Of all the great scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, and political theorists we studied this past semester, John Locke is my favorite.
In my oral final, I was asked to summarize each political philosopher with one sentence. My sentence for John Locke was, “Jefferson, you’re welcome!” The more I read of Locke, the more I saw Jefferson and I loved it!
At some point in my reading this book, I scrawled in the cover the following: “Locke stokes the flames of rebellion, fueled by the embers of righteous self-preservation.” I thoroughly enjoyed his systematic explanation of the origin of rights and governmental power and authority.
Necessarily, it starts with the individual. God gives life, and with that gift comes great responsibility to honor, preserve, and improve that life. In order to accomplish this sacred duty, one must be free to exercise his will to that end, and he must be able to retain ownership of the fruits of his efforts. The sacred duty to preserve self is not the same as selfishness. It’s more akin to the safety instructions given on a plane shortly after boarding that in case of an emergency depressurizing the cabin, one should put the oxygen mask first on oneself before helping others put their masks on.
Because property plays an important role in our stewardship, people tend to want to protect their property. In a state of nature, the effort to protect one’s things potentially consumes excessive amounts of time and resources; consequently, people have a natural tendency to aggregate and form governments explicitly to protect their life, liberty, and property. The effort to protect is delegated to representatives, and this frees the people to pursue more productive endeavors.
Locke’s analysis of proper government is spot on in so many ways. My book looks like one of my kids’ coloring books, because I underlined, circled, hi-lighted, and scribbled so many notes in it. I’ll share just a few of the rules he points out.
“…no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
All men are born equal. There is no reasonable or rational claim to the divine right of kings.
He who would threaten my life, liberty, or property puts himself in a state of war against me, and as long as I am under threat of force from him, I am justified (if not duty bound) to resist him, even to his destruction.
“Without law there is no liberty.” But the law must apply to all equally. If the law or the government demands or prohibits something that violates the inalienable rights of man, it violates its sole purpose for existing.
“…the first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power; as the first and fundamental natural law, which is to govern even the legislative itself, is the preservation of the society, and… of every person in it.”
Legislative power: 1) cannot be arbitrary/cannot exceed natural rights. 2) Cannot become a power in itself-it, too, is ruled by the law. 3) Cannot take a man’s property without his consent. 4) Cannot delegate law-making to any other power.
The people have a responsibility to defend their life, liberty, and property-even from their own legislators.
The Executive is subordinate to the Legislature. The Executive must always be “in being”, whereas the Legislature should only convene from time to time, because laws should not need to be made continuously, but they must be constantly enforced.
I’ll do a longer post dedicated on Locke’s discussion of prerogative later. For now, know that laws and constitutions set limits, not minimums – especially concerning punishment of crimes. The offender may be punished, but that does not mean he should or must be punished. Locke says, “This power to act according to discretion for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative.”
I struggled with some of Locke’s ideas about education, but I may explore them more in another post.
Finally, I enjoyed Locke’s letter on toleration. He was ahead of his time. He also impressed me with some of his comments that I found profoundly in tune with the Spirit of Christ. He basically called for the separation of Church and State, and not in the cheap way that phrase is tossed around today, but with a conviction that worship and faith is essential to a moral people and a sound government; however, using either physical or legal force to obligate or influence another to be faithful is not only ineffective, it is offensive to God.
“Whatsoever is not done with that assurance of faith is neither well in itself, nor can it be acceptable to God. To impose such things, therefore, upon any people, contrary to their own judgment, is in effect to command them to offend God, which, considering that the end of all religion is to please him, and that liberty is essentially necessary to that end, appears to be absurd beyond expression.”
I feel I have made this post much too long. Yet, I have barely scratched the surface of the many great things Locke observed and explained. I am excited to reread this and find other writings of Locke. I can see why he was so influential on our Founding Fathers.