The Agonist Journal

Reason, wrote John Locke, is man’s “only Star and compass.”[1] It will bring those who but consult it to the table of amity, where they will consent to create a more peaceful society. Reason is Locke’s nisus, the perfective urge and final cause of his treatises on civil government. And yet the nature of that reason, as Locke presents it, often appears ambiguous and even contradictory. It is, moreover, fundamentally at odds with his views as an empiricist.

"Reason never exists in a vacuum but is always informed by, always flows from the inner sympathies of people, from their culture."

For all that, Locke’s own reasoning, in the First Treatise, is acute in its application to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Men, Filmer asserts, receive absolute patriarchal authority from Scripture over their families; monarchs therefore rule over their subjects by the transmitted authority of Adam—the first monarch. Locke makes quick work of this claim: “If it were a delegated Power,”[2] this absolute patriarchal authority, “it must appear in Scripture: but there is no ground in Scripture to affirm, that Adam’s Children had any other Power over theirs, than what they Naturally had as Fathers.” All men must, therefore, be “Slaves and Absolute Princes at the same time,”[3] writes Locke, and so there will be as many kings as there are fathers. 

But though Locke and Filmer had fundamentally different means, their end was the same, namely, the best regime, one that could afford peace and security. “My desire and hope,” wrote Filmer, “is that the people of England may and do enjoy as ample privileges as any nation under heaven…” “The greatest liberty in the world,” he thought, “is for a people to live under a monarch. It is the Magna Charta of this kingdom; all other shows or pretexts of liberty are but several degrees of slavery, and a liberty only to destroy liberty.” If Filmer had failed to establish divine right, then he had at least shown, as Jeremy Bentham wrote of him in an unpublished manuscript, “the physical impossibility of the system of absolute equality and independence, by showing that subjection and not independence is the natural state of man.”[4] While Locke draws his arguments from the abstract, Filmer attempts to construct and defend a model of government around the family, the household—the real. “Under the authority of the father,” Bentham observed, “and his assistant and prime-minister the mother, every human creature is enured to subjection, is trained up into a habit of subjection. But, the habit once formed, nothing is easier than to transfer it from one object to another,” be it a king or a commonwealth. Locke’s view, as Bentham put it, “that men knew nothing at all of governments till they met together to make one,” is dubious in the face of human history.

In the Second Treatise, which lacks the foil of Filmer, Locke begins by making two claims that certainly do not hang together. First, he says, the “state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it.” But then, Locke tells us that the state of nature is essentially a state of perpetual conflict because men do not heed the law of nature (reason). So, men can’t enjoy their natural rights of life, liberty, and estate—what Locke altogether calls “property.” Yet, considering this state of nature, in which man is a wolf to man, we find that there is nothing in virtue of which we could reasonably infer that reason is the law of nature. How does Locke know that the cause of the unceasing conflict is men’s failure to live by nature’s law? Or again, that there is such a law?

Anyway, for Locke, there must be a higher moral law to secure property, something abstract and unchanging to which the laws created by men must always strive to conform for their legitimacy. This move places ultimate authority beyond the velvet glove of kings. There is some incoherence in Locke’s thought, but it’s important to see that he is trying provide a justification for the security of individual rights as the crucial function of political government—rights which, for Locke, are the reason that men elect to leave the state of nature. Still, as we have seen, the idea of reason that Locke thinks gives rise to this arrangement is problematic.

Throughout the treatises, Locke paints a portrait of man as a creature forced to navigate the truculent seas of “fancy and passion.”[5] Man is a “Creature whose thoughts are more than the Sands, and wider than the Ocean” [6], so he is prone to steer toward conflict with his fellow man. In order to live a more just and peaceable life, man must catch the winds of reason with his sail. But reason is bound to lead him to pursue his appetites at the expense of his fellow man. Reason, moreover, cannot be the star and compass. A celestial body that hangs in the firmament is fixed; it will not lead a man astray for as long as he can see its light. By contrast, a compass is an instrument, made by the hand of man, and hence susceptible to fault and failure.

Even a working compass can lead us into savagery, as shown in the chronicle of Garcilaso de la Vega, recounted by Locke. According to Vega, the fortunate among the victims of ancient Peruvians fell by the sword, while the rest were cannibalized.[7] So eager for flesh were these savages that they drank the blood from men’s wounds as they lay dying. Women were taken captive, then raped and impregnated for as long as they could bear children. Children born to mothers taken in war would be served up as a delicacy for their ravenous captors. Once these mothers had passed beyond the age of childbearing, they too were consumed in a frenzy. To Locke’s way of thinking, savagery among ancient Peruvians offered an illustration of what cruelty man is capable of “when he quits his reason,” which, when he heeds it, “places him almost equal to Angels.”[8] But the record of human history shows that “reason”[9] alone, as John Adams observed, “never had weight enough on the face of the earth to govern the councils of men.”

Just like the men who stalked the jungles of Peru, the Mayans created Daedalian calendars, and the Aztecs built great cities with complex infrastructure. But all these peoples feasted on human flesh. Cannibalism was merely a part of the ancient Peruvian’s worldview that found its “rational” justification in the belief system that informed the culture. They had not “quit their reason,” as Locke might have said, but conducted themselves in a manner appropriate with and “rationalized” by their culture.

While Filmer draws authority for his arguments from Scripture, the household, and ancient models of government, Locke attempts to balance Scripture with reason. Locke, however, comes off as insincere. When one violates the law of nature (reason), according to Locke, the “offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men.”[10] That is, when man acts against reason, he offends the common good, which is the measure God uses to judge the actions of men. Later, however, Locke affirms that reason is the “will of God” itself. The laws men make, Locke says, must be “conformable to the law of nature, i.e., to the will of God, of which that is a declaration.”[11]

Locke does not say that “the state of nature has a law that governs it; and the will of God, which is that law, teaches all who will but consult it.” Locke does not say that “God is the only star and reason is the compass,” although that would be a tenable claim. For if God is our only star and reason is our compass, then our task is to better understand God and His will for us to the extent that our reason allows. Any failure in this light is a consequence of the fallibility of man, but the will of God remains fixed and true. Locke, however, does not make this distinction: for him, reason is our “only Star and compass.” Still more, following publication of the Second Treatise, Locke argued against the very nature of reason he constructed therein.

Though some contend, Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that “there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions . . . as it were stamped upon the mind of man,”[12] this is manifestly not the case. “To say a notion is imprinted on the mind,” wrote Locke, “and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing.”[13] There can be no “innate principles,”[14] moreover, “because there are none to which all mankind give an universal assent.” Locke does not deny the existence of a higher moral law; he denies only that such a law can be innate, existing only in the minds of men simply awaiting consultation. Locke’s later writings seem to directly contradict his earlier claim that, “the law of nature being unwritten,” the law is “no where to be found but in the minds of men.”[15] This, however, seems to contradict Locke’s other claim that the law of nature exists not in the minds of men, but as God’s will. How can we make sense of all this? By considering the circumstances surrounding the Second Treatise.

Locke wrote against what he took to be despotism, but also in support of a revolution that was occurring in 17th Century England. As an empiricist, it was Locke’s great challenge to reconcile reason and faith, science and Christian tradition. Locke had to create a synthesis of these two components that would resonate with the English historical experience and meet the exigencies of his country during its hour of need. Here we can perhaps begin to understand why what seem to us contradictions and ambiguities were consonant with the needs of the men in Locke’s day. To be sure, there is little in the Second Treatise that was new or original for its time. Indeed, Locke cites Richard Hooker as an inspiration and authority on natural law, and Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie predates the Second Treatise by nearly a century.

Before Hooker, there was Sir John Fortescue, who, in The Governance of England, sketched a natural state not so dissimilar from Locke’s. “For the ‘Gentiles,’” wrote Fortescue, “as the Apostle says in Romans, chapter 2, ‘although they do not have the law (legem), they do by nature the things which are of the law, and not having such a law are a law unto themselves, and they show the workings of the law written in their hearts.’”[16] In De Natura Legis Natura, Fortescue defined the law of nature as “the truth of justice which is capable of being revealed by right reason.”[17] Here Fortescue strikes a note that should sound familiar to readers of Locke. “The law of nature holds the first place in time and dignity among all,” wrote Fortescue, “for it begins from the beginning of the rational creation, and varies not by time, but abides immutable.” As for Locke, so for Fortescue: There exists a fundamental law that can be understood through reason, and it ought to inform our political institutions, if they are to be just.

If Locke could get the meat of the Second Treatise satisfyingly into the bellies of its readers despite its contradictions and ambiguities, it was surely because he had served up political theory palatable to the English historical experience. An experience that was by the 17th Century familiar with theories about the state of nature, axiomatic truths, and Biblical precedent. Locke’s idea of reason in the Second Treatise, then, presupposes a particular worldview that is the product of a particular culture, rooted in a particular historical experience. It emanates from particular institutions, particular beliefs, particular values. It is expressed in theoretical and Biblical language that is familiar to a particular people. Locke’s idea of reason acquires concrete meaning and assent only when it assumes the cultural and political flesh of the community, language, literature, religion, and customs that animated it. For, as John Selden, another forerunner to Locke, wrote: “Habit quite often wears the mask of nature, and we are deceived to the point where practices adopted by nations, based solely on custom, frequently come to seem like natural and universal laws of mankind.”[18] Locke’s objective was not to advance a conception of reason that had never been considered before, but to construct an effective defense of individual rights in the language familiar to the people of a particular time and place. This is the key to understanding why his ideas have yielded vastly different results in practice.

Both the Americans and the French, for instance, argued their cause via Lockean rhetoric. The French took Lockean notions of reason to the extreme and made a religion out of reason. The Americans, on the other hand, took Lockean ideas and tempered them, producing a revolution that did not end in a Reign of Terror. Besides, the Americans did not make Locke the pillar of their regime. Between influences diverse as William Blackstone, Fortescue, Hooker, Montesquieu, and David Hume, Locke was one instrument among many that Americans brought to bear for their cause. The framers benefitted from a rich inheritance of British culture and were steeped in self-government and the Protestant tradition. The French, on the other hand, took Voltaire’s “crush the infamous thing”[19] to heart, and so they did. The Jacobins declared “the reign of Virtue and Reason” had at last arrived and established the Culte de la Raison to spread the gospel of France’s state-sponsored atheistic religion. Robespierre actually crowned the Goddess Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral.

To understand the idea of reason that Locke employed to defend individual rights in his treatises, the culture in which that idea of reason was cultivated must be considered and appreciated. Culture cannot, as the universalists would have it, be boiled down to abstract ideology and sold for a bargain to the masses. It is culture that gives birth to common laws, common habits, and shared folkways. Reason never exists in a vacuum but is always informed by, always flows from the inner sympathies of people, from their culture.

Decoupling Locke’s idea of reason from its particular circumstances and turning it into the basis of a universal political program is the essence of what Michael Oakeshott called the “politics of uniformity.”[20] The proponents of this scheme, according to Oakeshott, do not recognize the significance of circumstance; therefore, they cannot countenance diversity. In his Rationalism in Politics, Oakeshott sees William Godwin as an example of this failure. A rationalist, armed with the doctrine of universalism, Godwin held that there “must in the nature of things be one best form of government which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve.”[21]

Rationalist universalists in the manner of Godwin maintain that all social problems can be solved, and where conservatives see tragic limitations, they see objects for reform. Human nature itself, far from being permanently flawed, is so much malleable clay. Regime change abroad and mass immigration, then, are mere social projects for our expert reformers—and no amount of failure can convince them otherwise. The good society, they insist, can be achieved if we simply believe in our ability to reform through the tearing down of institutions and ideas deemed to be at odds with “reason,” or “equality,” or “diversity,” or God-knows-what. Culture, in the eyes of the rationalist universalists, is judged to be an obstacle to the perpetual project of reform. This the shrewd political theorist James Burnham[22] understood very well. In his words,

There is… no reason to favor ideas, institutions or modes of conduct merely because they have been long established, because our ancestors accepted them; their ancient lineage is, if anything, a ground for suspicion. We should, rather, be ready to undertake prompt, and even drastic and extensive, innovations, if these recommend themselves from a rational and utilitarian standpoint. Thus liberalism is anti-traditional.

That this project of pure, optimistic reason might eventually turn and bite the hands of its planners is never imagined—the culture has got to go, and we, who so deserve to be “liberated,” should be glad to see it gone. If only John Locke could have known what would become of his inflated idea of reason.


[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 182.

[2] Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 191.

[3] Ibid., 192.

[4] J. C. D. Clark, English Society 1688 1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 75–76.

[5] Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 182.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Thomas Jefferson, The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson (Overland Park: Neeland Media LLC, 2009), 27.

[10] Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 272.

[11] Ibid., 358.

[12] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Overland Park: Neeland Media LLC, 2004), 15.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lock, Two Treatises of Government, 358.

[16] Sir John Fortescue, On the Laws and Governance of England, ed. Shelly Lockwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 132.

[17] De Natura Legis Naturae, in The Works of Sir John Fortescue, ed. Lord Clermont (London, I869) with English translation, chap. xxxi.

[18] Ofir Haivry, John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 365.

[19] Voltaire, “Letter to Jean Le Rond d'Alembert,” November 28, 1762.

[20] Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in politics and other essays (Carmel: Liberty Fund, 2010), 10.

[21] Ibid.

[22] James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), 54.