Dr. Peter Ahrensdorf
Oct 5th, 2018
A writer and political theorist who lived from mid 15th century to early 16th century, John Locke was undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in Western history. Anonymously written under British monarchy, his Two Treatises of Government produced radical influence that assisted “the growth to maturity of English liberalism…the American Revolution, the French Revolution and their parallels [around the world]…” (3) Defining the work as “a Discourse concerning Government” (137), Locke attempts to explain the origins of the political institution through the concept of State of Nature, a hypothetical scenario of freedom, equality, and independence.
“To understand Political Power right, 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 Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man.” (269)
Taking into account the religious composition of his audience, the author understandably incorporates the Christian Scripture, particularly Genesis, into his arguments to gain support. Yet, when compared to the passages put into their contexts, it is possible to spot intricate differences between the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden and the Lockean account of the original condition, property rights, and the right of self-defense according to Law of Nature. Through detailed analysis, this paper seeks to elucidate the disparities between the two perspectives and how their differing views impact contemporary political thinking.
Before delving into Locke’s account of the State of Nature, it is quite necessary to explore the Biblical account of the origin. Through the perspective of God, the first chapter of Genesis provides a straightforward recount of the original condition and purpose of man. “…Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea…the birds of the heavens…the livestock…all the earth…” (Genesis 1:26) While man, according to the description, has “dominion” over all other creations, he does so as a representative of God. As “[God’s] image” made “after [God’s] likeness,” he should manage and utilize resources under the Divine Will of the Creator. The following passage in the second chapter further describes the God-man connection, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) Regardless of his superior status to the rest of the world, the man was created to “work and keep” God’s creations as a faithful servant. From the above recounts of Adam’s creation and purpose, it could be observed that the personal endeavors of man has been deliberately underplayed. Instead, according to the Biblical worldview, the stewardship to God is the original, perfect state of mankind.
In comparison, Locke elaborates his own notion of man’s original condition from a more anthropocentric point of view. In paragraph 26 of chapter Book II, he writes, “God, who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience. The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Comfort of their being.” (286) The author omits man’s status as God’s servant and representative from his theory. Instead, he illustrates the creator as a benevolent, self-less benefactor who “gives” without demanding loyalty, and man as a self-dependent and self-loving beneficiary who uses God-given intelligence, reason, and resources to maintain the “Comfort of…being”. Later down the writing in paragraph 31, Locke restates the purpose of man’s creation in his worldview. “To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life…” In stark contrast to God’s command of “work and keep,” Locke’s perception of man in his natural state is one who, as a lucky recipient of divine gifts, lives to serve his own will and improve his well-being with “any advantage” present. To even further support his proposition using Biblical script, Locke even quotes a fragment of 1 Timothy 6:17 by St. Paul, “…God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy…” Ironically, this verse was originally meant to encourage prosecuted believers to put their faith in God instead of worldly advantages. By taking it out of context, the author intentionally misconstrues it to be an illustration of a more detached God-man relationship: the creator bestowed man with intellect and resources for him to “enjoy,” not serve. When comparing Locke’s arguments to the scripture, it becomes quite clear that his central philosophy of State of Nature leans significantly more towards anthropocentrism than orthodox Christian theology.
If the story of God’s creation and the garden of Eden elucidates the Biblical viewpoint on man’s original condition, then the story of the Fall explains the connection between labor and property in Christian tradition. After Adam and Eve consumed the fruit of forbidden knowledge, God announces man’s punishment as such in chapter three,
“Because you have…eaten of the tree…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistle it shall bring fourth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground…” (Genesis 3:17-19)
While Adam undertook the job as God’s representative in managing Eden, labor as known throughout human history, which involves hardship, struggle, and pain, is a product of man’s disobedience. Nature, cursed by sin, becomes so barren and poor that man needs to input labor to survive and thrive. It becomes necessary for man to utilize his strength to confront “thorns and thistle,” and in the end exchange “the sweat of [his] face” for “the plants of the field” and “bread.” By the end of chapter three, the exile of humanity from Eden is finalized by the following quote, “…therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” (Genesis 3:23) In Genesis 2:15, “work” is also used, but the “work” from this passage carries a different undertone. As the former implies an action by a steward or servant, the latter indicates the same action, but carried out in an isolated, independent setting: man, now without the nourishment from his creator, must earn food, shelter, and every other component of a comfortable life. Now, with the entitlement to Eden nullified, only through labor, or “the sweat of [his] face” could the man claim ownership to his property, his “bread.”
As much as Locke deviates from the Biblical recount of the natural state of man, his philosophy provides a similar narrative for the relationship between labor and property. Continuing his reasoning from paragraph 26 of Book II, Locke explains how man may acquire private property from the common goods in nature. In the beginning, “all the Fruits it naturally produces, and Beasts it feeds, belong to Mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of Nature.” Yet, the author argues that as every man in the State of Nature has complete rights over himself, through labor and work he may mix and join parts of his body with a natural object, which he then “removes out of…Nature” and calls it his own. “That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature…and so they became his private right.” (286-288) This viewpoint echoes the passage “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” in that they both emphasize labor as the prerequisite of property.
The concept of a divine law is present in both Two Treatises of Government and Bible. Thus, besides the original condition and property rights, the punishment of crime in order to perpetuate justice are important components of both philosophies. In chapter four of Genesis, the story of Cain illustrates the consequences of bringing harm to another man. God spoke to Cain after he murdered Abel, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed…” (Genesis 4:10-11) Responding to the verdict of God that “he shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth,” the murderer exclaimed, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Even though God, out of mercy, protected Cain from being hunted down by those seeking vengeance, the interaction between the two perfectly illustrates the Biblical perspective on murder: anyone that consciously bring harm to others would be transgressing God’s divine power to judge and punish. As the blood of the innocent cries out to the heavenly Lord, the transgressor shall receive retaliation according to the proportion of his crime.
From a more humanist point of view, Locke delivers a similar message using the same example. In paragraph 8 of Book II, the author wrote, “And thus in the State of Nature, one Man comes by a Power over another…only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictates, what is proportionate to his Transgression…” With a more ambiguous Law of Nature in place of God, Locke argues that man has the right to punish those who violate his right to preserve life and liberty. In the case of murderers, he claims that they have “renounced Reason, the common Rule and Measure…declared War against all Mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger.” Although this viewpoint echoes the principle of “life for life, eye for eye…” appearing many times in Bible (Deuteronomy 19:21, Exodus 21:23-25), this argument differs from the Biblical account in that it deemphasizes the role of God as a divine judge. Crimes, from theft to murder, do not offend God as much as they harm man. It is reason, intellect, and will to self-preserve instead of the divine commandment that drives him to retaliate.
When comparing the Biblical and Lockean perspectives on mankind’s original condition, access to property, and crime retaliation, one could spot similarities. Locke’s argument of property rights concurs with “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” as both connects the acquisition of private property with individual labor. However, on the topics of State of Nature and punishing transgression, it is evident that Locke has diminished the role of God in his personal philosophy. For instance, completely omitting the story of Eden and the Fall of mankind, Locke argues for a more detached connection between a selfless benefactor and a self-preserving beneficiary in place of man’s identity as God’s image, representative, and servant. Regarding crimes and transgressions to personal rights, Locke, too, downplays the role of God as a divine judge, and instead emphasizes the necessity of man to retaliate with reason in order to self-preserve. Thus, it could be concluded that, though disguised as a semi-religious work, The Two Treatises of Government, proposing concepts and theories that deviate from orthodox Christianity, concurs with the emergence of anthropocentrism as a part of the Enlightenment movement.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Bible, English Standard Version