Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, May 20, 2011

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Introduction)

Thomas Jefferson is famous in American history for coining the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But long before Jefferson was born John Locke had already said that Man... hath by nature a power... to preserve his property (that is, his life, liberty, and estate) against the injuries and attempts of other men. Jefferson’s notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is firmly planted in our brains. But where did Locke get his notion? This selection says Locke believes there are three faults that inhibit our thinking. First…those who seldom reason at all but do and think according to the example of others… These are people who tend to follow the traditions of the communities they grew up in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that they’re not normally open to accepting new ideas. They prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t know. For traditionalists change should come slowly, if it comes at all. Second…those who put passion in the place of reason… There will always be people who follow passions instead of using their minds to chart out a rational lifestyle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Lots of artists and musicians tend to live this way. For passionate folks change should come quickly, like right now. Third…those who readily and sincerely follow reason, but for want of having that which one may call large, sound, round-about sense have not a full view of all that relates to the question… This is your typical absent-minded professor. They’re smart, they may even be brilliant, but they lack common sense or street smarts. The absent-minded citizen says: Change? What change? Here’s Locke’s point: when we live in community we have all kinds of neighbors. Some are traditional, some are passionate, and some don’t have much common sense. But we all have to live together and somehow get along with one another. Political power is the way we set rules how to live together peaceably. How do we do that? Locke believes we have to start at the beginning: To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man. In Locke’s opinion we’re all born free to think and act in ways that we believe will serve our own best interests. But this “state of perfect freedom” doesn’t mean we can do anything we please. There are other people in the community too. And they have the same rights and responsibilities that we do: A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another… This doesn’t mean that some people won’t have more than other people. They will. In the free exchange of goods and services within the community some people will naturally get rich; others will stay poor. But as far as the LAW is concerned, we all have the same rights to life, liberty and our “estates” or material wealth. As one of our basic human rights, Jefferson replaced the concept of crude material wealth with the nobler-sounding goal: the pursuit of happiness. In Locke’s mind the term “estate” includes material wealth but goes much further. We certainly need things like food and clothing and good health. But Nature also provides us with human dignity. Locke says …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 Locke (and for Jefferson) Nature and Reason are the twin teachers that will ultimately lead us to happiness.


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