Wednesday, October 2, 2013

John Locke on the Bible and the Limits of Reason


From The Reasonableness of Christianity,
as Delivered in the Scriptures

by John Locke

Guest Blogger

[This passage has been coming back @ me lately.  Even though "natural lawyers" such as Su├írez and Grotius argued that even if there is no God, the "natural law" would still have force, Locke realized the limits of reason and thereby of philosophy itself.*  Without the power and authority of a "law-giver," men are lax, and lack sufficient moral imagination.  

And it's always good to have an excuse to take a peek into the "Reasonableness" and Locke's writings in general.  Outside of the Bible itself, there's little that held as much philosophical authority in America in the Founding era.  Paragraph breaks are added for readability.---TVD]


Next to the knowledge of one God; maker of all things; “a clear knowledge of their duty was wanting to mankind.” This part of knowledge, though cultivated with some care by some of the heathen philosophers, yet got little footing among the people.

All men, indeed, under pain of displeasing the gods, were to frequent the temples: every one went to their sacrifices and services: but the priests made it not their business to teach them virtue. If they were diligent in their observations and ceremonies; punctual in their feasts and solemnities, and the tricks of religion; the holy tribe assured them the gods were pleased, and they looked no farther. Few went to the schools of the philosophers to be instructed in their duties, and to know what was good and evil in their actions. The priests sold the better pennyworths, and therefore had all the custom. Lustrations and processions were much easier than a clean conscience, and a steady course of virtue; and an expiatory sacrifice that atoned for the want of it, was much more convenient than a strict and holy life.

No wonder then, that religion was everywhere distinguished from, and preferred to virtue; and that it was dangerous heresy and profaneness to think the contrary. So much virtue as was necessary to hold societies together, and to contribute to the quiet of governments, the civil laws of commonwealths taught, and forced upon men that lived under magistrates.

But these laws being for the most part made by such, who had no other aims but their own power, reached no farther than those things that would serve to tie men together in subjection; or at most were directly to conduce to the prosperity and temporal happiness of any people.

But natural religion, in its full extent, was no-where, that I know, taken care of, by the force of natural reason*. It should seem, by the little that has hitherto been done in it, that it is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts, upon its true foundation, with a clear and convincing light. And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties; and require their obedience; than leave it to the long and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them. Such trains of reasoning the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh; nor, for want of education and use, skill to judge of.

We see how unsuccessful in this the attempts of philosophers were before our Saviour’s time. How short their several systems came of the perfection of a true and complete morality, is very visible.

And if, since that, the christian philosophers have much out-done them: yet we may observe, that the first knowledge of the truths they have added, is owing to revelation: though as soon as they are heard and considered, they are found to be agreeable to reason; and such as can by no means be contradicted. Every one may observe a great many truths, which he receives at first from others, and readily assents to, as consonant to reason, which he would have found it hard, and perhaps beyond his strength, to have discovered himself. Native and original truth is not so easily wrought out of the mine, as we, who have it delivered already dug and fashioned into our hands, are apt to imagine.

And how often at fifty or threescore years old are thinking men told what they wonder how they could miss thinking of? Which yet their own contemplations did not, and possibly never would have helped them to.

Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it,) makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders, as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way.

Or whatever else was the cause, it is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the “law of nature.”

And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.


Full text here.

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*See also Kretzmann, N., on Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles on the limits of unassisted reason and natural theology, p. 39 in the text and p. 51 in the PDF.



3 comments:

wsforten said...

As you noted in the footnote, this is not just Locke's view. It has been shared by many others throughout history. Two of my favorite expressions of this view are those expressed by Sir William Blackstone and by John Adams.

But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error. This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine Providence, which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found upon comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature … undoubtedly the revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system which is framed by ethical writers, and denominated the natural law; because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together … Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.

Blackstone, Sir William, "Of the Nature of Laws in General," Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, vol 1, J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1893

The great and Almighty author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the world, can as easily suspend those laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension. This can be no objection, then, to the miracles of Jesus Christ. Although some very thoughtful and contemplative men among the heathen attained a strong persuasion of the great principles of religion, yet the far greater number, having little time for speculation, gradually sunk into the grossest opinions and the grossest practices. These, therefore, could not be made to embrace the true religion till their attention was roused by some astonishing and miraculous appearances. The reasoning of philosophers, having nothing surprising in them, could not overcome the force of prejudice, custom, passion, and bigotry. But when wise and virtuous men, commissioned from heaven, by miracles awakened men's attention to their reasonings, the force of truth made its way with ease to their minds.

Adams, Charles Francis, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, pg 8

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for your interest and very good quotes, Mr. Fortenstein. My own argument about the "theism" of the Founding era, and Judeo-Christian theism in general is the question of revelation, i.e., that God spoke directly to man and the results are in the Bible.

I still don't think Jefferson believed that, and Madison is elusive on the subject, but I think Ben Franklin was open to the possibility

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/11/ben-franklin-was-not-deist-ok.html

and virtually every other figure outside Tom Paine--incl the "unitarian" John Adams, as you show here---believed God is in the Bible, not just via natural theology but as a direct act of revealing himself to man.

This isn't the "classical theism" of Aristotle, Aquinas and Samuel Clarke, or of the Stoics and Spinoza, the "God of the philosophers"--but the One God as [self-]revealed in the Bible.

"But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error. This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine Providence, which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation."---Blackstone

The reasoning of philosophers, having nothing surprising in them, could not overcome the force of prejudice, custom, passion, and bigotry. But when wise and virtuous men, commissioned from heaven, by miracles awakened men's attention to their reasonings, the force of truth made its way with ease to their minds.--John Adams

Anyway, thx for the quotes. As you're a Locke man, I'll add here that I just ran across a piece that highlights my own observations, that Locke's religious faith is in conflict with his philosophizing, namely his essays on Human Understanding that reject the Biblical and Thomistic view of natural law being "written on the human heart." Locke is very much an empiricist, and rejects the idea of humans being printed with "innate ideas."

http://tinyurl.com/ng8llt2

hence Locke never quite came to terms with a coherent theory vis a vis natural law such as the Thomistic view that Blackstone and James Wilson held, that natural law and revealed divine law [scriptures] worked in parallel tracks.

Indeed Locke's subtext in this passage is that man COULD have figured out what's right and wrong but had never managed to, therefore God had mercy on us and sent Jesus to spell it all out.

Here he's speaking more as an "intellectual historian"--albeit a religious one--that the Bible makes so much good sense that reason can give assent to it, but man had proven incapable of coming up with such beauty and wisdom on his own, hence not only Jesus but the miracles as well to prove his bona fides.

I'm having trouble putting this concept into a few paragraphs, especially since we hardly think this way anymore. The concept is in the Christmas carol

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Holy_Night

which as you can see is the rather "unitarian" version of Jesus, not incarnated to die for our sins, but to be the bringer of the Gospel.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.


and later

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace










Tom Van Dyke said...

Upon further review of "O Holy Night," we see that the original French lyric written for the "parish priest"---IOW Roman Catholic--is 'unitarianized' in English by John Sullivan Dwight to the version we know today. Dwight cut out the parts where Christ is born to die in Atonement for our sins. Xxed out are the lyrics


When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.


and

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.


Those sneaky unitarians! ;-P