To argue, as Paul Gottfried did in “Distrusting John Locke” (Views, January), that the writings of John Locke were not instrumental to the founding of this country is to suppose that the authors of the Federalist did not know what they were about. In philosophy, John Locke was sometimes an extremist, and he was wrong in thinking that no ideas are innate (there are a few —for instance, time). But he is still instructive, for most of our ideas do come from reasoning about sensory experience. In his Reasonableness Of Christianity, Locke saw an inner harmony in the Gospel that others had missed before. His commentaries on some of St. Paul’s epistles contained important truths: In his interpretation of Romans, for instance, he refuted the Calvinists on the very scriptural ground that they had considered to be their strongest territory.
But whether one likes Locke or not, the strangest teaching in this misbegotten issue is Dr. Gottfried’s assertion that David Hume was an intellectual founder of America. This man was the most pronounced irrationalist in the history of philosophy. Contrast his ideas with the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths . . . “
Locke wrote an essay defending miracles; Hume attacked them, arguing that any alleged miracle might actually have been the result of a mundane natural law with which the believer is not familiar. Having denied religion in the name of science, Hume then denied science itself by casting doubt on the principle of causality.
Hume perverted Locke’s empiricism in the direction of extreme skepticism, just as Rousseau perverted Locke’s doctrine of the social contract into a vehicle for collectivism. Kant combined these two perversions with Leibniz to form his critical philosophy; through one of its branches, as a result of Hegel’s partial acceptance of Kant, dialectical materialism arose; through another branch, European logical positivism. In the 20th century, Bertrand Russell basically mathematized Hume’s skeptical empiricism and combined it (once more) with some Leibnizian ideas, leading to the analytical movement that has devastated academic philosophy in the United States.
Dr. Gottfried’s tone turns superior when he criticizes Locke’s social-contract theory. “Hume,” he writes, “expresses astonishment that a serious thinker could believe that individuals left a ‘state of nature’ and entered civil society by way of a contract.” But it is only right that those who live in darkness should be astonished by the light. Locke did not believe that man evolved out of a primal ooze over millions of years, but that he came into being all at once as an intelligent, wonderful creation of God. I’m sure Locke had read about illiterate tribes of cannibals. But he would have supposed that they were men who had degenerated —like the homosexuals discussed by St. Paul in Romans.
Dr. Gottfried continues: “Hume asked, why did individuals throughout the world live ‘in subordination to each other’ without a sense of being deprived of rights?” But in the Second Treatise, Locke demonstrated how the parent-child relationship fit with his theory. Moreover, history seems to support Locke. The records of ancient peoples do speak of them getting together and agreeing to certain laws and leaders. In Deuteronomy, a great meeting occurs in which the covenant between God and the Hebrews is read, section by section, with blessings upon them if they should keep their agreements and curses if they should break them. This type of a social contract between unequals took place over 1,400 years before the Birth of Christ and was not dissolved until sometime between the Resurrection of Christ and the destruction of Herod’s temple.
This does not mean that Locke’s theory was perfect. In the First Letter on Toleration, he states the idea behind his device: “Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins, by the consent of all men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate. The reason is, because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the publick peace of societies.” Chronicles has shown over and over again that this device is breaking down. May Chronicles carry on its good work, leaving behind that which is not.
Paul Gottfried’s short article rebutting Locke’s concept of the “social contract” is unfortunately not as complete as he could have made it, despite his introduction of David Hume into the argument. To be specific, he failed to mention “spontaneous order.”
Just when the idea of “spontaneous order” arose is uncertain, but we do know that it was a central feature of the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment, to which Hume as well as Adam Smith were contributors. Even Robert Burns, in his poem “To a Mouse,” suggested something related in his famous line “the best laid schemes o’ mice ‘n men gang aft aglay.” Such reasoning by Scottish intellectuals was entirely intuitive, drawn from lessons of history that they subjected to critical examination. While Friedrich von Hayek picked up and extended the concept in its application to political economy its principal development in this century occurred in the physical sciences, especially by Ilia Prigogine (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1977) and his associates. “Chaos theory” is closely related. Both it and spontaneous order occur naturally in any “non-linear” system and are opposite sides of the same coin.
The rise of a market, an association, and a civilization are examples of nonlinearity at work. All attempts to build social structures from a “plan” (such as nation-building) will certainly “gang aft aglay,” and thus the idea of the “social contract” is pure fantasy.
Dr. Gottfried Replies:
In his comments on my “misbegotten issue,” Peter Erickson expresses shock that I would consider David Hume an “intellectual founder of America.” Given the flattering references to Hume among the Framers and the influence exerted on Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison by Hume’s political and historical writings, my description should not cause offense. Erickson should read Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Sedorum for a comprehensive discussion of Hume’s intellectual impact on the formation of the U.S. Constitution. He would also do well to read Hume’s Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, which provides a wealth of useful conservative teachings: e.g., “the bulk of mankind is governed by authority, not reason”; therefore, a “wise magistrate is one who will bear reverence for what carries the marks of age.”
Pace Erickson, I never suggested that the authors of the Federalist were unfamiliar with Locke’s work. What I did write is that Locke was not the major influence on their thinking and that what they took from him was not as important as what they borrowed from others, particularly Hume and Montesquieu.
Although Erickson is free to seek religious enlightenment wherever he wants, I find it odd that he would depict Locke as an orthodox Christian theologian. Perhaps I have labored under an illusion, but it seems that Locke’s transformation of the Gospels into something “reasonable” does not leave much room for the supernatural. It is, moreover, not clear from Concerning Human Understanding that Locke’s “eternal thinking being” is non-material; in the same tract (Chapters Six and Seven), we are told that there is no evidence that the human soul functions independently of the body. Erickson may mistake Locke’s outward appearance of reverence toward Christian truths in a pervasively Christian society with a sincere devotion to received Christian dogma. On this point, however, I suspect the Straussians are right. Locke was, in all probability, a religious skeptic who tried not to tip his hand. Hume did not “pervert” his empiricism, combining it with theological doubt. He was simply more open about his own metaphysical doubt than Hobbes and Locke had been in the preceding century: Both had felt obliged to represent themselves as Protestant Christians. The First Letter on Toleration, which Erickson brings up, is inter alia the holding up of a politically inoffensive form of Christianity, a “free and voluntary” association that would not exclude Locke himself as a heretic. “Tolerant” Christians were supposed to offer “houses of worship” to Muslims and pagans, as long as they did not act in the manner of Catholics, who swore fealty to a foreign potentate.
Pace Erickson, there is nothing in the Second Treatise on Civil Government that refutes Hume’s skeptical view concerning the contractual origin of civil society. Although, in Chapter Eight, Locke considers certain objections to his constructivism, he does not treat them in a satisfactory way. He ends up conceding the point, famously made by Aristotle in the Politics, that societies start off as paternal despotism, without showing that most of them turn into the kind of fraternal association that Locke is delineating. No one is denying that Locke based his social theory on a selective view of the organization of the ancient Hebrews, as presented in Deuteronomy and Judges. After all, he cites this illustration. What is at question is whether the Hebraic theocratic model has much to do with Locke’s conception of the social contract, and whether that conception represents a general norm for the exercise of power in most societies. Hume is correct to challenge both assumptions as contrary to human observation.
Although I have no objection to Robert Whitten’s attempt to Hayekize Hume, I think the experiment should not be pushed to excess. Although Hayek and Hume were both theological skeptics drawn to the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume was far more conservative. He never would have uttered the paeans to democracy as the precondition for political and economic freedom that abound in The Constitution of Liberty. As Donald Livingston argues, Hume was not, with due respect to Dr. Johnson, a “Tory by accident.” He came by his Toryism honestly, as a defender of monarchical government and aristocracy, which he regarded as a counterweight to popular interest. It astounds me that anyone who believed that community and custom were necessary for human thinking would be condemned as a forerunner of Marxist materialism. But Hume should also not be seen as an apostle of the democratic capitalist ideology now celebrated by our ruling class. He despised democratic imperialists, both ancient and modern.