Thursday, July 26, 2012

John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy

So let me tell you the story of John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy1.

John Locke was born on the 29th August 1632, and grew up in the Somerset countryside some ten miles from Bristol. His parents were staunch Protestants, and his father fought in the Civil War on Cromwell's side - indeed, Locke himself was reputed to have said to Cromwell, when Locke was 21, 'You sir from Heav'n a finish'd hero fell'.

At the age of 14 Locke attended Westminster School - which he did not enjoy, due to the flogging - and then went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed until 1665. After leaving the university, partly in order to avoid having to take holy orders, he took up a post as physician and adviser to Lord Ashley, the man who - better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury - became the most prominent Whig politician of the period.

Due to the controversies in English political life, principally the tension arising from the potential accession of the Catholic James II to the throne, Locke spent two significant periods of his life abroad. His first 'exile' was from 1675 to 1679 and spent in France; the second, and more significant, was from 1683 to 1689, and was spent in Holland. He returned on the same ship that bore Queen Mary to England. Locke was the pre-eminent spokesman for the Whig ideology2, most especially in the sphere of religious toleration and a limited monarchy. He published (anonymously) his Letter on Toleration, then his Two Treatises on Government, and finally his masterpiece, the Essay on Human Understanding, all in 1689.

Locke was a man of nervous constitution - what we today might call 'highly strung' and it is clear that his views on religious questions evolved throughout his life. Having lived through the English Civil War as a teenager, his mature life was marked by the faction fighting and religious conflict endemic in the Royal Court. Locke's perspective was conditioned by a rejection of religious enthusiasm, which he saw as responsible for the reckless slaughter and political strife experienced in England and Europe in his lifetime. This made a profound impact on his mature philosophy.


Locke's principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve the destructive disagreements between different religious views, we should resort to the light of Reason. He wrote:

since traditions vary so much the world over and men’s opinions are so obviously opposed to one another and mutually destructive, and that not only among different nations but in one and the same state – for each single opinion we learn from others becomes a tradition – and finally since everybody contends so fiercely for his own opinion and demands that he be believed, it would plainly be impossible – supposing tradition alone lays down the ground of our duty – to find out what that tradition is, or to pick out truth from among such a variety, because no ground can be assigned why one man of the old generation, rather than another maintaining quite the opposite, should be credited with the authority of tradition or be more worthy of trust; except it be that reason discovers a difference in the things themselves that are transmitted, and embraces one opinion while rejecting another, just because it detects more evidence recognizable by the light of nature for the one than for the other. Such a procedure, surely, is not the same as to believe in tradition, but is an attempt to form a considered opinion about things themselves; and this brings all the authority of tradition to naught’3

Crucially, what Locke rejected was the idea that we should have recourse to a tradition at all, as he saw traditions as the source of all vice and pernicious beliefs (the 'best are riddled with error'). In this he was very much a Protestant thinker, for the central issue in the trial of Galileo was the very same: the authority of the tradition. In Locke's new account, appeal was made to something outside of any given tradition: reason, understood as the discriminatory judgement of probable beliefs.

Locke fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided, with three key elements: firstly, he argued that we have a moral responsibility for what we believe; secondly, that we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and finally, that in all things we should let reason be our guide. Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation. Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason – to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the 17th Century.

Locke's programme had at its centre that assertion that, to be morally justified in believing something, you must be able to demonstrate its rationality:

"Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything, but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his maker, who would have him sue those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of this accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth, by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as reason directs him. He that does otherwise, transgresses against his own light, and misuses those faculties, which were given him to no other end, but to search and follow the clearer evidence, and greater probability."4

What was the rationality that Locke had in mind? It should be noted that Locke was not claiming that Reason is the source of our beliefs, only that Reason should be the judge of our beliefs (that reason should assess how probable our belief is, and we are then under a moral obligation only to give an assent to a belief in proportion to the relevant evidence.

"Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean, that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine, whether it be a revelation from God or not."5


It is important to emphasise that, for Locke, there was no contradiction between a commitment to judging beliefs by the light of reason, and a clear faith in Christianity. Although revelation could not be accepted contrary to reason, there was - at the time Locke was writing - no general sense that Christianity was incredible. Consequently, as part of his philosophical program, Locke published 'The Reasonableness of Christianity' in 1695, arguing that it was clear to reason that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the essence of faith was the 'school of virtue' formed by taking Jesus as the moral guide for life.

This sense that Christianity could be upheld by rational inquiry was rapidly and widely accepted - thanks in part to two prominent supporters. The first was Isaac Newton, whose Principia was published in 1687, and whose stature and scientific authority lent credibility to the project. Newton had a lifelong interest in alchemy and theology, and his last writings were attempts to reconcile the biblical chronology (which he took to have been falsified by wayward Roman Catholicism) with the insights of modern science, especially astronomy6.

More significant, the Church of England itself embraced the Lockean program, and it acquired the name 'Latitudinarianism' - meaning simply a respect for individual judgement, an acceptance of Reason as an authority (in the Lockean sense7) and a more critical engagement with tradition. This view gained many prominent defenders in the Church, including John Tillotson, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1689, but the most important was Samuel Clarke. Clarke not only embraced the Lockean philosophy, he united it with Newton's cosmology, in arguments showing the Providence of God - that God was a type of constitutional monarch, just as had been granted to England in the Glorious Revolution, who oversaw a realm that was governed by a stable framework of law.

These three figures, Locke, Newton and Clarke forged a particular religious settlement - a settlement that was welcomed as not only enabling an end to religious strife but as providing a theological support for the new political framework - a framework which, in essentials, has continued through to the present day. That framework remains the dominant paradigm through which discussion about religion is conducted, especially in the English speaking world8. The basic foundation comes from Locke, in that we are obliged to justify our beliefs through an appeal to reason. Supplemental to that basic foundation is the claim - held by all three men - that Christianity9 could be justified by reason.

The history of English Christianity since the Glorious Revolution could be described as the progressive rejection of that supplemental claim.

1 I am drawing on a number of sources here (see the bibliography), but the most important is Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
2 Roy Porter calls Locke 'the presiding spirit of the English Enlightenment'. His influence was huge - see the discussion in Porter, Enlightenment, Penguin, 2000, especially pp 66-71.
3 John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature, taken from Wolterstorff, p3.
4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1990, IV, xvii, 24
5 Locke, Essay, IV, xix, 14.
6 This particular line of research culminated in the work of Archbishop Ussher, who calculated - on the basis of a rigorous and empirical assessment of the available evidence - that the earth had been created in 4004 BC. Such a task had not - and indeed, probably could not have - been undertaken in the previous history of Christianity.
7 There is much scholarly debate concerning the influence of Anglican theology on Locke, and whether the Lockean notion of Reason had been accepted earlier, in particular by Hooker. For a recent discussion, denying that this is the case, see Newey, The Form of Reason, Modern Theology, January 2002. My own view is that Locke was substantively original.
8 One might even call it a 'Whig interpretation of religion' that still awaits its Herbert Butterfield.
9 We now know, from the study of private correspondence, that the Christianity of Newton, and probably of Locke, was Arian, and therefore unorthodox, as it denied the full divinity of Jesus. That was not made clear at the time.


  1. Excellent stuff!
    However, if you accept the test that "the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence," then what of the beliefs Locke held? Such as, "Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything;" and "Reason should be the judge of our beliefs." Can they be demonstrated?

  2. I cannot imagine that, if suddenly dropped on a desert island, children would have to re-teach themselves that Jesus ever existed.

  3. While I can't comment on the conclusions, that is an excellently well written piece there Sam. Very nice work.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.