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John Locke: A Contradictory Philosophical Thinker

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John Locke, arguably one of the most influential contemporary figures to shape the modern western world, but also, arguably one of the most contradictory. Within his work, Second Treatise of Government, Locke explores numerous political concepts such as the idea that as members of society, we consent to have a government and we consent to our government taking some of our freedoms in exchange for the protection of life, liberty, and property. In addition, Locke also explores other concepts such as slavery and family, with this essay focusing on Locke’s continuous contradictions of his own thoughts and ideas throughout Second Treatise of Government and some of his other works. This essay will explore Locke’s belief that the natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, despite Locke himself being involved within an African slave trade company, along with the idea that children cannot be enslaved, even though children are continuously born into slavery. In this essay, I will argue that as members of society we do not actually consent to our government and that Locke’s androcentric view about family is not perfect and that the concept of family is vehemently different from what Locke describes within the Second Treatise of Government, especially within today’s modern society. I will also further argue in this essay that Locke is a very contradictory and hypocritical philosophical thinker.

Within his work, the Second Treatise of Government, Locke argues that men are naturally free and equal and that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and property. Locke is also referred to as the ‘father of liberalism’, with modern-day liberalism having many tight-knit connections to Locke’s contemporary ideas, established throughout his work. Liberalism is a political theory with foundations of freedom, consent to government, and morality, thus bringing us to Locke’s concept of consenting to a government or an authority.

According to Locke, humans within the state of nature are peaceful, and that this is only because humans were never previously subject to a common authority and that as living beings, we all possess natural rights that a common authority cannot take away. Locke also believes that we consent to let an authority taking some of our natural rights away in exchange for freedom, liberty, and property as mentioned previously; this is known as the social contract. This can be corroborated to chapter VIII, section 95 of Second Treatise of Government with Locke writing, “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent ”. Locke implies that as humans, we consent to be governed by authority and that we can take this consent away immediately if the governing authority does not fulfill its half of a ‘contract’, and that we have the natural right to rebel if that happens. This claim is important because it lays the foundations down for modern liberalism and modern liberal thinking. However, this claim is not compelling because we cannot just rebel and overthrow our governing authority if we do not agree with their actions or if we think they are not fulfilling their side of the ‘contract’, especially in modern times, despite Locke saying that it is our moral obligation to rebel if the governing authority doesn’t fulfill their side of the contract. However, Locke’s theory about government consent did influence and shape modern western society's development, but not to the extent to where we could take our consent away; if we did rebel against a governing authority we would be silenced by police, and we would be punished. In addition, this is not compelling because consent is subjective and there are different types of consent; tacit and express. One person might consent to a certain governing authority, but that does not mean that everyone consents to the same governing authority. This, therefore, implies that consent to a government is a somewhat ambiguous concept and subjective to each individual person, thus also making consent to government impossible. One person might withdraw their consent from a certain governing authority but that does not mean that a governing authority will be removed from power. Furthermore, we are born into a society with the government so do not even get the opportunity to consent to the governing authority which is something that Locke does not address within his work, therefore contradicting his original point of consent to governing authority.

As mentioned previously, Locke splits consent into two different forms, tacit and express. In chapter VIII of Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes, “there is a common distinction of an express and a tacit consent”. Locke implies that by walking along a road of a country or state, we tacitly consent to the government and therefore adhere to their rules and regulations. This is not compelling because as members of society, we may consent to using the roads or to obeying the rules of the governing authority, but we may not consent to the governing authority in power; this is a grey area in Locke’s work because it might make sense for one man to consent to a governing authority if it benefits them, but may not make sense for another. Locke also writes in chapter VIII of Second Treatise of Government, “the difficulty is, what ought to be looked on as tacit consent, and how far it binds”. This is compelling because there is nothing to say how far our tacit consent to a governing authority reaches. However, Locke does not provide any support for his claims as to how far tacit consent binds us to government, but he does, however, recognize that there is nothing to suggest how far tacit consent binds us to a government; Locke’s concept of tacit consent is too broad.

According to Locke, as mentioned briefly previously within this essay, “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent.” Locke implies that we are all free to do as we please, even under a governing authority. This is not compelling because our freedom is not consistent with the law as Locke believes, in reality, we are not free to do what we want under the law; if I decided I wanted to build a house in a field without first consulting a governing authority, I would be punished because the government controls what I can and cannot do. Under a governing authority, we are somewhat free depending on which country or state that we are born into, but only to an extent. We are free in terms of being able to travel where we want to, but we are not free to take away our consent from a government if they are not fulfilling their purpose of protection of freedom, property, and life. Locke does not provide a lot of support for his claims throughout the Second Treatise of Government, and thus a lot of his arguments are deeply radical and contradictory to one another, especially when consent comes into play.

According to Locke, “the natural liberty of a man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not be under the will or legislative authority of another man ”, and yet slavery was a massive part of Locke’s life and a massive part of history. This is extremely contradictory of Locke because he was, in fact, involved in an African slave trade company, despite writing in the Second Treatise of Government that no man should be under the power of another man. Throughout chapter IV of Second Treatise of Government, Locke consistently re-enforces the idea that no man should be under the authoritative power of another man, with Locke also writing, “this is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued” , thus implying that slavery is just as bad as war itself. This is highly hypocritical of Locke because of his involvement within an African slave trade company, despite somewhat comparing slavery to war, an obviously bad thing, and despite slavery benefitting him financially, thus further implying that Locke was only against slavery when it suited him. Slavery was also not justified in any of his work, further supporting the claim that Locke is highly contradictory to himself.

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Locke also argues that children cannot be enslaved and that children born of slaves cannot be enslaved. This is problematic because children born into slavery will still be enslaved, regardless of whether Locke believes they cannot be enslaved. This can be corroborated by Locke’s Political Thought, in which Locke claims that slavery “reaches no further than the persons who act unjustly” This is an example of yet another contradiction to Locke’s claims in his work because children are continuously born into slavery and thus enslaved, which can also be corroborated to Locke’s claim that nobody can be enslaved because as mentioned previously, people are still continuously enslaved, with Locke also likely contributing to the enslavement of men, women, and children due to his involvement within an African slave trade company. Locke seemingly regards slavery as only for those who have committed crimes or for people who have acted ‘unjustly’ and yet the people enslaved were mostly innocent and were forced into slavery which Locke likely knew due to his previously mentioned involvement with the slave trade, therefore showing another contradiction within his work.

Throughout his work, Locke also re-enforces the idea that if you work on a property or on the land then it is yours and the government cannot take it away from you. This can be corroborated to Chapter V of Second Treatise of Government, in which Locke writes, “the labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. This can be corroborated to slavery because slaves generally work on farms and on the land, but do not own the land that they work on which is thus another highly contradictory part of Locke’s work because slaves are forced to work by other men on their land but then do not benefit from the land in any way, thus displaying the inconsistencies in Locke’s claims and ideas.

In chapter VII of the Second Treatise of Government, Locke focuses on the foundations of what a family consists of and the foundations of society. In chapter, VII Locke writes, “The first society was between man and wife, which gave the beginnings to that between parents and children” Locke implies that family is a God given institution with a very androcentric view of what a family is, thereby implying that a man is the master of the family and that he has a wife, a servant, and children. This is not compelling because family is a very ambiguous concept and is subjective to individuals. People may refer to their friends as family, or their unmarried partner as their family. A modern family can also include two men or two women instead of a man and a woman, or also not include children, therefore making Locke’s androcentric view with a man at the top and with a wife very inconsistent and not relevant to modern times. Furthermore, a family is more than just a husband-wife and children so Locke’s view of what a family is seems quite trivial. However, the idea of an androcentric family is somewhat compelling because, at the time that Locke was writing, there was no other ‘type’ of families such as a family with two men or two women, homosexuality would not have been taken into account by Locke and was not considered the ‘norm’ as such.

For Locke, the duty of being a parent is to educate your children. Locke views children as very immature, in the same way, he views American Indians. Within the Two Treatises, Locke implies that parents must, “take care of their offspring in the imperfect state of childhood”. This idea is somewhat compelling because children are generally immature until they are educated, and it is the parent’s duty to educate their children as they grow older. Locke implies that without education, children cannot have the potential for reason, which therefore means that children cannot have power if they do not have the ability to reason. However, Locke yet again contradicts himself within his work Some Thoughts on Education in which Locke writes, “children understand the reason as early as they do language”, thus further supporting the argument that Locke is a very contradictory philosophical thinker as he literally states that children can, in fact, reason from a very young age. Locke also fails to support the points he makes throughout his work and frequently states one thing but then also contradicts that same statement later, as shown within Some Thoughts on Education.

Locke’s concept of children being ‘immature’ until educated can be compared to Aristotle’s view within Nicomachean Ethics that children cannot be happy. Within Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that children cannot be happy because they aren’t capable of feeling happiness at such a young age. This can be corroborated to Nicomachean Ethics in which Aristotle writes, “for this cause also, children cannot be happy, for they are not old enough to be capable of noble acts”. This can be compared to Locke’s view that children cannot have the potential for a reason until they are educated by their parents and that children are ‘immature’ in numerous ways. Firstly, within Nicomachean Ethics it is as if Aristotle views children’s emotions as ‘immature, just as Locke views children as being immature, therefore implying that both philosophical thinkers seem to have a very trivial view of children and also both seem to underestimate children and their feelings or capabilities. Locke implies that children cannot reason until they’re older and educated, similarly to Aristotle who implies that children cannot know happiness because they are too young to feel happiness, thus implying that both philosophical thinkers are similar in a sense that they believe that children are not capable of numerous things until they get older, which in the case of Locke and Aristotle is reason and happiness.

In conclusion, throughout his work John Locke is arguably the most contradictory philosophical thinker to date. Locke continuously contradicts himself, especially within the Second Treatise of Government. As mentioned within the body of this essay, Locke contradicts himself when it comes to slavery, arguing that no man can be under the authority of another man, and yet, despite this was involved in an African slave trade company that enslaved people; Locke seemingly only argues that slavery is an awful thing when it suits him and when it does not benefit him. Throughout his work, Locke continuously fails to support his claims and ideas, along with his work being littered with hypocrisy. However, Locke’s androcentric view of the family can be somewhat excused because, at the time, there was no other form of family and family was strictly between a man and a woman with the man or husband having power and authority over the rest of the family. Locke’s claims of men being free and equal to do as they wish under a government are also inconsistent and not very compelling because in reality, we are not free under a governing authority and we did not even get to choose whether we consented to be governed because most people were born under a governing authority, even at the time Locke was writing, another point in which Locke fails to support. However, Locke’s concept of consenting to a government or governing authority did lay the foundations for modern-day liberalism, therefore making Locke, arguably the ‘father of liberalism. Overall, Locke continuously fails to support his ideas and claims throughout many of his works and is definitively one of the most contradictory, radical, and hypocritical contemporary philosophical thinkers of the seventeenth century.

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