The “New” Locke

Locke and Berkeley

edited by David M. Armstrong, edited by C.B. Martin
Notre Dame, 470 pp., $7.95

The Political Thought of John Locke

by John Dunn
Cambridge, 280 pp., $10.00

The Educational Writings of John Locke

edited by James Axtell
Cambridge, 442 pp., $12.50

John Locke: Two Tracts on Government

edited by Philip Abrams
Cambridge, 263 pp., $7.50

Locke's "Two Treatises of Government"

edited by Peter Laslett
Cambridge, 525 pp., $11.50

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.