Author Archives: Bob Hunter

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,, 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 Books 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,

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 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.

9. Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth

A play by Shakespeare’s being part of the English curriculum each year when I was in high school impressed on me that his plays are literary classics. This is confirmed by Encyclopedia Britannica’s describing him as “widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time.” It goes on to say, “No writer’s living reputation can seriously compare with that of Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often in more countries than ever before,” and to devote a full twenty pages to its article on him.

But Shakespeare’s plays works on government and politics? Here is how Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff justify their including his two plays on King Henry the Fourth in their The Great Ideas Program collection of works on political theory and government:

“Shakespeare’s historical plays are not merely dramatic re-enactments of actual events. They reveal what motivates and what happens to men in the struggle for power. Shakespeare probably never read a line of Machiavelli, but there were Machiavellian currents and Machiavellian figures in the Elizabethan court. He himself created many such figures, full images of flesh and spirit, with an anguished self-awareness.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 117)

Adler and Wolff survey the historical context in which the two plays were set, consider two problems running through the plays which are important in political philosophy: the question of the legitimacy of a ruler and the question of how to educate a ruler, and discuss other three questions about the plays. Here I’ll just summarize what they say about the two problems.

Legitimacy of a Ruler

Henry IV’s grandfather, Edward III, reigned from 1327-1377. He was succeeded by his son, Richard II, who ruled from 1377-1399. Richard was a minor when he became king, and the time of his minority was one of popular discontent and political strife. After he declared himself of age in 1389, a period of constitutional rule and of general peace and prosperity followed. However in 1397 he assumed the role of an absolute ruler, crushing the opposition of parliament and the barons. In 1399, while Richard was suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, Henry of Lancaster, a cousin of his who had been exiled by him, organized a plot to overthrow him and landed in England, where many of the barons rallied to his cause. When Richard returned from Ireland, he found himself without supporters and was forced to abdicate. Parliament was summoned, accepted Richard’s abdication, and declared Henry to be king, as Henry IV, in 1399.

According to hereditary right Henry’s claim to the throne was not as good as that of some other claimants‒the House of March, who were descended from the third son of Edward III (Lionel, Duke of Clarence) whereas Henry was descended from the Edward’s fourth son (John of Gaunt, Dike of Lancaster). Thus the declaration of Henry as king set a precedent for the principle that Parliament is superior to the king. However at that time England was not yet a constitutional monarch and so Shakespeare’s Henry IV felt that his title to the crown was weak, telling his son:

“God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.”
(Second Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 496)

Adler and Wolff discuss how Hobbes, whose views I considered in my last post, would have viewed Henry’s concern. Although Hobbes would have opposed Henry’s gaining the throne by rebellion against the legitimate ruler (Richard II), when Henry had succeeded in making himself king (and thus becoming the legitimate ruler) Hobbes would have upheld him against those who rebelled against him. “Hobbes, in other words, is always on the side of the ruling party and condemns all rebellion‒always mindful of the fact that a state of war is a state of misery” (Adler and Wolff, page 124). The rebels, on the other hand, viewed Henry as still an illegitimate ruler and thus thought that it was acceptable to try to usurp his power. What do you think?

How to Educate a Prince for His Royal Office

The qualities of a prince or ruler and how they should be developed are discussed in various works‒Plato’s The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Tacitus’s The Annals, and Machiavelli’s The Prince‒that we have already considered in working through The Development of Political Theory and Government. Although the problem of princely education has become less important in modern times, a similar and related replaces it: in a government by the many or by all, it is necessary to educate everyone so that each citizen will be able to assume the responsibilities of political action.

Nobody seems to be in charge of the education of Prince Hal (Henry IV’s son, Henry Monmouth) for his royal office, unless we call Sir John Falstaff (his fat, boastful, and cowardly companion) his tutor, and the King expresses concern over what he is learning. In the very first scene of Part I, the King expresses his discontent with his son and his wish that he would be more like Harry Hotspur (Henry Percy, the son of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland). And Act III, Scene 2, of Part I, consists mainly of a dialogue between the King and the Prince in which the King exhorts his son to change his ways and be more like the King in his youth or like Hotspur, who threatens to take the crown from Henry IV. However, although the Prince vindicates himself to a certain extent by beating Hotspur in combat at Shrewsbury near the end of Part I, he continues to behave just as before.

Why does the Prince seem to ignore his father’s advice and public opinion? A partial answer is given by him himself in a soliloquy at the end of the first scene in which Falstaff appears:

“So, when this loose behaviour I throw off…
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which has no foil to set it odd.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
(First Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 437)

After he becomes king, he fulfils this promise to himself and rejects Falstaff when the latter approaches him in a crowd of people and seeks his attention. In a separate question Adler and Wolff discuss whether Prince Hal’s earlier seeking the companionship of Falstaff in order to seem the nobler when he reformed was a worthy purpose. What do you think?

How to Read a Book

While reorganizing my books recently, I reread Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (New York: Simon Schuster, 1972) and, the author of its original version’s (Adler in 1940) being a co-author of The Great Ideas Program, decided to recommend it here.

The back cover of How to Read a Book describes its contents thus:

“You are told about the various levels of reading and how to achieve them‒from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. You are told how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science.
“Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list [of works in Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books] and supply reading tests [on works included in Great Books of the Western World] whereby you can measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension and speed.”

Here I’ll just distinguish between the four levels of reading identified in How to Read a Book and summarize the steps the authors recommend taking in the third level of reading, analytical reading. I won’t consider approaches to the different kinds of reading matter identified above or duplicate the reading list and reading tests.

Adler and Van Doren call the first level of reading Elementary Reading because it is ordinarily learned in elementary school. It could also be called rudimentary reading, basic reading, or initial reading. It includes at least these four stages: reading readiness (acquired in pre-school and kindergarten experiences), learning to read very simple materials (typically acquired in first grade), a stage characterized by rapid progress in vocabulary building and increasing skill in “unlocking” the meaning of unfamiliar words through context skills (typically acquired by the end of fourth grade), and mature reading characterized by refinement and enhancement of the skills previously acquired (typically acquired by the end of elementary or junior high school). The question asked of the reader at this level of reading is “What does the sentence or paragraph say?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 3 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren call the second level of reading Inspectional Reading. It could also be called skimming or pre-reading because it begins with systematically skimming or pre-reading the book, but it also includes a superficial reading of the book, a reading through it without stopping to look up or ponder what the reader doesn’t understand right away. Its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time, usually a relatively short time and always too short a time to get everything out of a book that can be gotten. Questions typically asked at this level are “What is the book about?” and “What are its parts?” How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 4 to this level of reading.

Before proceeding to consideration of the next level of reading, Adler and Van Doren give some tips on becoming a demanding reader. They identify four questions a reader must ask about any book: What is the book about as a whole? What is being said in detail, and how? Is the book true, in whole or in part? and What of it? They suggest several ways a reader can mark a book to make it his or her own, such as underlining major points and important or forceful statements. They describe three kinds of the notes a reader will make in and about books‒structural in inspectional reading, conceptual in analytical reading, and dialetical in synoptical reading. And they encourage readers to form the habit of reading because “one learns to do by doing” (How to Read a Book, page 53). These tips constitute Chapter 5 of How to Read a Book.

Adler and Van Doren call the third level of reading Analytical Reading. They devote two or three chapters to each of the three stages of analytical reading identified by them, and they conclude their consideration of the level by summarizing the rules for analytical reading that they presented in those chapters:

The First Stage…Rules for Finding Out What a Book Is About
1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. [Chapter 6]
2. Select what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. [Chapter 7]
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. [Chapter 7]
4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. [Chapter 7]
The Second Stage…Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents
5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. [Chapter 8]
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions b dealing with his most important sentences. [Chapter 9]
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. [Chapter 9]
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. [Chapter 9]
The Third Stage…Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge
9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. [Chapter 10]
10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. [Chapter 10]
11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. [Chapter 11]
12-15. Show wherein the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical and wherein his analysis or account is incomplete. [Chapter 12]

The above rules concern reading a book in itself without reference to other books. However Adler and Van Doren recognize that sometimes reference to other books is necessary for full understanding of a book. Thus in Chapter 13 of How to Read a Book they discuss these aids to reading: relevant experiences, other books (especially the so-called great books), commentaries and abstracts, and reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. They recommend “that outside help should be sought whenever a book remains unintelligible to you, either in whole or in part, after you have done your best to read it according to the rules of intrinsic reading” (How to Read a Book, page 169).

Adler and Van Doren identify the fourth level of reading as Synoptical Reading. Although it could also be called comparative reading because it involves reading many books and placing them in relation to each other and to a subject about which they all revolve, it involves more than mere comparison of texts, its also enabling the reader to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. Before doing a project of synoptical reading, the reader must know that more than one book is relevant to a particular question and know which books should be read, thus creating a bibliography. Then the reader should inspect (skim or pre-read) all the books in the bibliography, giving him or her a clear enough idea of his or subject to make analytical reading of some of the books worthwhile and allowing him or her to cut down the bibliography to a more manageable size. Adler and Van Doren identify and discuss five steps in synoptical reading: finding the relevant passages, bringing the authors to terms, get the questions clear, define the issues, and analyze the discussion. How to Read a Book devotes Chapter 20 to this level of reading.

Adler and Van Doren conclude the body of How to Read a Book by considering what good books can do for us.

“A good book [rewards] you for trying to read it. The best books reward you most. The reward, of course, is of two kinds. First, there is the improvement in your reading skill that occurs when you successfully tackle a good, difficult work. Second‒and this in the long run is much more important‒a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable‒books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” (How to Read a Good Book, page 341)

That’s one of my reasons for rereading Great Books of the Western World, or at least those parts of it discussed in The Great Ideas Program. The other is to provide me with a foundation for sharing my love of good books with my family and friends through Bob’s Corner.