Previously we talked about the philosophy of Rene Descartes, now we turn to John Locke (1632 – 1704). John Locke is important because he really makes an effort to do what I believe is the true goal of the Age of Enlightenment and ultimately the French Revolution: “clean slate”. Locke’s main vehicle for this endeavor is his book, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, circa 1689.
From the outset, Locke tries to establish that humans are born with no innate knowledge of anything – particularly moral values. Scholars have given this concept a name, “Tabula Rasa”. All knowledge is acquired through the senses. His core argument is that men would not commit things like theft and violence if they knew better. If they were born with love, then they would not commit violence. He mentions that the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, Greeks, and Romans practiced human sacrifice. So Locke asks, “why would they do that if there were some innate knowledge inside them that instructed them differently?”. He tries to drive his point home with some flippant saying that goes something like, “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”. To this day, I do not know what he is trying to say with this statement.
At once, Locke puts a wrecking ball to thousands of years of human moral thinking. Previously, Aristotle said that happiness is attained through study, contemplation, wife, children, and charity; because those things are natural to the human animal. Socrates said that humans are born with ideals called The Forms and that we must turn our direction back towards attaining those ideals. When St. Paul was in Rome he said of the Romans, essentially, “These people know better and they have no excuse”.
The reason why this is important is because Locke is one of the major pillars supporting the American quest for Democracy. He published a set of writings called, “Two Treatises of Government”. At the heart of his discussion, is that there is nothing in nature indicating there needs to be a king at the head of government – The Divine Rights of Kings. He, along with Hobbes, says that the government is there to serve the people. No one ever denied this; yet again, he is wiping out thousands of years of human beliefs and thinking – talk about a clean slate
The Two Treatises of Government is actually part of a broader discussion. Locke was responding to another book published by John Filmer, Partriarcha, 1680. Here Filmer shows through the Bible that the king is part of the natural order – specifically that Adam was a king, as God himself is a king. This did not go over too well with Locke because Locke is an empiricist. Empiricists do not rely on theology; rather, only on hard data. So, Filmer and Locke were like two ships that pass in the night.
I bring up Locke not only with reference to the French Revolution, but also in reference to our own American Revolution. Locke had a great influence in the thinking of our Founding Fathers. He also had a hand in writing the original constitution of the Carolinas: “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”, 1669. Note that during the first impeachment trail of Donald Trump, our US Congressmen, in their scramble for a defense, went back to our most fundamental documents: writings of George Washington, writings of Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist Papers, and even the writings of John Locke. Rather than arguing the way I saw the impeachment trial, that there was no “misdemeanor”, then Trump should be acquitted; no, instead our Congressmen went back to these secular writings from Locke and others, and read from them like a Baptist minister reading from the Book of Revelation. Reminds me of that guy in the movie “Planet of the Apes”: “The Law Giver”.
As a final comment, I would like to say that I do read these books, but I do not dwell on them too much. I read them just to figure out what is our American system all about. To read Locke, you need to write your own Locke Dictionary because he is all about knocking down the past and giving new definitions to everything – in today’s parlance, that would be called, “re-education”. For instance, he says that time is a measure of duration; and duration is the sequence of thoughts in our mind. What? This stuff is just “too out there” for me to take seriously. I will leave you with a quotation from “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” just to give you a taste of just how quirky John Locke can be. He redefines things like distance, which is a measure of extension; and extension being a unit of space between solid bodies. Please read below for yourself.
“To conclude, whatever men shall think concerning the existence of a vacuum, this is plain to me, that we have as clear an idea of space distinct from solidity, as we have of solidity distinct from motion, or motion from space. We have not any two more distinct ideas, and we can as easily conceive space without solidity, as we can conceive body or space without motion; though it be ever so certain, that neither body nor motion can exist without space. But whether any one will take space to be only a relation resulting from the existence of other beings at a distance, or whether they will think the words of the most knowing king Solomon, “The heaven, and the heaven of heavens, cannot contain thee;” or those more emphatical ones of the inspired philosopher St. Paul, “In him we live, move, and have our being;” are to be understood in a literal sense, I leave every one to consider: only our idea of space is, I think, such as I have mentioned, and distinct from that of body. For whether we consider in matter itself the distance of its coherent solid parts, and call it, in respect of those solid parts, extension: or whether, considering it as lying between the extremities of any body in its several dimensions, we call it length, breadth, and thickness; or else, considering it as lying between any two bodies, or positive beings, without any consideration whether there be any matter or no between, we call it distance; however named or considered, it is always the same uniform simple idea of space, taken from objects about which our senses have been conversant; whereof having settled ideas in our minds, we can revive, repeat and add them one to another as often as we will, and consider the space or distance so imagined, either as filled with solid parts, so that another body cannot come there, without displacing and thrusting out the body that was there before; or else as void of solidity, so that a body of equal dimensions to that empty or pure space may be placed in it, without the removing or expulsion of any thing that was there. But, to avoid confusion in discourses concerning this matter, it were possibly to be wished that the name extension were applied only to matter, or the distance of the extremities of particular bodies; and the term expansion to space in general, with or without solid matter possessing it, so as to say space is expanded, and body extended. But in this every one has liberty: I propose it only for the more clear and distinct way of speaking.”