Monthly Archives: June 2017

14. American State Papers

The Declaration of Independence, the document declaring the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from British rule, was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, it affirms the natural rights of man and the doctrine of government by contract, which the Continental Congress felt had been repeatedly violated by King George III. The Constitution of the United States of America, the document defining the principal organs of American government and their jurisdictions, was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, after the ninth state had ratified it, was declared in effect by Congress on March 4, 1789. It consists of seven articles and numerous amendments, the latter affirming the basic rights of citizens as well as clarifying and updating the content of the articles. The Federalist consists of articles appearing in New York newspapers from October 1897 to April 1788 urging the people of the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Its chief author was Alexander Hamilton, but some of its articles were contributed by James Madison (whose role in framing the Constitution was such that he is often called the “Father of the Constitution”) and some by John Jay; however all of its articles are signed “Publius.”

Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of the three “American state papers” in volume 1, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959) with this comment about The Federalist:

“The adult who reads The Federalist for the first time will enjoy the sense of acquiring an understanding of his government which should be the property of every citizen. More than that, he will be struck by the clarity and power of both the thought and the writing. They exemplify the common level of political discourse in the days when this republic was formed. The articles which comprise The Federalist were current political journalism in the years 1787-1789. They were written for newspaper readers. If we contemplate that fact, and compare the level of their style and substance with that of political speeches, articles, or journalism in our own day, we are compelled to wonder about the education of our political leaders as well as of our citizens today.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 160)

Adler and Wolff go on to put the three papers in their historical context, to show how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people (favoured by Jefferson) and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power (favoured by the Federalists), to consider the remedy proposed by Madison in The Federalist to deal with faction in a popular government, to show how the Constitution provides for the separation of the powers of government, and to discuss four other questions about the papers. I opened this post by putting the papers in historical context, and in the rest of the post I’ll summarize what Adler and Wolff say about how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power, about Madison’s remedy for faction in a popular government, and about how the Constitution provides for the separation of powers. However I won’t share here from their discussion of the four other questions.

The Constitution a Compromise between Two Opposed Tendencies

Jefferson favoured placing power and responsibility in the hands of the people as far as possible, but the Federalists wanted safeguards against the uses to which the people might put such power. The Constitution contains many evidences of these two opposed tendencies. Adler and Wolff identify these three: (1) the Congress of the United States consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives with the House of Representatives’s being elected by the people and having its seats up for election every two years, but the Senate’s being chosen by the state legislatures instead of being elected by the people (this was changed by the thirteenth amendment) and having only a third of its seats changed at each election; (2) the President is elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures or governors, but the election is indirect with the people’s electing electors who in turn elect the president; and (3) only the House of Representatives can initiate bills having to do with money matters (presumably because taxation is to go along with representation), but only the Senate is consulted in matters of foreign policy (presumably because it is not subject to sudden and disastrous whims). Adler and Wolff explain how each of the three represents a compromise between the two tendencies.

Dealing with Faction in a Popular Government

In The Federalist, No. 10, Madison deals with the problem of internal instability, and faction in popular governments. Here is how he describes the problem:

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” (The Federalist in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 49)

Madison blames the problem on factions, groups of citizens which try to control the government for their own special interests rather than for the common good. He says that we can prevent this either by eliminating the causes of factions or by controlling their effects. Factions can be eliminated “by destroying the liberty which is essential to [their] existence” or “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (The Federalist, page 50). However the first remedy is unwise, liberty’s being essential to political life, and the second remedy is clearly impossible. Thus he concludes that the way to deal with factions is to realize that they will always be with us and to concentrate on dealing with their effects.

Observing that a faction becomes dangerous when it becomes the majority in a popular government, Madison proposes a way to prevent a faction from becoming the ruling power‒having republican rather than democratic government. He points out these differences between a democracy and a republic:

“first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (The Federalist, pages 52-52).

And he claims that delegates will often recognize the true interest of the country better than the people themselves could and that a larger country suffers less from the evils of factions than a small one because it takes in a greater variety of parties and interests.

The Separation of the Powers of Government

The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers is a basic provision of the Constitution. Locke mentions the separation of powers, but the doctrine that it is all-important for free government stems from Montesquieu. After explaining how liberty is threatened by the uniting of the legislative powers in the same person or body or the joining of the judicial with either of them, he affirms, “There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 70).

However, despite the importance of the separation of powers in the Constitution, there is considerable mixing of government powers (the so-called system of checks and balances). Although some mixture of powers is defensible, they should for the most part be kept separate. How can this be done? The Federalist answers:

“The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper place….

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….

“It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices….

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counterattack ambition. The interest of the man must ve connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” (The Federalist, pages 162-163)

12. Kant’s The Science of Right

My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed. After similarly praising Kant’s style in their introduction to the selection, Adler and Peter Wolff observe:

“Such system, order, and precision may be expected in metaphysics or mathematics, but it is unusual in political theory. The reader will find here the familiar notions of constitutional government and citizenship, of politic rights and duties, of the forms and powers of government, of freedom, justice, and equality‒notions he has met in the writings of other authors included in this Reading Plan. But they are transformed by the method with which Kant treats them, and the reader will enrich his understanding of them by re-examining them in the new light that is thrown on them by Kant’s definitions, his universal principles, and the rational connections between them which are made explicit by Kant’s systematically reasoned exposition. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, 1959, page 164)

In their study of the selection, Adler and Wolff consider Kant’s political theory, his republicanism, his theory of punishment, and his conception of “right.”  Here I’ll summarize what they say about those topics and sketch Kant’s life, starting with the latter.

The Life of Kant

Immanuel Kant was born at Königsberg in East Prussia on April 22, 1724. In his eighth year he entered the Latin school which his parents’ Pietist Lutheran pastor directed and where he acquired a love for the Latin classics. In 1740 he enrolled in the University of Königsberg as a theological student. He was principally attracted to mathematics and physics and decided to pursue an academic career. However in 1746 he had to withdraw for financial reasons and take a position as a family tutor.

In 1755, aided by a relative, Kant was able to complete his degree at the university and assume the role of a lecturer. At first he restricted himself to mathematics and physics and in that and the next year he published several scientific works. But he soon branched into other subjects, including logic, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. He enjoyed success as a lecturer, his style being humorous and vivid, enlivened by many examples drawn from his wide reading. During his fifteen years as a lecturer his fame as writer and lecturer steadily increased. Finally in 1760 he obtained the chair of logic and metaphysics. In later years he served six times as dean of the philosophical faculty and twice as rector.

Kant’s inaugural dissertation as professor, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World, indicated the direction of his philosophical interests. But it was not until 1781 that his Critique of Pure Reason appeared. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals came out in 1785, Critique of Practical Reason in 1788, and Critique of Judgment in 1790. The “critical philosophy” was soon being taught in every important German speaking university, and young men flocked to Königsberg as a shrine of philosophy. Kant came to be consulted as an oracle on all kinds of questions, including the lawfulness of vaccination.

As early as 1789 Kant’s health began to decline seriously and in 1797, after a career of forty-two years, he delivered his last lecture and retired from the university. “After a gradual decline that was painful to his friends as well as to himself, Kant died in Königsberg, February 12, 1804. His last words were ‘Es ist gut’ (It is good’). His tomb in the cathedral was inscribed with the words (in German) ‘The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,’ the two things that he declared in the conclusion of the second Critique ‘fill the mind with new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on.’” (“Kant, Immanuel,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 10, page 393)

Kant’s Political Theory

Adler and Wolff begin their survey of Kant’s political theory by observing that it doesn’t differ significantly in content from that of his predecessors. They explain:

“Kant explains the origin of civil society in terms of a state of nature and a social contract….

“Kant’s view of the state of nature is more moderate than Hobbes’s. Nevertheless, he remarks that in such a condition everyone would do what seems good only to him. Like Rousseau and Locke, Kant describes the state of nature as a state of freedom, but a freedom that is precarious and insecure. Men give up this freedom to enter civil society and in so doing gain a different and better freedom.

“With Locke, Kant considers the legislative power as the most important function of the state, to be exercised by none but the people. While Kant’s ‘united will of the people’ is reminiscent of Rousseau’s ‘general will,’ we do not find in Kant, either explicitly or implicitly, the notion of a man’s being forced to be free.

“Kant follows Montesquieu’s view of the powers of government and of their separation. Like Rousseau, Kant is dedicated to the proposition that all legitimate government is republican in character. The Science of Right offers much support for the view that Kant was deeply influenced by Rousseau, especially in his moral philosophy.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, pages 165-66)

Adler and Wolff next consider what is new or distinctive about Kant’s political theory, showing first the originality of his account of the transition from a state of nature to civil society. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau justify the transition by the result: what people gain (security, moral freedom, or civil liberty) is better than the independence that they give up. Kant argues instead that what people do should be a matter of duty rather than of what is gained, his asserting that “the natural state of nations as well as of individual man is a state which it is a duty to pass out of, in order to enter into a legal state” (Kant, The Science of Right in volume 42 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 455). This duty, like all duties, derives from the command of pure practical reason that men should seek peace.

Kant’s Republicanism

A striking feature of The Science of Right is its thoroughgoing republicanism. The legislative power must belong to the united will of the people. Those who are united for the purpose of legislating are the citizens. Citizens enjoy constitutional freedom, civil equality, and political independence. These three juridical attributes can be realized only through a republican form of government. “The only constitution resulting from the idea of the social contract, upon which every good legislation of a nation ought to be founded, is a republican constitution” (Kant, Perpetual Peace, New York, 1939, page 12; quoted in Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 168).

Kant’s republicanism does not mean that he advocates universal suffrage, his holding in harmony with his time that only some of those living in a state should have full rights to vote and to hold office, but he makes an important contribution to the theory of citizenship by distinguishing between active and passive citizenship, active citizens being all who are entitled to vote and passive citizens being all other members of the state. Active citizens are those who have a measure of independence in the state, and passive citizens are those whose livelihood and existence depend on the will of others, such as “the apprentice of a merchant or tradesman, a servant who is not in the employ of the state, a minor [and] all women” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).

However though passive citizens are not equal to active citizens as members of the state, they are equal to them as people. As such they have the right to claim:

“that whatever be the mode in which the positive laws are enacted, these laws must not be contrary to the natural laws that demand the freedom of all the people and the equality that is conformable thereto; and it must therefore be made possible for them to raise themselves from this passive condition in the state to the condition of active citizenship”

(Kant, The Science of Right, page 437).Adler and Wolff say that such a notion was revolutionary.

Kant’s Theory of Punishment

Three purposes are generally given for punishing criminals: retaliating against the criminal, deterring others from committing similar crimes, and reforming the criminal. Kant is emphatic that punishment must never be anything but the first:

“Juridical punishment can never be administered merely as a means for promoting another good either with regard to the criminal himself [reforming him] or to civil society [deterring others], but must in all cases be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a crime” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 446).

Remedial or Deterrent punishment is instituted for the sake of benefiting either the criminal himself or the rest of society. Thus the criminal is being used, though for a worthy purpose‒the reduction of the number of crimes committed, but Kant maintains that it is wrong for a person to be used, no matter how beneficent the purpose for which he is being used. In this, Kant differs from modern penal theories, most of which acknowledge only remedial and deterrent punishment as legitimate and view retaliation as mere vengeance and as such uncivilised.

Kant’s Conception of Right

The closest that Kant comes to a definition of “right” is:

Right, therefore, comprehends the whole of the conditions under which the voluntary actions of any one person can be harmonized in reality with the voluntary actions of every other person, according to a universal law of freedom” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 397-98).

Thus, in contrast to Hobbes, for whom “right” and “law” are opposed in roughly the same way that freedom and obligation are opposed,  for Kant the right and the lawful are roughly the same.

Kant divides rights in two different ways:

(1) natural right and positive right and (2) innate right and acquired right. “Natural right rests upon pure rational principles a priori; positive or statutory right is what proceeds from the will of a legislator…. Innate right is that right which belongs to every one by nature, independent of all juridical acts of experience. Acquired right is that right which is founded upon such juridical acts” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 401).

Kant says that there is only one innate right, the right of freedom, and gives The Science of Right over to a treatment of natural, acquired rights.

Nations are in a state of nature with respect to one another and thus in a state of continual war. Kant divides the right of nations with respect to the state of war into “1. the right of going to war; 2. right during war; and 3. right after war” and gives their object as “to constrain the nations mutually to pass from this state of war and to found a common constitution establishing perpetual peace?” (Kant, The Science of Right, page 452). From this principle, Kant derives various detailed commands and prohibitions, which Adler and Wolff summarize thus:

“Wars should not be punitive, nor should a war aim at the extermination of the enemy. With regard to the subjects of the warring nations, several important principles follow. They must not be ordered to do anything which would make them unfit as citizens. For by destroying them as citizens, the state destroys itself and thus renders peace unattainable.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 174).

In general Kant’s view is that the end of war is peace and no means should be employed which contradict that end.

I introduced my consideration of The Science of Right by saying:

“My earlier encounter with Kant, via his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, was forbidding. Thus I wasn’t looking forward to reading from his The Science of Right in my current reading of selections from Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) guided by Mortimer J. Adler (with various co-authors) in The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959-63). However I was pleasantly surprised, my finding the assigned selection (the Introduction and the Second Part of The Science of Right) to be well-organized and clearly expressed.”

That doesn’t meant that I understand and agree with all of Kant’s assertions. For example, I don’t understand how changing from a natural state to a legal state and seeking peace are duties and I don’t agree that remediation and deterrence are illegitimate reasons for punishment.

I’m now looking forward to reading the other selections by Kant included in The Great Ideas Program: Part I of The Science of Right in volume 5, Philosophy of Law and Jurisprudence; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals and Part I, Book II, of Critique of Practical Reason in volume 8, Ethics: The Study of Moral Values; and I, First Part, of Critique of Pure Reason in volume 10, Philosophy.

11. Rousseau’s The Social Contract

“‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This ringing declaration, with which Rousseau opens The Social Contract, challenges us at once, but leaves us perplexed as to its truth. In what sense is man born free? Is it the case that men are everywhere in chains? Only when we have the answers to these questions are we prepared to understand Rousseau’s solution of the problem of freedom under government.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 149)

In this post I’ll share the answers that Rousseau gives to those questions in the first two of the four books in The Social Contract guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the two books in The Development of Political Theory and Government. Before doing so though I’ll sketch Rousseau’s life, and after doing so I’ll summarize Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the plausibility of Rousseau’s doctrine.

Rousseau’s Life

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother’s dying a few days after his birth, he was raised by his father. At the age of twelve or thirteen he was placed as an apprentice to a notary and, when that proved unsuccessful, to an engraver. The latter treated him roughly and in 1728 Rousseau abandoned him and, aided by a Madame de Warens, went to Turin and stayed for nine days at the Hospice of the Holy Spirit, where he received instruction in and converted to the Catholic faith. After serving a few months as a lackey, he returned to Madame de Warens, who took him into her house. During the nine or ten years that he was with her, he made several efforts to fit himself for an occupation, including studying the priesthood with the priests of St. Lazare and taking music lessons from the choir-master of the cathedral. The only systematic studying he did in those years was at a rural retreat where, prompted by Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, he undertook to make a survey of all the sciences.

In 1741 Rousseau went to Paris, where he obtained the post of secretary to the French Ambassador at Venice. Returning to Paris in 1745, he copied music for a living, cultivated the society of the literary circles, became a contributor on music to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and began living with Thérèse le Vasseur, a servant girl at his hotel (they had five children, all of whom were sent to a foundling home, and were finally married in 1768). In 1749 he entered the contest held by the Academy of Dijon for the best essay on “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals?” His essay attacking civilization as corrupting the goodness of nature won the prize and immediate literary fame for him. He continued writing. In 1756 he moved to the Hermitage, a small country house near Montmorency belonging to a friend, Madame d’Épinay. However in 1758, becoming involved in a quarrel between Diderot and the lover of Madame d’Épinay, he left the Hermitage and settled in Montlouis, a house near Montmorency belonging to another friend, where he wrote The Social Contract, which was published in 1762.

Unfortunately Rousseau’s views on politics and religion incurred the enmity of the French authorities. Learning that he’d be arrested if he didn’t go into exile, he went into exile–first in Neuchâtel, which then belonged to Prussia; then to the territory of Berne; and finally on the invitation of the philosopher David Hume in England. In 1767, quarrelling with Hume and having learned that he wouldn’t be arrested if he returned to France, he returned there. After wandering about for some time, he settled in Paris in 1770, resumed his former occupation of music-copying, and completed some autobiographical works. In May, 1778, he accepted the offer of a cottage at Ermenonville, where he died about six weeks later, on July 2.

The Social Contract

Rousseau opens The Social Contract by telling us, “I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau, The Social Contract in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 387). Shortly after, he restates his purpose thus:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How does this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” (page 387)

Rousseau hypothesizes a state of nature in which people are free. However because of what Rousseau calls “right of the strongest,” they are actually enslaved by states and their laws. The solution lies in their associating to form a civil society under civil government “in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” (page 391). This is to be found in the social contract:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (page 392).

How can the social contract enable a person to be free in civil society because he obeys himself only? Rousseau’s argument hinges on two points. First, man gives up natural freedom to gain civil freedom:

“What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will.” (page 393)

Second, man in civil society obeys himself only. However citizens are often forced by government or laws to do things against their will. How can a citizen be understood to be obeying himself alone when he is forced to act against his will? He can be forced to be free:

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whosoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.” (page 393)

The Plausibility of Rousseau’s Doctrine

“This doctrine seems quite implausible. But it may have some plausibility if we accept Rousseau’s understanding of the social contract, civil society, and, especially, the ‘general will.’ In the following section, we shall ask some questions about these basic notions.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 157)

The general will is the will of the state. It “considers only the common interest” and therefore is “always right and tends to the public advantage” (Rousseau, The Social Contract, page 396). It is determined by voting and majority opinion. Each person voting expresses his particular interest, but in the final result these divergent particular interests tend to cancel each other and the pure general will remains. Rousseau admits that the existence of factions, such as political parties, means that there are no longer as many votes as there are people but only as many votes as there are such associations, obscuring the true general will. He recommends that if there are such partial societies there be as many as possible and that they be prevented from being unequal. “These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall always be enlightened” (page 396).

But how is a person free when the will of the majority forces him to do something that is contrary to his own particular will? Rousseau answers:

“I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular assembly a law is proposed what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been free.” (page 426; I’ve followed Adler and Wolff in quoting this passage although it doesn’t appear until Book IV of The Social Contract.)

10. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws

“We find in Montesquieu both ancient and modern notions about civil society. Like Plato and Aristotle, he believed that justice is the end of the state. Like Thomas Aquinas, he believed in a natural law that is embodied in the positive law. But he introduced a new note when he emphasized the historical, sociological, and physical variety of the particular situations in which laws and states take form. It is the particular ‘spirit’ of each nation, formed by all those circumstances, which is the basis of their political institutions. This sense of historical particularity, of concrete spiritual forms, distinguishes Montesquieu from his predecessors and marks the emergence of the historical approach in the modern era.” ((Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, pages 133-134)

Accordingly it was hard for me to realize as I read Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws that it was written by an eighteenth century Frenchman and not by a contemporary Englishman. Actually so far I’ve read just its preface and the first 13 of its 31 books, guided by Adler and Wolff’s consideration of it in The Development of Political Theory and Government, which I quoted from above. They consider its importance, what is meant by “the spirit of laws,” the kinds of government identified by Montesquieu, and these four questions: what other ways are there of classifying the kinds of governments? how does excessive equality destroy democracy? what is the role of liberty in democracies? and how does Montesquieu conceive the separation of powers? Here I’ll sketch Montesquieu’s life and, guided by Adler and Wolff, summarize what Montesquieu says about “the spirit of laws,” the kinds of government, and the separation of powers.

Montequieu’s Life

Charles Louis de la Brède was born on January 18, 1689, in the château of La Brède, near Bordeaux. Following his education at home, in the village, and at a college of the Oratorians near Paris, he studied in the faculty of law at the University of Bordeaux, graduating and becoming a lawyer in 1708. After his father’s death in 1713, he placed himself under the protection of his uncle, the Baron de Montesquieu. When his uncle died in 1716, he was left his uncle’s name and estates and the office of deputy president in the Parlement of Bordeaux. Financially and socially secure at only 27, he settled down to exercise his judicial function, administer his property, and advance his knowledge of the sciences. In 1721 he surprised almost everyone by publishing Lettres persanes, (Persian Letters, purportedly letters between two Persians travelling in Europe satirizing the follies of French society), which established his reputation as a wit. In 1726 he sold his office and moved to Paris to devote himself to literature, and in 1728 he obtained membership in the French Academy.

Soon after, Montesquieu set out on a tour of Europe to observe men, their customs, and their social and legal institutions, possibly having in mind the writing of The Spirit of Laws. Although on returning to his estate at La Brède he seemed to settle down as a squire, his principal occupation was the preparation of his literary works. He was mainly occupied with an essay on the English constitution (not published until 1748 when it became part of The Spirit of Laws) and with Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (The Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans). After publication of the latter in 1734, he rested for a short time and then undertook an extensive program of reading in law, history, economics, geography, and political theory in connection with The Spirit of Laws. Although friends who read the finished manuscript advised against publication, he published it in Geneva in 1748 under the title of De l’esprit des loix. In France it met with an unfriendly reception, but in the rest of Europe, especially England, it received high praise. Montesquieu spent most of his remaining eight years in the country although he still visited Paris, and near the end of 1754 he went to Paris with the intention of closing his house there and retiring permanently to La Brède. However while there he was stricken with a fever and died on February 10, 1755.

“The Spirit of Laws”

Adler and Wolff introduce their consideration of what is meant by “the spirit of laws” thus: “By speaking of the spirit of laws, Montesquieu signifies that he is concerned with law in general, rather than with any particular body of laws. The spirit of laws, it would seem, must be whatever animates laws, gives them life and utility, and makes them function as they should” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 136).

They go on to support their explanation with the following from The Spirit of Laws:

“Law in general is human reason, inasmuch as it governs all the inhabitants of the earth; the political and civil laws of each nation ought to be only the particular cases in which human reason is applied. “They should be adapted in such a manner to the people for whom they are framed that it should be a great chance if those of one nation suit another. “They should be relation to the nature and principle of each government…the climate of each country…the quality of its soil…its situation and extent…the principal occupation of the natives…the degree of liberty which the constitution will bear…the religion of the inhabitants…their inclinations, riches, numbers, commerce, manners, and customs. In fine, they have relations to each other, as also to their origin, to the intent of the legislator, and to the order of things on which they are established…. These relations…together constitute what I call the Spirit of Laws” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 3).

The Kinds of Government

According to Montesquieu, there are three main kinds of government: republic, monarchy, and despotism. Here is how he defines them and how he distinguishes between a republic in which the body of the people is possessed of the supreme power and one in which only a part of the people is possessed of the supreme power: “[A] republican government is that in which the body, or only a part of the people, is possessed of the supreme power; monarchy, that in which a single person governs by fixed and established laws; a despotic government, that in which a single person directs everything by his own will and caprice…. “When the body of the people is possessed of the supreme power, it is called a democracy. When the supreme power is lodged in the hands of a part of the people, it is then an aristocracy.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page 4)

Many writers on political subjects have classified the kinds of government by the number of persons (one, some, or all) who rule, but Montesquieu also distinguished between them in terms of their principles. He begins by considering the principle of a republican government and continues by considering the principles of a monarchical government and of a despotic government. In the following excerpts from The Spirit of the Laws, I’ve grouped the passages on each kind of government and italicized their names and principles.

“There is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government. The force of laws in one, and the prince’s arm in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole. But in a popular state [a democracy], one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue…. As virtue is necessary in a popular government, it is required also in an aristocracy. True it is that in the latter it is not so absolutely requisite…. [By “virtue” Montesquieu means “political virtue” or “the love of one’s country, and of equality” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page xxii). With respect to an aristocracy he explains that although in it the nobility restrains the people by means of their laws, they can restrain themselves only by virtue.]

“In monarchies, policy effects great things with as little virtue as possible…. The state subsists independently of the love of our country…. But…if monarchy lacks one spring, it is provided with another. Honour, that is, the prejudice of every person and rank, supplies the place of the political virtue of which I have been speaking, and is everywhere her representative; here it is capable of inspiring the most glorious actions, and, joined with the force of laws, may lead us to the end of government as well as virtue itself….

“Honour is far from being the principle of despotic government: mankind being here all upon a level, no one person can prefer himself to another; and as on the other hand they are all slaves, they can give themselves no sort of preference…. As virtue is necessary in a republic, and in a monarchy honour, so fear is necessary in a despotic government: with regard to virtue, there is no occasion for it, and honour would be extremely dangerous….

“Such are the principles of the three sorts of government: which does not imply that in a particular republic they actually are, but that they ought to be, virtuous; nor does it prove that in a particular monarchy they are actuated by honour, or in a despotic government by fear; but that they ought to be directed by these principles, otherwise the government is imperfect.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, pages 9-13)

The Separation of Powers

The separation of powers consists in the fact that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government each have distinct and clearly defined powers. Montesquieu asserts that for a state to effectively promote liberty, these three powers must be confided to different individuals or bodies, acting independently:

“The political liberty of the subject is a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.

“When the legislative and executive and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

“Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it united to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, page 70)

Montesquieu goes on to describe how he thinks this should work, taking the English constitution as a model. Copleston observes that “Montesquieu’s ideas about balancing of powers exercised an influence both in America and in France, as in the case of the 1791 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens” (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume VI, London: Search Press, 1960, page 15).

Adler and Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of The Spirit of Laws with this claim:

“Montesquieu had a direct effect on actual developments in politics and law, as well as on theories about them. His ideas contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the making of basic law for the new French republic. They also played an important role in the drafting of the federal and state constitutions in the United States.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 134)

5. Aristotle’s Politics

“The blessings of political liberty and equality, which we so often take for granted, are the gift of two great inventions for which we are indebted to the ancient Greeks‒constitutions and citizenship. In the whole history of political thought and action, there are no ideas more revolutionary than these. Aristotle’s Politics is the first full statement of the theory of these two ideas. Its opening book repeatedly calls our attention to the fundamental difference in the condition of those who, on the one hand, live as slaves or as subjects of despotic kings and those who, on the other hand, live as citizens under constitutional governments and who, therefore, are ‘free man and equals, ruling and being ruled in turn.” (“Aristotle: Politics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 47-48)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small Greek colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Academy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures which he delivered at the Lycaeum.

In A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education Adler and Wolff discuss Book I of Politics. In it Aristotle considers the origin and nature of the state, slavery, and household management. Before summarizing what Aristotle says about each of those subjects, Adler and Wolff consider the relationship of Politics to Aristotle’s earlier Nicomachean Ethics and its structure, and after summarizing the three subjects they discuss several questions about Politics. I’ll consider just what they say about the three subjects. Incidentally, they study Nicomachean Ethics in another reading in A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, and I’ll consider it in when I share from the The Great Ideas volume on Ethics: The Study of Moral Values.

Regarding the origin and nature of the state, Aristotle says: “When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society [the family and the village] are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.” (Aristotle, Politics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 446).The state’s being natural means that it arises out of a human need, all men are meant to live in a state, what it is and how it comes to be cannot be completely due to human deliberation and rules, and it has an end or purpose.

After talking about the role of slaves as possessions of their masters used by them as instruments for maintaining life, Aristotle considers whether slavery is natural:

“But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature. “There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of facts. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 447)

However there is another kind of slavery which in which the slaves are ones who have been taken in war rather than those who are slaves by nature. Aristotle questions whether it is just to view them as slaves.

Just as he distinguishes between natural and conventional slavery, Aristotle distinguishes between natural and artificial wealth-getting. Wealth-getting that is natural is part of the management of the household:

“Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches, for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited…. But there is a boundary fixed, just as there is in the other arts; for the instruments of any art are never unlimited, either in number or in size, and riches may be defined as a number of instruments to be used in a household or in a state. And so we see that there is a natural art of acquisition which is practised by managers of households and by statesmen, and what is the reason of this.” (Aristotle, Politics, page 450)

However there is another kind of wealth-getting in which the wealth-getters have unlimited desires and thus want the means of gratifying them to also be without limit. Just as he’d disapproved of conventional slavery, Aristotle disapproves of this art of wealth-getting, viewing both as unnatural.

In volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, Adler and Wolff discuss Books III-IV of Politics, in which Aristotle considers citizenship, the various forms of government, and the best state. See my earlier post on Politics,
https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/aristotle/, for a summary of what he says about them.

2. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Here I’ll consider just the first two of its ten books, guided by the discussion of them by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff in volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959).

The discussion described in The Republic takes place in the house of an old man, Cephalus, who is a friend of Socrates. After quoting Pindar’s “Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness, and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey,” Cephalus ascribes such hope to the good man rich enough that he has had no occasion to deceive or defraud others. Socrates responds, “Well said, Cephalus…but as concerning justice, what is it?‒to speak the truth and to pay your debts‒no more than this?” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 297). He challenges this view of justice on the grounds that there are some cases in which one ought not to pay one’s debts. Cephalus refuses to be drawn into an argument, but others are drawn in. In the course of their discussion, two other definitions of justice are proposed, both of which Socrates shows are also unsatisfactory:

“[J]ustice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies” (page 298).

“[J]ustice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger” (page 301).

Adler and Wolff summarize the rest of Book I of The Republic thus:

“Here we can now see a surprising development. Socrates’ refutation of Thrasymachus [he’d proposed ‘justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger’] gives us, by implication, the definition of a ruler’s justice as ‘acting for the sake of the ruled,’ or ‘acting so as to give the ruled their due.’ Now this is entirely compatible with Polemarchus’ earlier definition of justice as ‘acting so as to give each man his due.’ That latter definition only failed to satisfy Socrates because Polemarchus was mistaken about what each man’s due is [Polemachus had proposed ‘justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies’]. If Socrates’ definition of justice is valid, he must show what it is that is due to those who are ruled. And, of course, a great part of The Republic is devoted to just that.” (Adler and Wolff,  A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 18-19)

Book II of The Republic opens with two of Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, entering the discussion. Glaucon says that most people hold injustice to be superior to justice, and Adeimantus adds that appearing just rather than being just is advantageous. They ask Socrates to refute them by discussing the nature of justice. Socrates agrees but suggests looking for justice in the state rather than in man since it will more easily seen in the larger unit. He proceeds to consider the ideal state in the rest of Book II and in Books III-V. I commented briefly on those books, guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of them in volume 2, The Development of Political Theory and Government, of The Great Ideas Program, in an earlier post on The Republic, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/plato/.

Here is what Plato eventually concluded about justice in The Republic. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).

11. Locke’s Concerning Civil Government

“In the history of human liberty, Locke’s essay Concerning Civil Government stands out not only as a great contribution to political theory, but also as an effective instigator of political action. It is a stirring pronouncement of the principles of the English ‘bloodless revolution’ of 1688, which brought about fundamental innovations in the British constitution. It also set the stage for the American Revolution of 1776 by furnishing inspiration to the writers of the Declaration of Independence.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 123)

Although this series of posts is on readings discussed in volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, The Development of Political Theory and Government, I’m including this post on John Locke’s Concerning Civil Government, which is discussed in volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, because of its importance in the development of political theory and, as pointed out in the above quotation from Adler and Wolff, as an instigator of political action.

In their guide to reading Concerning Civil Government, Adler and Wolff discuss the significance of the date of its publication, the differences between the views of Locke and Thomas Hobbes on the origin of the state, and Locke’s concept of property and reflect on five problems posed as questions for readers of the essay to think about. Here I’ll just sketch Locke’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the three topics which they discuss. The sketch of Locke’s life, which is drawn mainly from the biographical note in Great Books of the Western World (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, pages ix-x), is long and may be just skimmed or even omitted.

Locke’s Life

Born in Wrington, Somerset, on August 29, 1632, John Locke was the oldest child of a respectable family with Puritan leanings. In 1652 he won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford. Although the Puritans had introduced some reforms in Oxford life, the curriculum was still the traditional one of grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, and moral philosophy, which Locke found insipid. Nonetheless after receiving his B.A. degree in 1656, he remained at Oxford to take his M.A. degree and then became successively lecturer in Greek, reader in rhetoric, and in 1664 censor of moral philosophy. Those activities not fully occupying his attention, he also read Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and engaged in experimental science in collaboration with Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, who was a close friend. Soon after he began the study of medicine and, although he didn’t get a medical degree until a later date (1674), by 1666 he was engaged in occasional practice. It was also at Oxford that Locke became interested in political questions such as the constitution of society, the relation of church and state, and the importance of religious toleration.

Although in 1665 he interrupted his medical studies to serve as secretary to a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg, Locke turned down another diplomatic post that he was offered on his return. However in 1667 he accepted an invitation from Lord Ashley, whom he had met at Oxford in 1662, to become part of his household staff in London as his personal physician. He served Ashley in various capacities for the next sixteen years, including becoming secretary of the Council of Trade and Plantations which Ashley established after he became the first Earl of Shaftesbury and the lord high chancellor of England in 1672. Locke’s many practical duties in London didn’t prevent him from pursuing his scientific and philosophical interests. He frequently held informal gatherings for the discussion of questions in science and theology. On one such occasion, a question arose concerning the “limits of human understanding” to which he undertook to provide an answer and, writing off and on, finally published twenty years later as An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

When the Earl fell from power in 1675, Locke withdrew from public life, going to France where he tried to restore his health and to work on his Essay. When the Earl again rose to power in 1679, Locke returned to England and resumed his former activities. However when the Earl’s plotting against the King led to his exile and death, Locke fell under royal suspicion and in 1683 he sought refuge in Holland. There he rapidly formed many new friendships and settled down to complete the Essay, in 1687 publishing an abstract of it. He was likely involved in planning the Revolution of 1688, having friends among the English refugees and being known to William of Orange, and returned to England in 1689 in the same ship which carried William’s wife, Princess Mary.

Although Locke was offered several responsible positions in the new regime, he preferred to devote himself to his writings and accepted only the comparatively light task of commissioner of appeals. Within four years he completed and published his most important works: First Letter Concerning Toleration, Two Treatises of Civil Government, the Essay, and Some Thoughts on Education. Prompted by ill-health and dissatisfaction with the course of public affairs, he retired in 1691 to Oakes Manor in Essex, where he lived as a guest of the Masham family and continued to work on his writings and to be occupied with political problems. Upon reestablishment of the Board of Trade and Plantations, he reluctantly accepted a post as one of the commissioners. This office absorbed all the time his health permitted him to spend in London from 1696 to 1700, when constant illness compelled his resignation.

Locke’s last years were spent quietly in retirement at Oates Manor, occupying himself with biblical studies and writing a commentary on the epistles of St. Paul. Many of his friends visited him there. He died on October 28, 1704, while Lady Masham was reading the Psalms to him. She wrote of him, “His death was like his life, truly pious, yet natural, easy and unaffected.”

Significance of the Essay’s Date of Publication

Locke’s Concerning Civil Government treatises were first published in 1690, the year after William and Mary ascended to the throne of England. He’d written them in Holland, where he’d lived in exile from 1683 to 1689. In his preface to them, he expresses the hope that they would “establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William‒to make good his title in the consent of the people, which, being only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin” (quoted by Adler and Wolff in An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 125).

In the first treatise, Locke argues against the theory that monarchs rule by divine right. In the second (the one we’re considering), he argues that governments derive their authority from those whom they govern. “Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust?…To this I reply, The people shall be judge” (Concerning Civil Government in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 35, page 81). Thus the people had the right to replace James II with William of Orange.

The Origin of the State

Locke defines political power as “a right of making laws…for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good” (Concerning Civil Government, page 25). He maintains that such power (and the government which it wields) comes into being as a result of a contract made by people who’d previously lived in a non-political condition. Thomas Hobbes, whom I considered in “Hobbes’s Leviathan,” also had such a social contract theory, but Locke differed from him on what it involved.

Both Hobbes and Locke called the condition in which people lived before making the contract the “state of nature.” In “Hobbes’s Leviathan” I defined the state of nature as “a primitive condition in which there was no king, no law, and no civil society” and quoted from Leviathan to show that Hobbes viewed it as a state of war. Locke viewed it instead as a state of liberty in which people could “order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man” (Concerning Civil Government,  page 25). Locke himself points to the difference between his and Hobbes’s conceptions of the state of nature: “Here we have the plain difference between the state of Nature and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance, and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are one from another” (Concerning Civil Government, page 29).

Both Hobbes and Locke viewed people as giving up rights when they entered into the social contract. “For Hobbes, man is in such a miserable state naturally that he gives up all rights [except the right to life and self-preservation, which according to Hobbes he can’t give up] upon entering civil society, in order only to be safe and protected from the lusts and passions of other men” {Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 128). But Locke doesn’t view people as giving up all rights upon entering civil society, saying: “But though men when they enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of Nature into the hands of society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of society, yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society or legislative constituted by them can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one’s property by providing against those three defects above mentioned that made the state of Nature so unsafe and uneasy” (Concerning Civil Government, page 54; the three defects are lack of an established, settled, known law; lack of a known and indifferent judge; and lack of power to execute the law).

Locke describes the actual formation of political society as follows: Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate [the state of nature] and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.” (Concerning Civil Government, page 46).

Locke’s Concept of Property

In the last paragraph I quoted Locke as saying that one of the reasons for men’s uniting into communities is for “secure enjoyment of their properties.” In Chapter V he takes up the question of property in detail, considering how it comes about that anyone has private property or owns something to the exclusion of all others. He summarizes his view thus: “[T]hough the things of Nature are given in common, man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it) had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and arts had improved the conveniences of life, was perfectly his own and did not belong in common to others” (Concerning Civil Government, page 34). Note that according to Locke “property” consists not only of a man’s land and goods but also anything else that is his, including his life and liberty, his stating this in the following passage: “Man…hath by nature a power..to preserve his property‒that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men” (Concerning Civil Government, page 44).

Adler and Wolff comment:

“Since man has a natural right to property in this wider sense (i.e., life, liberty, and estate), the state cannot take it away from him, but must protect his right to it. The [American] Declaration of Independence echoes Locke, substituting, however, ‘pursuit of happiness’ for ‘estate’: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men….’” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 130)

One of the problems which they pose questions on is what the significance of the substitution is. They suggest that the reason might be that “pursuit of happiness” takes in more than “estate,” arguing “If pursuit of happiness requires a man’s estate to be secure, then the Declaration of Independence affirms that to be part of man’s inalienable right; but if other things are also required, it also asserts his right to those” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 134). Whether they are right or not, clearly Locke’s Concerning Civil Government was a source of inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, as affirmed in my opening quotation from them, and thus set the stage for the American Revolution.