Locke Introduction


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Locke Introduction

  1. 1. Justice & Power session vi LockeNo other thinker is held to have influenced the beliefs of our Founding Fathers more than JohnLocke. When we rebelled two hundred and thirty-seven years ago in order to restore our “rights ofEnglishmen,” the ideas, arguments, often even the very words were Lockean. Ironically, theacceptance by both Britain and the United States of Locke’s thesis that subjects retain the right ofrevolution is the best explanation why we, practically alone among the nations of the world, have notexperienced revolution since 1783. During the second half of the seventeenth century the Scientific Revolution continued to sweepbefore it the ill-digested Aristotelianism of the late medieval scholastics. Locke read avidly about thelatest discoveries and newest experiments. His faith in man’s potential for reasonableness fills everypage of the Second Treatise. As Newton sought laws which would allow predictability and thus“bring order” to the physical universe, Locke sought a constitutional balance in England whichwould bring order to the political scene. Just as in the case of Plato and Aristotle, it is most rewarding to compare Hobbes and Locke. Theirlives, with many interesting similarities and contrasts, span the period during which Englishabsolutist monarchy gave way to two-party parliamentary government. Why should these two Oxfordgraduates who came from middle-class families, and who both depended on aristocratic patronage,have taken opposite sides on the constitutional issue of their age? Why should a study of the newscience have disposed ont to authoritarian monarchy, the other to parliamentary government “byconsent”? A key to understanding their different views lies in the “first principles” they posited. Compare the“state of nature” as each man describes it. Was there ever such a thing as man living in the state ofnature? Just how much importance do you assign to these seventeenth century concepts? If therenever was social contract does that mean that American civil religion is based on a myth that doesn’tmerit belief any more? What else must be tossed into the”dustbin of history”? Equality? Inalienable rights? As you readthese excerpts from Jefferson’s principle source for the Declaration of Independence, considercarefully whether Locke still rings true. Are these words which have inspired so many readers beforeyou empty today? Are “equality,” the “rights of man,” and “government by consent” simply jingles, apiece of Madison Avenue psychic engineering, which suddenly becomes “inoperative” when itinvolves personal sacrifice or risk? Jim Powers, Justice & Power; A Primer in Political Philosophy. 1977, p. 22