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Victor Nuovo: Truth and the foundations of civil society

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Posted on August 10, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Introducing John Locke: Truth and the foundation of a civil society

“Its theme is the intellect, or the understanding or mind… in which Locke enquires about how the human mind works, how it gathers all of its content… and, above all, how it goes about searching after truth.”

– On Locke’s book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Editor’s note: This is the 19th in a series of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

Like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke (1632–1704) witnessed civil war and revolution. He out did his illustrious predecessor by doing so not once but twice. He was a youth during the first English Civil War (1642–49) and came of age during the regency of Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, shortly after the restoration of the English monarchy, he recorded his sentiments of it.

“I no sooner perceived myself in the world, but I found myself in a storm, which has lasted almost hitherto, and therefore cannot but entertain the approaches of a calm with the greatest joy and satisfaction … and do what lies in me to endeavor its continuance, by disposing men’s minds to obedience to that government which has brought with it that quiet and settlement which our own giddy folly had put beyond the reach, not only of our contrivance [ability to act], but our hopes.”

On the second occasion, Locke was well into his middle age. Once again, the cause of civil unrest was religion. Charles II, whose restoration Locke had celebrated, had no legal heir (although many illegal ones); hence the right of succession resided in his brother James II, who was a Roman Catholic.

Parliamentary leaders sought to deprive him of this right and to establish a Protestant succession. Chief among them was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was Locke’s patron and employer. Political crises and war followed. In 1683, Shaftesbury was forced into exile, Locke followed. He found sanctuary in the Netherlands, whose ruler was William III of Orange, and whose wife, Mary, was the eldest daughter of James II —though she had been raised a Protestant.

Mary had been James II’s presumptive heir until 1688, when James’s second wife gave birth to a son, who displaced his elder sister as heir to the throne. So, in 1688, William invaded England and easily defeated the army of James II, who fled the country. Thus followed the reign of William and Mary. Locke returned from exile, and soon after, in 1689, published Two Treatises of Government, his major political work.

In the preface, he writes that it was his purpose to offer arguments “sufficient to establish the Throne of our Great Restorer, our present King William; to make good his Title in the Consent of the People … and to justify to the World, the People of England, whose love of their Just and Natural Rights, saved the Nation when it was on the brink of slavery and ruin.”

The contrast between Locke’s earlier and later comments could not be greater. The former is the speech of a conformist and royalist; in the latter, we hear the voice of a radical and populist. I will attempt to explain this change in a subsequent essay.

In the same year, Locke published a second book, which also brought him fame and recognition. It was entitled, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It is a long and thoughtful work—over 700 pages in the modern standard edition. Locke began writing it almost 20 years before, in 1671. And, once published, he continued to revise it, bringing out second, third and fourth editions; he was preparing a fifth edition when he died. It was his life’s work.

Its theme is the intellect, or the understanding or mind—he used the terms synonymously. In it, Locke enquires about how the human mind works; how it gathers all of its content; how it arranges this heady content into a rational order; and above all, how it goes about searching after truth. Locke’s essay is intended for lovers and adventurers. He likens its narrative to “Hawking and Hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the Pleasure.” And just as the eye, searching after things, takes pleasure in what it discovers, so the understanding, setting out on a course “to find and follow Truth, will not miss the Hunter’s satisfaction.”

Here, however, the mind’s object of pursuit is its very own nature. The task is difficult, unnatural, like the eye trying to observe itself, and therefore the hunt is all the more daring and rewarding. The prize is truth. Locke wrote his book on behalf of lovers of truth, whose pursuit is our great adventure.

In the light of the previous essay, the strong connection between Locke’s essay and his political writings should be obvious. Locke had read Spinoza and Spinoza’s claim that the search for truth, the freedom to philosophize, was essential to any well-established civil society was well known to him. Like Spinoza, he believed that it was the basis of true piety; and of peace also, because the truth is something about which all who make honest use of their intellectual faculties can agree on and revere. Truth’s decisions end conflicts; they make peace.

But Locke discovered another benefit about the operations of the mind that enhance the bonds of civil society. It might be called the joyous contagion of searching after truth. Genuine searches after truth do not indoctrinate, rather they are open invitations to join in the search. After long enquiry, Locke concluded that the mind is a natural thing, connected to an organ of the body.

Thinking after truth is a physical action, Locke determined, and the interaction of thinking is like animal play: “This, Reader, is the Entertainment of those, who let loose their own Thoughts, and follow them in writing [NOTE: here again Locke uses the metaphor of hawking]; which though thou oughtest not to envy them, since they afford thee an Opportunity of the like Diversion, if thou wilt make use of thy own Thoughts in reading. ’Tis to them, if they are thy own, that I referr myself: But if they are taken upon Trust from others, ’tis no great matter what they are, they not following Truth.”

From Locke, and Spinoza before him, we may derive this maxim: The only durable and lasting foundation of civil society is truth; the search for it, and the relentless pursuit of it, is a duty of all the people and every institution of government. It follows that a primary task of government is to establish public educational institutions that are free and accessible to all.

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