Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

John Locke on politics, civility, and parenting

In times of political change and upheaval, as we’ve seen around the world through the last five years, I take great comfort in reading the works of political writers of various ages. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is one of my favorites and a book I return to often, and no one has helped me understand Paine so well as Professor Harvey J. Kaye, who wrote Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. Professor Kaye is compelling in his own right and a formidable political writer as well; he reveals how some of history’s greatest writers, including Paine, are coopted for modern political gain.

Locke seems somewhat less “trotted out” than Paine often is, and I hadn’t read his work since college. This effort of rereading seemed timely as we enter a very contentious, sometimes fraught, and often socially unnerving presidential election in the United States. It is good to remember, in times like these, how greatly civility was respected in Locke’s time (even if it wasn’t always expected).

Locke (1632-1704) was writing in an England fraught with religious upheaval, the England that sent many to the Americas. Those early immigrants, my forefathers among them, built a nation based on the freedoms born of deep strife and intolerance. Locke’s writing must have been a balm and an inspiration to many during his time. He was certainly progressive, touting freedom and tolerance but also patience, understanding, and civility—what is generally known as Locke’s “Natural Rights of Man.” Locke was not a godless man (raised by Puritan parents, he became a physician after studying at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1652 to 1658), but he was insistent about the separation of Church and State. It is fascinating to read the justifications in his own words and also to recall their echoes in the later remarks of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Locke took something else from his parents and his Puritan upbringing: a strong impulse that the parent is a guide and protector, not the ruler of their children. That it is the parental role to create a safe haven, instill morals, and provide guidance but in the end every person must choose their own path:

“That Adam had not either by natural Right of Fatherhood, or by positive Donation from God, any such Authority over his Children, or Dominion over the World as is pretended.”

I opened Locke a few days ago with a mind toward politics and instead I got a helping of parenting advice! If Locke were alive today, I think he would also be a part of the lively (and contentious) debate over feminism. Locke was fully in favor of the equal rights of all humans, and from my reading of Second Treatise and A Letter Concerning Toleration, no one could doubt that the humans to whom he refers include women and children.

Nonetheless, Locke’s mind was a political one and reading his work turns minds toward the better understanding of equality. How one takes his words and shapes them to their own thoughts and moral compass is entirely up to the reader, but I found his words both reassuring and enlightening in a time of great change. We were discussing Locke at the office a couple of weeks ago while I was formulating what I might write about the great man, and one of my outstanding colleagues sent me a link to this video about Locke. For me Locke inspires thoughtful contemplation; for others he inspires a parody of “What Does the Fox Say?” What does Locke inspire in you?

Featured image: Christ Church College, Oxford, England by Photochrom Print Collection, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Edward J. Dodson

    One of Locke’s most important insights (not fully developed) was the distinction he made between actions that fall within the legitimate bounds of “liberty” and those that are the exercise of “licence”. In the realm of property in nature (i.e., in land), Locke seemed hesitant to follow his own thinking to the logical conclusion that claims to the ownership of nature are inconsistent with his own labor and capital goods theory of property. What he does say is that such claims should have limits, based on whether there is as good land still available for others to access and use. Paine explored these issues more deeply, particularly in his essay “Agrarian Justice”. And, of course, Henry George provided the most thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of this societal issue in his writings.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *