I recently wrote a long paper partly focused on the work of Leo Strauss and C.B. Macpherson in analyzing how Christian natural law was transmogrified in the enlightenment (respectively in Natural Right and History and The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism — both fantastic and justly considered classics of political science). While these two men diverge greatly in many places in their analysis, there is a convergence on one important point: John Locke uses the language of natural law but has replaced its content with Hobbesianism. Essentially, they argue, Locke’s overarching project is whitewashing the incredibly unpopular Hobbes by seldom mentioning him and arguing for the same things using quotes from the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.
This seems at first glance like an incredibly parochial and uninteresting point to mention. It may seem obvious to some that an early modern liberal would not be trying to do the same thing as Aquinas or Suarez, and so of course he would not be a natural law man. This would be so were it not for two errors that most make in reading John Locke. First of all, Locke himself claims throughout his work to merely be reiterating the demands of natural justice, as will be evident in many of the areas I am going to criticize below. Secondly, he managed to get people to believe him. Ben Shapiro, host of the largest and fastest growing conservative podcast and radio show in the United States,™ and many peoples’ only contact with natural law, describes Locke as a “deeply religious Christian” despite the fact that he followed “in Hobbes’s footsteps” and believed that “sovereignty resided in the individual.” (1)
This quote comes in the middle of Shapiro’s argument that Western Civilization is a play between Athens and Jerusalem, which is at the very least strongly Strauss-influenced. He should know better, in other words, than to argue that the liberalism he describes in those pages is Christian. This is part of a trend across the book of trying to reframe Christianity and its political traditions. St. Paul “morphed the Jewish belief in a political messiah who would usher in an age of worldly peace to the Christian belief in a spiritual messiah”; St. Augustine “followed the path of power”; and Martin Luther is responsible for the “notion of human rights.” (2)
I am willing to give Shapiro the benefit of the doubt here though, since he is a liberal and a religious man, and so of course he believes that there is no contradiction between liberal natural law and God’s law. Besides, I don’t bring him up to pick on him specifically. Rather, I think almost everyone who reads Locke makes the same error, as unless you study pre-modern political theory (or modern Catholic political theory) you are unlikely to ever encounter anything else. The goal of this essay, therefore, is to contrast some selections in John Locke’s writings with the genuine Christian Natural Law tradition on display in scripture and in the writings of the popes in order to demonstrate that he is among the greatest of all English-speaking heretics.
God or Mammon
Macpherson zeroes in on Locke’s political economy in Possessive Individualism, and so it was he who first alerted me to the errors on display in Locke’s work. I’m going to focus on a couple of lines in the Second Treatise, here so I can show you why they are problematic from a Christian perspective. Locke’s first principles on the subject of property appear very Christian from the outset. God has “given the world to men in common… the earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” (3) From here there must be some way of transforming things from common property into private property, and Locke identifies a few. Obviously, eating something turns it into private property, as it becomes part of you. Similarly, and more famously, mixing common good with labour turns things into your property, provided that “enough, and as good, [is] left in common for others.” (4) A major part of the reason for this is the so-called ‘law of spoilage.’ Nothing “was made by God for man to spoil or destroy,” and so one must not consume more of a thing than one needs. (5)
One could be forgiven so far for falling into the error I described above. Things very rapidly go off the rails, though. Locke is a capitalist. This means that he cannot abide any of the limits on private property he has created. The workaround is this: gold, silver, and diamonds never spoil, and so one can accumulate them without limits.
And thus came in the use of money, some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life. (6)
Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the modern social teaching tradition would all find this extremely problematic. Scripture says that “A man cannot be the slave of two masters at once; either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will devote himself to the one and despise the other. You must serve God or money; you cannot serve both.” (7) If one devotes himself to accumulating money, then one cannot devote himself to serving God. Chrysostom presents amongst the most forceful condemnations of accumulation possible, stating that your property is “not your own, but of other men’s,” and becomes your own when you “spend [it] on others.” (8) Finally, Rerum Novarum warns that riches are “obstacles” to eternal happiness, and states that “the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ … that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess.” (9) While private ownership is a natural right of man, one has duties to use that property in particular ways, and so “when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.” (10)
Locke’s political economy is already diabolical enough(I already insinuated he’s serving Mammon, after all). There is a great deal more diabolism left in him, however.
Like the genuine natural law, Locke’s rights do not stop with property. He’s a liberal, and a believer (allegedly) in unlimited freedom provided it is not licentious. Among the more famous and unorthodox of his rights is that of revolution. As above, men enter into society to preserve their property, and it is for this purpose alone that the state exists. If the state ever fails to protect property, it is in a “state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.” (11) That is to say, if the state is judged to be doing an insufficient job, the ‘people’ have recourse to revolution.
To his credit, Locke does temper this right a bit in the coming paragraphs. The ‘people,’ he says, are naturally quite conservative, and are “not so easily got out of their old forms.” (12) Revolutions would be sparing, and only occur as a consequence of the worst of the worst abuses.
If I were making a Macphersonian critique of Locke, I would point out that the ‘people’ to which he refers are bourgeois property-owning people, and the ‘worst abuses’ are doubtless anything that reduces the amount of money they are allowed to hoard. The best Macphersonian critique of Locke, though, has been written already by Macpherson (shocking, I know). Instead, I’d like to call your attention to St. Paul, who writes that:
Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance. Thus the man who opposes authority is a rebel against the ordinance of God, and rebels secure their own condemnation. (13)
Now a Lockian would point out that Locke agrees with this, but simply believes that a state which fails in its area of responsibility abuses its divine mandate and ought to be overthrown. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable. However, one must remember who the governing authority was when St. Paul wrote the letter to the Romans: Nero! In order to make Locke’s argument consistent with Romans 13, therefore, one must believe that George III taxing a bunch of merchants is worse than burning Christians alive. That we owe the latter obedience but not the former is both absurd and quite convenient for American property-holders.
Things get worse for Locke as we read more of the tradition. He is right to acknowledge that natural justice does on occasion demand war, but he fails to recognize the injustice of his own war. The criteria for a just war can be found in paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. (14)
Now, I believe that this passage is enough on its own to defeat the right to revolution, but I think it is necessary to include in the definition some elements from the Thomistic formula. The Angelic Doctor says that three things are necessary for a just war:
[T]he authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime… a just cause [this is the Catechism’s formula]… [and] the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. (15)
The right to revolution fails to meet any of the criteria. I’ll begin with Thomas’s because it’s easier to demonstrate. Rebellion against the sovereign is necessarily an act of private individuals and necessarily better adjudicated in a court. Indeed, in the case of most historical revolutions, the sovereign would just as likely redress their grievances without war. Given St. Paul’s declaration that rebellion against the sovereign invites damnation on yourself, it necessarily cannot tend towards the advancement of good.†
Finally, most of the Catechism’s criteria are out of reach for similar reasons. The damage Locke describes — and the damage that motivated most historical revolutions — is not particularly grave. Again, the American Revolution, explicitly employing John Locke, was waged because of an unpopular tax, one which it was not shown that other means of eliminating it were ineffective. The use of arms produced evils far greater than the one to be eliminated — thousands of deaths and the breaching of a treaty with the Indigenous people west of the Appalachians.
The only thing you can’t hold against revolution in the Catechism’s criteria is that there is a real chance of success. This is not enough to save it, of course, as most sins have a real chance of success.
Tangentially, the Catechism also condemns much of the logic for the right to keep and bear arms, but that is a different article altogether:
The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. the arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. (16)
In granting the ‘people’ this right, Locke unleashed the potential for unprecedented diabolism. Never before the modern era was it so simple and so seemingly legitimate to convince so many to say ‘non serviam!’ to their legitimate sovereigns. There were revolts before, of course, but history records them with the term ‘revolt’ both because they were unsuccessful and because they were not exercises of the right create by the enlightenment. Borrowing from Jonathan Pageau, it is fitting that modern revolutions follow their angelic counterpart in ending in self-coronation.
Enough of the Second Treatise, though — I think the Letter Concerning Toleration is actually more heretical. The first point is more evident, easier to make, and only effective on my fellow papists. Locke believes that the state should tolerate believers of all faiths except the one that happens to be true. He writes:
That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. (17)
Of course as a tentacle of the papal octopus I believe that everyone should be a traitor and pledge allegiance to an Italian prince rather than the sovereign of one’s own country, and so I am not tolerated in Locke’s formulation. There’s a much more problematic part that I think my non-Catholic readers will agree is heretical, though.
The goal of On Toleration is to “distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other,” for otherwise, “there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.” (18) In other words: the church and the state serve entirely separate functions, and so the business of building the kingdom of God oughtn’t interfere with that of building the kingdom of M̶a̶m̶m̶o̶n̶ men.
It’s quite easy to find condemnations of this all over the Christian tradition. Chapter IV of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes is a kind of political manifesto and very explicitly outlines the role that the Church ought to play in the political sphere. I’m going to conclude, though, with a quote not from Scripture or any of the Doctors, but from Jacques Maritain. I think it’s the simplest and sharpest rebuke of John Locke, and proof enough that he oughtn’t be considered a serious Christian.
It is clear that, as sharply distinct as they may be, the Church and the body politic cannot live and develop in sheer isolation from and ignorance of one another. This would be simply anti-natural. From the very fact that the same human person is simultaneously a member of that society that is the Church and a member of that society which is the body politic, an absolute division between those two societies would mean that the human person must be cut in two. (18)
† S.74 of Gaudium et Spes does point out that “where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.” I think this is still a condemnation of violent Lockian revolution (ie it is outside the limits of the natural law) but it would probably take a Real Theologian and not a newly minted BA in political science to unpack this. If you are one, I’d love to read a reply.
Far be it from me to tear down two instrumental parts of the canon in the English-Speaking world and not replace them with anything. Instead of reading the Second Treatise, I recommend you stop what you’re doing and read Rerum Novarum. Instead of reading On Toleration, I think a far better vision of pluralism can be found in Nostra Aetate.
(1) Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History, (New York: Harpercollins, 2019), 84.
(2) Ibid., 60–61; 82.
(3) John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, (Project Gutenberg), s.26, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.
(4) Ibid., s.27.
(5) Ibid., s.31.
(6) Ibid., s.47.
(7) Matt. 6:24, Knox, http://catholicbible.online/knox/NT/Mat/ch_6.
(8) John Chrysostom in the Catholic Social Teaching Collection, (Park Ridge: Word on Fire, 2021), 370.
(9) Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, (The Vatican), http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html, s.22.
(11) Locke, The Second Treatise, s.222.
(12) Ibid., s.223.
(13) Rom. 13:1–3, Knox.
(14) The Catechism of the Catholic Church, (The Vatican), https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P81.HTM s.2309.
(15) Summa Theologiae, II-II, q.40, a.1, https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3040.htm.
(16) CCC s.2315.
(17) John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (McMaster), https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/locke/toleration.pdf, p.35.
(18) Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, (Washington: CUA Press, 1998), 153–54.