropriate life, liberty, or property. But the only real protection of these basic rights is the “trust” that the authorities will not abuse them, or that if they do, the majority will correct the abuses.58

The argument that Locke was not interested in obligation seems no more valid than the one which says he was uninterested in virtue. But with his distinction between state and society and his assumption that society would be good, a discussion of government need not deal with obligation to any great extent. Yet to argue against Filmer’s position that the power of the monarch was equivalent and based upon the authority of the father over his children, it was necessary for the Second Treatise to consider the social institution of the family.

When Locke did talk at length about the societal institution of the family, he used all of the language of virtue which the revisionists wish he would use—although, even in Chapter VI (“Of Paternal Power”), most of the sections deal with power. Yet in the middle section of this discussion he distinguished between power and obligation and here he clearly holds that obligation and virtue belong in society; and that—although the father has power also—power is not the basis for reverence from his children but merely for their obedience to him after maturity.59

The reverence due to parents, however, is different from power. Even in maturity:

freedom exempts not a son from that honor which he ought, by the law of God and nature, to pay his parents, God having made the parents instruments in his great design of continuing the race of mankind and the occasions of life to their children. As he laid upon them an obligation to nourish, preserve, and bring up their offspring, so he has laid on the children a perpetual obligation of honoring their parents which, containing in it an inward esteem and reverence to be shown by all outward expressions, ties up the child from anything that may ever injure or affront, disturb, or endanger the happiness of the life of those from whom he received his, and engages him in all actions of defence, relief, assistance, and comfort of those by whose means he entered into being and has been made capable of any enjoyments of life. From this obligation no state, no freedom, can absolve children.60

A government of the Lockean type simply is one which leaves the question of virtue to individuals in society. The state only exists to control the brutish tendencies where one attempts to coerce his neighbor. Government’s only morality is to conduct its own affairs morally and otherwise virtue rests in society.61 There it exists to control the state (normally through democratic means)62 and to regulate the non-coercive relations among men—at best for brotherhood or at least for enough respect to allow others to freely pursue self interest as long as it does not involve coercion. As such, Lockean civil society allows virtue but it also allows society to sustain itself as long as men merely peacefully seek their own interests and government only guarantees this peace.

The Lockean Harmony

When one looks at Locke from this perspective, the problem of values in the Lockean regime begins to make sense. Those in the classical tradition view society and state as an undifferentiated whole and do not necessarily believe in an afterlife. With this view, justice must reside in the state and virtue must be worked out in politics. But in a Lockean society which sees society as separate from the state and which sees the former as the source of virtue and, in addition believes in an afterlife which provides for real ultimate justice, politics is a very limited pursuit and has little to do with virtue. With this realization, the problems posed by the revisionists can be solved. Virtue is not treated extensively in the Second Treatise because this work deals with politics, not virtue.

The basic political assumption of Lockean theory is that virtue can exist spontaneously among the people of society without government direction, as long as there is civil peace. What seems to the classical tradition to be a callous disregard of virtue by Locke is in actuality a radically different conception of it. Locke believed that society could be virtuous if it only allowed individuals to choose the good and, therefore, it did not need the state to direct its virtue. A treatise of government, thus, did not have to deal very extensively with virtue since virtue was beyond the bounds of government itself and resided in the people. All that was necessary to achieve virtue was to make government responsible to the people, and they would see that society remained virtuous. The political question, therefore, was how to control and limit government, so that it would only restrain private coercion, not how it was to achieve virtue directly.

Because virtue is seen as residing in society, individuals and the voluntary associations they form must be protected so that virtue is protected. In the Lockean paradigm, therefore, the problem of virtue and the problem of liberty are one and the same. Although it is expected that most people usually will pursue short-term goals, rather than the highest virtue, even this has beneficial results as the search for self interest leads to increased wealth and satisfaction for all. But, most importantly, by allowing liberty the way is open for all to live virtuously and for some to pursue the highest virtue. That is, in both these instances, the Lockean does not see individual liberty and virtue to be in fundamental conflict. Rather, liberty and virtue are perceived to be in harmony when coercion is controlled and the people are good enough to have “some trust in one another.”

It is not so much that those in the classical tradition find Locke inconsistent as that they reject this harmony. To Strauss,

no alternative is more fundamental than this: human guidance or divine guidance. The first possibility is characteristic of philosophy or science in the original sense of the term, the second is presented in the Bible. The dilemma cannot be evaded by any harmonization or synthesis. For both philosophy and the Bible proclaim something as the one thing needful, as the only thing that ultimately counts, and the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the opposite of that proclaimed by philosophy: a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight. In every attempt at harmonization, in every synthesis however impressive, one of the two opposed elements is sacrificed.63

Locke attempted a synthesis. To Strauss, Locke could not have been successful. When Locke found knowledge without conclusive proof, this must show confusion (although Locke would call it probabilistic knowledge). To Strauss, this problem traced back to Locke’s epistemologically uncertain choice between revelation and rationalism. It is an attempt by Locke to reconcile the unreconcilable. To Strauss, either philosophy or revelation must be “queen.”64 It is not primarily that Locke uses secret writing (neither Strauss nor Goldwin make specific charges here), nor that Locke is as cautious as Christ, nor that Locke feared the power of the religiously orthodox, which is critical. These are very subsidiary to the charge of epistemological fallacy.

There are, of course, other epistemological views of this matter. Rather than see the Torah and Greek philosophy in fundamental conflict, they may be viewed as ultimately in harmony. St. Paul taught that Christ was that harmony (1 Cor. 1:20-24):

Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power and wisdom.

Until St. Thomas, this perceived harmony was only implicit in Western philosophy. But St. Thomas attempted an explicit synthesis of Christianity and the Greek philosophers. As shown by John Courtney Murray,

scholasticism in the Thomist style did indeed authorize a mode of rational inquiry, philosophical or scientific, that was methodologically atheist. It did not start with God but only with experience. This inquiry, however . . . was not the only mode of inquiry; the kind of truth it sought was not the only kind of truth; its techniques of certification were not the only ones available. Truth was a many sided edifice. . . . I should say rather that there was one universe of truth, within which different kinds of truth, and correspondingly different methodologies for their pursuit, existed in distinction and in unity. Moreover, . . . there prevailed the robust belief that between the valid conclusions of rational thought and the doctrines of faith no unresolved clash could or should occur.65

To Locke (as in Thomism generally) both virtue and freedom are needed. It is not a choice between opposites but a harmony.

Strauss, of course, knew the Thomist synthesis. Yet, he rejected it as a “dualism.”66 Indeed, he rejected, in general, attempts to use different methodologies for what he viewed as undifferentiated reality. So, Strauss found the fact–value distinction epistemologically invalid.67 Likewise, he rejected the modern philosophy–science and philosophy–political philosophy field distinction and viewed political philosophy as the master epistemology.68 Finally, he rejected the state–society distinction, so central to Western free societies as they have developed over time.69

To St. Paul and St. Thomas, it was necessary to separate Caesar from God and, then, the state from society, so that the Church and its members might be free.70 St. Paul even would have the Church arbitrate conflicts rather than have them settled by the state courts (1 Cor. 6: 1-7). It is significant, so far as St. Thomas’ solution of freedom is concerned, that in his great History of Political Philosophy Strauss himself writes the section following that on St. Thomas. In this, Strauss presents the doctrine of Marsilius of Padua that the Church should be subsidiary to the state.71 It is a measure of the importance given to this that Strauss wrote the section for only one other philosopher in this work—his greatest of political philosophers, Plato. In such a work Strauss must write on Plato but why also on Marsilius, unless he also is of central importance?

In separating state from society and in placing virtue mainly in society (which includes the Church), rather than in the state, Locke is merely elaborating upon St. Thomas and the predominant political philosophy of the West for many centuries. Likewise, in making a distinction between rationalism and revelation and holding these to be different but complementary methods towards the truth, Locke is following in the same tradition. Again, to Locke (as in Thomism generally) both virtue and freedom are needed. It is not a choice between opposites but a harmony. This synthesis may be invalid, simply faulty or even just unable to meet modern needs; but its failure—if it be such—is not a unique problem for Locke.

If the criticism be true for Locke, it is likewise a problem for all Western society as we have known it. To make such a fundamental critique, a philosopher of the stature of Leo Strauss was necessary. To answer the challenge as great a philosopher must be called upon. This philosopher may well be John Locke himself. If so, this would justify a close rereading of what Locke has written in the light of Strauss’ marvelous critique. It is my hope that this article has contributed in a modest way to the discussion of this “basic problem” of political philosophy72 by suggesting that epistemology must be part of its solution.

This article is partially based upon a paper delivered at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies at the University of Maryland on November 20, 1976. I would like to thank Francis Canavan, S.J., for his helpful comments.

Donald J. Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution (ISI Books).​

  1. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1962), ch. V. ↩︎
  2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 249. ↩︎
  3. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by A. D. Woozley (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian, 1969), IV, 18, 2-9; and “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” in The Works of John Locke (London: Tegg, et. al., 1823), VII, p. 135. On the probabilistic nature of understanding for Locke, see Essay, IV; 11 and 15. Note that Michael P. Zuckert, “The Recent Literature on Locke’s Political Philosophy,” The Political Science Reviewer (Fall, 1975), p. 280 might better refer to Essay, IV, 18, 9 than II, 21, 47 and 70. ↩︎
  4. Strauss, p, 212. ↩︎
  5. Ibid., p. 220. ↩︎
  6. “Reasonableness of Christianity,’’ p. 149; Essay, IV, 17, 4-8, 14; and 21, 1-4. Esp. see, F. A. Hayek, “Kinds of Rationalism,” in his Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 84; and Peter Laslett, “Introduction,” in John Locke, Two Treatises of Government 2nd ed. (Cambridge at the University Press, 1967), p. 99, for Locke’s complex epistemology involving several aspects of reason. ↩︎
  7. See Milton Himmelfarb, “On Leo Strauss,” Commentary (August, 1974), p. 64; Strauss, p. 214. ↩︎
  8. Leo Strauss, “An Epilogue, in Herbert J. Storing, ed., Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), esp. pp. 326-327. ↩︎
  9. Richard Ashcraft, “Locke’s State of Nature: Historical Fact or Moral Fiction?” American Political Science Review (September, 1968), pp. 898-915. ↩︎
  10. Strauss, Natural Right and History, pp. 250-251. Note that the term virtue is used in Strauss’ sense rather than in Locke’s of the Essay. This will be followed below. ↩︎
  11. Willmoore Kendall, “John Locke Revisited,” in Willmoore Kendall, Contra Mundum (New Rochelle, N. Y.: Arlington House, 1971), p. 433. ↩︎
  12. Sterling Power Lamprecht, The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Locke (New York: Russell and Russell, 1962; originally published, 1914), p. 9. Also see “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” The Works of John Locke, IX, 186, where these are the only works recommended on politics. ↩︎
  13. W. von Lyden, ed., John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1958), esp. p. 109. Yet reason, again, is used in the scholastic sense, where it can be aided by revelation; Essay, IV, 18, 9. ↩︎
  14. George Santayana, Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy (Cambridge at the University Press, 1933), pp. 13-15. ↩︎
  15. Lamprecht, p. 4; and, Richard Ashcraft, “Faith and Knowledge in Locke’s Philosophy,” in John W. Yolton, ed., John Locke: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge at the University Press, 1969), p. 197. ↩︎
  16. “Some Thoughts Concerning Reading and Study for a Gentleman,” The Works of John Locke, III, p. 296; “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” 185, p. 176; “Reasonableness of Christianity,” pp. 150-151. ↩︎
  17. Sidney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 353. ↩︎
  18. ‘‘A Discourse of Miracles,” IX, pp. 256-265; and “A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul,” VIII, p. 65 both in The Works of John Locke. On the obligation to charity: “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” 110, p. 100. ↩︎
  19. Alexander Campbell Fraser, Locke (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1890), p. 253. ↩︎
  20. Ashcraft, “Faith and Knowledge in Locke’s Philosophy,” p. 198. ↩︎
  21. Kendall, pp. 435- 437; Zuckert, pp. 280-287. ↩︎
  22. Leo Strauss, “Locke’s Doctrine of Natural Law,” The American Political Science Review (June, 1958), p. 493. ↩︎
  23. See, Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, 3, 6 and IV, 15, 2. Also see, Ashcraft, “Faith and Knowledge in Locke’s Philosophy,” pp. 209, 210. ↩︎
  24. Maurice Cranston, John Locke: A Biography (London: Longmans Green, 1957), p. 98. ↩︎
  25. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 208. ↩︎
  26. For example, Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 215 is surprised that Locke refers to Hooker rather than to St. Paul. But if Locke thought he needed more caution before Deists than Anglicans, Hooker would be more effective as he was “judicious” enough to give a natural rather than a supernatural argument. See especially, “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity,” in The Works of John Locke, VII, pp. 164-165 where Locke could be talking to Strauss as well as to Edwards; and, “A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity,” VII, p. 265 where he says “I chiefly designed my book” for Deists. Also see ibid., p. 188. ↩︎
  27. Lamprecht, p. 101. Also see, Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy (Garden City, N.Y.: Image, 1964; originally published, 1959), V, pp. 135-137, 152. ↩︎
  28. Romans 13:5. For a one-sided and unsympathetic but also a clear demonstration of “hedonism” in Christianity, see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968). ↩︎
  29. For Locke’s association with Christian hedonistic ideas, see Richard I. Aaron, John Locke, 2nd ed. (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 257. ↩︎
  30. Locke, “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” p. 150. ↩︎
  31. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, 21, 38-53. ↩︎
  32. Hans Aarnsleff, “The State of Nature and the Nature of Man in Locke,” in Yolton, John Locke, p. 111. Robert Horwitz, “John Locke and the Preservation of Liberty,” The Political Science Reviewer (Fall, 1976), pp. 348-349 goes to the length of quoting Locke’s advice in “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” for small children not to read the Bible, without giving weight to Locke’s belief that they should not do this so they do not become confused. Rather, Locke suggests that children learn the Bible from a catechism, “to learn a question every day or every week” till they know it “perfectly by heart” (Sec. 159, p. 149). ↩︎
  33. See Natural Right and History, pp. 219-220. Likewise, if “natural law” is defined narrowly (e.g. Zuckert, p. 280 ff), there is no doubt Locke’s “partial natural law” is Hobbesian. But it is incomplete. ↩︎
  34. Copleston, pp. 136, 137. ↩︎
  35. Locke’s hedonism can be no more proved by citing his qualification that one is bound to preserve the rest of mankind “when his own preservation comes not in competition,” than St. Paul’s can by noting his qualification that one should do good “if it be possible, as much as in you.” John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, in Sir Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), sec. 6, p. 6; and Romans 12:18. ↩︎
  36. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 8. ↩︎
  37. Quoted in Lamprecht, p. 93. ↩︎
  38. “Reasonableness of Christianity,” pp. 148- 151. The importance of liberty in moral decisions is perhaps illustrated by the fact that Locke changed an earlier, misleading section in the Essay to more clearly read in this manner; see Lamprecht, pp. 100-101. ↩︎
  39. Robert A. Goldwin, “John Locke,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963), pp. 433-468. ↩︎
  40. Raymond Polin, “John Locke’s Conception of Freedom,” in John W. Yolton, John Locke, pp. 1-18. ↩︎
  41. Second Treatise, esp. secs. 2, 4, 77-78 and 95. ↩︎
  42. Ibid., sec. 123. ↩︎
  43. Ibid., sec. 95. ↩︎
  44. Ibid., sec. 132. ↩︎
  45. Ibid., sec. 107. ↩︎
  46. Ibid., sec. 132. ↩︎
  47. Ibid., secs. 2 and 77-78. ↩︎
  48. Ibid., sec. 22. ↩︎
  49. Ibid., sec. 66. ↩︎
  50. Goldwin, p. 441. ↩︎
  51. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), I-II, Q. 95, A. 4. On The Federalist Papers, see Donald J. Devine, The Political Culture of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), ch. 4. Also see, Lord Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 33-37; and, F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), ch. 11, esp. p. 163 and p. 457 n. 4. ↩︎
  52. Second Treatise, sec. 2, pp. 3-4. Also see sec. 77. ↩︎
  53. Ibid., sec. 3, p. 4. ↩︎
  54. Ibid., secs. 4, 5, 6, 7-15, 19, 22. ↩︎
  55. Ibid., sec. 22. ↩︎
  56. Ibid., secs. 25, 131, 87, 95-99. ↩︎
  57. For Locke’s view of the common people, see esp. his “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity,” The Works of John Locke, VII, pp. 176-177. Also see Willmoore Kendall, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959; originally published, 1941), p. 135. ↩︎
  58. Second Treatise, secs. 83, 135-142, 212-243. ↩︎
  59. On obedience see ibid., sec. 67. ↩︎
  60. Ibid., sec. 66. Also see, ‘‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” 41, p. 34. Compare this with Hobbes; see Richard Allen Chapman, “Leviathan Writ Small: Thomas Hobbes on the Family,” The American Political Science Review (March 1975), pp. 76-90. ↩︎
  61. Second Treatise, secs. 159-168, 124. ↩︎
  62. Ibid., sec. 154, p. 90. ↩︎
  63. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 74. ↩︎
  64. Ibid., p. 75. ↩︎
  65. John Courtney Murray, The Problem of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), pp. 89-90. ↩︎
  66. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 8. ↩︎
  67. Ibid., ch. 2. ↩︎
  68. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, “Introduction,” in History of Political Philosophy, p. 1. ↩︎
  69. Ibid., p. 6. ↩︎
  70. Acton, ch. 2. ↩︎
  71. Leo Strauss, “Marsilius of Padua,” in Strauss and Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy. In the second edition, he adds Machiavelli. ↩︎
  72. Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 8. ↩︎