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.