John Locke

Sorta sorry I encouraged my students to watch last night’s veep debate, now they’ll all be talking at once.

John Locke, the great liberal empiricist and not the castaway, offers a more decorous (though not always more consistent) example. He imagines us descended from reasonable and virtuous anarchists, not Hobbesian warriors. Our native liberty “is not a state of licence,” but there are just enough outliers and property-usurpers to make it prudent to institute laws and enforcers and leave the state of nature. The social contract that marks our exit therefrom is “an affair purely of this world” that does not vest the sovereign with divine authority. We the people (excepting women and the poor) retain our rights, mostly so we can retain our property.

One might have expected Locke to say that our political values and virtues, like the social contract, are also “of this world.” Instead he invokes God to impose our mutual equality “without subordination or subjection; unless the lord and master of them all” says otherwise. That’s out of this world, isn’t it?

Here’s a surprise: “The civil compact which institutes government binds only those who made it; the son must consent afresh to a compact made by his father.” But we don’t really think that, we traditionalists and patriots, do we? If for instance the “son” plays football and takes a knee during the anthem, he’s broken the compact. Locke wouldn’t (shouldn’t) agree.

The obsessive Lockean emphasis on property must have embarrassed Jefferson, who borrowed life and liberty but preferred the pursuit of happiness.

Locke’s famous common-sensical distinction between primary from secondary qualities failed to impress the Irish Bishop George Berkeley, who said solidity, extension, figure, motion and number are no less dependent on a percipient than sound and color. Good thing God’s watching the quad.

Russell thinks the Locke-Berkeley dispute is unsatisfactory, and overly entangled with old-school metaphysics about “substance.” Better to treat both concepts as constructs and events to be filled out by physics and more experience. No matter, never mind.
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Happy birthday to Encyclopedist Denis Diderot, one of Locke’s biggest French promoters, who said, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” And, to rocket man Robert Goddard, who said “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.” WA


6:45/6:48, 64/88/60, 6:23

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