John Locke
John Locke; drawing by David Levine

Until recently, the image of John Locke conveyed by English writers of history, political theory, and philosophy was an unsubtle exercise in national self-congratulation. The seeds of such English gifts to mankind as religious toleration, political liberty, industrial progress, the empirical frame of mind uniquely favorable to scientific discovery—all these were sown by Locke. It was regrettably true, of course, that Locke was muddled, inclined to major inconsistencies and a degree of incoherence remarkable in a great thinker. But these vices were regarded with a certain complacency as the signs of Locke’s enormously English gift for compromise. Not for him to sink consistently by one principle when he might swim by a judicious—his own favorite commendation—mixture of several. The evidence of the senses was balanced by the axiomatic mechanics of Newton; a down-to-earth utilitarianism was strengthened by the revelation of God’s own moral code, the democratic implications of government by consent moderated by a proper concern for the rights of property.

In the conventional view, moreover, Locke’s historical influence was uniformly admirable. The American War of Independence was lost by the British, but, as Burke pointed out at the time, the colonists were fighting for English principles. Indeed, the loss was itself practically a sign of grace, a defeat of England lapsed by England’s better, Lockean, nature. Although the French Revolution was excessively doctrinaire, and went to unnecessary extremes in pursuing liberty, equality, and fraternity, these were nonetheless good things in themselves, for they expressed the principles of the Glorious Revolution—the revolution which the Two Treatises was written to defend.

On the evidence of Mr. Dunn’s account of Locke’s politics and most of the rest of the work published since Mr. Laslett’s new edition of the Two Treatises, that image has been damaged beyond repair. If the John Locke with whom we are now presented is part of the contemporary English—or Anglo-American—self-image, some striking conclusions might be drawn about the liberal crisis of confidence. For not only has Locke been firmly pushed back into the seventeenth century; he has been transformed from a muddled liberal contemporary into something far more remote, and often disagreeable, a figure from a past which no twentieth-century consciousness could contemplate with ease. Every one of Locke’s former qualities seems to have vanished, to be replaced more often than not by its opposite. Neither what he was, nor what he thought, nor what his influence was can be taken for granted any more.

Mr. Laslett’s detective work, described with great zest in the Introduction to his edition of the Treatises, destroyed forever the belief that they were really written and published in less than a year in order to defend the deposition of James II, and the installation of the Great Restorer, William III. On the contrary, they had been composed years earlier, during the Exclusion Controversy, when Locke was secretary and confidant to Shaftesbury, leader of the Whig exclusionists. Laslett perhaps overestimates the importance of the redating of the Treatises; it is not wholly clear why, in reassessing Locke’s intentions, Laslett should lead us to a major reassessment of Locke’s product. Whatever the occasion for which they were written, whatever their intended audience, the political and intellectual content of the Treatises still remains the justification for limited government, an assertion of constitutionalism, and a denunciation of political absolutism in every shape.

But one long-standing account of Locke no longer holds: no longer can Locke be interpreted as engaging in a dialogue with Hobbes’s Leviathan, for it is clear that his opponent was Filmer’s patriarchal absolutism; and Locke’s aim, if Mr. Dunn is correct, was to lever away from their unquestioning allegiance to the crown the soil-bound country gentry to whom Filmer’s arguments—which even then seemed of a rustic simplicity—appealed.

Once we have abandoned liberal pieties for historical accuracy, we have to place Locke firmly in the context of the seventeenth-century arguments over the paternal or patriarchal authority of monarchs; and Professor Schochet’s essay, in the collection of studies on Locke edited by John Yolton, does the job admirably. Schochet shows how many of Filmer’s assumptions were shared by Locke, and how these are largely the ones which a twentieth-century reader would regard as the most absurd.

For Locke agreed that families had become political societies at the point where the rule of the father, long accepted out of trust and affection, was transformed into political authority based on the consent of the governed. Only because such idyllic relationships could not be said to characterize seventeenth-century politics was Locke able to show them to be barren of political implications for that century. Hobbes wasted no time on such nonsense, and he appears more nearly our contemporary than Locke, who was immersed in the day-to-day politics of a world where education centered on the catechism book and where the fifth commandment was an obsession.


This more remote Locke emerges as a less secular thinker than we have believed him to be. For example, his theological concerns made his attitude to the new natural sciences very ambiguous. Professors Axtell and Ashcraft insist on Locke’s doubts about human knowledge; his empiricism derives from the conviction that the human mind could never attain to the “scientifical”—i.e., a priori and deductive—knowledge of the natural order available to the God who had created it. God’s knowledge of the natural world is as certain and as a priori as the human knowledge of geometry, which Locke followed Hobbes in believing to be an invention of our own minds. But human knowledge lags far behind, being inductive, uncertain, fragmentary, and lamentably empirical.

The emphasis on the theological determinants of Locke’s epistemology is a long step forward in explaining one of the familiar cruxes in Locke scholarship, his apparently unmotivated insistence on the necessary character of moral truths. Moral laws, like all God’s laws, are a priori from the viewpoint of the divine legislator, though they could be haltingly reconstructed as utilitarian rules by that part of mankind which is devoid of the Christian revelation. But happily for those who have received this revelation, they can also be known by insight into the mind of God, and thus they account for Locke’s insistence in the Essay that our knowledge of moral law is firmer than our knowledge of the natural order. Professor Axtell elegantly demonstrates how this also explains Locke’s near veneration of Newton—for in Locke’s eyes the axiomatic, a prioristic mechanics took on the appearance of a divine revelation, a glimpse into the Designing Intelligence. It was only natural that Locke scarcely took account of it in the Essay, for such a deliverance hardly seemed attributable to the ordinary powers of the human understanding.

A Locke so continuously obsessed with the problems of applied Christian theology is obviously a less likely father of secular liberalism than he seemed before; but the deflation of his reputation has more varied sources. Perhaps the most interesting assault was launched in Professor Macpherson’s Possessive Individualism, the gist of which is reprinted in the volume of Modern Studies in Philosophy devoted to Locke and Berkeley. This is a Marxist analysis which casts Locke as the apologist of the rising bourgeoisie; gone are the liberal muddles, and in their place is a tough-minded defense of unlimited capitalist appropriation. Locke’s religion, in Macpherson’s interpretation, serves to keep the poor in their places and to encourage the “persons of a better sort” to help keep them there; politics is based on the defense of property so that the landless may first be robbed of their labor, then muzzled politically should they complain of the theft.

Naturally one’s ability to swallow this view of Locke depends to a large extent on one’s ability to swallow the Marxist principles on which it rests. My own doubts, based on purely textual grounds, seem abundantly confirmed by the historical evidence assembled by Mr. Laslett and his pupils. Nevertheless, Marxist and non-Marxist alike must be moved by the extreme illiberalism displayed in Locke’s early Tracts on Government, which Dr. Abrams has edited and introduced. It is true that Abrams’s own account suggests that as Locke’s fear of disorder left him, he readily accepted religious toleration and political liberalism; nonetheless, so intensely was he convinced that the true principles of politics were to be grounded only in theology that we must construe the more liberal Locke as a more liberal Christian, not as a less Christian liberal.

If Locke’s image as a thinker is changed, so also is the impression we can form of his influence. Mr. Dunn’s essay on Locke’s influence in England and America shows conclusively that practically no one read even the relatively short Second Treatise, let alone the long and boring wrangle with Filmer. Moreover, the fact that interest in Locke did not develop until after the War of Independence strongly suggests that Locke’s role was rhetorical rather than historically influential. Indeed, the only worthwhile influence which Mr. Dunn ascribes to Locke was the saving of one Thomas Hardy, a London artisan who escaped a charge of high treason by successfully pleading that the similarity of his principles to Locke’s conferred respectability on his own views.

Mr. Dunn raises all too briefly the wider question of what status to accord historians’ statements of historical influence; but he does show how extremely tough are the demands which must be met if we are seriously concerned with cause and effect. Thus, he argues, we ought to be able to show that Locke was widely read before the 1770s, that he was understood clearly and in one sense, and that he was appealed to before rather than after the event. Mr. Dunn’s research gives solid support to his demonstration that these demands cannot be met. But it is too easy a triumph, for once we see what Mr. Dunn’s demands are we must immediately agree that the proper place for such claims as that the American War of Independence was fought in the name of Locke is not serious history but nineteenth- and twentieth-century political rhetoric.


The ground thus cleared of the old Locke, Mr. Dunn offers us a new and historically more plausible thinker—though he also makes it clear that he finds his Locke less attractive on other grounds. The book has the subtitle “an historical account of the argument” of the Two Treatises, and it must be stressed, as Mr. Dunn himself does throughout the book, that much weight is attached to the historicity of his Locke. Compared with the authors of Toward a New Past, Dunn seems to have set out to create an unusable history, so concerned is he to place Locke beyond the reach of rhetorical capture. The claim Mr. Dunn stands by is that his approach alone will tell us what Locke’s work meant in that only detailed historical analysis can show us what Locke’s intentions were, and why they were thus expressed. But Dunn goes on to claim that in so elucidating Locke’s intentions, primarily in the Two Treatises, but also in the Tracts and the Essays on the Law of Nature, he shows more clearly than any other account what the texts mean. This in effect is to take textual analysis out of the hands of the philosophers—who are said to be unwilling to do the hard work entailed by the revisions which the historians demand. The skeptical—or lazy—philosopher might, however, retort that as far as the Treatises go, he is much indebted to Mr. Dunn for information about Locke’s state of mind, but that this makes remarkably little impact on our reading them as tracts on the basis of constitutional government.

But Mr. Dunn’s Locke is a striking character, though his lineaments are also discernible in the composite portrait of Professor Yolton’s volume. Locke’s politics, liberal and illiberal, were, in Mr. Dunn’s view, the political consequences of his Calvinism; the strained conservative and the relaxed liberal simply reacted differently in their assessment of the situation within which the Christian was called to do his duty. The famed “individualism” of Locke’s works rests on the Calvinist conception of our “calling” to that duty. No one can be saved on our behalf; no one can follow for us the divine injunction to improve both our knowledge and our use of God’s creation so freely given to us. And contrary to both Marxist and Weberian accounts, the spirit of capitalism is absent from this protestant ethic; the world of earthly contrivance is but a threshold to an eternity of greater happiness which no earthly goods could warrant our putting in jeopardy. Locke, to quote Mr. Dunn, “can be reckoned to have had about as much sympathy with unlimited capitalist accumulation as Mao Tse-Tung has.”

If Mr. Dunn’s account of Locke is historically accurate, what follows? A proper answer is that even if nothing at all follows, it is enough that the story is true; the historian’s job is to tell us the truth about what happened, and if the truth is boring, or politically barren, this does not make it any less true. Moreover, where supposedly historical accounts of Locke’s work have been applied in defense of some wider theory about the nature of liberalism or the role of political theorists they will have to take account of Dunn. While Locke remains a potent political symbol, it is a powerful negative blow to expose the dependence of much contemporary political rhetoric on a history which turns out to be myth.

On this level, the book is decisive where decisiveness is possible, and duly cautious where evidence is lacking or the questions posed by historians make poor sense. Professors Strauss and Cox, with their tales of the covert purposes of the-Locke-who-was-really-Hobbes-in-disguise, have been thoroughly routed; while Professor Macpherson’s account is shown to ascribe to Locke motives which he could not have begun to make sense of. But is this all there is to be said? Given Mr. Dunn’s obvious intention to rob the liberal Pantheon of one of its gods, should he not leave us some account of the implications of the theft?

It appears to me—though not, I am bound to admit, to most of his reviewers—that Dunn does indeed have such an account, though he makes it hard for his critics to appreciate it. The major obstacle is stylistic. The first two-thirds of the book are written in a fashion so mannered that simple factual observations disappear beneath a baroque profusion of obfuscating adjectives. The overtones are disagreeable too; we never merely agree, we give a “flaccid agreement”; and no one makes a mistake: our views are either “odd” or “mendacious.” The use of these terms suggests that Locke scholars are liars when lucid, but usually out of their minds. This combination of mannerism and insult, however, does an injustice to the intelligence and insight of this book, the last third of which is far more lucid, more concerned with the wider implications of historical interpretation, than the run of Locke studies, and often extremely entertaining. But by this stage little space remains to do these issues justice, and more questions are touched on than can possibly be answered.

For example, what is left of liberalism in politics, once the theological core which gave it meaning for Locke has been dissolved? The obvious answer is that liberal politics are founded on secular utilitarianism moderated by justice, a foundation which Locke himself saw as adequate for a limited social order. This may not make Locke seem the “John Stuart Mill de ses jours,” but it does suggest why later English utilitarians felt an intellectual affinity with him. Dunn says only that Locke could not have made sense of a secular liberalism, but he appears to think that this settles the matter against liberalism in the twentieth century too. On the face of it, this is like arguing that because Newton, like Locke, believed the principles of physics to have theological roots, twentieth-century physics is irrevocably blighted by its atheism. Secular utilitarianism, like secular physics, has a life of its own once freed from the irrelevant theological connection. Dunn adapts more plausibly a suggestion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s in Secularization and Moral Change that a rationalist ethic like utilitarianism cannot generate social cohesion because it cannot integrate the social order in an acceptable cosmology. If this argument held up, Locke would certainly emerge as a better liberal than Mill, since the liberalism of the latter would simply fail to be a possible social doctrine. Unfortunately, Dunn devotes too little space here to make this argument convincing, and it remains only an interesting suggestion.

Again, of the intention to save Locke from rhetorical use by expelling him from contemporary political concerns, the question arises how playable a game this is. Dunn clearly thinks that when he has pushed Locke back into the stifling atmosphere of the patriarchal family, the catechism book, and the fifth commandment, he has eliminated all traces of contemporary interest. But, as Axtell’s edition of Locke’s educational writings makes clear, the society of the 1680s knew the simple truth that children enter society by way of the family; and even in the 1680s it was apparent that adult attitudes to political authority were grounded in childhood experiences of authority in the family. It is certainly true that the contemporary political scientist looks to Freud or Adorno rather than to Calvin as his guide; but just how different were my colleagues at Columbia in May 1968 who were loudly despairing of the “permissive family” from the Locke of the 1680s who wrestled with the rival claims of mildness and severity? For all his emphasis on historicity, Dunn is so impressed with the remoteness of Locke’s theology from his own beliefs that he overlooks the extent to which Locke’s this-worldly prescriptions faced up to problems with which all political scientists must deal.

But of all the regrettably absent arguments, the most missed is the critique of the possibility of a Marxist history of ideas. In a suggestive one-line aside, Dunn remarks on the dangers of Marxist writers bringing the yet unrisen bourgeoisie who are “waiting in the wings” of history onto the stage as unseen yet potent actors. But should we infer that all Marxist historiography is vitiated by this kind of teleology, which turns hindsight into explanation by destiny? A convincing argument would have implications for contemporary Marxist sociology—is this, too, devoid of explanatory content, appealing to no more than a faith that history will turn out to favor the “right” side? Since Dunn seems to believe that Marxism is the only plausible claimant to the inheritance of Christianity as the basis of an ideologically coherent social order, this omission, in an otherwise continuously courageous argument, seems a strange failure of nerve.

This Issue

November 20, 1969