Monday, September 21, 2020

Allan Bloom on Locke's State of Nature

I continue my series on Allan Bloom articulating the "state of nature" from which liberalism emerged with his analysis of John Locke. This passage is from pages 163-165 of The Closing of the American Mind

From his reflection on the state of nature, Locke drew the formula of Enlightenment, with its particular combination of natural and political science. Its starting point is the untrammeled use of reason. In this he simply follows the oldest opinions of the philosophers. Freedom for man consists in ordering his life according to what he can see for himself through his most distinctive faculty, liberated from the force of tyrants and the authority of lies, i.e., myths. Through unaided reason, man as man, as opposed to the man of this place or time, nation or religion, can know the causes of things, can know nature for himself. Autonomy does not mean, as is now generally thought, the fateful, groundless decision in the void, but governing oneself according to the real. There must be an outside for the inside to have meaning. 

So thought Locke and his philosophic predecessors and successors. What distinguished Enlightenment from earlier philosophy was its intention to extend to all men what had been the preserve of only a few: the life lived according to reason. It was not "idealism" or "optimism" that motivated these philosophers but a new science, a "method," and allied with them, a new political science. A clear and distinct mathematical science of the movement of bodies, discovered by the use of a simple method readily understood by ordinary men, could make the knowledge of nature accessible to them, if not provide them with the genius to discover that knowledge. The various mythic or poetic views of the whole that set the horizons for the nations of man, and within which the philosophers had always lived alone and misunderstood, would be dispensed with, and the fundamental difference in perspective between scientist and nonscientist overcome. Further, if man himself is taken out of the shadows of the kingdom of darkness and examined in the light of science, he sees that by nature he belongs to the realm of bodies in motion, and that he, like all other bodies, wishes to preserve his motion, that is, his life. Every man has a powerful fear of death, that corresponds to the way of nature. Critical, scientific, methodical examination of the other ends prescribed for man can show that they belong to the realm of the imagination, of false opinion, or derive from this primary end. Such critical examination, of which all men are capable if given guidance by philosophers, and which is supported by powerful inclinations in all men, results in a salutary unity of purpose and a useful simplification of the human problem: vulnerable man must seek the means to his preservation. Since this is what all men really want, whatever arrangements help them get food, clothing, shelter, health and, above all, protection from one another will, if they are properly educated, win their consent and their loyalty.

Once the world has been purged of ghosts or spirits, it reveals to us that the critical problem is scarcity. Nature is a stepmother who has left us unprovided for. But this means we need have no gratitude. When we revered nature, we were poor. Since there was not enough, we had to take from one another; and as a result of this competition, there was inevitably war, the greatest threat to life. But if, instead of fighting one another, we band together and make war on our stepmother, who keeps her riches from us, we can at the same time provide for ourselves and end our strife. The conquest of nature, which is made possible by the insight of science and by the power it produces, is the key to the political. The old commandment that we love our brothers made impossible demands on us, demands against nature, while doing nothing to provide for real needs. What is required is not brotherly love or faith, hope and charity, but self-interested rational labor. The man who contributes most to relieving human misery is the one who produces most, and the surest way of getting him to do so is not by exhorting him, but by rewarding him most handsomely to sacrifice present pleasure for the sake of future benefit, or to assure avoidance of pain through the power so gained. From the point of view of man's well-being and security, what is needed is not men who practice the Christian virtues or those of Aristotle, but rational (capable of calculating their interest) and industrious men. Their opposite numbers are not the vicious, wicked or sinful, but the quarrelsome and the idle. This may include priests and nobles as well as those who most obviously spring to mind. 

Here Bloom sees Locke as a modern whose teachings are in tension with classical (Aristotle et al.) and Christian sources. This is an esoteric reading of Locke. Locke did not exoterically present himself as such a troublemaker.  But in reality, he couldn't. Philosophers could be killed for rocking the boat in such a way back then. 

Bloom, rightly in my view, connects Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as operating on a common ground: the concept of "the state of nature," social contract and rights, each with his own distinct view of that phenomenon.  Bloom also accurately notes England and America followed Locke, not the other two. Where Bloom is most controversial is with the esoteric reading. Locke presented his ideas in a Christian context, seemingly compatible with the the traditional order. But interestingly, so did Hobbes and Rousseau. All three operated in similar ways presenting their ideas under the auspices of Christianity. 

More on that later. 

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Bloom, rightly in my view, connects Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau together as operating on a common ground: the concept of "the state of nature," social contract and rights, each with his own distinct view of that phenomenon. Bloom also accurately notes England and America followed Locke, not the other two.


The differences between Locke and the other two would be the most instructive point here: Hobbes gives us the practical equivalent of the divine right of kings; Rousseau the French Revolution and not the American.

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