In his two pinnacle texts, The Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke lays the foundation for some of the most crucial theories of the time. The Enlightenment was a political and philosophical movement, based almost solely on reason, and a shift from the previous view of the Restoration period, during which people solely looked to God to provide answers to the important issues and existential questions of the day. One might assume that Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke rely solely on reason to support their arguments. However, despite arguments that reason was the sole basis for John Locke’s political and moral philosophy, the logic that led to some of the most basic tenants of modern Western politics relies on a conception of natural rights and laws, based on God’s teaching and verses.
One of Locke’s most famous works, The Two Treatises of Government, set out to establish clear guidelines for the legitimate use of power by the government. In the First Treatise, as a professor of religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, Kim Ian Parker states that “…Locke sets out to argue against [Sir Robert] Filmer’s system that ‘all government is absolute monarchy’ and that ‘no man is born free’” (103). Locke references the Bible to refute the patriarchal brand of politics that Filmer defends, feeling that the Genesis story applies to everyone, not just the characters within it, contrary to Filmer’s assertions (Parker 120). If Genesis applies to everyone, then everyone is equal, since we are all made in God’s image. In Chapter 9 of the First Treatise, Locke says, “And thus man’s property in the creatures was founded upon the right he had to make use of those things that were necessary or useful to his being” (12). This means that the reason that people have dominance over animals isn’t because of some patriarchal complex, but rather because God bestowed everyone equally with this ability. What Locke sees as the problem in Filmer’s assertions about patriarchal authority is that there is no clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority, making the theory impossible to apply to governments. Many people, while reading the First Treatise, claim that Locke is using the religious arguments to ease people into a more enlightened way of thinking; however, if one takes the biblical references seriously, one can see just how intelligent Locke’s interpretation of the Bible is and how Locke was truly using the Bible as a justification, not a mask.
In the Second Treatise, most people who see the religious influence in the First Treatise think that said influence disappears. However, Locke relies on the arguments in Genesis to support his claims about natural law, the state of nature, and property. Locke’s natural law, as Parker explains, “…had to establish three things: (1) how one comes to know the law of nature, (2) what obliges one to follow it, and (3) what is contained in it” (125). Locke believed that the law of nature was not innate, as there was no consensus about morality, so there could be no innate morality based on consensus. Locke also argues that our sense show order in nature that couldn’t have appeared there by chance, meaning God must have been involved somewhere. Through this view, Locke obtains an idea about natural law that combines the theological perspective with the rational one, saying that the way we understand our obligation is through a rational understanding, but what obligates us to act is God’s will (Tully 41). Thus, this aspect of the Second Treatise requires religion to enforce it.
Another aspect of the Second Treatise is the state of nature, which is a state without explicit governance, where the people govern each other according to the law of nature. Locke views the state of nature not as a hypothetical construct, but rather, an actual state of existence. In this state, every person is able to punish those that violate the laws of nature as they see fit (Parker 129). This vigilantism is justified through the fact that humanity should be preserved because we are the work and subjects of God. If you violate the law of nature, you are dangerous to mankind, and thus, must be punished. Also, the state of nature is a place of pure equality, since no man is above another. Locke states in the Second Treatise that everyone is equal “…unless the Lord and Master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty” (18). This means that in the state of nature, unless God says otherwise, everyone is equal since they are born of God.
The Second Treatise also details the right to property. Locke believes that humans have access to the land and animals that comprise the earth due to the dominion that Adam was originally given in the creation story (Parker 133). A problem arises here, however, because there is no justification for why some people can have their own property, since property was given to man in general. However, Locke uses the call to labor found in Genesis following the fall as having benefits, namely that of having individual claims to property as a reward for certain amounts of labor (Parker 134). Also, Locke grants everyone certain natural rights that include life, liberty, and property. Everyone has these rights since everyone is equal under God, further showing how Locke bases his arguments on God and His teachings.
One of Locke’s other notable work, A Letter Concerning Toleration, is also very influenced by religion. The work itself is about granting people religious tolerance and freedom, unlike what Hobbes argues. While Hobbes says that religion is the source of most disputes and the government should coerce people to believe certain things, Locke disagrees with coercion. As professor of law at Virginia Law School Micah Schwartzman states, “Coercion operates by giving people incentives to make certain kinds of choices. But since people cannot choose what to believe, it makes no sense to try to force them to do so” (680). However, while professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, John Marshall, argues Locke did agree that religious contentions were the cause of turmoil, he did not see coercion as the solution (8). Throughout the Letter, Locke cites biblical verses to explain why toleration would be necessary, further showing the influence of God in politics then and now.
There is no denying that John Locke was one of the most important and influential members of the Enlightenment movement. However, a reevaluation of the content of his work suggests that he used the Bible as the basis for many of his logical and reason-oriented conclusions. By no means does this imply that Locke’s philosophy isn’t applicable to today or today’s culture. In fact, his philosophical views on equality and rights are still the basis of American politics.
Locke, John. “The Two Treatises of Government.” Selected Political Writings of John Locke. Ed. Paul E. Sigmund. New York: Norton Co, 2005. 5-125. Print.
Marshall, John. John Locke Resistance, Religion and Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.
Parker, Kim Ian. The Biblical Politics of John Locke. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2004. Print.
Schwartzman, Micah. “The Relevance of Locke’s Religious Arguments for Toleration.” Political Theory 33.5 (2005): 678-705. JSTOR. Web. 26 March 2013.
Tully, James. An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.
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