Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, November 13, 2015

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Freedom and Equality)

Reading William Faulkner’s Barn Burning makes some readers stop and ponder.  Why do we prefer living in civilized society with other people under organized governments instead of just roaming around the world on our own, similar to Abner Scopes, free to do as we please?  Aristotle said we have a natural instinct to form families.  These family bonds then extend outward to form villages of like-minded families.  Only by establishing social relationships can we go on to develop those larger communities called cities which make the good life possible.  Hobbes disagreed.  He said governments are formed primarily out of fear.  We band together for protection against those who would do us harm.  By combining our forces we can defend ourselves against those most cunning and dangerous of predators, other human beings.             

In this week’s reading John Locke brings a different perspective to the discussion.  His insight is that “the great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”  For Locke the desire to get and hold on to personal possessions is a uniquely human quality.  Many animals hoard food.  But only human beings want things like books and dining room tables and fancy clothes.  We not only want these things, we want to own them for ourselves.  And we don’t want other people taking them away from us.  In Gogol’s short story The Overcoat (GB4) a poor office clerk scrimps and saves for months to buy a luxurious new coat; only to have it stolen from him by thieves.  According to Locke this is the reason we have governments.  When thieves can steal someone else’s property we return to a state of nature.  When a man can burn down another man’s barn without being punished we return to a state of nature.  What is this state of nature?  Locke believes the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom…a state also of equality.”  This sounds easy enough.  Until we start digging into the details.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  What does he mean by equality?  And these seemingly simply questions lead to more complex ones.  Does personal freedom ultimately result in social and economic inequalities?  Does the liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution ultimately result in men like Major de Spain and Abner Snopes?

Locke helps us sort through this complex problem.  What does Locke mean by freedom?  He says the “state of liberty…is not a state of license.”  Men are free to “dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit” but they’re not free to do anything they please.  Why not?  Because “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law…”  Rational man lives by rational law and Locke says “it is not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others.”  A civilized society has “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong…”  That’s why Abner Snopes would only burn barns in the dead of the night.  He knew the common consent of the community.  Burning another man’s barn was wrong.  Snopes may have argued that it wasn’t fair for de Spain to have a home as big as a courthouse while the Snopes family has to share a two room shack.  Snopes doesn’t think this is equality and wants to help level the playing field.  So what does Locke have to say about this version of equality?  He thinks there’s political equality when “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.”  Power and jurisdiction are the key terms.  Government will use the power of the law to protect Snopes two room shack just as much as it protects de Spain’s mansion.  In that sense they are equal.  Karl Marx (GB1) protests that this theory of government protects the rich and property should be redistributed for true equality.  In 19th century Russia that kind of thinking could land you in Siberia.  And that’s where our next reading takes place.


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