In the seventeenth century, The Scientific Revolution brought light to people challenging previous ideas and thinking freely on the ideas of science. This was a new concept, as previously, the world ran on tradition, and authority was never to be questioned. However, this new idea of thinking freely inspired men everywhere to think for themselves and share new ideas. Soon, there was an eruption of a philosophical, social, and intellectual movement, during which, thinkers began to question old system of thinking and structures of government. This period is now known as the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason.
There were astounding numbers of thinkers and writers all over the world during this period, publishing their works in an attempt to change the traditional thoughts and ideas of the world. Many well know philosophers came to light at this time, such as, Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and countless others. Among these philosophers and writers were John Locke, a young, educated English man, and Olaudah Equiano, a former slave. Locke wrote and published his work, Two Treatises of Government in the late seventeenth century, at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. Equiano on the other hand, published his work, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, in the late eighteenth century, towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, making their two works bookends of enlightenment. While Locke and Equiano wrote at two very different times of Enlightenment, and from two very different points of view, they each give us a unique account of the Enlightenment Era.
John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is split into two parts. The first part, or the First Treatise is solely an attack on Patriarcha, a work by Sir Robert Filmer. One of Filmer’s major points argues that Adam had absolute authority over his children, which is passed down through generations, meaning that Kings have inherited their authority. Locke counters this idea by using support directly from scripture; “God says, Honour thy Father and Mother; but our Author (Filmer) contents himself with half, leaving out thy Mother.” Locke is saying that it is not possible for Adam to have had absolute authority because that idea only account for the father being the head. He then goes on to defend his point further by arguing that Filmer’s theory of divine right of kings is flawed because it implies that men are born enslaved to the King. Locke refuses to accept this and insists that all men are born free according to the State of Nature, which he further explains in the Second Treatise.
Locke states that in order to correctly understand Political Power, “we must consider what state all Men are naturally in, and that is, a State of Perfect Freedom.” In this, he is referencing a State of Nature in which perfect freedom and equality are brought on by the Law of Nature. He argues that no man in this State of Nature must answer to any other man; everyone one is equal except for God. Locke also states that every man should, “preserve the rest of mankind, and may not unless it be to do just to an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to be the Preservation of the Life, the Liberty, Health, Limb, or Goods of another.” This means that because all men are equal and free according to Locke’s State of Nature, if a man does wrong to another, he believes that he is of higher importance, and breaks the Law of Nature. Therefore, if any man is to harm or take from another, he has placed himself into a State of War with the man whom he has harmed. Locke states that man may destroy man who creates war with him.
Locke also proposes the point that because of the Law of Nature, “The Natural Liberty of Man is to be free of any superior power on Earth.” This, however, proposes the question, of slavery. If all men are born free and equal, how did slavery come to be? Locke proposes the idea of the Perfect Condition of Slavery, in which he describes slavery as the State of War continued. Basically, this means that the only way a man would become a slave is if they enter a State of War with another, and willingly surrenders himself to spare his own life.
Locke also speaks, in the Second Treatise, of Property. He states that in the State of Nature, all men have the right to property of their own bodies and also the labor of their bodies. He suggests that civil society is created to protect one’s property, and because that is the duty of government, Locke states that, “whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, … By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.” This means that if the government tries to take away, or destroy the property of the people, they have broken the Law of Nature and are now in a State of War, in which the people have control and the right to revolt against them in order to prevent tyranny.
In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke expresses many ideas of how and why people, society, government, and the world function. These ideas have had a big impact on today’s society, and more specifically, the American Constitution, which adopts Locke’s theory of the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property. However, some of Locke’s points do seem fiction, and utopian, such as his idea that all men are free and equal, and that slavery only exists in a State of War.
Olaudah Equiano gives us a very different view of slavery. His book, The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, tells the story of slavery during the Enlightenment Era from a rare point of view. As many slaves at the time could not read or write, it is extraordinary that there is an account with such personal detail.
Equiano was an eleven-year-old boy living in modern day Nigeria, when he and his younger sister were kidnapped, sold to slave traders, and separated. He was placed on a ship that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with hundreds of other enslaved Africans. It wasn’t long before Equiano was handed over to a chieftain who had two wives, and children. Equiano states that they were quite kind to him, especially one of the wives, who he looked at as a mother. Unfortunately, he accidentally kills one of his master’s chickens, and fears that he would be beaten, so he ran away. He speaks of how he was searched for by many and was fearful of the punishment he would receive if caught. Days passed, and Equiano was desperately hungry and sneaks into his master’s kitchen, where he falls asleep and is found by an older slave woman who takes him to his master. His master insisted that he was taken care of, and that no harm would come to him. However, soon after this, he was sold again.
After being taken away from his next master, a wealthy widow, Equiano is forced onto a slave ship. He speaks of the horrifying conditions on the boat, and even how he feared that he would be eaten by white men. He speaks of the poor treatment of slaves, and how he felt so low that he “wished for the last friend, death, to relieve” him. He recalls receiving beating for things such as not eating, and even speaks of seeing a man die as the result of flogging, and then thrown overboard. Although he is terrified of the white men, and believes them to be cruel, but he sees how they interact with one another and concludes that they are not born evil, but slavery made them that way.
Eventually the ship reaches Barbados where they are sold to slave traders. Equiano is put on a ship that takes him to Virginia, where he works on a plantation for many weeks. There, he is miserable, anxious, and constantly afraid. One day he sees another slave wearing an iron muzzle, and in the same home, a painting that seemed to follow him. He speaks of how these things frighten him because he believes them to be devices that the master uses for spying, showing us how little he knows of the technology at the time, and giving us a glimpse of his education level at the time.
Soon after, Equiano is purchased by a man named Michael Henry Pascal who was a lieutenant in the royal navy. Aboard his ship, Equiano had a much more pleasant experience than the previous ship. As they sailed to England, he had better food to eat, a place to sleep, and was even beginning to learn English. He made a friend, Richard, on board and overall had a better quality of life, however he was still hesitant and afraid of the white men and was relieved when they finally made it to England.
During the time that Equiano was in England, he was put in school, where he was baptized, and well educated. He was thankful for the people who he had met in England, and regretful of leaving them, but he was called back to sea with his master. While sailing up the Mediterranean, they made many stops, and Equiano speaks of the cheap fruits he enjoys, and the kindness of the people, saying, “The Spanish officers here treated our officers with great politeness and attention” He also met a man named Daniel Queen, who taught him many things, and became a father figure for him. But, as rumors of the war ending spread, Equiano was given away to Captain Doran.
Equiano was then sold to Mr. Robert King, who admired him for his hard work. Mr. King put Equiano in school and fitted him to be a clerk. Equiano writes about how King fed his slaves well, and many criticized him, but King believed that a slave who was well fed would do better work. This is much different that how Equiano was treated on the slave ship. Equiano was given much responsibility on the ship, but he also witnessed incidences such as the rape of a woman that angered him because he was unable to stop it.
Quite some time later, while in the West Indies, Equiano witnessed a free man, by the name of Joseph Clipson, become enslaved by a white man. It is at this point that he sees the cruel reality in the fact that he will not be free until he leaves the West Indies, as he states, “for such is the equity of the West Indian laws, that no free negro’s evidence will be admitted in their courts of justice. In this situation is it surprising that slaves, when mildly treated, should prefer even the misery of slavery to such a mockery of freedom? I was now completely disgusted with the West Indies, and thought I never should be entirely free until I had left them.” So, Equiano began selling items and saving money in order to be able to buy his freedom.
Eventually, Equiano and his captain set sail for Georgia, where he says, “worse fate than ever attended,” for him. One night he was beaten and left for dead by a drunken slave master, Doctor Perkins. He is then taken to jail by police in Georgia, but when he does not return to the ship, his captain goes to find him. He has Equiano treated by doctors, and tries to file a lawsuit against Doctor Perkins, but is informed that he would have no case because Equiano is black. Equiano slowly recovers and returns to work, still saving up for his freedom.
In the last chapter of his book, Equiano speaks of a voyage that was meant to head to Montserrat, but instead goes to Georgia and St. Eustacia. This was troubling for Equiano because he planned to get the rest of the money intended to buy his freedom in Montserrat, but instead, he sells a few more items in order to obtain the money and his freedom. Eventually, Equiano was able to buy purchase his freedom for forty pounds.
After reading works from two very different men, at two ends of the Age of Enlightenment, it is interesting to see such different struggles over such similar issue. While Locke and Equiano both struggled to understand some ways of the world, Locke viewed issues such as slavery from the outside, while Equiano gave an insider’s perception. However, both men, in this time of free thinking and change, wrote to inspire, and to inflict change. But how do the works of these two men stand up against Emmanuel Kant’s traditional definition of Enlightenment?
Emmanuel Kant, in his work, What is Enlightenment, defines Enlightenment as transforming into a state of thinking for yourself rather than following someone else’s guidance. John Locke’s work ties into this because he is constantly challenging traditional ways of thinking and forming his own ideas and solutions for real life issues. Olaudah Equiano’s work relates to this as well, because though he was a slave from a very early age, constantly thought for himself and sought out education. He also purchased his own freedom and, quite literally, became his own person. Although Kant’s argue of enlightenment focuses mainly on one thinking for themselves on the topic of religion, Locke and Equiano fit the description of the traditional definition and expand on it, which is what Enlightenment is all about.
- Equiano, Olaudah. and Paul Edwards. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa the African, 1789. Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969.
- Locke, John. and Peter Laslett. Two Treatises of Government: a Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press, 1988.