Addendum: Locke & Natural Law
Some questions have been raised in the discussion on my posts on Locke & Catholic political thought about the extent to which Locke’s political theory conforms to or detracts from natural law. This follow-up post, which will be relatively brief, should serve to answer such questions at least in part.
First, I want to note that I am not alone in my observations regarding the differences between the states of nature of Locke and Hobbes. Peter Laslett notes in his Introduction to the Cambridge edition of Locke’s treatises that Locke’s understanding of reason is squarely in the Christian tradition. I already pointed out how both Locke and Leo place human reason into their arguments for private property, so I won’t restate it here. Here is Laslett:
This language [of reason] is traditional and the distinction between man and beasts based on the presence or absence of the quality of reason goes back beyond Christianity to the Stoics and Aristotle, but it was of peculiar significance to Locke’s generation… and Locke makes full and peculiar use of it in his account of state and society. (95)
Lastlett later goes on to state: “Locke’s state of nature, with its immanent sociability and its acceptance of man’s dependence on his fellows, does in a sense incorporate the Aristotelian attitude.” (100)
It was said in some of the comments that there is, for Locke, no intrinsic good in the state of nature – as it is with Hobbes. But this is simply not the case. The “immanent sociability” in Locke’s state of nature is nowhere at all to be found in that of Hobbes. And this sociability, whether directly implanted by God into man, or arrived at through reason which God creates man with it, in any case appears to be an intrinsic good.
It was also argued that Locke’s theory of property is different than that of St. Thomas Aquinas, supposedly because one is “natural” and “absolute” while the other is “derivative” and “conditional.” This argument is really, in my view, a massive distortion of the real issues involved. We’ve already seen that Leo quotes Aquinas directly in Rerum Novarum when establishing his teaching on property, and we have also seen how Locke’s treatment of property, when his position on Christian charity is taken into account, is identical. But to put the question to rest, let’s have a look at the Summa Theologica on the topic of private property.
The second part of the second book, question 66, is where St. Thomas takes up the question of private property. Fairly early on, he states that Aristotle (aka “the philosopher”) proved, citing the Politics, “that the possession of external things is natural to man.” Does this mean that private property is therefore a natural right? Well, St. Thomas goes on to state that private property is “necessary to human life.”
Now, is it plausible that a thing which is necessary to human life would be anything less than a natural right? Only if one introduces the perverse notion that if everyone renounced their private property to the state, the state would then take care of everyone, i.e., that the thing is not really necessary at all. But St. Thomas simply restates Aristotle’s three major objections to “communism” as it would have existed then had such madness been attempted.
Finally, both Locke and Leo base this “natural right” to property on the same grounds of necessity, and I invite readers to re-read the relevant quotations I provided in the posts for confirmation of that. Thus supposed opposition between “derivative” and “natural” rights to property appears chimerical.
One might think that it is found in St. Thomas’ reply to objection 1 in Article 2. For here here writes, “Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law… the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above.”
Well, readers will have to forgive me for positing that there is a sort of inconsistency here, as my last paragraph ought to indicate. Because even if the “community of goods is ascribed to the natural law”, St. Thomas is also arguing that putting an end to this community and instituting private property is, again, necessary to human life.
I will therefore be so bold as to say that Locke’s account of property – and Leo’s, for that matter – is more clear than that of St. Thomas. For both Locke and Leo begin from the premise that God does indeed give the world to man in common originally, but that the necessities of life require that he be able to take a portion as his private possession. Well, this is the exact same argument that St. Thomas makes, with the only difference being that private property, because it follows in the logical sequence of events after the community of goods in the state of nature, is considered “an addition thereto devised by human reason.” Whereas for Locke, and Leo, reason does enter the logical argument for private property, but is not – as far as I can tell – therefore considered a mere addition. It is rather a conclusion that necessarily follows from the premise, that private property is necessary to human life. And this is why it is included in the natural law itself, and not considered an addition.
Honestly, I don’t think this difference amounts to a hill of beans. I think one can reasonably include or exclude private property rights from natural law, depending on how one approaches the issue, but one can’t deny their necessity and stay in concord with any of these men. I’m of the mind that this necessity should render private property a part the natural law argument, but I can also understand why St. Thomas would consider it an addition.
In any case, I think Aquinas, Locke, and Leo were all operating with the same self-evident premises and conclusions. And they all agree on how private property ought to be used with respect to the poor and needy, as readers can see in Part II of my series. All this really shows is the lengths to which some people will go to justify regulatory and confiscatory regimes. No one can go to St. Thomas for that, since his discourse on theft and need is essentially no different than Locke’s. From Article 7 of the same part:
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.
And when the need is great, “then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly.”
Nothing there about the state. And if Aristotle is the man to look to for conclusions about what works and what doesn’t, well, consider this:
Where there are revenues the demagogues should not be allowed after their manner to distribute the surplus; the poor are always receiving and always wanting more and more, for such help is like water poured into a leaky cask. Yet the true friend of the people should see that they be not too poor… the proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor, if possible, in such quantities as may enable them to purchase a little farm, or, at any rate, make a beginning in trade or husbandry. (Book 6)
So to square it off, I think Aristotle, St. Thomas, Locke, and Leo would all be on board with Distributism. So would Jefferson. But that’s for another time.