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Lecture 1a: Locke

January 28, 2014

Nowadays, we live in a society where religion is absent to a great extent from public life, there is an emphasis on our life here on earth, and we think of ourselves as unique, distinct individuals, each as special as a snowflake. Yet it was not always this way. A medieval peasant was unlikely to think in terms of YOLO or hold that, if you put your mind to it, you can become anything you like, do whatever you want. So, how did we get to this point? How did we move from a framework in which each person is a cog in the machine of the greater whole to one in which each individual snowflake has something unique to offer to humanity? It is light of this question that we will find our bearings for this investigation. In examining life changes in the public status of religion, the relation between society, community and individual, and how we think of the individual itself, I hope to show (by drawing significantly on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self) how developments in the late 17th century and their ongoing evolution in the 18th and 19th centuries paved the way for how we think of ourselves today.

But, first, a brief word on methodology. How do we do work in the history of ideas? There seem to be two possible approaches: from the side of history or the side of ideas. For, as we are telling a story, there has to be some internal logic between the parts in the sense that this first thing caused this later thing. Accordingly, one question that arises is whether historical events cause ideas or ideas cause historical events. In other words, are individuals led to formulate certain ideas because of what happens to them in the world or do they influence the course of events in appealing to their ideas? Which is to be preferred? Like the problem of the chicken and the egg and most either/or solutions, it does not seem to be clearly one nor the other, insofar as it is equally necessary to ask “in what way have Ideas shaped History at a given time?” as it is to ask “in what way has History shaped Ideas at a given time?”. Again, we are not here confronted with an absolute either/or, but rather a mutually causing and reinforcing cycle.

In order to understand how we arrived at the point where we are today and where Locke is to be situated in this story, it is first necessary to fill in the details concerning the background from which Locke was trying to distance himself. We have captured in four basic propositions the themes dominant in most forms of the classical Platonic and Augustinian tradition.

1.) Theological determinism: There is a cosmic order, predetermined by god(s) once and for all, in which every being or thing has its role. Beings are naturally inclined to pursue the good of the whole.

2.) Affirmation of hierarchy: Since every being has its role in the world and some beings have more important or holier roles than others, some lives and people are more valuable than others.

3.) Symbolism: If god(s) created the cosmic order, then every being or thing in the world is a sign of the divine will and imbued with the meaning that god(s) gave it.

4.) Contemplation: If the world was created according to an eternal cosmic order, then knowledge and science consist in contemplating and admiring the cosmic order rather than changing it.


Concretely, what do these mean for the person living at this time?

When I mention a cosmic order, I mean to say something like the following: the world has been ordered in a harmonious whole and is organized for the good of all. What organizes this whole? For some, it is God, for others the Good itself. In either case, there is little need to question the order of the whole. If everything has been ordered for the best, we are passive in the sense that we observe the fundamental harmony between our person and the world and we do what we can to maintain that harmony to the exclusion of other goals. Most importantly, our happiness and rationality consist in maintaining this order. We find happiness when looking on this order, and we are reasonable when we recognize this order for what it is. In a way, we might say that things are the way they are because they are.

With this cosmic order comes a further conclusion for the lives that we lead: everyone has his or her place in society and the world in virtue of the place that he or she occupies in this order. Given by God or not, each person is part of a greater whole, with a proper role as befits a cog in a machine. Although political and social authority are subject to some change, in general, authority is considered good as it is presently constituted. Whatever the role that I have in this place and in relation to authority, my job is not to question that role but rather to think on it, contemplate my place in the cosmic order and let knowledge of my being part of something greater fill me with contentment, regardless of whether I am slave or master. Some are meant to be that way, for that is the way of the world, and we should work to accept our place in it rather that push back against our predetermined roles.

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