No matter how conservative intellectuals try, they just do not seem able to escape John Locke.
Jonah Goldberg’s well-received Suicide of the West proudly called America’s Declaration of Independence “echoes of” the great English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, saying U.S. history was “more Locke than anything Locke imagined.” He inspired “a government but not a state”: a government with power divided internally between national and local governments and further divided in a great market of free associations; a government that even overcame the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and that restrained elite and popular abuses. In short, he inspired the “miracle” that is modern conservatism.
However, it was precisely Locke’s minimization of the state that led Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism to criticize him as not conservative. He called Locke the author of “history’s most famous liberal manifesto” defending individuals “pursuing life, liberty and property in a world of transactions based upon consent.” Locke’s great weakness was in believing that rational calculation can provide order without communal “mutual loyalty” to a nation-state.
Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed likewise called Locke “the first philosopher of liberalism,” even though recognizing Locke died a century before the term “liberalism” was conceived. He targeted Locke as the one who initiated the individualism and choice that today has undermined the essential traditional institutions of family, community, and natural law that are necessary to support a good social order.
Locke is thus recognized as vital to understanding our current intellectual challenges in America — but, by some, as an inspiration for American conservatism or, by others, as a destroyer of American conservatism. This fascination goes to the roots of modern conservatism, to William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer at National Review and Modern Age. These two both referenced Eric Voegelin as a fundamental philosophical inspiration—even though Voegelin considered them too ideological. Voegelin, in turn, was intrigued by Locke’s importance.
In the 1940s, near the conclusion of Volume VII of his History of Political Ideas, Voegelin aggressively engaged Locke, almost cavalierly dismissing him (treating Locke even worse in his private correspondence). Since Voegelin’s writing is so flawless — and to assure accuracy in presenting this great philosopher’s views — it is appropriate here to quote Voegelin frequently and at length. He begins:
“The time when Locke was considered by historians a great political philosopher seems to be passing. His thought is recognized today as the expression of the social and constitutional settlement of the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, though it was fixed in its essential lines before 1688, and the great influence that he wielded throughout the eighteenth century in England and the American colonies, and on French political thought, was due to his very limitations.”
Voegelin goes on to dismiss Locke’s idea of limited monarchy, his theory of consent, and his beliefs about property as the reasons for his appeal; and, he argues that these theories are merely “ancillary evocations” not containing “a single idea” that had not been introduced by radical thinking well before him. “Such importance as Locke’s political philosophy has is not to be sought in this blueprint of government but in those parts of the work in which he develops his principles of human nature on which the governmental superstructure is based.”
Only when this “incidental subject matter” is put aside, is it “possible to present the nucleus of Locke’s theory,” which actually is a “new post-medieval anthropology.”
“Students of Locke have noticed the inconsistency between his criticism of innate ideas in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his belief in innate ideas of reason in the Treatise. The logical incompatibility of the two positions need not, however, be taken necessarily as a flaw in the system, but rather as a symptom of Locke’s easygoing philosophical habits that do not impair seriously the consistency of his basic attitude. Locke was not a fanatical thinker like his two great contemporaries [Hobbes and Spinoza]; he did not attempt to penetrate to the elements of human nature but was satisfied with a description of man as he appeared to him and the average people of his social group.”
The “real importance of Locke” is his identification with “the victorious Puritan bourgeois,” which grew out of “a deep personal and environmental affinity” since “his father, a lawyer, fought in Cromwell’s army.” Locke “grasped the essence of the type that determined the following centuries of English politics. What may appear to the philosopher as the unbearable flatness of Locke is the secret of his effectiveness: he drew the picture of the new man as the new man wanted to see himself.” As such his Treatise is “the most important” source for understanding English and American commercial people and their societies.
Voegelin argues that the new man especially wanted to be seen as tolerant. Locke exemplified this throughout but especially in the constitution he devised for the colony of Carolina. While the document did not actually go into full effect, it did proclaim that “no one should be a free man, or even an inhabitant of the colony, who did not acknowledge and publicly worship a God; but that anyone who did so should receive protection for the exercise of his creed irrespective of denomination,” emphasizing its fundamental difference from that of Massachusetts.
Locke’s tolerant society acts by “procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests” which are: for “life, liberty and health;” against “indolency of body;” and for “outward things such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” It is the job of the government “to secure safe possession” of these interests. The other great traditional institution of the church is merely “a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord” for “the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.”
This limited role for what he considers a central aspect of governance is critical for Voegelin.
“The idea of the church as a private organization within the framework of civil society is the last stage of an evolution the beginnings of which we could discern in Luther and Calvin. The break of the great [Medieval] compromise by the Reformation expressed itself in the sectarian insistence on a purified church sphere and in a corresponding neglect of the secular arm. The result was not the desired subordination of the secular sphere to the ecclesiastical organization, but on the contrary the liberation of the secular sphere from the restrictions that the religious compromise had imposed. The Reform began with the program of submitting the secular sphere to the control of the saints and ended with the relegation of the saints to the corner of ‘a free and voluntary society.’”
To Voegelin the churches won their “freedom of conscience at the price of keeping quiet and not bothering the political community with their affairs. This character of the idea of toleration, in the form that it received through Locke, is still sadly misunderstood by a wider public.”
“Our modern unqualified praise of toleration in the abstract overlooks the fact that in the concrete historical situation of Western civilization a new pattern of society has been created that is fraught with formidable revolutionary dangers. One of these dangers has become so obvious today that nobody will question it: through the privatization of religion, Western society has deprived itself of the formal public instruments of resistance against the rise of creeds that are incompatible with Christianity and in further consequence with the body of civilization that has been built on its foundations.”
The growth of anti-Western creeds is “only a special case of a general type of revolutionary danger evoked by toleration. The privatization of the church means, in terms of social effects, that the political sphere has lost its spiritual authority and that the religious sphere, as far as it is coextensive with the tolerated churches, is condemned to public impotence. The toleration society has not only lost its public organs of resistance against inimical creeds but also has deprived itself of organs of public spiritual life in general.”
“Since man does not cease to be man, and spirit does not give up its desire for public status simply because Locke or somebody else tells it to do so, persons who are of a spiritual and at the same time of a political temper have found new avenues by which to reach the public. We see the rise of the intellectual outside the church, ranging, according to temper and circumstance, from the scholar through the publicist to the professional revolutionary who tries to gain political public status for his creed.”
Indeed these secular intellectuals “are to a large extent the same that otherwise would have found their way into a spiritual hierarchy,” as shown by “the fact that a considerable number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German scholars and philosophers had Protestant ministers for their fathers, or that three leading Russian statesmen—Stalin, Zdanov, and Mikoyan—were once students of theology.” The fact is that the motivation is not primarily economic but the new intellectuals give “the masses something that they seriously need: a public form of their spiritual personality.”
Voegelin concludes, “We may not like the spirit, but we cannot blame the people for taking what they can get; if we don’t like it we must offer something better,” and that includes the Anglo-Saxon democracies with the “broader Christianization of their citizens” based upon Puritanism, Quakerism, and Wesleyanism but still “without political instruments to promote their doctrines.”
The “key” to understanding Locke’s politics, which “seems to rest upon man as the product of divine workmanship,” is to understand that “we are referred to God, Nature, Reason, and Common Equity” but “none of these sources is defined or explained in any way whatsoever. We can, therefore, disregard this enumeration of sources as a collection of mere hieroglyphs. Locke was simply too optimistic to see that here was a problem, and he satisfied himself by throwing at the reader’s head any authority that had a good name,” God being the obvious choice. But “whether God is a proprietor or not” what matters is that “man is the proprietor of himself.”
The “decisive turn from the egalitarian state of nature” is the invention of money and the ability and desire to store and exchange value. Here “the system of legal hieroglyphs comes crashing down, and we are back to the solid Hobbesian passions: the acquisitive property society is the product not of right, but of passion.” The “spiritual personality of man is banished from the public sphere and condemned to impotence; the public person of man is abased to an object of property rights.” Government is reduced to a “state of doubtful justice. If an enemy of bourgeois society would do his worst to draw a picture of it that would justify a revolution, he would assemble traits of this kind. But Locke evokes this picture with positive value accents; he recommends it as the ideal of society.”
Locke however was “not a clinical case, and his disease does not come under the categories of psychopathology.” In him “the grim madness of Puritan acquisitiveness runs amuck. The fury of personal mysticism has simmered down. The elements of a moral public order that derive from biblical tradition have disappeared. A public morality based on belief in the spiritual substance of the nation is practically absent. What is left, as an unlovely residue, is the passion of property,” which his editor relates to C.B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.
Locke does not represent the whole of bourgeois society but enough to lead to its destruction:
“It would, of course, be ridiculous to take Locke’s theory as the adequate description of bourgeois reality. Even he who has a very low opinion of mankind might be willing to admit that no society that is based on the principles of Locke, to the exclusion of all others, could survive a generation. But Locke, while not representing the most desirable features of bourgeois society, certainly is a part of it, and there are millions like him who accept his principles as the standards of political order. In this respect Locke is the outstanding symbol of the revolution-breeding element within the capitalistic order, foreshadowing the events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
“With Locke the first cycle of modern political thought comes to a close.” Locke’s “theory of toleration” removes “the church from the domestic public scene” as the means to control the “sectarian religious enthusiasm” that overturned the medieval order. The medieval church was “unable to digest or suppress” the potential “anti-civilizational danger” from a sectarianism that believed “civilization was gained, not destroyed, in the great crisis beginning with the Reformation.” The “desperateness of the struggle” between the denominations and the “consequent enormous loss of prestige for the religious organizations” must be understood as the basis for the charge of the church as the “mortal enemy” of enlightenment, which the “dark age of religion” story told by Voltaire has “fixed the sentiment profoundly to this day.”
But that was not the end of religion.
“The rise of new religions, the appearance of a new Koran in the Kapital, of a patristic literature with Lenin as the great church father, of the heresiarch Trotsky, of a new inquisition, are either simply denied by the stalwarts of the [Voltaire] creed as religious phenomena or admitted as such to the extent of being called barbaric relapses from the standards of Civilization into medieval forms that progress has left behind for good. They are in the nature of bad dreams and will pass away; such things do not really happen in the twentieth century.”
And it all derives from Locke’s belief that man is a rational being whose reason allows him to “control the deficiencies of passion and to progress ever further toward a reasonable life, once the enthusiasm of religion is subdued.” Locke did produce an order for a time but “an order had been gained, but the spirit was lost,” leaving three historical residues.
In the first, the “leading figures notice with growing alarm the symptoms of the civilizational and political catastrophe that in our time has reached its bloody climax” and “try heroically to awaken the sense of the danger; they describe the signs of the decay and in order to recognize them as such restore the consciousness of the standards of a spiritual civilization in their own person,” led by Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche, even Max Weber, “able minds who occupied themselves with politics, fascinated by the spectacle of decay, as well as for their achievement in establishing a science of politics—a personal effort and a scientific achievement that, on the whole, has gone to waste in terms of public effect.”
The second consists of those still caught in the thrall of the myth of secular reason, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mosca, Pareto, and Hegel. Even Hume in a way validates Locke in that it is true that most people will accept morals including sympathy if things are going well. But, finally there are the “men who sometimes are excellent diagnosticians of the crisis but in addition are spiritual activists–ones like Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, who are able to win followers by convincing them all is not going well and are able to engineer revolutions, the threat facing a modern world without a convincing spirit and moral structure to provide order.”
America’s Fusionist Locke
The American response has been that the U.S. is different, exceptional. As historian Louis Hartz put it, history seemed to be on a “lark” to identify Locke’s philosophy with American reality—so much so that its success seemed the answer to Voegelin’s critique. England may have rejected Locke but America built him into its Constitution. Even into the mid-twentieth century, my own academically-accepted empirical study of all published opinion polls until the early 1970s, The Political Culture of the United States, confirmed Lockean principle by Lockean principle, that Americans supported Locke’s positions, even the ones such as property, that supposedly made Locke almost a caricature for anti-capitalist revolutionaries.
This consensus, however, did not last. Today, those principles divide the population and are no longer considered by many even to be viable. Mr. Goldberg notes today’s loss of support for property, markets, and work, Dr. Deneen the decline in family, community, and natural law, and Voegelin the loss of spirit, morality, and order. It is hard to disagree that Locke’s easy-going tolerance simply assumed these standards for family, marriage, property, morality, religion, and tradition were natural, and would last; indeed he said so, and this can be considered overly optimistic.
But is Voegelin’s the real Locke? Is he both passionate about property and easygoing? Is Locke actually post-medieval? Did he really preach acquisitiveness? Does a “public morality based on belief in the spiritual substance of the nation” become “practically absent”? Did the “elements of a moral public order that derive from Biblical tradition” really “disappear” from Locke?
Voegelin like his correspondent Leo Strauss and most other scholars focus on Locke’s Essay and Second Treatise and one could draw such conclusions from this diet. I have been trying for years to get folks to focus upon Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity, his education writings, his work on Paul’s epistles and even his will. Rather than “not being defined or explained,” rather than simply “religious paraphernalia” or mere “hieroglyphs,” in these works Locke recommends “no other single book” than the Bible for moral education, supports Christianity as the moral code for the nation and himself, finds belief in God and the One he sent essential, supports miracles, and looks forward to a life after death.
Locke does separate church from state and that does reduce the opportunity for immanent order but so did the medieval Christian “compromise,” even into separate court systems. This does drain legitimacy from government but the wise states in the Middle Ages and beyond were careful to reflect as much holy charism as possible. The decline of this system was not religious war as the Voltaire myth insisted but the Black Death that undermined Catholic legitimacy with the pre-Reformation dual papacies supported by the new secular dynasties that actually fought the wars, easily seen since the major power on the “protestant” side of the Thirty Years War was Catholic France and on the “catholic” side the second power was Lutheran Prussia.
While Voegelin was misled by an enlightenment myth he generally rejected, he was correct that the denominations were enfeebled. But it was by secular force supported by the new myths he so correctly found taught by the new secular intellectuals. Yes, Puritans and other denominations tried to purify the church by separating from the state. Yet, as Alex Ryrie emphasizes, it was because the new Protestants needed support to survive without the wealth or monasteries available to support their Catholic adversaries so had no choice but to succumb to the state, which once successful there was adopted on a smaller scale by many of the Catholic dynasties.
Locke’s success was to appeal to the new bourgeois ethic as Voegelin argued but he also appealed to their religion for morality. And it just will not do to dismiss as “ancillary” his “blueprint” for governmental and institutional reforms. Yes, his proposals were made earlier but to help legitimize the Glorious Revolution he creatively reached back to the traditional Magna Carta rights and institutions weakened by the divine rights monarchs beginning with Henry VII and compromised further by the Cromwell civil war. Voegelin underplays Locke’s contributions on government but it is appropriate to note that after writing about Locke, Voegelin the peerless philosopher shifted his scholarship from political to philosophical order, losing interest in the History of Political Ideas to focus his energies on his masterpiece Order and History.
Voegelin was simply wrong factually about Locke’s belief in transcendence—it was evident in his last will for heaven’s sake. But he was correct that Locke did not want to merge this transcendence with the state, which Voegelin contended was tantamount to making religion irrelevant. But is it true that religion cannot moderate the state without merging with it? Did not European history demonstrate that separation could and did, from Ambrose, to Hildebrandt, to Magna Carta, to the American colonies? A fusion of Magna Carta and tolerance ideals were specifically invoked by Roger Williams for Rhode Island’s charter, by Lord Baltimore for Maryland and William Penn for Pennsylvania well before influencing the U.S. Constitution.
Voegelin has long been criticized for warning about the dangers to order from a policy of tolerance. Actually he feared what he called “unqualified praise of toleration” and that does seem to prefigure the oppressor-victim narrative today where past evils like slavery and intolerance are used to refuse tolerance to descendants of previously powerful groups, although one may note as did Voegelin that Locke did not tolerate all, not Catholics nor certain dissenters.
Voegelin was correct that Locke was naïve about separating religion from the state within a generally voluntary and tolerant society in some synthesis of freedom and tradition. This did not only survive a generation but some 400 years or so in America and longer, but to a lesser degree, in Europe and some colonial offshoots. This naïveté was in fact Western civilization. Locke could not have imagined Voegelin’s prescience predicting the future rise to power by “intellectuals, outside the church” to undermine traditions and perhaps that deserves some criticism. Voegelin may even finally prove correct that such a free and tolerant tradition is too naïve to survive in modern times. We shall soon see.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on November 30, 2018.