John Locke's Two Treatises of Government [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 47 (3):615-617 (1994)
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The last thirty years has witnessed an explosion of scholarly books and articles on Locke which, claims Harpham, has "recast our most basic understanding of Locke as a historical actor and political theorist, the Two Treatises as a document, and liberalism as a coherent tradition of political discourse". The seven articles in this volume attempt to assess this "new scholarship," which is described as revisionist and historicist. This volume is now probably the best introduction to the "new scholarship." The introduction by Edward Harpham, "Locke's Two Treatises in Perspective," and the bibliography provide a nice summary of key ideas, books, and articles. The essence of the new perspective is best stated by Richard Ascraft [[sic]] in "The Politics of Locke's Two Treatises of Government": "Locke's thought is thus both philosophically more conservative and politically more radical than we have hitherto supposed. In short, Locke is at once closer to Aristotle and Hooker and to the levelers and Sidney than the prevailing interpretations of his political thought maintain". Ashcraft attempts to separate Locke from the philosophy of Hobbes on such issues as resistance, toleration, justice and natural law, obligation; he directs his argument against Macpherson and Strauss, whose presences haunt the borders of the new scholarship. Eldon Eisenach, in his "Religion and Locke's Two Treatises of Government," interprets Locke's philosophy as marked by a deep skepticism regarding the reach of natural reason and informed by a "deep faith in the efficacy of biblical revelation" as the source of our moral and political duties. Eisenach comes close to dissenting from the new scholarship by wondering whether "Dunn and Ashcraft" are whistling in the dark concerning the coherence of Locke's "worldview"; but he closes ranks with the assertion that the Essay lays out a path to salvation. Eisenach concludes that Locke is not antireligious and secular, but a defender of biblical Christianity. The new scholarship must emphasize all the more a "spiritualist and assertively evangelical Locke". David Resnick, in "Rationality and the Two Treatises," attempts to recover the portrait of Locke as an antitraditionalist, committed to a critical rationalism. Resnick uses Weber's theory of rationality to render a consistent account of Locke's social analysis. Yet Resnick also insists that Locke's political philosophy is not self-interested and atomistic but is rooted in a fully Christian worldview: "Locke's deeply held theological convictions about the existence, benevolence and rationality of God ground his reasoning in a metaphysically stable framework". This religious assumption provides a basis for Locke's "rationality." But a new inconsistency is opened up by this resolution--a rationalism rooted in religious faith, by a philosopher who continually urged their distinction. Karen Iversen Vaughn, in "The Economic Background to Locke's Two Treatises of Government," attempts to correct the new scholarship's neglect of the economic premises of Locke's political philosophy; this neglect is part of an overreaction to Macpherson, but Vaughn offers a moderate economic interpretation of Locke. Vaughn shows the importance of rational self-interest in economic behavior, the necessity of political society to set conditions for economic pursuit: limit on sovereign power is an example of self-interest and evidence that "economic aspects of man's behavior permeated all aspects of life". Further, "civil society requires enforceable rules to contain the self-seeking actions of all men, so that life, liberty and property can be protected". Vaughn's essay opens the back door to the "self-interested" Locke of the "old scholarship." Ronald Hamowy, in "Cato's Letters, John Locke, and the Republican Paradigm," also seeks to redress the imbalance of the new scholarship, arguing that Locke's philosophy was not displaced by the civic humanist tradition and republican virtue. He offers a detailed analysis of Cato's Letters by John Tenchard and Thomas Gordon. Like Locke, "Cato" defines political authority in terms of inalienable rights. His analysis of liberty is strikingly Lockean, and not republican. Pocock's assessment of Locke's irrelevance to Whiggism and the American founding must be rejected. In the final essay, "Locke's Two Treatises and Contemporary Thought: Freedom, Community and the Liberal Tradition," Stephen L. Newman compares contemporary American libertarian and communitarian alternatives to the liberal welfare state. Newman offers a very trenchant criticism of libertarianism as decidedly non-Lockean by dint of its utter depoliticization of all behavior and its tendency to restore the execution of natural law to the private citizen and private groups. On the other hand, communitarianism fails to provide a sufficiently specific and robust notion of the common good, and more consistent writers like Walzer and Barber fall back not upon a teleological community, but autonomy mixed with participation. Locke's distinction of politics from economics, family, and social groups still provides the most workable and realistic account of politics available in the modern world; hence Newman concludes that libertarianism and communitarianism offer "impoverished" political theories.



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John P. Hittinger
University of St. Thomas, Texas

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