Saturday, February 23, 2008

Locke's first treatise on government

Many people have read Locke's second treatise because it's one of the foundation's of political philosophy, but few people have read the first one. Those that do sort of laugh and chuckle at the picture that Locke paints of his opponent, Robert Filmer, the author of "Patriarcha", which argues for monarchy. The overwhelming majority of Locke's treatise deals with debunking the supposed claim that God gave Adam the divine right of rulership which he then gave to his children. It would be funny if Locke was taking on a doddering old man who believed in a simplistic view of history but there's one problem: Out of his entire paper, Filmer only devotes about three paragraphs to Adam--and it's not even a big part of his argument.

Unfortunately most editions of Locke's treatise don't include "Patriarcha" even though it's shorter than the first treatise itself. But because of the magic of the internet you can find a copy right Here and a copy of Locke's first treatise Here.

From Patriarcha:

"2. To make evident the grounds of this question about the natural liberty of mankind, I will lay down some passages of Cardinal Bellarmine that may best unfold the state of this controversy.

Secular or civil power is instituted by men, it is in the people, unless they bestow it on a prince. This power is immediately in the whole multitude, as in the subject of it; for this power is in the divine law, but the divine law hath given this power to no particular man. If the positive law be taken away, there is left no reason why amongst a multitude — who are equal — one rather than another should bear rule over the rest. Power is given by the multitude to one man or to more by the same law of nature; for the commonwealth cannot exercise this power; therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some one man, or some few. It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king, or consul, or other magistrates; and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.

Thus far Bellarmine, in which passages are comprised the strength of all that ever I have read or heard produced for the natural liberty of the subject.

Before I examine or refute these doctrines, I must a little make some observations upon his words[:]

First, He saith that by the law of God power is immediately in the people; hereby he makes God to be the immediate author of a democratical estate; for a democracy is nothing else but the power of the multitude. If this be true, not only aristocracies but all monarchies are altogether unlawful, as being ordained — as he thinks — by men, whereas God himself hath chosen a democracy.

Secondly, He holds that, although a democracy be the ordinance of God, yet the people have no power to use the power which God hath given them, but only power to give away their power, whereby it followeth that there can be no democratical government, because he saith the people must give their power to one man, or to some few; which maketh either a regal or aristocratical estate, which the multitude is tied to do, even by the same law of nature which originally gave them the power. And why then doth he say the multitude may change the kingdom into a democracy?"

From Locke:

"The sovereignty of Adam, being that on which, as a sure basis, our author builds his mighty absolute monarchy, I expected, that in his Patriarcha, this his main supposition would have been proved, and established with all that evidence of arguments, that such a fundamental tenet required; and that this, on which the great stress of the business depends, would have been made out with reasons sufficient to justify the confidence with which it was assumed. But in all that treatise, I could find very little tending that way; the thing is there so taken for granted, without proof, that I could scarce believe myself, when, upon attentive reading that treatise, I found there so mighty a structure raised upon the bare supposition of this foundation: for it is scarce credible, that in a discourse, where he pretends to confute the erroneous principle of man’s natural freedom, he should do it by a bare supposition of Adam’s authority, without offering any proof for that authority. Indeed he confidently says, that Adam had royal authority, p. 12, and 13. Absolute lordship and dominion of life and death, p. 13. An universal monarchy, p. 33. Absolute power of life and death, p. 35."

If you read this and go on to read further in Patriarcha, comparing the two texts, you'll see that it looks like Locke's talking about a completely different book, that he's imputing a kind of idiocy and ignorance to Filmer that's not present.

Filmer used Adam and the Bible in certain places as metaphors to illustrate points, something that had been done for a long, long, time in western philosophy and that Locke would have instantly understood, living in the 17th century. He doesn't seem to have meant it literally. That idea comes from Locke.

Instead of giving a good, intelligent, critique of this text,that was published after the author had been dead for almost thirty years, Locke turns to character assassination and propaganda to discredit his ideas.

I don't agree with Patriarcha but I wouldn't dismiss it as meaningless because he makes biblical references.

Locke's first treatise is regarded as unnecessary reading because it's opponent seems so feeble and irrelevant to today's world. But its weakness is all Locke's and his half hearted effort to discredit the text by burying it under tons of bullshit.

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