Locke 3 “A Letter Concerning Toleration”

The blogs for the prior two weeks covered the thinking of John Locke as found in his “Two Treatises on Government”. [1] This week, I am covering his “A Letter Concerning Toleration”. [2] As previously mentioned, both of these contributions to political thought were published after the Glorious Revolution (1688), which brought William, Prince of Orange and his wife, Mary, to the throne in place of James II. The Glorious Revolution marked an end to a period of English political instability, characterized by conflict as Protestants and Catholics vied for power. Most scholars believe A Letter Concerning Toleration was initially composed around 1685, just before the deposing of James II, while Locke was in exile in Holland.

Locke’s thinking is critical for understanding the creation of American political institutions and the emergence of the American ideal of religious liberty. The American Revolution was deeply impacted by his thought and by the European experience of religious persecution and conflict, an experience that formed English and European history. The founders were well aware of the history involved and of the conclusions of the deepest thinkers concerning these problems, chief among which was John Locke.

Prior to the Reformation, Europe was Christian, and Western Europe was Roman Catholic. The early division between the Eastern and Western Churches, had little impact on Europe. In England, the Roman Church and its rites were dominant after the year 1000 or so. Beginning around 1500, this dominance was shattered. Western Europe was divided into Catholics and Protestants. Protestants were divided between Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Anabaptists, and other sects. Not only was there conflict between Protestants and Catholics, there was conflict among the doctrines and practices of many emerging Christian sects. Eventually, Europe was involved in devastating religious conflict.  In England, there was strife between Catholic and Protestant parties, and after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, there was strife between the established Church and various sects that split away from the Church of England. All over Western Europe, intellectuals were appalled by the violence and bloodshed that resulted from these conflicts.

The Two Spheres

Fundamentally, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argues that the Church (and by implication all religious institutions) and the State (and by implication all of the institutions of civil government) are two separate types social institutions, with different goals and purposes. Religious institutions are concerned with the ultimate meaning of life, personal salvation, and the worship or lack of worship, of a God. Civil government is concerned with the right ordering of a society to protect persons and property. While these two social powers have some interaction, as to the use of civil power to establish or control religious thought, Locke believes it is not appropriate for the state to interfere with religious affairs or for religious groups to use, or attempt to use, force, legal or otherwise, in achieving their aims. This insight finds its way into the American Constitution in the form of the First Amendment, with its protection of religious liberty.

Limitations on State Power to Establish a Particular Religion

As mentioned earlier, by Locke’s day England had experienced a degree of religious conflict that sometimes worked to deprive some persons of life and property. Initially, Henry VIII separated from the Roman Church and used the power of the state to restrict Roman Catholic influence. When Charles I, a Catholic, ascended to the throne, there was conflict that resulted in the Cromwellian Revolution and the ultimate execution of Charles. When Charles II was restored to the throne, conflict reemerged and only finally terminated with the Glorious Revolution that assured the dominance of the Protestant Church in England. This conflict, however, was not the end of the matter, for the emergence of various “free church sects” and theological divisions within the Church of England meant that the Church of England was tempted to use its political influence as the established church to eliminate what it considered heretical ideas. In Scotland, there was always opposition to repeated attempts to institute an episcopal form of government and to interfere with their Presbyterian forms.

In response to these problems, Locke argued that it is not appropriate for the power of the state to be used to establish or enforce private religious beliefs. Civil government is established for the protection of persons and property, so that individuals can pursue their private interests in peace. Civil government is formed to deal with the external, physical things of life not sacred aspects of life.  Thus, Locke says:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own civil interests, Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possessions of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all people in general and to each one of his subjects in particular the just possession of those things belonging to this life. [3]

Here we have a principle that limits the power of the state in matters of religion: In contemporary terms, the state has to do with secular things, with the regulation of civil life for the benefit of a society. The protection of life and property, the defense of persons against aggression, foreign and domestic, and equal protection of non-discriminatory laws are the duties of civil government. As a corollary to this limitation, civil government should not interfere with the private religious beliefs of persons or groups.

In Locke’s terms, responsibility for the cure of souls is not given to secular civil government.[4]  According to Locke, this is true because:

  1. Such power over the human was never given by God to civil authorities;
  2. The only power that the state possesses is exterior, physical force (the power of law and the sword), which is not effective to create true, effectual, inward, private belief; and
  3. The powers and penalties of the civil estate cannot, for these reasons save human souls or advance any true form of religion.

As is often true with Locke, these arguments combine a Christian theological and a secular philosophical set of arguments.

The Religious Duty of Toleration

Religious groups are (or at least should be) private, voluntary societies formed for the worship of God. Thus, Locke states:

A Church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord for the public worship of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual for the salvation of their souls. I say it is a free and voluntary society. [5]

The importance of the word “voluntary should not be overlooked. Throughout human history very few people considered religion “voluntary. Parents, local chieftains, kings, and emperors normally regulated religions within their boundaries. With few exceptions, the choice of the dominant religion was that of the ruler, and only in a few cases did these rulers feel that religious toleration was necessary or desirable. Locke’s view is, therefore, revolutionary. Religion should be a matter of private choice.

There are important implications of this notion of the church as a private, voluntary society formed by human beings for their own private religious edification:

  1. Just as the state should not abuse its civil power to establish (or de-establish) a religion, no religious group should seek to use civil power to promote the primacy or rights of their group.
  2. Because there will always be differences of opinion among various religious groups and sub-groups concerning matters of worship, faith, and practice, no religious group should be able to use the power of the state to assure their victory in such matters nor should the state interfere with matters of worship or belief.
  3. People, therefore, must be free of state interference to choose for themselves which group to belong to and what religious views to hold. [6]

Just as the state must refrain from interfering with religious groups by the use of civil power, so also religious groups should tolerate other groups and refrain from attempting to use civil power to forward their religious group. The powers of religious groups are purely private and ecclesiastical and do not include any resort to civil power.

This duty of toleration goes beyond mere passive tolerance.  Locke believes that religious groups have a positive duty of toleration of other groups and of restraint from seeking to harness state power to secure their beliefs. This is true for the following reasons:

  1. No church is bound to retain any person within its society who does not believe and adopt its beliefs and practices and so has no need for civil power to maintain its own beliefs and practices. In addition, no private person has any right to complain of another person’s or group’s faith or practice. This extends to pagans and persons of different religions. In other words, religion is a private matter.
  2. Different religious groups should tolerate each other just as they are tolerated. Thus, Locke says, “… peace, equity, and friendship are always to be observed by particular churches in the same manner as private persons, without any pretense of superiority or jurisdiction over one another.” [7] This kind of forbearance is difficult to achieve because all religious groups conceive that their doctrine and practices are correct. In Christian terms, there is a natural tendency for each group to consider themselves orthodox and others in some way heretical. The only way to maintain social peace in his kind of situation is to deprive any group of the power and opportunity to persecute any other group. Where there is no such power, the virtue of toleration will be present. [8] This is the genesis and genius of American freedom of religion.
  3. Finally, in what I think is the finest passage of A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke concludes that religious leaders have a positive duty and obligation not just to maintain toleration but to preach and work for toleration:

It is not enough that ecclesiastical men abstain from violence and rapine and all manner of persecution. He that pretends to be a successor of the apostles, and takes upon him the office of teaching, is obligated to admonish his hearers of the duties of peace and goodwill towards all men, as well as towards the erroneous as the orthodox: towards those that differ with them in faith and worship as well as towards those that agree with them therein. [9]

Locke concludes this argument warning religious leaders that they will be held accountable by the Prince of Peace for their words and actions in this area of toleration.

The Civil Duty of Toleration

When Locke says that civil authorities are not to interfere with religion, he does not mean that there are no civil duties with respect to toleration. Civil authorities are to work from a recognition that their powers and duties are purely civil in nature, given to them for the sole purpose of creating social peace and providing for the general welfare. This has implications for the conduct of public affairs:

  1. Civil magistrates should not interfere with religious worship and belief and should resist any attempt by religious groups to secure advantages due to a partnership with public powers. Civil wisdom gives government no insight into religious faith or its proper forms, and therefore civil authorities are incompetent to make such decisions.
  2. Civil authorities cannot and should not interfere with religious matters under the guise of supporting the decisions of religious authorities as to religious matters, since such authorities sometimes err and are, in any case, often self-seeking.
  3. Finally, and back to a constant argument Locke makes: force is not an appropriate way to decide private matters of conscience. Even if the magistrate is correct in his or her judgement, even if the ecclesiastical authority upon which the magistrate bases his or her action is correct, force is not an appropriate way to resolve matters of private conscience. [10]

While civil authorities should not become involved in either external forms of worship or internal matters of belief, they do have continuing functions that impact religious matters and may and do restrain religious activity:

  1. Civil authorities may make laws that prohibit certain otherwise religious activities. For example, if a group wished to institute child sacrifice as a private religious rite, authorities prohibit such behavior generally and may continue to do so, even if a religious group is impacted. This restriction has been important in areas such as bigamy and the use of illegal drugs in worship.
  2. Civil authorities may make laws to protect society that indirectly impact religious groups. Most recently, for example, states have restricted religious groups as well as secular groups in the ways they can meet as a result of Covid19. [11]
  3. In the exercise of its rights and duties to protect and promote the public welfare, however, the state must be diligent not to unduly or subversively interfere with the rights of religious groups to worship. [12] Thus, laws and policies designed to harm worship should be avoided. Recent decisions by some states to open up bars and other places of entertainment but cause churches to remain closed are good examples of violations of this restriction.
  4. Finally, the protections of religious toleration have limitations for Locke, some of which we would not consider valid today. Atheists and those who would under the guise of religious freedom secure religious domination are not protected or would be religious groups formed for the purposes of overthrowing the state or preventing the state from achieving the purposes for which a commonwealth is formed—the protection of persons and property.


As has often been the case with these blogs, the complexity of Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and its importance for American democracy goes beyond the power of a short summary like this one. It requires some thought to adjust some of Locke’s thinking to a religiously plural society such as ours. It takes a willingness to recognize that secularism is itself a kind of religion and it must abide by the same restrictions as do Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, and others in the advancement of their “religious” views. Nevertheless, A Letter Concerning Toleration remains a fundamental document of both interest and learning when it comes to understanding the past, present, and most desirable future of American thought.

One of the reasons that I began this series of blogs was to defend the role of religion in American public life. This endeavor requires an understanding of both the opportunities and limitations on religious groups, and importantly the duty of tolerance among religious groups, including groups that deny the importance and validity of religious faith and practice. This is the first stop in a long journey in the development of a way of defending religious toleration in contemporary society.

A clue to the way in which the argument may unfold is the role of what I have called “political love” in public life. Toleration is a fundamentally negative concept, meaning that toleration allows without wishing the best for those of other beliefs. The Christian view, taking love as the fundamental character of God that believers are to emulate requires of Christians not just toleration but positive love for those who faith and practices differ from ours.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 376.

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration tr. William Popple (1689, republished 2014). All quotations are from this edition.

[3] Id, at 8.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 11. I have taken liberty with this quotation to clarify the grammar for the modern reader, it goes without saying that this insight of Locke is monumental and undercuts any kind of state-established religion.

[6] I have summarized arguments Loke makes throughout A Letter Concerning Toleration. See for example, Locke, at 8-19, 42.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 19.

[9] Id, at 21.

[10] Id, at 25-29.

[11] Id, 30-36.

[12] Id, at 36.

Locke 2: The Social Compact

There is no notion more fundamental to American constitutionalism than the notion of a “Social Compact,” and there is no thinker more fundamental to the American notion than John Locke. The ideal of a Social Compact as fundamental to human society has, as we saw, roots in Greco-Roman thinking. It also has roots in Judeo-Christian thinking as well, for the people of Israel believed that their very existence as a nation depended upon a “Covenant” made by them with God at Mount Sinai, wherein they had promised loyalty and faithfulness to God, and God had adopted them as his people and promised them a land of their own. This notion of “Covenant” as fundamental to the people of God was picked up by the Reformers, and an entire theology of Covenant was developed, especially in England. [1] In any case, Locke almost certainly knew of this movement, and his political thought is infused with references to Christian themes and Biblical insight, of which the covenant of God with the People of Israel is one. [2] Hobbes and Locke develop the religious idea of a people formed by covenant into the secular notion of a people formed by compact.

What is a Social Compact?

For Locke, a government is formed when a group of human beings, by mutual consent, form together a government which binds them together as a political society and obligates them to submit to the legitimate rule of the society. [3] As mentioned last week, for Hobbes, Locke, and their intellectual followers, governments are formed by essentially free and “governmentless” individuals who are in a “State of Nature,” out of which the covenant to come and form a common government.  This consent can be either tacit, by in fact submitting to and receiving the benefits of the government so formed, or actual, by formal agreement to the government so formed. Locke does not think that this consent needs to be of all the members of the society, but only by the majority of those forming the society. [4] Once formed, such a government is binding until properly altered.

I have previously noted my problems with the idea of a “state of nature,” which in the work of contemporary thinkers, like Rawls, becomes an “original state.” In Rawls this original state has become a purely hypothetical state, once again a conceptual device unsupported by history but necessary to continue one particular theory of democracy. In my view, a more evolutionary, process-oriented defense of the notion of a “Social Compact” is both necessary and possible.

Locke’s Response to Human History

Last week, I mentioned that the most common defect noted in Locke’s theory was the absence of historical evidence. Locke is aware of this argument and gives much attention to responding to this criticism. His first response is that due to the absence of historical information about the earliest state of human nature and the formation of human society, it is not surprising that we have no such evidence. He then gives supposed examples from history, including examples purportedly existing in America among the American Indians. Locke knew of the American Indian tribes, and new of the arguments that they existed in a “state of nature,” lacking the supposed civilization of Europe. [5] We know better that the Indians of North and South America had well-developed societies including both tribal and monarchical forms. In retrospect, this argument looks almost chauvinistic.

This is not the only argument Locke makes from history. He also uses the formation of the Spartan government as an example. [6] Once again, in Locke’s day this particular appeal to history might have force, but the long history of the Greek city states and the gradual evolution of each of their system of government is known to us; and, there was not, in fact, a time when they were without governments as far back into human history as we can look. To the extent that Athens or Sparta give examples of a “Social Compact,” that social compact was a matter of gradual evolution of their institutions and not an act of a people leaving a “State of Nature” by social agreement.

These arguments, which might have had some force in Locke’s day, have been substantially eroded by historical and archeological evidence of the existence of human societies around the world far into prehistory, and such evidence as we have supports the claim that human beings have always been organized into political communities. This would come as no surprise to Locke, for he understands that human beings are social by nature, and that sociability would have always drawn them into some form of society.

It is important to recognize that Locke wrote before Darwin and the gradual growth of understanding of human beings and human societies as resulting from a long process of evolution from more primitive to more advanced forms. The progress of human society from the ancient world, to the Greco-Roman World, to the Medieval World, to the Modern World, and now the slowly evolving Post-Modern World, reflects a slow evolving of institutions having long periods of gestation in human history. This evolutionary approach has the benefit of “fitting the facts” of human history and making sense of why it is the nascent ideas, such as the ideas of republican democracy were invented, fell into dormancy, were resurrected, and became driving forces in the Modern era.

Locke’s Appeal to Reason

In the end, Locke makes an appeal to reason to justify his theory of social compact, but as we shall see, in so doing, he makes a case for another and more “scientific” approach to social compact theory. Here is how he begins his second analysis:

“But to conclude, Reason being plainly on our side that Men are naturally free, and the Examples of History showing that the Governments of the World that were begun in Peace, had their beginning laid on the foundation of the Consent of the People; there can be little room for doubt, either where the right is, or what has been the Practice of Mankind, about the first erecting of Governments.” [7]

Locke goes on to affirm that as far back as one can look in history, the most common form of government is the rule of a single individual. [8] This rule of a single individual has its roots in both the family and the long tradition of parental authority and in the practical impulse of the need for unified command in times of danger. Locke concludes this section with an observation that is important. Locke concluded that whether societies were formed out of families by gradual evolution, with each generation tacitly approving of the leadership, or in response to the need for a military leader, in each case the government existed to promote the public good. [9]

If I were to rephrase Locke, my conclusion would look something like this:

But to conclude, an analysis of history shows that human society gradually evolved out of the human family, to small family groups, to tribal groups, to small urban societies, and by a slow process to the enormous societies that populate the world today. History shows that this history involves an historic preference for the rule of one or a few, but the gradual emergence of democracies patterned in some fashion after Greek Athens and Rome. At most the earliest governments were formed by tacit consent, but the preference gradually arose for larger political groupings for this consent to in some way be actual. Today, even dictators find it necessary to give their regimes legitimacy by holding periodic elections, even if they are hardly free, open, or honest.

This analysis fits the facts that Locke presents and the facts of history as we understand it.

What one can say is that in the West, where the Christian notion of the individual being made in the image of God was strong, the notion that every person had value, and there existed an historic notion of the creation of societies by compact (or covenant), there gradually evolved in the Reformation, Renaissance, and Modern era a strong feeling that societies should be organized around the consent of the people governed.

Locke’s Notion of Governmental Limitations

Unlike Hobbes, who sees no limitations to the rights and powers of a sovereign, Locke is no totalitarian. From the very beginning, Locke believes that “no body was ever instituted … but for the public Good and Safety….” [10] Locke recovers the classic notion that political bodies are formed for the public good, to achieve public human ends, and have no other purpose for existence. As such, there are and ought to be limitations on the power of the state.

Locke’s notion of the limitations of government and its duties gives some clues as to when its dissolution might be justified. For Locke, one of the chief duties of government is the protection of Life, Liberty, and Property. When a government no longer protects the lives of its citizens, their freedoms to earn a living and conduct their lives with as much freedom as possible, and what property they have required, it has ceased to perform the functions for which it was formed and gives it legitimacy.

Locke believes that the right to property is fundamental to human society. In the beginning every man has property in his own person. [11] Governments are responsible to protect that property we have in our own life and being. As human beings labor and create, they have a right to the property that they have created, whether it be physical or intellectual. [12] No government can be legitimate which does not protect the life and property of its citizens.

Locke’s Notion of Constitutional Government

Locke advocates a separation of powers. In particular, Locke believes that there needs to be an independent and supreme legislative power. This is the fundamental characteristic of every commonwealth.  [13] In the end, for Locke, the people rule and the Social Compact is fundamentally executed by the legislative power.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke understands that it is not desirable for one facet of government to dominate without checks and balances. [14] The state needs a strong executive, especially to deal with international conflict. The executive must have the power necessary to protect the common good. [15] This is true because legislatures cannot foresee all the possible dangers to society. [16] Locke, like contemporary theorists, believes that the Executive power must have such prerogative power as enables it to react to unforeseen dangers.

This power of prerogative is both necessary and dangerous, as recent American history reveals. The great expansion of the Administrative state during the last century, the creation and existence of secret agencies designed to protect the people against terror and other foes raise issues of judgement that must be faced.

The Dissolution of the State

It might be noted that Locke lived through a turbulent period of English history. The memory of the revolutions of recent years, culminating in the Glorious Revolution discussed in the last blog, was recent and vivid. He had lived to see established governments replaced, and new that there was no necessary finality in governments. Governments that no longer were instruments of the public good and public safety were to be replaced.

Locke understands that to say that governments are formed by consent, actual or tacit, involves the potential for their dissolution. In speaking of the dissolution of governments, he sets out a distinction that I believe is important for American society today: a distinction between societies and polities. Societies are the product of human culture through generations. Thus, there is an American society that could survive the end of American democracy. There is a Chinese society that could survive the end of the current regime. There is a European society that could survive the dissolution of the European Union. However, the reverse is not true. Political organizations evolve out of a given society, and the dissolution of that society, with its given social mores and values, necessitates the dissolution of a government. “…where the Society is dissolved, the Government cannot remain, that belongs to the impossible….” [17] This is an important idea to get firmly fixed in our minds: Where a society dissolves, the government of that society cannot remain. This is not to say that the existing government will not fight to remain-it will. But, the fight is doomed over the years, because the foundation upon which the government was formed and rests no longer exists. In the end, the people are the judge of whether the Social Compact has been broken and a change in government is necessary.


The condition of American culture gives reason to ponder deeply the ideas of Locke. English democracy evolved out of the fertile ground of English society, including the religious presuppositions. We live in a world much different than that of Locke, or the Founders of our nation. This requires a consideration of the need to solidify the social bonds of our society and moderate its dissolution in endless political conflict. It also gives us reason to ponder how to overcome the inequalities of our society and to see that all Americans have the benefits of the creation and ownership of the results of their labor.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 43 and Lynn D. Wardle, “The Constitution as Covenant” (BYU Studies copyright 1987), downloaded February 7, 2021, https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-constitution-as-covenant/

[2] See, Nathan Guy, Finding Locke’s God: The Theological Basis of John Locke’s Political Thought

(London, ENG: Bloomsbury Press, 2020).

[3] [3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 376. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Id, at 376.

[5] Id, at 379.

[6] Id, at 379.

[7] Id, at 380.

[8] Id, 380-386.

[9] Id, at 386.

[10] Id, at 386.

[11] Id, at 328.

[12] Id, at 329-331.

[13] Id, at 401.

[14] Id, at 403.

[15] Id, at 424-425.

[16] Id.

[17] Id, at 455.

John Locke: Philosopher of Anglo-American Enlightenment

John Locke (1632-1704) brings this series of blogs to a new place: there is now a direct link between a philosopher and the American Revolution. In fact, there is no single philosopher more important to the founding of the United States of America than Locke. Many of the founders read Locke, and his ideas were influential in shaping their thinking. His works were paraphrased  by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. [1]

John Locke was born into what we would call an upper middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and small landowner who served in Cromwell’s army. His son was educated first in London at Westminster School and then at Oxford. After graduation, Locke worked for a time as an administrator and teacher in Oxford. While at Oxford, Locke became interested in the natural sciences and became interested in medicine, a profession he followed during his lifetime. In 1667, Locke left Oxford for London, where he became associated with the family of Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later made the Earl of Shaftesbury).

The Earl of Shaftsbury was an important figure from the time of Cromwell through the reign of Charles II. He was a philosophically astute politician and played a role in the founding of South Carolina, among his many other accomplishments. Locke’s duties with the Cooper family were varied: he was a tutor, a physician (whom is patron felt saved his life in an operation), counselor, and friend. Locke also held governmental positions during this period. It was at this time that Locke began his most famous philosophical work, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” a founding work of what we today call “Empiricism.”

Around 1674, Shaftesbury left government for a time.  Locke then went back to Oxford, where he acquired the degree Bachelor of Medicine and was licensed to practice medicine.  After traveling for a time, Locke went back to London around 1675. Unfortunately, the political fortunes of his sponsor had changed dramatically. The Earl of Shaftsbury was a part of a group which attempted to prevent James II from succeeding to the throne of England. When that attempt failed and the Glorious Revolution occurred, Shaftsbury’s was forced to flee to the Continent to escape persecution and Locke soon followed. [2]  During this period of time, Locke wrote the original drafts of the that have made him famous, including the two works to be reviewed in these blogs: Letter Concerning Toleration and his Two Treatises on Government.” While in exile, Lock also finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1688, after the Glorious Revolution was complete and William and Mary replaced James II on the throne of England, Locke returned on the same vessel that carried Mary to her new home. Soon after his return, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and The Two Treatises of Government (1690) as well as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).  It is notable that the latter two books were not published under this name during his lifetime.

In addition to his philosophical and practical efforts in government, Locke was a doctor and had deep scientific interests. Locke knew Sir Isaac Newton and a member of the Royal Society, which is the most prestigious scientific society in England.

The State of Nature

There is no aspect of Locke’s work more complex and filled with difficulties than his treatment of “Natural Law” and his reliance on an original “State of Nature” preceding the formation of societies and a “Natural Law” giving order to that state. He begins his analysis of the formation of governments as follows:

“To understand Political Power rightly, and derive it from its Original, we must consider what State all men are naturally in, and that is a State of Perfect Freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the Will of any other man. [3]

For Locke, political power involves the right to make laws and institute penalties for their violation, regulate the use of property, and employing necessary force to both protect the commonwealth and enforce its laws. [4] Such a right emerges out of an original state of perfect freedom. In this state, subject to natural law human beings can live and dispose of their possessions without restriction of others.

Locke is aware that there is a powerful objection to this posited State of Nature, which is the denial that any such state ever existed. His answer, echoing Hobbes, is that the rulers of the world, who can act without restriction, are and always have been in a state of nature. [5] To the author, this answer is not satisfactory. As will be seen, Locke, unlike Hobbes, understands human sociability and the way in which that sociability draws men into society. However, he fails to reflect upon and give theoretical primacy to the fact that all people in all times of human history have been in some kind of society, and no one has ever been able to do  exactly as they pleased with their persons or property.

This is an instance of Locke “clamping down” a theory on the facts despite a lack of sufficient evidence to justify the theory—or at least in the face of substantial contrary facts. [6] Human societies have existed as long as we humans can understand the past.  The primitive societies of the past emerged from families and extended families, together with others who came to rely upon the community for shelter and support. Human choice has always been limited by genetic, personal, familial, social, geographic, economic and other factors inherited by every individual who ever lived. Even emperors, kings and rulers have had restrictions under which they lived, restrictions placed on them by the factors mentioned as well as by their armies, nobles, wealthy families and others. [7]

Locke goes on to posit that, in this illusory State of Nature, human beings were equal. That is to say, in the State of Nature human persons were, in the beginning equal in property, equal in “the advantages of nature,” and equal in social status and social advantage. [8] It is even harder to believe that this state ever existed. First, human beings are and always have been born with differing levels of intelligence, strength, and position within their families and social network. It is certain that there was never a time when the strongest did not possess more, have more power, and enjoy a higher social status. Once again, Locke is allowing his commendable political and moral intentions to ignore the facts of human history and human society.

Natural Law

Locke then goes on to derive the beginnings of his theory of Natural Law from his notion of original equality, and in do doing shows both his reliance upon the social history of Christianity and its basic moral code. Quoting Richard Hooker, an earlier thinker and bishop in the Anglican Church, Locke supports the notion that because of our common human equality, we all not only wish to be treated with charity and justice, we are under a moral obligation to treat others in according to the Golden Rule, which constitutes the first principle of Natural Law: that one ought to treat others with the same fairness and concern as one wishes to be treated one’s self.

To anticipate a future position and argument, one does not have to posit an original state of nature in order to defend some version of natural law or the Golden Rule. All one needs to posit is that this rule or maxim of life, which appears in more than one religion in more than one place and time, represents the results of the experience of countless persons in countless societies of countless types, democracies, monarchies, and oligarchies. Instead of being an axiom derived from reason from an “original state,” it is principle that emerged from concrete human experience, just as all wisdom maxims do. [9]

The development of the notion of Natural Law in Locke is important. For Americans, it is important because the founders universally subscribed to some version of natural law and a version of Natural Law is fundamental to American Constitutionalism as it was originally concieved. This is true for other democracies which either patterned themselves after the American form of Government or the ideas of Locke as they influenced British and European democratic regimes. As such, it is worth some time and effort to understand Locke’s view of “Natural Law.”

Natural law is different from, and acts as a guide for, humanly created laws. Natural law is essentially moral in nature, it posits that our common human nature and experience provide certain fundamental principles that can and ought to guide every human being and human society. These principles are not simply human drives or human will made into principles. Instead these principles derive from human reason—from our human capacity to reflect upon experience and mold the future. For example, we all know that the Golden Rule does not come naturally. If it did, my mother would not have had to repeat it to me so often as a child with respect to my treatment of my brother and others. However, human experience, when rationally considered, leads one to conclude that the Golden Rule is a reliable guide to action. This reliable guide emerges from the way the world is constructed and operates. [10]

It is time to draw this blog to a close, but the discussion will need to be continued later. There is a tendency to think of Natural Law as non-existent unless its conclusions are logically or empirically necessary. In my view, this is a mistake. Natural law is not like a mathematical law nor is it like an empirical law of science. It is a theoretical moral guide to human action based upon past human experience. As such, we may be mistaken as to the nature of the natural law, and future experience and changes in human society may force changes in human intuitions of the best forms of behavior for humans and their societies. This does not mean that “Natural Law” is whatever we wish it to be, for there are continuities in human life and experience that are at least as important, perhaps more important, than contemporary changes. I doubt that there are legitimate future facts that will make, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” any less fundamental to a good society than it was for the earliest human societies.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Locke’s influence appears in many speeches and writings of the founders. His  political writings heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. Some of the language of the Declaration of Independence is directly derived from Locke’s works. See, Brennee Goforth, “How John Locke  influenced the Declariation of Independence” (July 4 2019), at https://lockerroom.johnlocke.org/2019/07/04/john-locke-and-the-declaration-of-independence/ (Downloaded January 27, 2021).

[2] The Glorious Revolution, “The Revolution of 1688” or “The Bloodless Revolution,” took place from 1688 to 1689. During this time, of the Catholic king James II was overthrown and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. In the process, the power of Parliament was greatly increased and the foundations for the modern English parliamentary democracy laid.

[3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 309. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Id, 308. This definition assumes that the ruler has the right and at this juncture Locke has not made known his views concerning how that right arises. To anticipate a future blog, it arises via the Social Compact that creates a political society.

[5] Id, at 317.

[6] Any theoretical enterprise involves creating a theoretical framework to explain the facts as nature and history disclose them to be. A sound theory emerges from those facts as an explanation of their coherence and meaning. When a theory is clamped down on facts, the theory takes precedence over the facts of nature and history, causing the theoretical to ignore important facts not explainable by the theory. For a very important exposition of this phenomena, see Thomas F. Torrance, “Chapter 2: The Integration of Form in Natural and Theological Science” in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984). A specific discussion of the results of “camping down” is found at page 80.

[7] One of the interesting factors concerning the Roman Empire is the extent to which Emperors were chosen by the Praetorian Guard and removed if ever the Roman Armies turned upon them. Their freedom was a bounded freedom at best. In my view, it is best to begin a defense of representative government with the facts of human history and its gradual movement towards forms of representative democracy as “emergent phenomena” that represent real progress.

[8] Id, at 309.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016). One does not have to be a Christian or even the follower of any religion to eventually conclude that life is better for all concerned if one treats others as one wishes to be treated.

[10] Once again, to anticipate a future argument, it is not necessary to be religious to grasp certain features of human experience.