Western Civilization II
24 November 2015
A Locked Society?: An Analysis of John Locke’s Writings
“And thus all private judgement of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire […]” (Barker 50) These words of John Locke’s suggest a differing opinion to the form of government that his theories aided in creating here in America. John Locke, a philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment, has been known to society as having his theories used to create the government of United States of America. Did Locke’s theories really aid in the creation of the United States government, or were just a few of his ideas used and twisted into what we now define as democracy? Careful study of Locke’s writings will tell if his ideas are what we have been made to believe or if his views entailed something else entirely.
John Locke’s works and writing have transcribed and or reprinted over the years into various books and archives. One such book that contains his views on civil government is Social Contract which was authored by Ernest Barker and includes the essays of John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though this is a book that was written in 1960, it is simply a republishing of the works and views and of great philosophers by an English political scientist.
When Locke wrote the essay that is contained in this book there had been many events that had transpired that would have influenced him. These events include, but are not limited to the settling of the Puritans, the settling of the Quakers, the English Civil War, and the restoration of the English monarchy following the Puritan Commonwealth led by Oliver Cromwell.
Perhaps the most famous thing John Locke is remembered for is providing the basis for one of the main points found in the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration the document within the first paragraph “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence). Most of this stated idea did indeed come from Locke, aide from one clear distinction. In Locke’s works he suggest that the unalienable rights are life, liberty, and property. When taking this slight change into account in today’s society there is a loophole that many people fail to realize. In this instance one is guaranteed to live, be governed, and pursue a meaning in life. When Locke’s original idea is observed and his definition of property taken into account, the fact that one now has a right to their own body, which is part of his definition of property, there arises a great contrast. By excluding the right of property a potential problem of everyone having equal property has been diverted, but in terms of definition nowhere in the Declaration does it say that an individual has a right to their own body. This creates an issue when it comes to laws and punishments according to those laws. If the Constitution and its amendments are disregarded momentarily and the concept of capital punishment is observed, under Locke’s ideas no form of torture would be allowed as man is guaranteed and property and his body is part of his property, yet without the guarantee of property there is no clause denies the ability to torture or perform cruel punishments which would therefore effectively cancel out the eight amendment of the Constitution.
To switch ideas for a moment, Locke’s ideas are well defined in his essay, whereas the founding documents of the United States are rather vague. In a description of the state of nature Locke states that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Barker 5). When compared to the current documents of the United States government nowhere does it state that individuals should not harm one another. There are laws that imply this, yet once again the documents are rather vague on various matters. The issues found in today’s society are due greatly to the vagueness of the laws and statutes that are the very foundation of the country. The ideas and theories that were taken from Locke and used to form a government were not even intended for a democracy or capitalist society, which may be the reason that large debates and issues are arising today.
When one reads Locke’s essay on civil government they will discover that his ideas cannot be simply cherry-picked and expected to work in any given scenario. His theories and ideas flow and connect with each other much like puzzle pieces connect to create a bigger image. The image that Locke’s theories present is a society that embodies capitalism, yet incorporates socialism and communism as well. Locke theorizes that maintaining society and mankind outweigh any form of competition when he says that “preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind” (Barker 6). Clearly Locke does not suggest that society eliminate private property like socialism and communism, but the competition found in capitalism is also not desired. What he suggests is to combine elements of these three different types of society, which are defined now but were not then, and prosper as a single people instead of competing against one another. There is a quote by Locke that suggests that he does not approve of the pursuit of happiness and that quote is “Americans are of this, who are rich in land and poor in all comforts of life; […] for want of improving it by labour” (Barker 25). When translated into society today this quote explains why there is poverty and global issues present. We as a people have the opportunity we need, yet are never satisfied with the result of work and are therefore making our lives more difficult by always pushing to achieve something more than we need.
Another source that points to Locke’s theories of an equal man and society is one of the few portraits of him available today. His portrait is accessible via the internet as the original paintings are most likely taken by history. Through examination of his portrait one can see a sort of collection of wisdom that is readable through his face and facial features. His poise and expression suggest that he has experienced much through his life and that he offers his opinions so that future conflict may be avoided. His garments signify decent wealth, but nothing extremely luxurious or expensive. In the photograph he appears calm and collected and seems as if he is a being of peace and that is all he desires.
From analyzing Locke’s perceived encounters between human beings and nation states with other nation states, he could be described as a pacifist as well as a utopianist. Wherever a situation that Locke describes in his essay has the potential of becoming violent he always follows that situation with a quote about peace that suggests that men should “join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living” (Barker 56). This idea not only applies to men, but it applies to their government as well as. “God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men” (Barker 9). These ideas and theories most definitely suggest that Locke was a pacifist and wanted a perfect society, but there is no blatant evidence that confirms this.
Government has long been an issue that has plagued mankind since the beginnings of society. With the introduction of societies comes the issues of laws and governing bodies for those societies. Over the course of history many different types of government have existed and many philosophers have published their opinions on the aspects of government. One of the most important philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment and a key figure whose theories were used to craft the founding documents of the United States of America was John Locke. While Locke’s theories have been believed to have been used to craft those founding documents this is not the case. His theories and ideas were cherry-picked by the writers of these documents and they were modified to cover a large basis of topics while being vague at the same time. Looking at the ideas that were taken from Locke’s theories, it is revealed that his ideas go into much more depth than the iterations that were used in the United States’ founding documents. While many of Locke’s ideas were successfully incorporated into the government of America, he has in a way been discredited and misunderstood through history as the ideas found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have taken some of his ideas and twisted them into a version that differs enough from the original that they cannot be viewed as his own.
Barker, Ernest. Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
“Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.iep.utm.edu/locke/.
“The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed November 18, 2015. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.