Catholic Political Thought & John Locke: Part II
by Joe Hargrave
In the previous part I showed how Locke’s argument for government by consent was similar to, and may have even been influenced by, that of St. Robert Bellarmine. I also showed how some of the more well-known early-modern political theorists who dreamed of powerful authoritarian regimes also dreamed of obliterating the Church as an obstacle to their fruition. Now I will argue that there is a clear overlap between the political theory of John Locke, and that of Pope Leo XIII, the pope who is responsible for Catholic social teaching as we know it today. In the final part of this series I will address why these overlaps are important, and what they mean in our contemporary political situation.
On the State of Nature & The Purpose of Government
Critics of Locke, and other social contract theorists for that matter, often put forward as one of the first arguments that there was never a historical “state of nature”; that is, a time before the existence of states and governments in which men lived as free individuals. Some commentators have pointed out that states of nature are just rhetorical devices used to illustrate what society would look like without the state. It is usually bad enough to justify some sort of government, hence its value in any work seeking to justify the existence of government as such (or in Rousseau’s case, good enough so that the modern state should be remade on some of its principles). On the other hand, it is clear that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, all social contract theorists in spite of their differences, looked to the indigenous peoples of America as illustrations of their points.
I don’t see this dispute as particularly relevant, however. I think it is an evident truism that man does indeed exist prior to the state, and that while authority in general flows from God, any particular state exists by, for and of the men who create them. As we shall see, both Locke and Leo share this premise contra Aristotle, who writes in book I of his Politics:
Locke’s state of nature, in the first place, is much different than that of Hobbes. The Hobbesian state of nature is a never-ceasing war of “each against all”, described in famous terms in ch. 13 of Leviathan. It is a state in which all of the things we think normal and proper to civilization are impossible, and in which “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This state of nature is so bad (and remember, it is more of a device than a historical reality) that men are deterministically compelled to exit it and surrender virtually all of their natural rights, as understood by Hobbes, by way of contract to a sovereign power they artificially create.
The Lockean state of nature, on the other hand, is populated not by violent automatons, but rather men endowed with both reason and dignity by God. In sec.15 of the ST, Locke writes:
[B]ut forasmuch as we are not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of things, needful for such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of man; therefore to supply those defects and imperfections which are in us, as living single and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others: this was the cause of men’s uniting themselves at first in politic societies.
Locke adds, and this is what appears to have become a source of contention:
But I moreover affirm, that all men are naturally in that state, and remain so, till by their own consents they make themselves members of some politic society…
There is a very interesting commentary on Locke that I think surmises my own view as well, namely that Locke took it for granted that men always would exit the state of nature and enter into “communion and fellowship” with others. This is from Peter Laslett’s Introduction to the Cambridge edition of the ST:
As early as 1798 Bishop Elrington reproached [Locke] for not declaring that man had a duty to set up the state and leave the condition of mere nature. But… this appears, perhaps, as the greatest of all misapprehensions about him. Natural political virtue can only work if we obey the tendency within all of us, for it is a tendency, not a full description of ourselves. Trust is a matter of conscience… which operates because of the sense of duty which Locke dogmatically, unthinkingly assumes in every man he contemplates. (121)
In other words, Locke did not assume that man would want to stay in a state of nature, which while not as violent as Hobbes’, is nonetheless full of inconveniences that rational men would want to avoid. Locke’s natural man is not deterministically compelled as a man running from a tiger in the jungle, but he is moved, we might say inevitably, by a reasonable contemplation of his circumstances to leave the natural condition and establish the political community. Now is not the time, because it simply isn’t relevant (as will become more clear in part III of this series), to address whatever contradictions may exist in Locke’s overall corpus with regard to free will, reason, etc. and to what extent these other writings may have been closer to Hobbes’.
Now I turn to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (RN), which has as its goal in the opening sections to defend the natural right to private property (which I will cover in more detail below). In defending the right to private property, Leo practically reverse-engineers Locke’s arguments about the state of nature. First, I will note Leo’s on man’s existence prior to the state:
Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body. (7)
Having established that man, in a general sense, precedes the state, Leo is even more specific later in the encyclical about the implications of this truth:
[T]he family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. (13)
That the state is instituted to secure the conditions needed for individuals and families to thrive, and not vice-versa (the perverse notion that we exist to serve the state), is further established right after:
If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire. (13)
Finally, in another encyclical, Immortale Dei, Leo explains why, in more specific terms, and in terms nearly identical to those of Locke as quoted above, why individuals or families would want to, or even need to, exit the state of nature and form political communities:
Man’s 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. Hence, it is divinely ordained that he should lead his life-be it family, or civil-with his fellow men, amongst whom alone his several wants can be adequately supplied. (3)
So I think what we have here is a clear argument: men, and specifically families exist prior to the state; they have rights that exist prior to the state, derived from natural and divine law. They establish political communities to secure these rights: “the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them”, Leo writes in RN. (51) We also find this idea in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, itself considered a derivation of Locke’s ST.
To those who might make a fuss about the difference between individuals and families, with Locke focusing on the former and Leo on the latter, it should be noted that Locke recognizes parental authority and has an entire chapter of the ST devoted to it. He argues, reasonably and not contrary to Catholic teaching as far as I can see, that this authority is temporary, and when a person reaches adulthood they are freed from it. I think it is quite possible and quite reasonable to interchange Locke’s “man” with Leo’s “family”, since all would agree that men and women are as naturally inclined to form bonds and raise children as they are to enter into political communities. Leo even states that “the rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations.” (12) So the rights of individuals and families are inextricably bound up with one another.
For the quibblers, I could quote the Gospels:
Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. (Matt. 19:4-6)
What it is that men establish a political community to secure and protect? At the most basic level, and this is not exclude other functions that the state might legitimately carry out, it is property, or life, liberty and estate (though for our purposes, given the modern usage of the words, property will generally signify “estate”).
On Private Property
Locke’s theory of private property is what is now known as a labor theory of property, though it is quite distinct from the theory Marx would later develop, as Marx himself acknowledges in Theories of Surplus-Value.
To begin with, in chapter on property in the ST, sec. 26, Locke posits that God “hath given the world to men in common”, and because man is also endowed with reason, it follows that “the earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” Naturally, though, there is a problem, for if “no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind” to the fruits of the Earth, how is it that any one individual can lay claim to any particular portion of them?
The answer is as follows:
[E]very man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. (Sec. 27)
In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII presents a theory of private property that is identical to Locke’s. Because I want to follow Locke’s line of argumentation, it is necessary to reorder Leo’s presentation a bit, but this is only for convenience; all of the premises and conclusions of Locke are present. For instance, Leo too acknowledges that “God has granted the earth to mankind in general.” (8) He also holds that man is endowed with reason by God, and that this is particularly relevant to his right to property: “And on this very account – that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason – it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession.” (6)
Leo is confronted with the same “problem” as Locke – how to create private property out of God’s common gift – and responds to it in exactly the same way:
The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races…
Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates – that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. (8-9)
To briefly surmise, from the following we see that both Locke and Leo hold that:
a) God creates and grants the fruits of the Earth for all men in common.
b) God endows men with reason, which separates him from all of the animals.
c) It follows that God intended for men to make use of the fruits of the Earth for his needs and enjoyments.
d) It follows that there must be a way for men to remove from nature, from the common possession of humanity, a private and exclusive portion of his own.
e) This way is labor. Thus Locke and Leo share the same labor theory of property. (See my footnote for further information)
Delving deeper into both texts, we would also find that apart from the natural right to property, Locke and Leo are in concord over the practical, or perhaps utilitarian benefits of private property. When men cultivate the Earth, it is generally to the benefit of other men as well. Labor takes what would otherwise be useless and makes it useful. In sec. 40 Locke writes: “I think it will be but a very modest computation to say, that of the products of the earth useful to the life of man nine tenths are the effects of labour.” And Leo writes in paragraph 9: “Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life’s well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill.” On and on I might go, but for want of space and your generous attention, I will stop here.
Moral Obligations With Respect to Property
So far, readers may be with me on the undeniable similarities between Locke and Leo on the origins of political societies and of private property. But surely, some may be thinking, Locke and Leo differed with respect to how private property ought to be used? Some have argued that Locke, for instance, justified the unlimited and selfish acquisition of wealth when he introduces the invention of money into his historical/logical narrative. For originally, Locke holds that a person can only take from the natural state so much as would a) leave enough for other men, and b) would not go to waste or spoil in his possession. Locke later argues around this by introducing money, which can be justly acquired without limitation because it does not spoil. From this some (such as C.B. Macpherson) have deduced that Locke was a sort of “proto-capitalist” who was seeking to justify massive disparities in wealth.
My first response to objections of this sort is that not even Pope Leo appears to place any limitations upon how much property a person can acquire in RN. It is, as we saw, fixed only by “man’s own industry” and the particular laws and customs of various nations. What he does do, however, is set down rules on how the property one justly acquires is to be used. As I think will become clear, the quantity is really irrelevant, for someone with a great deal of property can either use it for good, or for evil; they can use it for some social good, or they can horde it and waste it on themselves. First I’m going to look at how Leo outlines the responsibilities that come with property, and then compare to Locke, who says nothing about it in the ST but does in his First Treatise (FT).
Leo quotes Thomas Aquinas in paragraph 22 of RN on the use of private property:
“It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.” But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.
I want to be clear that I share this conception of private property myself. Without hesitation, having cultivated a healthy spiritual detachment from the material goods of the world, we ought to be ready and willing to share with those who are in need. The burning question is, should this moral duty be enforced by the State? And on this question, Leo is quite clear:
But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.
I don’t see how this can be much more clear. It is absolutely illegitimate for the state to force people to be charitable with their property, save in extreme cases, and naturally we will have disputes on just how many scenarios fall within that description. Keep in mind the bold text when come to Locke below.
It should also be readily conceded that Leo takes the justice of taxes as a given, though he is clear to establish that taxes must be reasonable:
The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. (47)
At this point I will add that anyone who believes in the legitimacy of even a minimal state has to assent to the necessity and justice of some level of taxation.
What about Locke? Here I wish to turn, in the first place, to commentator Jeremy Waldron, who notes that the utter absence of Locke’s reference to charity in the ST, while finding such a reference in the FT, “is the strongest evidence for the independence of the two Treatises.” (God, Locke & Equality, 183). Waldron and others note that the two Treatises were “written at different times and for somewhat different purposes.” This accounts, I think, for the absence of charity in the ST. In the FT, Locke’s discussion of charity again is surprisingly similar to what we saw from Leo/Aquinas above, which suggests to me that there is contradiction in neither. Waldron also concludes, by the way, and for similar reasons, that it is justifiable to combine the following account of charity with the ST’s account of property.
In the FT, Locke is refuting the notion of absolute monarchy held by his opponent, Robert Filmer. In sec. 41, he his specifically refuting the notion of “Adam’s monarchy”, and putting aside much that is unnecessary, the basic idea that the absolute monarch would have possession of all property on the Earth. He argues,
The most specious thing to be said, is, that he is proprietor of the whole world, may deny the rest of mankind food, and so at his pleasure starve them, if the will not acknowledge his sovereignty and obey his will. If this were true, it would be a good argument to prove that there never was any such property, that God never gave any such private dominion; since it is more reasonable to think, that God who bid mankind to increase and multiply, should rather himself give them all a right [to private property]… than to make them depend on the will of a man for their sustenance…
Again we see Locke arguing for the necessity of and the right to private property. But his focus is different, as we shall see. From sec. 42:
But we know that God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot be justly denied him, when his pressing wants call for it…
As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise; and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford the wants of his brother… (italics in the original)
Is this not the same argument? Down to the very same concepts, the distinction between justice which entitles a man to property and charity which obliges him to use it in a certain way, there is a total convergence of thought between Leo and Locke, and we might add Aquinas whom the former quoted. There is no contradiction here at all. They even agree that extreme cases actually would become matters of justice. Thus I must conclude that though the two Treatises may have been written at different times, and for “somewhat” different purposes, taken as a whole they present a theory of property that is no different in its essentials than the one found in Rerum Novarum.
In part III, I will explain why I find these similarities and overlaps are important today.
Historical footnote: I wasn’t going to include this originally, in order to keep the post as short as possible, and also because I thought it was evident from an honest comparison of the texts. However, since challenges have been raised, and some have argued that there is no Locke at all in Rerum Novarum, I’m going to further substantiate my argument with some historical evidence. In a paper for the Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2005, Manfred Spieker, a professor of Christian Social Thought in Germany, claims that Locke had a direct influence on RN. He writes,
The classical thinker who founds the individual right to property on human work is John Locke (1632-1704). In his Second Treatise of Government, 1689, he writes that the earth and all lower beings belong to all men in common, but “each man has property of his own person.” Therefore, “the work of his body and the work of his hands are also, properly speaking, his.” Therefore, whatever man wrests from the state of nature and mixes with his work, “is consequently made his property.” (5) Although John Locke is neither a church father nor a church teacher, his justification of private property played a major role in the nineteenth century, in which the Christian theory of society arose.
Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877) in 1848–two years before his appointment as Bishop of Mainz, in his famous Advent sermon in the Cathedral of Mainz, in which he set off the Catholic theory of property from liberalism, on the one hand, and communism, on the other–still followed Thomas Aquinas entirely. (6) Luigi Taparelli, Matteo Liberatore, and Tommaso Zigliara, who prepared the social encyclical Rerum Novarum for Pope Leo XIII, also relied on John Locke’s property theory. Two aspects exert substantial influence on this first and ground-breaking encyclical: Locke’s individualism and work as the criterion for legitimacy of the right to private property.
Spieker goes on to note that by the 1970′s the Lockean elements of RN came under criticism for various reasons. But if what he argues is true, then there are absolutely no grounds to reject the presence of Locke in RN, no matter what one thinks of it, for better or for worse. The entire article can be read here: