Within Catholic-blog-land, you may have noticed some sudden interest in Lockean political theory and its relation to Catholic social teaching. Having spent several years now studying Locke’s philosophy, I thought I would try my hand at sustaining that interest by way of a multi-part series on Locke’s political theory, devoting concerted attention to its fundamental principles before looking at how it stands in a conflicting relation to the fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social thought. The recent posts on Locke and Catholic social doctrine to which I refer above fail to do the heavy lifting of coming to understand Locke first and foremost. Instead, they trade on certain ambiguities in Lockean texts, prematurely mapping these ambiguities to tenets of Catholic social teaching and mistakenly taking superficial similarities between the two to be genuine agreements. My hope in this on-going series on Locke is to disabuse the authors of these posts, as well as the handful of readers who may buy them, of these misinterpretations.
Why is there confusion over Locke’s political philosophy in the first place? The answer is: John Locke is a more difficult read than one might initially think. Difficult, though not obscure. Of his major, extended writings, only one, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is written in a straightforward way. One can just pick it up and start reading: what you get from start to finish is pure Locke (though this is not to say that Locke could have benefited greatly from an editor!). But such is not the case with works like the Two Treatises on Government and his Oxford lectures on natural law, later organized and published as Questions Concerning the Law of Nature (hereafter cited as LN). The Two Treatises are notoriously difficult to interpret not on account of any shortcomings on Locke’s part, but because of his particular strategy for winning acceptance of basic tenets of liberalism among a 17th century population divided over questions of political legitimacy, divine right, and toleration. For instance, if one were to pick up, say, the First Treatise without a grasp of both its background history and Locke’s intentions in composing it, one might indeed mistake Locke for an powerful advocate of a distinctively Christian theory of political consensus. Of course, such a reading would be a bad misreading. The careful and attentive reader of Locke will spot that the First Treatise and the Second Treatise respectively forward mutually exclusive political theses. Indeed, Locke contradicts in the Second Treatise many points he makes in the First Treatise. But Locke’s inconsistency is only apparent; the First Treatise is not Locke’s political philosophy but instead a refutation of Robert Filmer’s divine right politics by means of Filmer’s own sources (the Christian scriptures and certain assumptions about royal succession). Once Locke exposes the inconsistencies of Filmer’s theory, he advances his own positive political philosophy in the Second Treatise, which flows from his own philosophical empiricism and natural (not biblical or Christian) theology. Similar difficulties arise from reading LN, which employs a dialectical method, forwarding certain theses at the onset before dashing them in later chapters.
The reader of Locke is rewarded only when he/she puts in the legwork of not only reading Locke’s political texts, but also turning them on all sides, so to speak, peering at what’s underneath and around them. By that I mean grasping Locke’s sly and subtle maneuvers in the texts, the historical events and controversies that motivated their penning, and the content of the Essay, which establishes the very methodology Locke employs in his positive political writings. From what I can tell, the recent blog posts on Locke to which I refer above exhibit none of this effort.
Now, I am not suggesting that other seminal texts in the history of British political philosophy are as difficult to understanding as those of the Lockean varietal. Filmer’s Patriarcha, Book III of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Mill’s On Liberty are among many of such texts that are relatively straightforward. Locke is a unique case, and we should be cautious about making sweeping claims about his political thought before we have really spent quality time wrestling with his political theory. The upshot of such effort is seeing the incompatibility that runs all the way down between Locke’s political philosophy and Catholic social teaching.
So what do I hope to be the pay-off for my posts? Well, I hope to show the following:
1) Locke’s political philosophy is not in the Christian tradition, nor is it an entirely secular account of politics. Rather, his thought draws from the ground between the two , so to speak. That is to say, Locke relies a bit on natural theology–a view devoid of any tenets of Christianity. This is a major departure from the method of his medieval and early modern predecessors.
2) Locke rejects the Catholic ideas of absolute moral value and objective standards of good and bad action. For Locke, nothing is intrinsically good or evil. Rather, moral values are constructed by human reason following the patterns of external regularities in nature. This is unsurprising since Locke’s position flows straight from his philosophical empiricism and nominalism. This is why I claim that one cannot understand Locke’s moral and political philosophy without having read the Essay.
3) Locke’s version of “natural law” is nothing like the Thomistic and Scholastic notions of “natural law.” Locke rejects a notion of natural law that is “written on the heart,” a clear repudiation of the Catholic understanding of natural law upon which all Catholic moral and social teaching rests. Consequently, the individual rights championed by Catholic social teaching and Locke, and which are derived from their respective accounts of natural law, are not the same. This includes everything from their rights to life to their views on the right to property.
4) Locke’s political philosophy and Catholic social teaching have, at best, a few superficial similarities (as do Catholic social teaching and Marxist socialism). Superficial, not fundamental. A Catholic who thinks that there is continuity or foundational overlap between the two, I suggest, is confused.
I plan to leave some chronological distance between my successive posts on Locke to allow time for reading the posts, conversation threads, and studying the texts in question. I am not claiming that my reading of Locke is the correct (though it coheres with an emerging consensus within the best of Locke scholarship). I am most interested in critical comments that reflect an acquaintance with Locke’s writings, so by all means let’s have them. Comments of this sort will help all of us learn. As a disinterested reader of Locke, I am perfectly willing to have my mind changed.