Over at The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Berry College political philosopher Peter Lawler reviews Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truth: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future. It is a long review. It is a great review. While Spalding notes that the American founding was influenced by a combination of Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity, Lawler argues that “Lockeanism, more than anything else, provided the principled foundation of our free institutions.”
Once Lawler establishes the predominance of Lockeanism, he is then able to point out how Locke’s ideas are too individualistic to sustain social institutions such as the family. Lawler
…a shortcoming of Lockean liberalism, the kind of liberty to which the Founders were primarily devoted, is its tendency to undermine the stability of the family over time. As the nation’s elites become more devoted to such principled individualism, the family weakens. Well before the Progressives, Tocqueville noted the many factors that would exact a toll on the kind of devotion that produces lots of well-raised children: self-obsessive, petty materialism; the restless anxiety that accompanies democratic affluence; the theoretical denial that we’re anything more than ephemeral, biological beings; and doubt that human beings share moral or social goods in common—doubt that we really are, deep down, social and relational beings. The modern democrat has more and more trouble, as he becomes both more principled and more narcissistic, thinking beyond his own, personal being toward generating biological replacements or finding loving personal compensation for his own natural finitude in his family, children, and personal accomplishments generally. From its beginning in 1776, one dimension of the nation’s heritage is the thought of the Lockean individual in the state of nature that being starts and ends with me. If I don’t endure, nothing endures.
That is the most atrocious misuse of Locke and how he was read I have ever seen- and there are pretty bad ones out there already- but this really takes the cake.
Tom Van Dyke says
Killer essay by Lawler.
However, he clearly accepts the Straussian version of Locke-as-hedonist [even citing the obscure fact that Locke parts from Christian marriage as lifelong, a point made in Strauss' “Natural Right and History].
Locke does not necessarily lead to today's “radical individualism.” There is natural law, and also Locke's argument in “Reasonableness of Christianity” that man is God's workmanship, and therefore can't do anything he wants with his life and body.
Tom Van Dyke says
And I guess nobody's reading this except perhaps you, John, but I meant to add that the Locke passage in “Reasonableness” includes “if this be liberty, it is not license,” which precludes Randy Barnett's ever-expanding definition of “liberty.”
You can't get there [Barnett] from here [Locke in “Reasonableness”].
Strauss may be snorted at in philosophy departments, but he's made great inroads in history and political science. Mark Noll uses the Straussian Michael Zuckert to make a similar case about Locke. It's very interesting to this observer, who's spent a lot of time on Strauss and Straussians.