Monday, 19 March 2012 08:10

John Locke: Men of Ideas

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John Locke (1632-1704) probably has had the greatest influence on English political thought? Certainly, he had profound influence on the American Revolution; in fact, the founding fathers of America, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin etc carried his Second Treaty on Government with them and freely quoted from him and saw him as their source of inspiration.

Locke’s influence did not end in the world of politics but extended to the world of philosophy. His essay on human understanding is considered by many the foundation of psychology, especially what is today called nurture, as opposed to nature, approach to human nature. Locke’s idea is that the environment and upbringing influences us than our inherited biological constitution.

Locke argues that upon birth the child’s mind is empty, blank, tabula rasa and that whatever is later found in it is put into it by people, society. Those who appear to have more in their minds are those whose early childhood experiences somehow provided with more information; whereas those who appear to be lacking in information are those from deprived circumstances that did not enrich their minds. With this argument Locke accomplished two things: he showed that God did not create people with certain ideas already fixed in their minds and that whatever  are in people’s minds are learned, is a product of their environment and history and that with cultural enrichment human beings could be improved. B.F. Skinner based his entire behaviorism on this Lockean notion that the environment shapes the human being and that the notion of freedom and dignity is exaggerated.

In effect, Locke was a liberal who believed in progress, in the gradual improvement of human beings; he was a rationalist in that he believed that through reason we can figure out what is good for us and do them and teach them to our children. Indeed, he attempted establishing schools where children would be exposed to enriched environments so as to grow into better informed adults.

In his essay on human understanding Locke made it clear that he believes that human consciousness, the consciousness of the self, the I, is learned and is what constitutes the individual.

Locke, along with David Hume, Voltaire, Jean Jacque Rousseau belong in the French enlightenment, and along with Immanuel Kant defined consciousness as that which characterizes human beings, as the human personality.

In this review, we are not dealing with philosophy but social science hence would delimit our inquiry to Locke’s essay on government.

Locke obviously had read Thomas Hobbes leviathan and took him as a point of departure. He agreed with Hobbes’ contract theory of the basis of government. To Locke, government, as Hobbes said, came into being because the people agreed to set it up. Whatever was the real state of the pre-civil society what seems clear to Locke is that it is the people who made a choice to have government and, therefore, set up a government.

The people, apparently, set up the type of government that their present consciousness could construe as good for them. As their understanding changes there is no reason why they could not change the forms of their government. Thus, unlike Hobbes who set up an absolute and permanent monarchical government, Locke made room for changes in forms of government.

It may well be that at some point an absolute monarchy is preferred by the people (in times of social and economic insecurity people often willingly prefer dictators that bring a measure of peace to society). As things change people naturally desire different forms of government.

In the best of circumstances the people desire that government which provides them with security but also is limited in its scope of power. People do not want governments that ride roughshod over them; they want governments that make laws that reflect their wishes and implemented them in a humane manner.

The best government, as Locke sees it, is a limited government, a government that limits its role to what the people mandated it to do for them, and does no more and no less.

For Locke, the issue is not whether there would be government or no government in society, but what type of government. As Locke sees it, people need government, the question is the scope of that government’s powers.

Power is delegated by the people to their government. As such, the people choose what level of power they want to give to their government.

Government exists because the people set it up and is legitimate only to the extent that it does only those things that the people gave it the right to do.

Locke solidified Hobbes contractual basis of government by answering a few basic questions, such as: who gave the ruler the right to rule the people? The people gave him the right to do so. God did not give the ruler the right to rule the people.

In this way Locke completely dismantled the idea of divine right of kings and removed the king and church from governance. Hitherto, the Church had a pretension that God selected a few to represent his will in the temporal realm.

No, it is not god or the Church or the king that determines who governs; it is the people who are responsible for their government.

Ideally, it would be nice if the people elected their government but that was not the issue that Locke concerned himself with. Locke was not a democratic theorist; that function would be performed by other Englishmen, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is good enough for Locke to establish, without equivocation, who established government and who government serves, the people.

In their struggle with the English Monarch, the American colonists cited Locke’s thesis that the people establish their government. If so, since when did the colonists choose King George 111 to be their ruler?  Moreover, since the colonists were not represented in the English Parliament what makes the rulings of that Parliament theirs? Why should they pay taxes without representation in a Parliament that required them to pay such taxes? If they were to pay taxes, and taxes are necessary for running governments,  they ought to participate in making the law that require them to pay taxes?  Since they were not given an opportunity to be represented in making laws that affected them, they, therefore, justified rebelling against a government that taxed them without their representation and a monarch that they did not recruit to rule them. The colonists embarked on forming a government of their making, one of limited government, a government that provided them with security yet is not their lord and master.

Like everything done in this world, Locke did not write his essay on government in a state of vacuum. He wrote at a time King and Parliament were struggling for who would have power over the people. Locke’s book, Second Treaty on Government, was written during the struggle by King and Parliament and written on behalf of Parliament (whereas Hobbes wrote on behalf of the King).

To Locke the people and their representatives are the real source of governmental power, not the king. The King is so much ceremonial ornamentation, a prop folk use to make their government seem dignified.

Locke wrote to defend the Glorious revolution of 1688, a revolution that established the supremacy of Parliament in English governance.

Obviously, the king had his supporters who were putting out their own tracks on his behalf, such as Thomas Hobbes, Locke came down squarely on behalf of the people’s self governance.

Nor was Locke compromising in his stance. Unlike Hobbes, he was not seeking the approval of the king but simply stated what seemed self evidently true. Like all revolutionaries he, of course, had to pay a stiff price for his stance, and as such, for a while was in exile in the Netherlands.

Locke has had more influence on political theory than any one else one can think of. It is simply unimaginable to think of the American constitution without thinking of Locke’s influence on it. And since the American constitution has influenced many constitutions we can begin to comprehend the scope of Locke’s influence on constitutions and governance.

Yet this man who did so much to influence the course of freedom had investments in the peculiar institution of slavery. In fact, he reportedly wrote the constitution of the Carolinas, a constitution that defined Africans as not human beings and deprived them of all political rights.

I suppose that the only way to approach Locke’s distasteful participation in the oppression of a segment of humanity is to say that no human being is perfect. It would be easy to point out that at the time Locke wrote that Africans were perceived as less than human beings. But Locke ought to have known better. One will therefore not make excuses for him, just as one did not make excuses for David Hume’s racism. Let us, therefore, just say that Locke is a fallible, imperfect human being and needed a lot to learn before he became thoroughly human.

Like other men of his time, Locke wrote on many issues, including economics. In fact, it could be argued that his contribution to economics is probably as salient as his contribution to political science. He, for example, defined property as a product of labor added value. In nature there is land and nobody owns it. Land becomes ones property to the extent that one improved its value through ones labor added to it.

As Europeans see it, in the Americas, Indians lived on the land but did not improve the land; therefore the land was not really their property. Europeans improved the land with their labor. The act of adding their labor to the land made it their property. This was the way Europeans justified taking the Americas from the Indians.

Land in itself is neutral and has no value; its value derives from what human beings do with it. Human labor gave value to land and everything else; property is labor added to whatever one claims to be ones.

We can argue with the European and Lockean approach to property but the fact is that it was how Europeans thought about property. Karl Marx spent a lot of energy and time refuting the labor added theory of property. That debate is still raging and obviously is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that Locke had many thoughts on what is now called economics, be it on capital accumulation, price theory, the nature of money etc.

In the end we take from Locke his useful views on government, particularly his understanding that government is the product of the people’s efforts to protect themselves and therefore must represent the peoples understanding of what constitutes good protection.  We also take from him his very useful understanding that human beings have a consciousness running through their lives; each of us, beginning in childhood, has a consciousness of self, a consciousness that is with him from childhood to old age and death (unless he experiences Alzheimer’s diseases and forgets it).

Consciousness of the separated self, the I, the ego is what differentiates human beings from animals. Clearly, self consciousness can be improved and that is the function of psychology.

We conclude this brief overview of Locke’s social science by observing that he helped us understand the nature of government, that he helped us understand that we the people set up governments to do certain things for us and when they do them they are legitimate governments, and when they do not do them or go beyond the scope of powers we give to them they are no longer legitimate and ought to be replaced.

No one form of government is a permanent phenomenon; government is work in progress, to be made and remade, shaped and reshaped by the people. This is the lasting contribution to social thought by John Locke.


John Locke, Second Treaty on Government (many editions).

John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (many editions).

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176