The Political Writings of John Locke
Locke’s Philosophy on the Concepts of ‘Substance’, ‘Nominal essence’ and ‘Real essence’
Within his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke picks up where his predecessors in epistemological theorizing left off and proceeds to shift the study towards a more empiricist approach. Amongst the complexities of his theory, the notions of ‘substance’, ‘nominal essence’ and ‘real essence’ are fundamental and relate, in Locke’s view, to explain the nature of the things that we perceive. In this essay, I will aim to explain the theory which binds these three concepts together and, in turn, examine their role in the overall framework. As is often the case with early philosophical works, however, we find opposing interpretations of his meaning amongst commentators; I shall endeavor to examine the points of contention and, ultimately, give an account of what seems to be the natural reading.
To begin with, I would like to consider Locke’s conception of ‘substance.’ Locke provides us with two levels at which we can talk of substance; at the general level ( the ‘notion of pure substance in general (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II. XXIII, 2)) and at the level of particulars or individual things (‘ideas of particular sorts of substance.’ (ibid, II, XXIII, 3)) Aside from this simply asserted distinction within the Essay, however, the remainder of Locke’s conception of substance is controversial and much debated. The way in which it at first appears in the Essay, and the way in which Locke’s view was traditionally interpreted, is that he conceives of substance as acting in a supporting role; the qualities or properties which an object possesses, both at a constitutional level and at an observable level, must be anchored by something. The properties which come together to form an object cannot simply exist as a collection of properties, they must be bound to something which Locke calls a ‘substratum.’ This substratum would be, essentially, property-less. As Locke explains, ‘ The idea then we have, to which we give the general name substance, being nothing, but the supposed, but unknown support of those qualities, we find existing, which we imagine cannot subsist, sine re substante, without something to support them, we call that support substantia, which, according to the true import of the word, is in plain English, standing under or upholding. ‘ (ibid. II, XXIII, 2)
It is open to debate how Locke actually views this unknowable substance which supposedly anchors all qualities; Ayers puts the problem succinctly: ‘the question is this: does Locke think of the ‘substance’ or ‘substratum’ of observable properties as an entity distinct from all its properties?’ or ‘is the unknown ‘substance’ or ‘substratum’ nothing over and above the unknown ‘real essence’?’ (M. Ayers ‘The Ideas of Power and Substance in Locke’s Philosophy’ in I. Tipton (ed.), p.77) It seems that either interpretation causes problems for Locke; if he wishes to maintain that the substratum does exist as distinct from all qualities, can it really be said to be anything at all? ‘How is an utterly featureless ‘something’ different from nothing at all?’ (E.J. Lowe Locke on Human Understanding ch.4, p.75) Conversely, however, if the substratum were not distinct from properties, it would have properties of its own which, according to Locke’s framework, would require anchoring or support.( ibid.) Scholars have suggested numerous ways of supporting the idea that Locke viewed ‘real essence’ as basically interchangeable with ‘substance.’ Lowe, for example, suggests that Locke may be using the notion of substance as a name for the basic microstructure of objects: ‘recalling…Locke’s sympathy for atomism, might we not suppose that what he understands by the ‘substratum’ of a macroscopic object like a tree is the complex, organised assembly of material atoms that are its ultimate substantial constituents- what he elsewhere calls the ‘real essence” (ibid.) An interpretation like this arguably can find textual support; Locke talks of simple ideas flowing ‘from the particular internal Constitution, or unknown Essence of that substance.’ (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, XXIII,3) The conjunction ‘or’ here suggests an equality and interchangeability of the two notions. However, we cannot simply rely on grammatical nuances to establish a solid interpretation of Locke; it seems that if Locke were to hold that the substratum were not simply a way of expressing the constitution of an object, he would be adhering to the Aristotelian notion of ‘prime matter’ which, taking into account the philosophical climate in which Locke was writing, might have been embarrassing. As Ayers maintains, ‘it is improbable to the point of impossibility that Locke, who is an anti-Aristotelian corpuscularian of the school of Boyle, should himself, using the very term substratum, advance a view so analogous to what Berkeley describes as ‘that antiquated and so much ridiculed notion of materia prima to be met with in Aristotle and his followers.’ (M. Ayers ‘The Ideas of Power and Substance in Locke’s Philosophy’ in I. Tipton (ed.), p.78) Locke does seem to talk of a characterless substratum in a rather derogatory way: ‘ They who first ran into the Notion of Accidents, as a sort of real Beings, that needed something to inhere in, were forced to find out the word Substance, to support them. Had the poor Indian Philosopher (who imagined that the Earth also wanted something to bear it up) but thought of this word Substance, he needed not to have been at the trouble to find an elephant to support it, and a Tortoise to support his Elephant: The word Substance would have done it effectually.’ (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, XIII, 19) It could be, however, that this comparison is simply indicating the level at which substance is unknowable.
As much as we might wish to claim that Locke was not inconsistent with his own rejection of Aristotelian prime matter and that of his contemporaries, we cannot deny that it does seem that way. Locke frequently reinforces the need for something to support qualities: ‘…we cannot conceive, how they should subsist alone.'(Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, XXIII, 4) And, as mentioned previously, something intended to support qualities cannot have qualities of its own which require support. If substance was basically equatable to real essence or to the constitution of objects at an atomic level, surely Locke would have made this more explicit. There is an undeniable distinction being made. As Lowe points out, the distinction is necessary for Locke’s theory; the substratum has a ‘metaphysical role to play above and beyond any merely scientific explanatory role which could be offered by the doctrine of atomism.’ (E.J. Lowe Locke on Human Understanding ch.4, p.76) The atoms themselves have qualities and properties which require supporting. Therefore, it seems to me that the most obvious reading is one in which Locke is espousing the idea of a supportive, characterless, underlying substance. Though this is contested, however, it is undeniable that whatever Locke is attempting to convey by talking of substance, this substance is entirely unknowable.
According to Locke, substances have two essences- their real essence and their nominal essence; this recognition of two distinct essences is crucial for the way in which Locke constructs his theory of how we come to classify objects. Locke defines ‘real essence’ as that which exists at the level of constitution; a substance’s real essence is what causes the qualities we can observe but the real essence itself is unobservable. As the name suggests, the real essence has its basis in reality as opposed to simply in the human conception. Nominal essence, by contrast, is comprised of the abstract, observable qualities of a substance, those which enable us to classify substances into different species or genera. Locke uses the term ‘nominal’ to demonstrate that noting the similar abstract ideas in a substance is an exercise in naming things. Locke offers many examples of how the real and nominal essences interact; his most common example is that of Gold. The nominal essence of gold is the idea that we have of gold which allows us to call it gold; certain substances will have certain qualities which match the nominal essence of the thing we called gold e.g. weight, malleability, yellowness etc. and we would call this substance gold also. Meanwhile, the real essence of the gold is allowing it to have the properties which constitute its nominal essence.
It has been noted that in postulating his theory of essences, Locke reacted against his scholastic predecessors, and even their predecessors, specifically Aristotle. He believed their investigations futile; as Mackie puts it, they had an approach to essences which ‘was not merely erroneous but seriously misleading, which had for centuries led thinkers to pursue wrong and fruitless methods of investigation and had made them ‘pretenders to a knowledge they had not.'(J. Mackie Problems From Locke ch.3) He strongly refutes the notion that in their classification of objects into categories, his predecessors actually had some knowledge of the reality of them i.e. of what he would call their real essence, ‘the true essential nature of things.’ (ibid.) Locke is adamant that what we perceive in objects is merely an abstract idea of what they really are; we categorize them according to these characteristics; the scholastic method, in Locke’s view, gives rise to the dual misconception that we can have knowledge of the fundamental nature of things and that nature organizes substances into separate species itself. Though nature provides the fundamental constitutions of substances which enable them to have the powers to produce certain perceptions in us, it is humans that organize them according to these perceptions.
It sometimes seems that Locke is arguing that the existence of natural kinds is an empirical question and he wants to assert that our knowledge of the nominal essences of substances isn’t enough to infer that there actually are natural kinds.( J. Mackie Problems From Locke ch.3) However, it does also seem that Locke argues towards the denial of natural species on numerous occasions. For example, he claims that if nature were responsible for the separation of substances into species, we couldn’t account for the number of cases whereby substances don’t seem to fit into any species; he states that the view ‘which supposes these Essences, as a certain number of Forms or Molds, wherein all natural Things, that exist, are cast, and do equally partake, has, I imagine, very much perplexed the Knowledge of natural Things. The frequent Productions of Monsters…Changelings, and other strange Issues of humane Birth, carry with them difficulties, not possible to consist with this Hypothesis: Since it is as impossible, that two Things, partaking exactly of the same real Essence, should have different Properties, as that two Figures partaking in the same real Essence of a Circle, should have different Properties.’ (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, III, III,17) In addition, he argues that the fact that humans have to be selective in deciding the necessary and sufficient conditions for a substance to fall into a specific species is testament to nature’s lack of categorization. Often, substances have too many similarities, humans must sift through them to decide the most important; this selection process is not something which nature can do. Ayers summarizes Locke’s stance regarding real and nominal essences succinctly: ‘…the Lockean nominal essence is intrinsically an epistemological essence and nothing more, a criterion by reference to which we mark off the members of the species. The boundary marked is a precise one which owes its existence to our drawing it: reality itself simply could not, in Locke’s view, supply such a boundary. Reality can supply resemblances, but resemblances do not constitute natural boundaries.’ (Ayers,’Locke versus Aristotle on Natural Kinds’, Journal of Philosophy 1981)
In conclusion, the individual notions of substance, real essence and nominal essence are inextricably linked within Locke’s epistemological theory; though there are certain points within the Essay Concerning Human Understanding at which one might pause to question how we interpret Locke, overall, the way in which the three elements relate to one another is clear. Locke certainly made a considerable leap in the direction of empiricism and, as Ayers observes, ‘Locke was neither alone nor the first in the field but his argument is the most extended, elaborate, and sophisticated, and certainly the most widely read and influential of his time on the subject of natural kinds.’ (ibid.)
“The Current State of John Locke’s Theory on Knowledge Acquisition”
“Our knowledge in all these enquiries reaches very little farther than our experience” (Essay). Locke asserts the principle that true knowledge is learned. As humans, our knowledge about the world around us and the subjects within it come from a study of our surroundings. Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa,’ or “blank slate” is inconsistent with the human mind and psyche. He asserts the premise that humans are not born with knowledge about anything and that the only way humans acquire knowledge is through their own experiences. Locke’s theory of human knowledge and the acquisition of that knowledge does not allow for the probability of an individual who possesses an innate genius and natural ability toward a particular subject or talent, for example: the natural artist. This does not mean that Locke’s theory fails because it does not cover all possibilities. His theory is weakened when he asserts that knowledge only comes from the five senses (Essay ch.iii). Therefore, knowledge is acquired through a human’s ability to see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. Locke dismisses the innately talented and the musical and artistic genius of his day. However, Locke’s theory is consistent with the typical Empiricist’s theory that insight comes from what one can experience (Studies p.1). Empiricism “is a collective name given to a variety of philosophical doctrines concerned with human knowledge. Empiricists believe that knowledge comes exclusively through experience and that humans are born completely without knowledge” (Locke 1). Therefore, modern day Empiricists must stretch their existing theory to allow for exceptions to their conclusions. If Empiricist’s would embrace this idea of innate knowledge and talent that exists among members of society, they would strengthen the theory of knowledge through the senses.There are many documented cases of unusually talented children with musical and artistic abilities that far exceed the talents of their predecessors. Oprah Winfrey dedicated an entire show to children of unusual genius. The children ranged in age from four to sixteen years old. One particular child, of middle school age, displayed several different pieces of artwork on the stage. Her artwork has been compared to Rembrandt and Picasso. She is far more gifted than the majority of adult painters. In fact, she is so talented that her art teacher did not believe that she had painted a picture turned in as an assignment. He was convinced a very talented adult had painted the pictures for her. One day after school, he made her paint a picture and she produced on of equal greatness as the one before. She claimed she never took one art lesson. One day she picked up a paintbrush and started to paint a picture and consequently, she and her family discovered her exceptional talent as an artist. Considering this scenario, Locke’s theory of knowledge acquisition would be poured down the drain with the dirty paint water from the young girl’s paintbrushes. Locke claims that the “mind can not cannot have its own ideas independent of sense-perception” (Studies 1). It is apparent that this young girl’s talent stemmed from a natural inclination toward art and painting. She did not sit in on a single art class and she was never taught how to paint. It is impossible to reconcile Locke’s theory with the case of this young girl. She has a natural talent for art. Swami Krishnanaanda, in Studies in Comparative Philosophy, points out that the “truth of mathematics and logic are not exclusively derived from sense-experience. Though the material necessary for the formulation of mathematical and logical laws is received by us through sensations, the laws themselves are not got from empirical observation; they are inherent in the mind itself as its essential make-up and method of working (p. 5). Mathematics and the rules of logic are innately understood by a human through the process of abstract thought. Abstract thinking is not natural and fails to be empirical because it cannot be experienced through the five senses. This method of thinking forces a person to understand complicated rules and symbols on an unnatural level. If this type of thinking were natural, everyone would be able to think and understand mathematical principles on an abstract level. If abstract thought were analogous to natural thought, than all humans would be able to understand trigonometry when they are taught the subject in the classroom. However, because mathematics and logical reasoning cannot be comprehended in a natural way, only a select number of people can fully grasp the principles these subjects have to offer. Locke’s conception of knowledge has been interpreted to include “facts, which are things said or done, not dreams, visions, opinions, or even deductive systems” (Restoration Review 2). The problem with this definition of knowledge is that facts are only made factual because society ultimately comes to an agree that they are facts. If society did not agree that the ‘sky is blue’ for example, than those who observed the sky to be blue would only possess the opinion, not the factual knowledge that it is blue. Therefore, facts only become facts through consent, not observation. This assertion is supported through considering the different denominations of Christianity. Mormonism for example, does not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God. They only recognize Jesus as a prophet because Mormons, as a group, consents to this realization. The Baptist denomination, however, acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God because the Baptist convention accepts Jesus to be so. Neither denomination observed Jesus’ relationship to God, nor did they experience this conception with their five senses. Rather, they accept this idea as truth or ‘gospel’ because their groups have consented that this was true. Even if the two groups observed the relationship of Jesus and God through their sensory experiences, than the two groups would have come to the same conclusion: either Jesus is the son of God, or he is a mere prophet, not both. The mere disagreement of the two groups on the same topic suggests that they gained their knowledge by agreement, consent, opinion, and tradition, not through the senses of their individual congregants. Locke acknowledges the apparent dichotomy in the understanding of what he considers an ‘experience.’ In fact, he acknowledges the premise “our observations may be employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds”(Internet Encyclopedia 5). Therefore, Locke states that our five senses can take in or experience the external world. For example, one can taste a fine champagne-based dill sauce and comprehend its Moet and Chandon base. Locke goes further with his premise to include the ‘internal’ precepts of the mind within the scope of his definition of ‘experience.’ This would include, for example, the internal thought process that must take place before the next sentence of this paper is written. If knowledge must be acquired through the five senses in order to be understood, than a sixth sense must be created in order to understand originality of ideas and invention. Einstein, for example, invented several mathematical concepts, based on the knowledge he acquired through experience. However, his original ideas were not causally linked to the knowledge he acquired through the study of physics just because his ideas involved the subject of physics. A child may paint a picture in an impressionistic style, without any prior training to paint that way. Just because his painting qualifies as what society classifies as “impressionistic” does not mean that his ability to paint in this manner is at all related to a training in the style. Locke’s theory dismisses the concept that ideas can be original. According to Locke, ideas naturally flow from one’s sensory experience, and therefore knowledge, of a subject. However, only a select number in any population are equipped with the ability to take the knowledge they have acquired one step further in order to develop an original idea or invention. On the other hand, the definition of an original invention is that it is new and has never been created before. Locke acknowledges this argument through his second theory of knowledge acquisition: reflection. Locke defines reflection as a concept where “we turn our mind on itself” (Spark 1). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke states that humans receive ideas “as thought, belief, doubt, and will” (Essay Book II). If doubt is supposed to be an object of how humans understand the world, than Locke’s theory is insufficient in that it does not account for doubt that has no rational basis. Locke believes that doubt can only result from experiences that cause doubt. Therefore, according to Locke, doubt cannot be unfounded because it is directly related to one’s sensory experiences. This theory can be countered by the very existence of phobias. Some humans are afraid of heights, dogs, and small spaces without any prior experience with the very object that caused their doubts and fears. Therefore, doubt can be unfounded and unexplainable. Doubt may arise from a force other than a person’s encounter with it. For example, one may be afraid of heights without ever leaving the ground. One may also be afraid of flying without ever having travelled by means other than motor vehicle. Contemporary philosophers evaluate Locke’s ideas in the context of how humans perceive the world around them. They have coined the term “veil of perception” to describe the wall or the “veil of ideas between us and the world” (Spark 2). Thus, according to Locke, an original idea is a natural result of one’s perception of a subject. This assumes that the knowledge acquired by humans does not remain static, but rather acts as a synthesis upon which ideas are built. Therefore, when humans acquire knowledge through observation, within the field of science, for example, the knowledge he gains does not remain in the same form that he received it in. Rather, the knowledge evolves into ideas and later inventions. This theory still does not explain why some people use their knowledge productively and others do not. Quite frankly, an answer to this theory would require non-empirical conjecture. When knowledge evolves into ideas, it becomes abstract thought because the idea that results is original and unique to the individual that conceives it. Often times, the ideas that result from acquired knowledge do not follow a logical set of steps that ultimately produce a final product or in this case idea or invention. The fact that one’s thought pattern skips logical steps that lead to a logical conclusion, that in this case is an invention, does not discount the notion that ideas cannot result from spontaneous and unlearned knowledge. For example, researchers and doctors studied the same concepts as Albert Einstein for years, as did the researchers before them. However, for some reason that defies the empirical acquisition of knowledge, Einstein was able to instinctively expedite the creation of theories of physics. Locke’s theories cannot explain the genius that is Albert Einstein or the artistic genius of a middle-schooler.Locke’s theory forces one to examine the origin of genius and whether the concept is learned, as Locke concludes, or biological. Steven Allen, in his “Observations on Genius”, states that genius does not originate from perspiration, as Edison once suggested, but rather, the thoughts and ideas of geniuses come easily, requiring little to no work at all (Allen 1). Society has agreed that geniuses do exist, thus we use the word ‘genius.’ Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa’ does not allow for the possibility of genius. In fact, it does not even explain the capacity for one individual to exhibit unusual talent while another does not. His theory cannot explain the five-year-old from MENSA that can add up columns of large numbers in a small amount of time. It does not account for the adult that can square a particular number one hundred times in a blink of an eye, or another person who can read the United States Constitution once and than recite it from memory verbatim. This, of course, only considers and evaluates the term ‘genius’ in the most classic sense. These are individuals that society has agreed are geniuses. For example, this would include Michelangelo, in the art world, and Einstein, in the sciences. Abstract theory, therefore, cannot be explained by empirical means. Abstract concepts such as calculus, which involves a lofty amount of symbols, involves a part of the human brain that is capable of processing and understanding information on an unnatural and abstract level. Genius, therefore, is understood to be a unique thought process, unexplainable by the laws of natural order. If it was natural, genius would be more common. However, true genius in its classic form, is extremely rare and exists in very few members of the human population. Thus, genius is a deviation from what is natural and therefore an unnatural occurrence in the population, according to Locke’s theory of ‘tabula rasa.’ Suppose Edison was correct and accurate when he stated that genius is “ninety-nine percent perspiration.” This would mean that if everyone in society worked as hard as they possibly could, than they would exhibit some form of genius. If this were true, than hard work would equate to genius and laziness would equate to stupidity. Locke would agree with this, but it is simply unrealistic and short-sighted. It does not account for the fact that some members of the population are born with an intrinsic genius. Steven Allen would therefore agree that genius can better be explained by biology and genetics, rather than the tabula rasa theory (Allen id). Genius can be better understood in terms of chemicals and brain structure, instead of the blank slate theory or religious doctrine. In fact, a posthumous dissection and subsequent analysis of Einstein’s brain was performed to determine if there were any marked differences between his brain and that of a ‘normal’ person. It was discovered that his brain was “fifteen percent larger than an average human brain and that it possessed a higher number of glial cells, the cells that support and nourish the network of neurons. This subsequently increased the metabolic speed of Einstein’s thoughts and brain waves” (Cardoso 1). Even though the relationship between the level of intelligence an individual possesses and his genetic makeup has long been debated, Einstein’s case cannot be ignored. Einstein possessed particular biological characteristics that set him apart from a person with average intelligence. Scientists are hesitant however, to claim that there is a definite causal link between intelligence and the biological and genetic makeup of an individual. Locke also proposes the notion that knowledge runs out at some point, that it is a limited concept (Essay). Locke proposes that, even though knowledge comes to the individual through experience, it is that experience that limits an individual’s capacity to understand everything he experiences. Locke’s theory does not account for the possibility of unsupported claims. For example, an individual can invent the idea of the internet without the understanding of how it works in cyberspace. Just because our experiences do not provide a lit path that leads to a logical conclusion or result, does not mean that the result cannot be achieved by other means, i.e. by using logic and deductive reasoning. For example, if there are three seats in a row and child A occupies seat one and child B occupies seat three and child C occupies neither seat, than it can be concluded through deductive reasoning, that seat two will not be occupied by a child. Even though this scenario did not explicitly state that seat two would remain empty it implied that it was empty because the other two seats were occupied. Even though one’s experiences may only produce lemons, it is natural to produce lemonade from the facts that are experienced by an individual through his senses.Understanding, knowledge, and genius can also be understood through religious theory and doctrine. If one believes that God created all things, than it can be concluded that knowledge is God’s creation. In addition, if one believes that God is in control and that man was made in God’s image, than the knowledge an individual possesses is unique to his person because God made each person different and unique. Therefore, one may logically conclude, if a person is classified as ‘genius’ or ‘idiot’ than it is because God created them to be so. Therefore one’s knowledge and intelligence is part of the divine order. Therefore, in Einstein’s case, he was supposed to be a quantum theorist and was intellectually capable of being so because God created some individuals to be average and others to be exceptional, as part of his divine order. This religious perspective asserts the claim that humans are not equal. Just because God created individuals with special talents and individuals with a natural tendency towards idiocy, does not mean it is to the detriment of that individual because this would presuppose that God wanted the worst, not the best for his creation. This would seem, on the other hand, to say that God is unaware of the stigmas that society gives to those people with less intelligence and the obvious benefits that society gives to people with unusual talents and genius. This premise cannot be true because God knows all, because God created all. Locke believes that “humans are the property of God” (Locke’s Idea). Therefore, God created some humans to be rich and other humans to be impoverished. This notion ignores the existence of freewill. According to the Christian concept of free will, God gave all humans the right to choose whether to believe in him or not to believe in him. Therefore, if humans do not believe in certain religious doctrines, than they are following their own imperfect path in defiance of the divine order. However, God wants the best for his creations, and that is why he gave humans the right to choose their path in life, through the teachings of God. Therefore, if an individual is born into poverty, it does not mean he must remain in poverty. If an individual is impoverished, he must work as hard as he can to reach his fullest potential. Just because a human is born in a particular state, does not mean that he must remain in that same state. In addition, if he works hard to improve upon his original state, his very act of improvement does not show defiance to God, but rather utilizes the free will that God gave him to improve the lives of himself and his family. Therefore, when a person works to improve his original impoverished condition, he is working in accordance with the divine order, not against it.Locke’s theory of ‘blank slate’ and his empirical understanding of reason and knowledge is insufficient when one considers the biological possibilities of genius and talent and the role that genetics and brain structure can play in one’s intelligence. Locke states that all humans are born without any prior knowledge and that as one ages; he acquires knowledge about the world around him through each of his five senses. Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ fails to embrace theories that are more than mere exceptions to his doctrine of knowledge acquisition. Locke does not even care to acknowledge the theories that contradict his theory. In fact, his theory would be stronger if he reconciled the natural born genius with the human born with a ‘blank slate’, an empty head. Religious doctrine and theory play a role in describing not how certain humans acquire knowledge, but why they acquire it, while others are at an apparent disadvantage and are not as fortunate to be on the ‘gifted’ end of the divine order. Since all things in the world stem from God, all knowledge stems from God, which therefore creats a class inequality in society. People with more intelligence usually acquire special training and are in greater demand in a capitalist society than common, unskilled laborers of merely average intelligence. God however, gave each human a place in life, in terms of an existence rich or deficient in intellect. God created a divine order with his creation, however he gave his creation the capacity, through free will, to achieve the best possible outcome for himself. This is not in defiance of religious doctrine, but rather, it falls right in line with God’s order in the universe. Locke acknowledges God’s existence and even goes on to state that the state should not establish a formal religion because the state must operate by force, or ‘coercion’ which goes against the passively resistant nature of religious doctrine in general (Notre Dame 5). Locke’s theory about how humans acquire understanding about the world around them should expand to include, or at least reconcile itself with, the existence of genius. WORKS CITEDGottfried, Paul. “Distrusting John Locke.” Chronicles Magazine, January 2001. Internet Available: “John Locke (1632-1704),” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2001. Internet Available: , Alan. “John Locke and the Eighteenth Century Divines,” Review. Internet Available: , Swami. Studies in Comparitive Philosophy: John Locke, Rishikesh, India, 2004. Internet Available: https://www.swami-krishnananda.org/com/com_lock.html. Locke, John. “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Edited by Peter Nidditch, Penguin, USA, 1998.”Locke on Religious Intolerance by the State,” The Philosophy Circle. Internet Available: http://articles.philosophycircle.com/index.php?k.html. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Nuovo, Victor. Review of God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke’s Political Thought. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Harris Manchester College. May 4, 2003. Internet Available: . An Essay on How Locke’s Idea of Reason is Unreasonable. 2004. Internet Available: .
Religious Justification for Political Acts
While Locke first appeals to his readers’ passions to justify a separation between church and state, these arguments are weak; the true, more covert argument Locke makes for not allowing the magistrate to enforce religion is that having one uniform religion is not as good for the politics of society, nor is religion superior to the politics of ourselves, or our reasoning. Throughout Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, he (like Socrates) often says one thing but means the opposite. So for example while Locke claims to be a Christian and support the separation between church and state because of religious reasons (the idea that no religion can truly be imposed on anyone as religion is an internal commitment), he also criticizes Christianity and gives examples in which politics are held to be more important than religion. Although he is subtle in how he shows them, understanding Locke’s priorities in which politics and one’s own reasoning are more important than religion is essential to understanding why he truly believes the magistrate cannot impose a religion on its people. It’s not a religious justification, it’s a political one well-disguised by appeals to religious passion that on the surface appear valid, but when more closely examined give way to his real reasoning behind the idea of separation between church and state.
Locke starts off with a very simple idea. He says that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God” (7). This is Locke’s appeal to people’s passions, yet it is a weak one when this simple question is raised: can religion really not be influenced by external forces? It is easy to imagine that it can be. Personally, most of us got our religion from our parents’ beliefs. Historically, European settlers made almost the entire continent of central/south America adopt Christianity. Hypothetically, if a new ruler took over and imposed a religion on his people, sure maybe they might believe externally and not internally, but would their kids be the same way? What about their kids? Eventually, this magistrate would persuade people of their religion. Having proved that his first argument is invalid and a mere appeal to the simple reader’s passions, what then is the real reason why Locke believes that the magistrate can not establish religion through his political power?
Practically, believing in many different religions is safer for society. In terms of the safety of the government and in the laws, Locke says that “[the churches] will watch one another, that nothing may be innovated or changed in the form of the government, because they can hope for nothing better than what they already enjoy—that is, an equal condition with their fellow-subjects under a just and moderate government” (38-39). In other words, having multiple churches provides a check on each so that they do not change the government wrongly or do anything unjust. If there were only one church then it would simply operate in its own self-interest, regardless of if what it is doing is just or not. In terms of conflicts outside of society, allowing the magistrate to choose the religion for his people creates a dangerous precedent. If each magistrate believes his religion is the correct one, then he will want to impose it on other kingdoms as well through war, both as part of his duty to his beliefs as well as to “save” others. Locke notes that “no peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms” (15). If each magistrate thinks they have the true church, then trying to spread it to others will result in constant warfare (as history has shown). The only way to stop these conflicts can be the toleration of all religions. As such, the magistrate can not enforce a statewide church. In making these arguments, Locke’s focus more on the practical effects of tolerating all churches (such as staying out of war and controlling government tyranny) rather than the spiritual benefits to doing so show that he does not want a statewide religion not because he has a dedication to any religion, but rather because of the more positive political implications that would follow.
Locke proposes another political justification when asked if a person should obey the “conscience of a private person” (33), in other words oneself, over the magistrate when the magistrate enacts a law that one’s conscience disagrees with. He very specifically chooses his wording, first saying that “But if, perhaps, it do so fall out [of the public good], I say, that such a private person is to abstain from the action that he judges unlawful,” (33). He continues on to justify this by saying that “the private judgement of any person concerning a law enacted in political matters, for the public good, does not take away the obligation of that law” (33). Locke has cleverly switched from saying one should obey one’s conscience to the idea that one should obey one’s private judgement. This is important because our conscience is not really us. We believe it to come from a higher sense of morality, we believe it to come from God. Therefore to ask whether one should follow conscience or the magistrate is to ask what is more important, religion or state? It appears here that Locke holds religion to be more important because he answers with consciousness, yet he qualifies this answer by changing “consciousness” to “private judgement”, which is our own reasoning, not God’s. If our own reasoning is what really rules us (and not our consciousness, or religion, or the state), then Locke is saying that our own personal politics are more important than religion. Yet again, Locke has said one thing and meant the opposite. So how does this relate to the magistrate not being able to impose religion on a society? Having shown that Locke prioritizes man’s reasoning to be most important, it does not make sense that one religion should be thrust upon us. We can make our own judgements about what is right for us. If our own reasoning is the supreme judge, then we should have the power to choose our own religion.
An objection to this argument may be that this cannot be said, as I have previously claimed that Locke’s argument that religion can only be internal is invalid. This is a weak objection as his original argument is that external forces can’t influence our religious beliefs. I say that is false, but that is not to say however that external forces shouldn’t impose beliefs, because our own beliefs should be most important. There is room for both the idea that external forces can influence us, and the idea that our own judgement is still most important. Furthermore, one may reasonably ask if Locke can really believe in Christianity if he considers reasoning (or in other words himself) to be above God, and this is a reasonable argument, but there is not ample space in the remainder of this short paper to discuss all of Locke’s own beliefs (or lack thereof.) The important idea is simply that he may answer in a politically salient manner in which he suggests religious belief is supreme, but Locke really holds our own judgements to be superior to the church, and as such we should be the ones allowed to choose our religion, not the other way around.
Locke lived in a time where even this letter in all its subtleties was considered radical. He could not blatantly state that politics and the public good were superior to the church and that that is why the magistrate could not enforce a religion. Rather, he had to shroud this argument in other, weaker ones that appealed to religious people’s passions and made him appear as if he was supporting the church in his cause. This was not the case, as Locke argues first for the political benefits of a tolerant society that gets involved in less conflict and checks the power of both the church and the government. He then goes on to give the more personal answer that each person’s reasoning and politics are more important and above that of religion (although he of course does not overtly say this), implying that we should be able to choose our church rather than having it chosen for us by a magistrate. For Locke, the separation between church and state is necessary because it is good politics and gives us the choice we deserve, not because he is dedicated to the religious inclinations of others.