Law and Justice – Lock and Classical Liberalism – 18.1 John Locke

Law and Justice – Lock and Classical Liberalism – 18.1 John Locke


>>>>The political thought of Thomas Hobbes
represented a turning point in the history of ideas. His concept of the state of nature,
of a contractual state that is created as a human convention would mark a turning point
in political philosophy. Hobbes though, used his political thought and his view of human
nature in support of a medieval vision of kingship, in support of a strong view of royal
power. It was not a progressive political philosophy. Hobbes’ ideas would be used in
defense of royal power, but they would have a tremendous influence even on those who would
have different political outlooks in the English world. And in fact Hobbes thought would influence
a political thinker of even greater stature, John Locke, who would develop, advance, many
of the same ideas as Hobbes but in defense of a vision of constitutional governance and
of individual freedom that was grounded in the idea of consent. John Locke would develop
the ideas of Hobbes, but would do so in a way that makes him the founding figure of
modern liberalism. And when we say classic liberalism, we mean the philosophical tradition
of which Locke is the great exemplar: a view that places utmost importance on individual
rights on individual liberty, liberalism that places enormous significance on the individual’s
liberty. Locke lives from 1632 to 1704, and he’s important above all for two different
works: “an Essay Concerning Human Understanding” and “Two Treatises on Government”, and these
in combination would make him the most important political thinker of the late 17th century
and would make him the most influential political thinker in colonial America. And in fact,
Locke’s writings, especially the second treatise on civil government would deeply influence
the American revolutionaries. Locke begins by arguing like Hobbes that humans exist in
a state of nature, that they exist in a condition prior to the existence of the state. Now Locke
has some differences in his vision of the state of nature. One, he emphasizes that people
in this condition are free and equal, and he believes that this is the natural state
of mankind that people are free, that they have a natural liberty and that in this condition
they have rights to life, liberty, and property. And so, Locke thinks that people are by nature
free and equal, and although Hobbes too, emphasizes to a certain extent natural equality, for
Locke the emphasis on natural equality is extraordinary. And it would have been fundamentally
different from an Aristotle, or a Cicero. Locke believes that people are naturally free
and equal, and in Locke’s state of nature they have rights to life, liberty, and property.
And so whereas Hobbes places emphasis above all on the right of self-preservation as the
single great natural right, Locke places much greater emphasis on property. And we’ll explore
in greater detail Locke’s theory of property because it’s a fundamentally significant view
of what property is, but what’s significant about Locke’s view of property in this respect,
is that for Locke property precedes the state. The state is created in order to secure these
rights, and so for Locke the state exists not just to pull humans out of this condition
of misery and fear and war of all against all, but more specifically, to secure individuals
in their rights: such as the right to life, liberty, and their property. And so for Locke
in the state of nature there is a kind of natural property that people have that doesn’t
have its roots in the convention, in the creation of a sovereign authority. Like Hobbes, Locke
sees the origins of the state in an act of agreement, in a compact, in what we would
call a contract that is created among the individuals in this society. And unlike Hobbes,
Locke places enormous significance in that act itself. In the will, the free contractual
agreement that people make, what we could call consent. And this too, is a departure
from an ancient tradition that places relatively little emphasis on consent as such. For Locke,
the fundamental act of creating a civil government is an act of individual consent, and it’s
in that act of consent that people cede some of their rights and their powers, but only
insofar as the government is meant to protect those rights of life, liberty, and property.
And so these ideas appear above all in Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” which appear
in 1689, a crucial moment in English political history. Just one year after the Glorious
Revolution that established a lawful constitutional limited kingship and the year of the Bill
of Rights, a great charter of liberties, enacted in 1689. So Locke’s vision of a contractual
agreement between individuals to create a state is the beginnings of the modern tradition
of liberalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *