Arts & Culture

Locke: More enlightened than we thought

4 min read

English political philosopher John Locke died nearly a century before the American Revolution, and in his time parliamentary democracy was in its infancy.

But his Enlightenment ideas — including the right to life, liberty, and property — went on to inspire American revolutionaries. Whole passages from his epically radical “Second Treatise” (1689) are used almost verbatim in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke was also an inspiration to the generations of liberal thinkers whose ideas now underpin ideals of Western political thought.

But Locke’s place in the Western canon is also controversial. For one, some feminist writers aver that he helped perpetuate a tradition of ideas dating back to Aristotle and used for ages to subjugate women.

Jeremy Waldron, a scholar of law and philosophy at New York University, asks us to reconsider this view of Locke, and understand him as an early champion of women’s rights.

Waldron outlined his arguments this week (April 27) in a lecture on Locke, motherhood, and equality. The title was drawn from the 17th century philosopher’s own words, “The mother too hath her title.”

The talk, which drew roughly 100 listeners to the Radcliffe Gymnasium, was the third in a 2008-09 Dean’s Lecture Series sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Waldron was on sabbatical this year at Oxford University’s Christ College, where he immersed himself in Locke’s lesser-known “First Treatise,” published as a companion to the famous second.

The 1689 document — “negative and polemical,” said Waldron — is a line-by-line refutation of a 1680 book by Sir Robert Filmer arguing for the divine right of kings.

The “First Treatise” covers the “scriptural side” of Locke’s arguments against absolute power, said Waldron. The “Second Treatise” explicates Locke’s notions of “rational political theory,” he said — a text more palatable to audiences estranged from the idea that the Bible has a place in political theory.

Using the image of an all-powerful God, Filmer argued that all governments have a single origin and model: a father’s governance of his family.

Locke assaulted that idea, and his opposition even carried over into the “Second Treatise.” There he held that the power of the husband is “far from that of an absolute Monarch.” (Waldron’s lecture included a handout of 26 passages from Locke.)

In fact, a natural right of liberty and equality accompany the idea of motherhood, according to Locke. Motherhood becomes not an obstacle to equality, said Waldron, but “the key to equality.”

In Locke’s time, motherhood was widely regarded as a “prominent reason to disenfranchise women,” said Waldron — something “either too important or too debilitating” to allow women into the arenas of political power and social authority.

Locke himself “was an exception to this rule,” he added — a man who turned away from his own era’s “path of political correctness.”

But re-reading Locke also reveals the apparent ambiguity of his uses of the phrase “all men,” which is echoed so powerfully in the Declaration of Independence.

Did Locke mean the inclusive “all men,” asked Waldron, or the exclusive “all men”?

Some modern feminist scholars assume Locke intended the exclusive reading of “all men,” said Waldron. But a closer and wider reading of him reveals that “Locke went back and forth,” he said, and in fact argued for a “gender-neutral sense of man.”

The biblical Adam, Locke argued in the “First Treatise,” did not have a “Private Dominion” over the world, but shared it with Eve, who was “as well as he Lord of the World.”

Waldron acknowledged the well-known arguments for Locke’s presumed anti-feminism. This includes a famous, and inflammatory, passage in the “Second Treatise.” In it, Locke allows that if “rule” belongs anywhere in a marriage “it naturally falls to the Man’s share, as the abler and the stronger.”

It was that phrase — “the abler and the stronger” — that has echoed through the ages, said Waldron — displacing, without real justice, the idea that Locke was in favor of a woman’s rights.

He called the scholarly controversy over Locke’s remarks on husbands and wives “a sideshow.” It denies power to Locke’s early feminist ideas, he said. That includes the idea that subordination may be a woman’s lot, but it is not her destiny.

Locke’s liberal views of motherhood put the woman on equal footing with the man within marriage, said Waldron. It was an idea of such novel subversion in the 17th century, he said, that it was for its time an “egalitarian Trojan horse.”

The writings of John Locke are full of “extraordinary challenges” to the status quo of his time, said Waldron.

“If we haven’t found them in Locke,” he said, “we haven’t looked hard enough.”