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The "Figure" of God and the Limits to Liberalism: A Rereading of Locke's Essay and Two Treatises

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 83-100 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0003

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.1 (1999) 83-100

I. A current interpretative issue in reading John Locke's texts is the relationship between Locke's theology and political philosophy. Reacting against the secular interpretations of C. B. Macpherson and Leo Strauss, John Dunn argued that Locke's theology was axiomatic for the political philosophy of the Two Treatises of Government in that Locke's liberalism was based on a religious individualism. Dunn thus decisively reoriented Lockean scholarship away from seeing Locke as an apologist for a new capitalist economic order, and James Tully and Richard Ashcraft have since substantiated the view that theological presuppositions were foundational for Locke's political writings but they emphasized the radical nature of Locke's political position. This view has in turn been challenged by more recent contextual studies of the development of Locke's thought. John Marshall has argued that the political argument in the Two Treatises of Government is not dependent on religious individualism in that Locke's natural theology was itself driven by epistemological investigations, and that it was this epistemological impetus which inclined the Christian Locke towards the Socinian tendencies of his later years. Ian Harris accepts that theological explanation was central to Locke's writings in ethics and government, but he also emphasizes the reverse process of determination where Locke's theology, particularly with respect to revealed religion, is in turn reliant upon Locke's broader thinking. Harris argues therefore that there is a continuity of substantive thought such that theological concerns mesh into, rather than exclusively determine, the broader pattern of Locke's political and moral ideas. Recent studies thus share a considerable common ground in their recognition of the importance of the relationship between Locke's theology and political philosophy, but disagreements remain over the precise nature of this relationship and its implications for Locke's writings.

This paper will address the question of the relationship between Locke's theology and political philosophy by examining the figurative expressions by means of which God is represented in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. The paper will argue that the ways in which this metaphorical "figure" of God is inscribed in Locke's epistemology and political philosophy suggest a different approach to reading the intricate relationship between God and mankind, and that this casts doubt on the widely-received understanding of Locke's contribution to classic liberal arguments within political philosophy. It will be argued further that the different formulations of the figure of God in these two texts result in problematizing the historiographic notions of theoretical determination and historicized authorial intent which have so far largely informed the interpretative debate in this area.

II. In the Essay it is argued that mankind has no knowledge of real essences, even of such a simple thing as a pebble or a fly, and certainly cannot know the real essence of God which is immeasurably more inaccessible. Descriptions of God in the Essay are not, therefore, literal statements of God's characteristics but necessarily inadequate attempts to conceptualize him from within the linguistic and mental constraints of the finite world of men. Two possibilities are available to mankind in its attempt to mediate this fundamental state of ignorance. One is to try to form a complex idea made up of the simple ideas received from sensation or reflection upon itself and then to magnify this to an infinite degree:

And even the most advanced Notion we have of God, is but attributing the same simple Ideas which we have got from Reflection on what we find in our selves, and which we conceive to have more Perfection in them, than would be in their absence, attributing, I say, those simple Ideas to him in an unlimited degree.

God's postulated qualities are thus valued human qualities writ infinitely large, even though elsewhere the anthropomorphism of the "ignorant and uninstructed" is rejected:

[H]aving from what we experiment in our selves, got the Ideas of Existence and Duration; of Knowledge and Power; of Pleasure and Happiness; and of several other Qualities and Powers, which it is better to have, than to be without; when we...

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