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Mar 1, 1980

Locke’s First Treatise and Modernity

“Locke interpreted revelation and the Bible not as divine, but as human things.”

Michael P. Zuckert
Carleton College

“An Introduction to Locke’s First Treatise.” Interpretation 8 (January 1979):58–74.

Locke’s First Treatise has suffered a long but undeserved history of neglect in comparison to hisSecond Treatise. Peter Laslett, however, has shown that both Treatises need to be read together as part of an essential unity. Locke’s Two Treatises together were not post hoc justifications of the Glorious Revolution (1688), but revolutionary tracts “on behalf of the devoutly hoped for revolution to come, to be sponsored by his patron Shaftesbury, at the time of the Exclusion Crisis about a decade earlier.” Leslett also shows the unity of both Treatises in their polemical target, Sir Robert Filmer.

The First Treatise seeks both to refute Filmer’s Patriarcha with its theory of the divine right of patriarchal kingship and to vindicate the Lockean “consent of Men” doctrine with its belief in the inalienable natural rights and freedom of men. Locke criticizes Filmer’s scriptural and natural arguments that absolute monarchs derived by direct inheritance their non-democratic rule from Adam’s patriarchal sovereignty. God gave dominion not solely to Adam but also to Eve; this dominion was personal not political; and we cannot even trace any alleged rights of inheritance.

On a deeper level the issue between Locke and Filmer is whether a scriptural beginning point is justifiable or helpful in political methodology. Filmer believed that he needed to refute Bellarmine’s defense of the “natural liberty of the subject” since Bellarmine, alone of his opponents, vested his arguments for popular political power on scriptural basis. Locke believed that a scriptural orientation is not the proper epistemological beginning point for establishing natural freedom and popular sovereignty. “Filmer is a surrogate for the Bible” and “Locke uses Filmer to get at the Bible itself.” Locke concentrates on the Biblically related themes of Filmer’s theory and deliberately ignores Filmer’s more naturalistic arguments. In fact Locke’s misrepresentation of Filmer’s arguments shows that his chief concern is not Filmer but an examination of Scriptures. “The beginning of wisdom about the First Treatise is a distrust bordering on disregard of the surface structure and surface argument of the First Treatise.” The “issue of the First Treatise is the Hobbesian right of nature—the right of everyone to everything in nature—against the Scriptural understanding.” Scriptural understanding is a variant of a broader moral and intellectual orientation, the “pre-modern consciousness.” Locke, in the First Treatise,champions the right of nature and the post-Cartesian “new way of ideas” in political philosophy against the Biblical, pre-modern awareness that inadequately understood human freedom, property, and creation by making man subordinate to a primitive, inadequate notion of God.

Locke interpreted revelation and the Bible not as divine, but as human things in terms of his Essay of Human Understanding. His modern scientific method and epistemology aimed at translating and reducing scriptural, precritical modes of expression into the naturalistic words, ideas, and things. “Whereas the Biblical God enjoins in man freedom to obey, the Lockean substitute for God—the “wise and god-like prince”—ordains simply ‘laws of liberty’.” Man, to be truly free, must transcend the pre-scientific view of himself as the primitive Biblical God’s creature. Similarly, man must modernize his understanding of property as God’s “donation” to him in order to possess human clear title. “Locke’s intention is to emancipate man from the restraints in his freedom and in his ability to appropriate the world for his own.” Man’s culture and choices and labor provide him with the gifts of property and freedom, they are not given by outmoded concepts of God or nature.