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Victor Nuovo: Locke, liberalism and America's influence in charting a new course

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Posted on September 14, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the 24th in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

By VICTOR NUOVO

Was John Locke a liberal? There seems to be a consensus among scholars that he was. It all depends on what one means by “liberal,” and because it means many things, one must take each meaning in turn.

A liberal believes in human equality and the right of individuals to think what they will, to rely on their own judgments concerning truth and falsehood, right and wrong, to be the absolute owners of themselves, their persons and their bodies, and to be the ultimate deciders of their own fate and fortune. (Although I should add here, ‘God willing’, for as a Christian and theist, Locke believed that God owned and decided everything.) Still, Locke was certain that God willed that individuals owned themselves and could not be owned by another.

He based his case for religious toleration on this belief. He argued that anyone’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, is their personal business and, if it is to be genuine and sincere, cannot be coerced. Because the state can’t force an individual to believe a specific religious doctrine, it would be wrong to attempt it and unjust for any government to try it. It would be like using torture to compel innocent persons to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. For the same reason, he advocated the complete separation of Church and State. Only individuals can decide what they believe and this applies especially to their religious beliefs.

    Locke, however, was an imperfect advocate of these liberal ideas. Unlike Spinoza, he did not advocate unrestricted freedom of enquiry — the pursuit of truth wherever it led. He condemned Spinoza because Spinoza equated God with Nature and denied divine providence. Locke wrote that a civil society is not obligated to tolerate anyone who holds such beliefs.

Also, Locke did not champion women’s rights, even though he believed that in a state of nature, men and women were equal. Locke’s closest friend was a woman, Damaris Lady Masham. They were platonic lovers for almost a quarter of a century. Not long after Locke returned to England from exile, he became a permanent resident at her husband’s country estate and they lived together as intellectual partners.

Lady Masham was an advocate of women’s right to education, arguing that if men were going to entrust them with the early education of their sons, they should want them to have gone to school. She wrote two books, published anonymously. The ideas expressed in them are similar to Locke’s, and it has often been supposed that he influenced her thinking; but it could just as well have been she that influenced him. I’m sure she did. As I have noted, they were intellectual partners.

And in spite of his commitment to freedom and equality as a natural right, Locke countenanced slavery in the American colonies, which is a plain contradiction of his principles. So much for the consistency of great thinkers.

Economic liberals of the day also believed in free trade and a free market. Locke did not. He was a mercantilist, which is to say that he favored national regulation of the supply of money and the quality of the coin of the realm, and also the regulation of foreign trade to the advantage of national industries. He favored colonization as a means of economic growth. 

On the other hand, he did not worry, as did the ancients, about the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few. He desired full employment, and was interested in measures that would put the able-bodied idle poor to work, but under conditions that looked more like servitude than freedom of opportunity. His references to day laborers in his writings show that he was more concerned about their prospects for getting into heaven than receiving a fair and livable wage. And he did not believe that there should be a limit on the growth of great family fortunes. Income inequality was not a problem to him.

Locke, however, did not believe in unlimited economic progress, which is touted by the moguls of economic expansion and is a hallmark of modern economic liberalism. Perhaps this is a good thing. Rather, Locke believed in the biblical explanation of the Second Coming, expecting that world history would culminate sometime during the 18th Century. During the last decade of his life, Locke received frequent visits from Isaac Newton to read and discuss the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, in which they believed was foretold the second coming of Christ and the end of history. That end was to be followed by a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth—although on this last point Locke was undecided.

In any case, Locke believed that God would abruptly end the course of history. The dead would be raised, and there would be a final judgment of all mankind, and a final separation of the sheep from the goats. Then, the old world would be destroyed to make place for a new heaven and earth, where God would rule and provide for every human need.

So, was Locke liberal? Pick your points to argue, but certainly, depending on the topic and the definition of liberal, Locke’s record was mixed.

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In retrospect, the idea of unlimited social and economic progress did not gain currency, and was perhaps not even conceived, until the 18th Century. The political revolutions of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were endeavors to achieve this end.

And a more peaceful version of this idea also became established in the very character of Western Civilization, and the possibility of it was clarified and its probability increased by the industrial revolution and the rapid growth of technology. From a Western perspective, the United States of America became the principal guardian and administrator of this idea.

After the cold war ended, some prophets of secular history have proposed that history had reached its end. Not that time would end and with it all change, but that human society, through a long process of trial and error, had achieved its most reliable and durable social, political and economic forms, and that whatever setbacks may occur, they would not change the settled course of history — rather they would be followed by greater freedom, equality, long life and economic well being.

This is a nice idea. But it is barely more credible than the religious fantasies entertained by Locke, Newton and their intellectual friends. And, I am sure, it is the wrong idea to have in mind as we turn to consider the political meaning of the U.S. Constitution, and the intellectual motives and goals of its principal framers.

It is to that subject that the next essays will pursue, in the assurance that the intellectual quality of those who framed that esteemed document is equal to that of those whom I have already discussed.    

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