Locke’s First Treatise: Sovereignty by Creation


Quotes taken from Locke: Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett

At this point John Locke takes to task Sir Robert’s attempt to give Adams sovereignty of the world and man by his creation. The first struggle Locke faces is Sir. Robert’s assertion that to suppose natural freedom in mankind means to deny Adam’s creation. However, this is a subtle use of words that Locke writes concerning this assertion by Sir Robert. Locke states, “For I find no difficulty to suppose the Natural Freedom of Mankind, though I have always believed the Creation of Adam…” Anyone who reads this passage cannot help but notice the use of suppose and believed and how different they make the meaning of his thought. Supposition comes from the use of one’s reason while belief does not. To suppose implies that one can logically think it through and find proofs while belief does not. Therefore, Locke is stating contrary to Filmer that Natural Freedom of Man Kind cannot be denied because reason can attain them whereas reason cannot attain the creation of Adam.

Next Locke presents the second issue,  that by Appointment Adam was made governor of the world by God. There are three instances in which Locke states this Appointment was possible: “Providence orders, or the Law of Nature directs, or positive Revelation declares…” Of these he denies that Providence could have been the appointment of Adam, which will be discussed momentarily. The Law of Nature and and positive Revelation are two interesting terms for Locke to use. We can simplify and attempt to understand this better if we change positive to it’s other meaning: law. The Law of Nature we know is a bastardization of the Natural Law and of the Natural Right, which proceeded the Law of Nature in previous epochs. The most direct ancestor of the Law of Nature is Natural Law, which St. Thomas articulates in his Treatise on Law. The Natural Law is the way in which the Eternal Law, or Providence, participates in human reason. By denying Providence, Locke has denied that God participates in the reason of man all together. Positive Revelation, or the Bible or Divine Law comes directly from the Eternal Law and informs and corrects both the Natural Law and the Human Law.  The Law of Nature removes the Eternal Law and Divine Law and supplants it with a temporal understanding.  Locke excludes a discussion of Adam’s sovereignty by Creation by denying both the Eternal and Divine laws as a source of political authority.  If Adam’s sovereignty was granted to him prior to creation through Divine Providence, then it would mean Adam would have been governor from the moment the Eternal Law came into be. It would be silly he asserts for Adam to have received his governorship over the world by Providence, because there was nothing to govern.

Locke then looks at Sir Robert’s assertion from the Law of Nature perspective. Locke argues that to assert Adam’s governorship by the Law of Nature is like saying that Man is governor over his children by right of nature. However, in this instance Locke points that Adam could neither be governor of the world, nor father when he had no government or children to make him governor of the world or father by right of nature. However, Sir Robert’s responds to this by asserting that Adam was not governor in fact but in habit. Yet, let us look at the problem of making Adam governor of the world by his creation through a different method.

Locke asserts Adam could not have been made governor of the world by his creation because he has no government; government does not come until the Fall, which is long after Adam’s creation. In fact, if one looks at the Book of Genesis they will find that government does not exist among Adam, Eve and their two sons. In fact government is not created until Adam’s son Cain slays Abel and is banished to the land of Nod by God. Cain is the founder of the city, not Adam, which makes Cain-a killer- the founder of the City according to Moses. This is why Sir Robert’s assertion that Adam gains governorship over the world by creation. Cain, not Adam, is the first governor that we encounter in the Bible. In fact, the children of Adam reject government until the Jews insist God give them a king. They are enslaved by the greatest government of the day- the Egyptians. A murderer, a betrayer to his family and his God is the founder of the City. The City is founded  upon sin according to the Bible.

Adam was made king of the world by his creation, not a king in fact, but a king in act which according to Locke means he was no king at all. This same argument, made by Sir Robert Locke will argue, means that Noah too was king of the world by his creation because it was his destiny to outlive his brethren. Belief in Adam’s creation and to suppose Natural Freedom of Mankind do not counteract each other according to Locke. Because Adam’s creation did not mean he was absolute ruler of the world as has been shown, one can still suppose the Natural Freedom of Mankind.

A look at Book I of John Locke’s First Treatise of Government


Quotes taken from Two Treatises of Government edited by Peter Laslett published by the Cambridge Texts in History and Political Thought.

I would like to think Ashok for reading through the First Treatise with me.

John Locke begins the first chapter, “Slavery is so vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for’t.” Locke starts his treatise with the theme of slavery, which according to him goes against the “temper and courage” of England. He claims astonishment that an English Lord (Englishman…much less a Gentleman) would write such a work. This individual that Locke is arguing against is Sir Robert Filmer, the writer of the work Patriarcha or The Natural Power of Kings. Locke uses Filmer’s work to refute the belief in Divine Right Monarchy. He calls Filmer’s work a “Rope of Sand” and a “Chain for all Mankind” whose business it is to “raise a Dust” that would “blind the People” but cannot bind those “who have their eyes open.” This is a very interesting argument against the work, Locke has set out on the stance that Divine Right Monarchy really means slavery and that Filmer’s treatise is only meant to blind the people into bondage.

Locke makes reference that Filmer’s work was long before his own First Treatise, and the editor notes that the Patriarcha was written in 1637-8 but not published until 1680. Filmer is called the “Champion of absolute Power” and anyone who reads his treatise cannot but think himself no longer a freeman. When published, Locke argues that Filmer’s treatise removed all liberty from the world. Furthermore, it intended to make itself the model of all politics for the future. However, Locke argues that the treatise by Filmer can be summed in two lines:

1. That all Government is absolute Monarchy

2. That no Man is born Free

These are two very dangerous beliefs for Locke, the champion of consent of the governed.

Authors of the generation in which Locke is writing, and the previous generations are said by him to have “flatter[ed] princes with an Opinion” this opinion being that despite the laws which constituted their authority, and are to govern under, they have absolute power under the title of Divine Right. They are not restrained by “Oaths and Promises” because their authority does not come from those, whom they govern, or from the laws but rather from God Himself. By making such an argument, these authors have stripped man of his natural rights and freedoms and made them subject to tyranny and oppression. Even more, Locke argues that they have “unsettled the Titles and shaken the Thrones of Princes.” Why is this? Because if there is such a thing as Divine Right monarchy, than all except them monarch are slaves to the monarch. Further, as Locke will argue, if Adam was made the first monarch then only one Prince in the world living has claim to that title passed down from Adam. All persons with the exception of that single heir have been made slaves and all government has been destroyed because of these Divine Right authors. If all are slaves then there cannot be politics and if there cannot be politics there cannot be government.

Yet, Locke argues that if we have to accept this argument, that we are all born Slaves, then it does not end. “Life and Thraldom” continue together until the former ends and we are released from the latter. But this notion of Divine Right monarchy, Locke claims, is a new idea. “Scripture or Reason I am sure doe not any where say so notwithstanding the noise of divine right, as if Divine Authority hath subjected us to the unlimited Will of another.” The notion that we are all slaves to a single human, a fallible person, is not present in our own human reason or in the Divine Scripture, where one would expect to find Divine Right authority promulgated first. Natural freedom and equality are the older opinions of mankind, not absolute Authority of a single man. Locke even argues that Filmer assents to this belief, that his opinion is the junior.

At this Locke leaves the argument of the age of this argument for historians to debate, but wishes to argue the point against Filmer who he believes was allowed to carry the opinion the furthest.

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