The authors at InsideCatholic and The Distributist Review have locked horns before, and I fear that they are about to lock horns again. InsideCatholic‘s Joe Hargrave recently published an examination of John Locke’s Treatises on Government which purports to show a meaningful alignment between Locke’s theories on civil society and those promulgated by the Church in accord with centuries of Catholic social teaching. To Mr. Hargrave’s credit, he attempts to limit his argument much more significantly than many, making no attempt “to recast Locke as a crypto-Catholic who aligned perfectly with the Christian natural law tradition.” However, he does propose to find some similarities between the two which, I argue, simply aren’t there, or are there only on the most superficial level.
Mr. Hargrave’s examination is limited almost entirely to Locke’s Treatises on Government and to Leo XIII’s two encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Immortale Dei. There is, of course, a much broader perspective to be taken on both sides of the issue; one slightly broader examination can be seen in the author’s Individualism and the State. However, given that Mr. Hargrave’s article is based on these two sources, I’ll limit myself to these sources also. Mr. Hargrave also ranges more broadly over Locke’s theories than I am prepared to do in this article, which is lengthy by Internet standards as it is. I propose instead to focus on Mr. Hargrave’s contentions regarding the similarity between Pope Leo XIII’s conception of the foundation and end of the state and John Locke’s; it is my contention that these texts make it amply clear that any resemblance does not extend beyond the level of terminology.
Mr. Hargrave begins his analysis of this issue by analogizing Locke’s notion of the “state of nature”—that state in which individual men are limited only by the natural law, with no civil authority above them—and Leo’s account of the formation of civil government. He argues that
[t]he criticism [of the notion of the state of nature] often lies in a misinterpretation of this state of nature as both individualistic and anarchistic, which is rightly said to have never actually existed.
I agree that it is rightly said to have never actually existed (though Locke himself argued that it has, many times; sect. 102 and 103), but is an individualistic and anarchistic state of nature really a misinterpretation? Locke himself said that the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (sect. 4). I suppose it’s not anarchistic in the sense that Locke believed men still subject to the natural law (that is, to his version of the natural law); but there’s certainly no state in the state of nature, and it’s hard to see by what reasoning the state of nature couldn’t be called individualistic. Even the family is a neutered and temporary organization for Locke, for he holds that a child owes to his parents only those resources that are expended in raising him and nothing more (sect. 67), and that immediately upon deciding of his own will to leave the family the child himself enters into the state of nature, subject to and limited by no one. It’s hard to see how “anarchistic” and “individualistic” aren’t the best possible descriptions of this state.
However, Mr. Hargrave doesn’t further elaborate on this, instead telling us to essentially ignore the whole doctrine of the state of nature and instead focus on that doctrine’s “real importance”:
The real importance of positing a state of nature is to set the stage for natural rights: If man exists before the state exists, then the state is the rational creation of man. It exists to provide him with something, rather than man existing to provide something for the state.
These propositions, he argues, are present in both Locke and in the encyclicals of Leo XIII. They are certainly present in Locke; but are they present in the latter? The answer, I argue, is no. Leo XIII spoke about these questions and does sometimes use the same sort of language as Locke did. It’s clear, however, that Locke and Leo certainly aren’t talking about the same thing.
Mr. Hargrave observes that both Locke and Leo hold that individuals and families exist “prior” to the state. This much is true, but it doesn’t mean much by itself. The word “prior” can be taken in a number of ways:
- “Prior” in the order of time; that is, one thing happened before the other.
- “Prior” in the order of knowledge; that is, we can know one thing only after knowing something else. In this sense, the notion of “creation” is prior to that of “Creator,” because we can only deduct the existence of God by reasoning from the things around us.
- “Prior” in the order of being; that is, has an existence upon which later things are contingent in some way. The Creator is “prior” to all creation in this sense, because nothing can exist without Him, even though in sense number 2 creation is prior to Him, because we cannot know Him without creation. (Barring some kind of special revelation, that is.)
In what sense did Locke and Leo mean “prior” when they said that the individual and the family is “prior” to the state? Clearly, Locke believed that the individual was prior to the state in all three senses; just as clearly, Leo believed that the individual was prior to the state only in sense 1 and possibly sense 2 (the latter is unclear and not really relevant to our current discussion). But they clearly and directly disagree on sense 3; Leo would certainly deny that the individual is prior to the state in this way, while Locke would certainly affirm it.
Both Locke and Leo agree that the individual and family are prior to the state in sense 1; that is, they are prior to the state in time. This would be hard to deny no matter what political philosophy one espouses, and it isn’t particularly meaningful. Mr. Hargrave is absolutely correct to say that they both agree on this, and I agree with all three of them. However, this doesn’t ascribe much similarity in political philosophy.
Locke, however, also pretty clearly believed that the individual was prior to the state in the order of being, as well; this conclusion flows from everything he says about the subject. According to Locke, the state is only established by the free choice of individuals, not because their nature compels them to establish it (sect. 95, stating that only man’s own consent takes him out of the state of nature); they do so for their own advantage, and particularly for their own material advantage (sect. 124-127), and if it did not serve their material advantage then individuals certainly wouldn’t choose to establish the state. Indeed, for this reason Locke argued that the power of the state is limited solely to what serves the material best interests of its members (sect. 131). Locke does admit that man is strongly inclined to establish the state (sect. 77), and Mr. Hargrave equates this inclination with Leo’s account of the formation of the state. But Leo’s account clearly contradicts this notion of John Locke.
For Pope Leo, the state is certainly prior to man in the order of being; that is, man’s flourishing (his existing in his perfect state) is contingent upon the state in some way. For Leo, men don’t form the state because they want to protect their property; they form the state because his “natural instinct moves him to live in civil society, for he cannot, if dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties” (Immortale Dei, §3). His living in the state is not simply a free choice he makes to protect his property (and which, at least implicitly, he wouldn’t make if it didn’t protect his property), it’s “divinely ordained” (ID 3). Civil society has its authority not from the consent of the men who make it up, but from God Himself, Who is responsible for the human nature which requires it (ID 3). In other words, the state is prior to man in sense 3; man’s flourishing is contingent on the state, and he cannot reach his end without it.
And this brings us to another alleged similarity: what is the state for? Mr. Hargrave chooses to interpret Rerum Novarum to mean that the state exists to defend individual rights, just as Locke himself held, saying:
It is by the doctrine of natural rights that men preserve both their dignity and security in society, for not only do these rights exist independently of the state, never to be abrogated by it, but the very reason the state exists is to defend them.
But when we turn to Rerum Novarum‘s paragraph 51 to examine Leo’s actual words, where we search in vain for any assertion that the state exists to protect individual rights; or indeed, for any assertion that can even remotely be interpreted in that way. In actuality, we find a very different statement of the end of the state:
Civil society exists for the common good.
Leo then proceeds to state that the right of individuals to form subsidiary corporations cannot be eliminated because the state must protect natural rights. But he does not state here, nor does he ever state, that the purpose of the state’s existence is the protection of rights. He does, on the other hand, state that the purpose of its existence is the common good.
I have addressed elsewhere at some length Lockean ideas of the state and the Catholic answer to them, particularly the notion of the common good, and there is little need to repeat those arguments here. For Locke, the end of the state is simply preserving people’s property (sect. 138); he sometimes uses the term “public good” or even “common good” to describe this, but that is what he means. When Leo XIII says that the end of the state is the common good, however, he means something very different; he means the common happiness, which is far from the same thing.
So while Leo XIII and John Locke occasionally used similar language, even a brief plumbing of the depths reveals profound differences. The similar language is just that: similar language. It does not extend to similar ideas.
In the course of his exposition, however, Mr. Hargrave made another statement that must strike the Catholic striving to comprehend Catholic social teaching as very odd, a statement which reveals a troubling order of priorities in thinking:
[O]ne can read Rerum Novarum – and, to fill in some gaps, Immortale Dei (ID) as well — and find a solid support pillar in the Treatises.
Does Catholic social teaching need a solid support pillar from a Protestant, indeed anti-Catholic, philosopher who rejected a Catholic social order? I say no. Catholic social teaching does not need to be looked at through libertarian-colored glasses to be compelling. On the contrary, it is compelling in its own right, as a centuries-old tradition deeply intertwined with the Catholic faith. Only by considering it in this way can we understand Catholic social teaching as it really is.
Praise be to Christ the King!