Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cicero's Republic and Christian Arguments for Rebellion against Tyrants

By Greg Forster here.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Well-linked, Jon, and well-cited here in your previous.

This Forster fellow is way-OK by me so far. As you know, this Straussian is also very unStraussian when it comes to John Locke.

The erudite and elegant Thomas G. West on Strauss on Locke:

If you would know anything of John Locke besides the version that has been bled white of all theism and all Christianity, do take the time to examine Tom West's essay above.

Locke was always pro-Christian in his writings. Like Aquinas before him, Locke generally teaches that reason and revelation are in perfect agreement on the moral duties of men in this world (Reasonableness of Christianity 241-3).
Locke's practical project may be said to have been to help men, within the limits of their capacities, to live in rational freedom. In accord with that end, Locke's theology fosters a manly Christianity that views religious persecution as a sin, affirms men's right to liberty, and promotes self-reliance, but that also affirms the doctrine of Christ as our Savior, the need for repentance, and the necessity of living a moral life.
Locke emphasizes two points in particular in his account of Christian moral and political theology. First, the Bible is pro-liberty and favors the industrious work ethic suitable to free men. Locke argues in the First Treatise that according to the Bible, men are born free, meaning that they must work for themselves and not live off of the labor of others. "God sets him [Adam] to work for his living, and seems rather to give him a spade into his hand, to subdue the earth, than a scepter to rule over its inhabitants" (1.45). The Bible teaches men the importance of the "improvement too of arts and sciences." (1.33, 41).
Second, Locke teaches that Christianity not only favors liberty, but also supports the basic morality that is necessary for government--and for happiness. At the beginning of his Letter on Toleration, Locke asserts that the Christians of his day are wrongly preoccupied with "subtle matters that exceed the capacity of the vulgar," while they "pass by, without chastisement, without censure, those wickednesses and moral vices which all men admit to be diametrically opposed to the profession of Christianity" (Toleration, p. 61). In other words, Locke is arguing that Christians have forgotten the moral core of their religion in their excessive concern with minor variations within the community of the faithful (satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels as Lilliputians quarreling over whether to crack their eggs on the big end or little). Locke was seeking to rectify an imbalance in the Christian world of his day--a focus on doctrine and ritual at the expense of moral conduct--an imbalance that most Christians today would agree was a serious problem. So important is this moral core of Christianity that government has an obligation to support it by its laws--not because it is Christian, but because it is necessary for government to do its job well, to provide security for men's lives and properties. Far from promoting religious indifferentism or relativism, as some readers claim, Locke's "Letter on Toleration" presents itself as affirming and renewing the moral core of the Christian life at a time when that core was in danger of being forgotten. Locke's point was thus not unreasonable, whether in a strictly Christian view, or in the view of reason alone.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Dr. Forster's paper (all of his work probably) deserves a close read. He's a straight shooter.

Jason Pappas said...

I’m always struck by how profession historians have to continually rediscover Cicero’s influence as Foster reminds us in his introduction. Of course when Latin was the language of higher education, as it was for the founding fathers, Cicero was always present. I wonder how much of our drift from classical republican ideals, property rights, and individual liberty is due to the loss of Latin.

In any case, Foster reminds us that prior to Augustine Christianity didn’t have an in-house political theory. The incorporation of Cicero’s philosophy into the Christian mindset planted the seeds of future republicanism. Still, prior to Locke, the doctrine of justice appears to give the people a moral right to a “veto” under extreme circumstances. Locke notes this fact but goes much further--consent always remains with the people. Foster indicates that Ockham held this view.

Great read--Forster & Tom, of course! Thanks, guys.

Jason Pappas said...

I find West’s lecture interesting and in general I’m sympathetic to some of his points. I agree that Locke and the founders would find no conflict between the religious and secular; and I agree with you (and him) there. However, his description of Locke’s ethical views of liberty, individualism, and self-preservation are too muddled. He worries that Locke is too “selfish" for our tastes and he tries to present a "kinder and gentler" Locke. I’d hope we can all agree on one point--that Locke rejects paternalistic government but even here West isn't comfortable.

West goes out of his way to argue that Locke isn’t a libertarian because Locke cares about children. C’mon! Liberty is “consenting acts between adults” as the famous libertarian Robert Nozick once put it. Paternalism is indeed appropriate ... in the home. It’s the state as the family writ large, a la Plato, that is the antithesis of libertarianism. Libertarianism, yet alone classical liberalism, isn’t against the duties of parents.

Also, if West doesn’t see duties in libertarianism he must have missed the whole discussion of “negative liberty” in Hayek and other contemporary libertarian-leaning writers. This emphasizes liberty as the duty to respect one’s neighbor’s property--and if that’s not a moral commandment I don’t know what is. (Of course, there are many libertarians who see morality ending at that point and hedonism ruling.)

He notes that Locke’s (and the founders’) respect for liberty to pursue one’s happiness doesn’t imply providing other's sustenance or the provision of others’ happiness. But West notes what I call Locke’s “safety net”--support extended to others in dire need. Locke doesn’t explicate how or when and to which degree. It is inserted uncomfortably in Locke’s overall exposition, in my opinion, but I’d like to know more on that problem.

Overall, West rightly cautions a simplistic reading of Locke. But the muddled middle is also something to avoid. Perhaps the limits of a single lecture has to leave much unexplained.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, thx for reading the West and for your thoughts on it. "Libertarianism" itself is the muddle, I think--having witnessed many discussion, I find its adherents/sympathizers all over the map.

And again, I'd argue that the Founders' Locke isn't the same as the "true" Locke, especially in the area of what today we call "radical individualism." The Founders wouldn't have known what to make of Ayn Rand except be appalled.

And I'll add quickly here that a libertarian trope today is self-ownership, but as we recall, Locke [following Aquinas] bans suicide---are lives are God's so only he can take life away.

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure...

Very Xtian.

Jason Pappas said...

No argument here on that account.

Note, however, that self-preservation is elevated to a main Christian virtue in this narrative. Self-preservation always strikes me as an odd candidate for one of the “duties” of life.

Also note the emphasis on commutative justice even in the isolated quote. Does distributive justice, which plays a strong role in paternalistic political philosophies, have no role in Locke?

Christian, yes, but quite an interesting one. No?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aquinas is fine with self-preservation as one of the "lower" but essential goods in life. He's a philosopher, and it certainly won't do for the species to annihilate itself even for a heavenly cause.

And yes, there still is an absence of "distributive" justice in Locke. You may have put your finger on a nonChristian aspect of his thought, although it's more by negative inference.

This article sees Locke within the natural law tradition, that the natural law sees justice as owed; the Lockean notion--and the American view up until Wilson and FDR--was "negative" liberty as opposed to positive rights, Don't Tread on me more than a "right" to free contraceptives.

"Locke's theory can be considered an extensive re-elaboration, in polemic against Filmer, of the anti-monopolistic principle characteristic of the whole of Scholastic social thought: this principle is intimately connected with the principle of man's natural liberty.

Locke maintains a negative and formal conception of justice: justice prohibits interference with others' liberty of appropriation. Alongside the justice is the positive and conditional obligation of charity which prescribes the transfer of some of one's own goods to others who need them in order to survive. But for Locke there are precise limits on the obligation of charity: the application of charity suspends the application of justice only when the immediate physical survival is at stake; in all other cases justice leaves no room for charity."

TVD: I don't know enough about Calvin to assert that he saw poverty as something one brings on himself [or God decrees]. I know Calvinists are accused of that view, that poverty is some indication of moral failing.