Prof. Nuovo helps un-‘Locke’ philosopher’s writings


MIDDLEBURY — Victor Nuovo withdrew from his professorial duties at Middlebury College 23 years ago, but he has packed enough educational and intellectual activity in his golden years to fill a second résumé.
At an age when a lot of retirees would be happy to make it onto the golf course every once in a while, Nuovo, 85, has been playing his “back nine” in the storied halls of Oxford University, researching, compiling and editing books on the great 17th-century philosopher John Locke.
Nuovo is the college’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy Emeritus — a title that recognizes his many contributions to the institution, though he is no longer an active teacher. He taught at Middlebury from 1962 to 1994, first as a professor of religion, then in the philosophy department.
As he approached his 62nd birthday, he was reminded of a popular definition of what it is to be a professor: a scholar who teaches.
“I wanted to do the scholarly part,” Nuovo said during a recent interview. “Middlebury College had a nice early retirement program. So I retired early to become a scholar.”
And as he has done with all of his pursuits, Nuovo — who also serves as a Middlebury selectman — delved into his scholarly pursuits with zeal. And the focal point of his intellectual pursuits has been John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher and physician commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism.” His writing influenced American revolutionaries, to the extent that some of his theories are reflected in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Nuovo received a visiting fellowship at Oxford University’s Harris Manchester College in 1997. While doing research in 1998 at the English university’s Bodleian Library — which holds of Locke’s manuscripts — he serendipitously met the executive editor of the Clarendon Edition of the works of John Locke, an effort to publish all the important writing of the great philosopher.
Nuovo told the editor about his background and interest in Locke, and was asked if he would join the Clarendon Locke effort, through Oxford University Press.
It didn’t take much convincing for Nuovo, who agreed to edit and research books on Locke.
“I more or less fell into this,” Nuovo recalled with a smile.
The prestigious gig allowed him free access to a treasure trove of all things Locke. He was given a key to unlock the Locke vault, as it were.
“There are letters, notebooks, things like laundry lists,” Nuovo said, marveling at the large repository of information. “You really get to know him. I became a Locke scholar.”
Nuovo began a series of annual research trips across the Atlantic to Oxford. He’d sit down and pore for hours over Locke’s trademark script.
“Fortunately, Locke had a fairly clear hand,” Nuovo said of his penmanship. “I felt really blessed, in a way. For me, it was a wonderful privilege to have access to all of this man’s materials.”
Last year, Nuovo researched, edited and wrote notes for an Oxford University Press paperback titled, “John Locke: Vindications of the Reasonableness of Christianity.” The book samples Locke’s writings to show his commitment to Christianity, which played an important role in shaping his philosophical opinions. It also demonstrates Locke’s versatility as a Biblical scholar.
Nuovo’s latest book, now being printed, is his definitive interpretation of Locke. Due to be released this summer, it’s titled “John Locke: The Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso.”
A “virtuoso” in the 17th century was a term used for someone who was an experimental natural philosopher — in other words, a scientist, according to Nuovo.
“The purpose of the book is to explain how Locke’s natural scientific beliefs and Christian beliefs worked together — or didn’t work together — in the development of his thought,” Nuovo said.
The book also explores Locke’s relationship with his mentor, Robert Boyle, who is often credited with being the founder of modern chemistry, as well as his friendship with astronomer/mathematician Isaac Newton.
“Toward the end of Locke’s life, Newton would often come to his house and discuss the (biblical) Book of Revelation, trying to figure out when the world was going to end,” Nuovo said. “They figured it would probably end somewhere toward the end of the 18th century, because the world was only supposed to last 7,000 years, according to the Bible.”
Nuovo noted Locke and Newton’s friendship occurred during a revolutionary period in science, which undoubtedly tested both men’s religious beliefs. Locke subscribed to the theory that the universe was created in 4004 BC.
“For them, there were really two sources of truth: Nature and the Bible, and the Bible was probably for them a more reliable source of truth than nature,” Nuovo said.
“They had this theory of nature that is totally based upon non-directed processes that become generative and produce worlds, and at the same time they were holding onto a belief that God created the world and designed it perfectly,” he added. “What really got me into this is the fascination with how one can hold these two views together. Well, they didn’t exactly, because they were trying to fit together theories that were alien to each other.”
Nuovo is constantly amazed by the new things he is finding out about the Locke as he weeds through the layers of documents.
“(Locke) is a very important figure, but also very hard to understand, because there were all these sides to him that people weren’t aware of,” Nuovo said. “Access to all these manuscripts and papers made clear there were many dimensions to his mind that needed to be explored.”
He is now working on a book titled, “Locke: Theological Manuscripts.” It will include around 30 of Locke’s never-before-published manuscripts, which Nuovo transcribed, annotated and in some cases translated. Locke often wrote his manuscripts in Latin, which requires translation and annotation. So in addition to his considerable knowledge of theology and philosophy, Nuovo is a solid linguist. He enjoys putting together all the literary clues to get a better picture of the iconic Locke.
“It is delightful work, and there is a sense of getting a familiarity with the person,” Nuovo said.
The visiting fellowship at Oxford has also given Nuovo a place to stay during his frequent trips to England. He made annual research trips to Oxford for nine straight years; his most recent visit was in 2012. He confesses travel is becoming less appealing as he gets older, but his thirst to open Locke’s mysteries keeps motivating him.
“I’m hoping to go again, since I have a place to stay and still have access to the library and manuscripts,” Nuovo said. “It’s been a post-retirement activity that has been delightful.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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