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Monday, October 26, 2009

LOCKE: Of Civil Government and Nature

John Locke didn’t think the world was an arbitrary place. He believed there’s purpose and order to the universe. He also believed we have minds so we can figure out what that purpose and order is. As Locke sees things 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. By using our minds we can reason our way to improve life and make the world a better place to live. Reason is the common heritage of all mankind: 2+2=4 no matter who you are, no matter where you live. But life isn’t always as simple as 2+2=4. If it were, then we would all agree and get along with one another. In real life we often disagree; sometimes we disagree violently and people get hurt or killed. That’s the reason we band together into larger groups. We form into communities and, on a larger scale, into nations. We pick a few people from the community to make laws and enforce rules so we can live together in peace and safety. We designate these people as legislators. But it’s important for these legislators to know that they’re still part of the community too. They’re our representatives, not our masters. Locke puts it in plain terms: The law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make must…be conformable to the law of nature, i.e., to the will of God. For Locke human reason and the divine will of God are not in conflict, they’re complimentary. They both teach us how to live. Locke believed that God created us to be free rational beings in the original state of nature. Rational thought leads us to know the will of God and teaches us to live better lives. But freedom also includes the power to reject rational thought and the will of God. If we reject these eternal rules of order then bad things happen.

For example, in a state of nature the earth supplies food and nourishment for every living creature. If I find acorns lying on the ground I can eat them. Anyone can. Acorns belong to everyone, first come first serve. But let’s say I go a step further. I don’t just find an acorn and eat it, then find another one and eat it and so on at random. I want to have acorns to eat in the wintertime too, so I gather a bunch of them together. Then I crack the shells to get the nuts. Then I place the nuts in a basket. Now I “own” these acorns. Why? Because I’ve taken the time and effort to gather them up, crack them open, and store them carefully in a basket. Now they don’t belong to everyone, they belong to me. Locke says we instinctively know this because for every man The labour of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his. I worked for these acorns, now they’re mine. All rational creatures agree to this fact; there doesn’t have to be a rule that says Thou Shalt Not Steal written in stone. It’s a natural law. Everyone knows it’s wrong to take someone else’s stuff. But some people don’t care about natural law. They just want some acorns and it’s a lot easier to take my acorns than go gather up their own.

So people like me band together with other acorn-gatherers for safety and security. We give up some of the freedoms we have in a state of nature so our acorns won’t be taken away from us by thieves. Then we’re no longer living in a state of nature but under the rule of law. In Locke’s terms the Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by… Our standing rule is that people can’t take away acorns they haven’t worked for. If they do, they’ll be punished. This is not some far-fetched theory. The American continent was a whole new world to the Europeans and was still in “a state of nature” in a very real sense. But America didn’t spring up out of a vacuum. Settlers brought ideas along with them. John Locke’s ideas on natural law, freedom and private property were essential for establishing the American colonies. Today America has become a great nation, to a very great extent, because of those ideas.


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