Manifest, Evident and Clear

And another thing. About that passage from Locke’s Second Treatise and how essential Christianity or theology is or is not to ideas of democracy and equality before the law. Let’s have another think about that passage.

To understand political power aright…we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom…A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

One interesting thing is that the edition I have, unlike the one Jonathan quoted, doesn’t capitalize nature, but does capitalize Lord and Master. But what strikes me about that passage on further thought is that Locke isn’t citing the Lord and Master to ground the assertion about the natural state of freedom and equality, but rather to note an exception to it. He’s not citing the L and M to say he, as it might be, endowed us with certain inalienable rights, but rather to say that he may take them away if he so decides. He says we (I take the liberty of including women with men) have freedom and equality in nature, unless – unless, mind you – the L and M chooses one person and puts him on Topp. So – I don’t see why that particular passage is a good illustration of the statement that the principle of human equality is an axiom of theology. The axiom of theology in that particular passage seems to be an exception to equality rather than equality itself.

And then a second point is that the whole passage seems more deist than Christian, and it was the Christian antecedents I was raising questions about. (It’s also interesting that in the next paragraph Locke quotes a long passage from Hooker. I’ve read more Hooker than Locke, eccentrically enough. But I like Elizabethan prose.) Anyway – Jonathan was right to take me up on what I said, because I put it too sweepingly – answering ‘Western liberal democracy owes much to the Christian view that all have equal worth before God’ with ‘No it doesn’t. Or at least no one knows if it does or not.’ That’s too sweeping if Stephen Beer means his own statement less sweepingly than the way I read it. If he means merely that the Christian view that all have equal worth before God is one thread in Western liberal democracy, then I don’t dispute that. I took him to be saying something more like ‘Western liberal democracy wouldn’t exist were it not for the Christian view that all have equal worth before God.’ I think he probably was implying that, but I can’t be sure of it, so no doubt the rules require me to plump for the charitable reading. (Then again, it was a mildly polemical piece, taking issue with something Ian Buruma had said, so the truth is I still think he was implying what I thought he was implying. But [slaps self] I should read charitably.)

All this of course leaves unanswered the pressing questions of how we recognize that ‘manifest’ declaration of the Lord and Master’s will, and how we distinguish the evident and clear appointment from the usurpation. (Which must have been a question that vexed Locke, since he wrote the treatise while everyone was more and more fretful about the Duke of York and his succession and how to shunt him aside without doing anything quite so ill-mannered as beheading him. It was all very worrying. And that was even without the dear Duke of York telling everyone what was what about rights and alternative medicine and carbuncles.)

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