Was Leo Strauss wrong about John Locke? Surely that he was has been the consensus among historians of political thought, though their reasons are sometimes at variance. The Cambridge school, influenced by the work of John Dunn, interprets Locke's work in the light of the Calvinism in his family background.1 Though attacked by spokesmen for the Church of England, Locke quickly gained admirers among dissenting clergy, for his psychology, his politics, and of course his program for religious toleration, and the proponents of the Calvinist interpretation explain why: His discourse closely tracks the theological language of his Calvinist contemporaries. Richard Ashcraft, meanwhile, seeks to restore Locke's reputation as a revolutionary by tracking his role in English politics under the Restoration, albeit at the price of reducing the Two Treatises to a tract for the moment.2 James Tully would likewise save him from the charge of being a capitalist apologist, insisting Locke merely offered a defense of Whig landholding, with the responsibilities as well as the privileges embedded in the English law of estate.3 All these interpretations dismiss or disregard Strauss's account of Locke as an atheist in the mold of Hobbes and Spinoza who succeeded by his mastery of the art of esoteric writing in concealing his unbelief; as the most successful, because most prudent, proponent of the modern doctrine of natural rights, which revolutionized politics around the world; and as the theorist who prepared the way for modern capitalism by his vigorous defense of unlimited acquisition.4
More surprising, though, is the critique of Strauss's interpretation of Locke among his students or his students' students. Sometimes this is only implicit, as in the work of Thomas Pangle or Harry Jaffa,5 where in different ways Locke is celebrated for his role as America's founding philosopher and the harsh words Strauss saves for him are quietly ignored. In the work of Michael Zuckert, however, the critique is made more explicit, and is more especially noteworthy since Zuckert first undertakes to defend Strauss's esoteric reading of Locke against his critics, especially those of the Cambridge school, and does so with devastating precision, wit, and understanding.6 Indeed, Zuckert adopts Strauss's esoteric reading of Locke in relation to religious questions, but he rejects the close relation drawn by Strauss between Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Not Hobbes, as Strauss argued, but Locke is the true founder of liberalism, on Zuckert's telling, and liberalism, far from entailing the "joyless quest for joy," is the central idea behind the civil peace, democratic politics, personal liberty, and unprecedented prosperity of the modern world. To Zuckert, Strauss was wrong about some points in his interpretation of the texts, but he was more especially wrong in his evaluation of Locke's achievement. While Strauss's proof of Locke's essential modernism reads like an indictment, modernity's newly found or recovered success is for Zuckert cause to recognize Locke's greatness.
As these first remarks suggest, at issue in the interpretation of Locke is the understanding of America. Whatever their intention in writing, the historian interpreters of Locke offer an account of him that squares with a traditional or civic republican account of the American Revolution: His tolerant Protestantism captures the religious feeling of the movement, his radical devotion to popular sovereignty coincides with the Americans' opposition to the English political as well as religious establishment, and his defense of traditional property endears him to those Revolutionary leaders whose estates, preserved as national shrines, became a sort of agrarian ideal. Strauss, by contrast, in attributing to Locke a central role in the progress of a modernity that he thought is in crisis, alerts Americans to the dangers of accepting Locke as "our philosopher," without himself taking a position on the extent of Locke's influence on the American Founding. Zuckert makes Locke's influence on the Founding a central theme in his studies, finding that influence at the time to be no more than that of a single metal in the "amalgam" of Revolutionary America, but he sees in Locke America's future: Those like the theologian Elisha Williams and the legal commentator William Blackstone who synthesized Locke's philosophy with other elements of the amalgam, respectively Protestant Christianity and common law, built "a bridge that allowed eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans to cross over into modernity."7 At issue, then, in the question of Strauss's reading of Locke is the question of how to assess modernity and how to interpret the American regime: How Lockean are we, and is it a cause for celebration or concern? In the brief remarks that follow, accepting as definitive Zuckert's dispatch of Strauss's Cambridge critics, I will turn my attention to Zuckert's own critique.
Zuchert's Strauss and Locke
To grasp with clarity Zuckert's interpretive dispute with Strauss, let him speak for himself:
I agree with Strauss on Locke's manner of writing, but not on his identification of Locke as, in fundamental ways, a Hobbesian. I believe Strauss's thesis on Locke is the indispensable point of departure for understanding him, for Locke did indeed go through a "Hobbesian moment" in his own development,... but...Locke assimilates, rejects, and moves beyond the Hobbesian.... [I]t is this moving beyond Hobbes that allows Locke to "launch liberalism."8
Zuckert notes that Strauss, of course, acknowledges some ways in which Locke moves beyond Hobbes, besides presenting Hobbes's teaching in a skillful and prudent way: In the name of Hobbesian self-preservation, Locke develops protections for the individual against government as well as against other individuals, and Locke elevates the need for plenty and so the right of property both as a corollary to self-preservation and as a way of insuring peace.9 But for Zuckert this is not enough: Strauss "does not bring out the most significant way in which Locke breaks with Hobbes the modification of the doctrine of natural right that he effects."10 Precisely because the dispute concerns the definition of natural right, Zuckert can deny Strauss's identification of Hobbes as the founder of liberalism, for Strauss had premised that designation on defining liberalism as "that political doctrine which regards as the fundamental political fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights."11
Now Zuckert outlines at the outset of his book a number of differences between Hobbes and Locke, the first of which he recognizes as most fundamental: For Hobbes, natural right is not law but liberty, a "right of every man to everything, even to one another's body," while for Locke, natural rights are "property," and that way of characterizing natural rights entails an obligation in others to respect those rights. Later in the work Zuckert calls this "the most interesting and also the most elusive point in all of Locke's political philosophy": "The foundation or ground of rights is, according to Locke, self-ownership," and "the prerequisite for the discovery of self-ownership, for Locke, is the discovery of the self."12 Self-ownership is clearly asserted in Locke's Second Treatise, in the chapter on property and as its premise, the clarity being compromised only by Locke's assertion several chapters earlier that men "are his Property, whose Workmanship they are," namely God's, an assertion now quietly abandoned.13 What Zuckert finds elusive but, with attention to Locke's famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, reconstructs, is Locke's definition of the self. Writes Zuckert, interpreting Locke:
"Human beings uniquely find their identity in self-consciousness, that is, the consciousness of self, of the 'I' persisting over time, which stands as the basis for the unity of experience, intention, and action of the person.... The 'I' is not, Locke argues, anything given in nature. It is made by the self in the course of its operations of sensation and reflection.... The self is the mysterious compound of the 'I' and the 'me,' the abstract and empty ego and the contents of consciousness understood as mine, and thus as me. Moreover, Locke argued, if the human person were not a body with pleasures and pains, the self would never come into existence.... The self appropriates the body and makes it its own, that is to say, makes it the instrument of its intentional actions in relation to its broader purposes in life....14
Accepting this as Locke's account of the human person, "the self in its very nature is posited as self-owning." And it seems obvious to Zuckert that so proto-Hegelian a Lockean self is a long way from the mechanistic, deterministic, materialist world of Thomas Hobbes.
Zuckert shows the characteristic differences between Hobbes and Locke as deriving from the fundamental difference concerning natural right as "blameless liberty" on the one side and self-ownership on the other. Hobbes cannot distinguish conceptually between the state of nature and the state of war, while Locke defines the first "want of a common judge with authority," and the second as "force without right, upon a man's person."15 Hobbes derives the state of nature as "an inference from the passions," while for Locke the inference is, says Zuckert, from natural rights. Hobbes denied the right of revolution, while "Locke thus becomes the most clear-cut philosopher of revolution yet to appear in Western thought."16 Where Hobbes insisted on absolute sovereignty, Locke "laid down the outlines of modern constitutional structures," namely the separation of powers, a representative legislature, and the rule of law. Where Hobbes allowed his sovereign to lay down the law of religious faith in his state, Locke famously proposed religious toleration. Where Hobbes insists on social integration through common fear of a common sovereign, Locke proposes the right of property and the unleashing of human labor power. Where "Hobbes builds his analysis of human being on a broad analysis of nature," with human motion as a special case of matter in motion, Locke reverts to a sort of Aristotelian concern with the goal of happiness, albeit happiness defined negatively as the removal of uneasiness. In sum, "Locke leaves us with an analysis of human being as free, responsible, and rational, where Hobbes more or less denies all three."17
Now Zuckert knows that in assimilating Locke to Hobbes, Strauss hardly meant to deny all differences between them; indeed, as we already saw, Strauss acknowledged Locke's constitutionalism and his economism as his distinctive contributions to liberal theory, insisting only that these ought to be understood as improvements Locke made to Hobbesian theory on Hobbesian principles. Zuckert, of course, will not allow this last point: He insists the revisions are owed to fundamentally different principles, not fundamentally similar ones. While this in the end is a philosophical question, as Zuckert follows Strauss in holding all interpretive questions to be, I would trust that Zuckert would allow me the historical task of sorting out how Strauss understood Locke, at least as a preparation for judging who has the better understanding. Not surprisingly, this is not a simple task.
Strauss's Hobbes and Locke
As I have noted already, and as Zuckert clearly acknowledges, what makes Strauss's account of Locke distinctive, not to say shocking to his contemporaries, was his assimilation of Locke's political philosophy to the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Certainly on the surface this claim is surprising, and to Strauss the surface matters; to take only a single measure, the American Founders generally considered Locke among their authorities, while it would be hard to find among them favorable mention of such a defender of absolute monarchy and belittler of Christian faith as Hobbes. Still, part of the shock subsides when one realizes that, before publishing his essays on Locke and then in tandem with them, Strauss published important studies of the political philosophy of Hobbes. Not the least important feature of these studies was an attempt to revive Hobbes's reputation as a serious political philosopher, his reputation as an atheist being no longer a matter of scholarly concern. If it was scandal to associate Locke with Hobbes's "justly decried name" (the phrase is Locke's, though repeatedly and gleefully used by Strauss), Strauss had done his best to make Hobbes respectable not "again" but really for the first time.
Strauss published his book on Hobbes The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis in English in 1936, fulfilling a plan to get to the origins of liberalism that he had announced to the world a few years earlier in his review of Carl Schmitt's essay, "The Concept of the Political." This is before Strauss's discovery of esoteric writing and so might be thought at first to be, strictly speaking, an immature or "pre-Straussian" work, but Strauss himself testifies otherwise in a preface he wrote for the American edition, published in 1952. There he confesses to one "easily corrected" mistake: "Hobbes appeared to me as the originator of modern political philosophy. This was an error: not Hobbes, but Machiavelli, deserves this honor."18 But Strauss insists that the "characteristic premises" of his original study of Hobbes remain sound: that the modern mind was in crisis and so "the case of the moderns against the ancients must be reopened," that "political philosophy as quest for the final truth regarding the political fundamentals is possible and necessary," that a history of political philosophy was needed to "understand the great thinkers of the past as they understood themselves," dividing them into adequate periods "correspond[ing] to the self-consciousness of the actors, i.e., of the great political philosophers." Machiavelli still somewhat obscured his claim to novelty by pretending to return to ancient Rome for his teaching on republics; until Strauss discovered the art of esoteric writing, this claim remained invisible to him, but once he found it, he wrote the book on the true founder of modernity he thought he was writing twenty-five years before. Hobbes, however, was not an esoteric writer, and if this led Strauss too quickly to accept his claim to novelty, it meant happily that Strauss's early work on Hobbes was not undercut by a level of meaning hidden from the surface of Hobbes's work.
Now, the critical insight of Strauss's book on Hobbes, repeated in a footnote to a later essay, is that, contrary to the first impression he gives, Hobbes's political philosophy is based on a new "moral attitude"; it is not just an application to politics of the scientific method abroad in the seventeenth-century world. That attitude is "independent of the foundation of modern science" (the later Strauss might even say, the cause of that foundation) and is "specifically modern," indeed "the deepest stratum of the modern mind."19 To Strauss, the key insight of Hobbes's thinking is the moral superiority of fear to pride: Human pride is vanity, to Hobbes, and is the truest and deepest cause of the war of all against all that is implicit in human relations and the chief cause of political misery. By contrast, "fear of violent death [is] the passion which brings men to reason."20 While Hobbes's scientific method serves to give his political philosophy its distinctive clarity and order, science does not supply its moral basis. That basis, evident already in Hobbes's humanistic phase and especially in his preface to and translation of Thucydides, is a judgment concerning the moral justification of fear and the moral pestilence of pride.
In his own abbreviated account of Hobbes, Zuckert either overlooks or refuses to accept Strauss's conclusions on this score. From Strauss's perspective, Hobbes cannot be accused of treating human beings as mere matter in motion; of such matter there is no moral judgment. In his essay in Natural Right and History originally published under the title "On the Spirit of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," Strauss restates his account of Hobbes's scientific method, describing it now as based on an "island" or "continent" discovered by Machiavelli, taking its bearings from human necessity rather than human perfection, and thus allowing for the development of human power or sovereignty on the basis of that natural necessity recognized by human fear. The new moral attitude remains the ground; the new science is the super-structure. Moreover, if a moral judgment is at the basis of Hobbes's thought, then his natural right is a moral concept. Empirically in Hobbes's state of nature, no third party can judge whether the depredations of one man upon another are warranted in the circumstances, but an internal motivation of fear justifies and one of pride or glory condemns; indeed, precisely because of the fathomless ill will of those who would lord it over others, the fearful can be driven to extremes. But if men could read each other's hearts, they could distinguish natural right (self-defense) from natural wrong (conquest for the sake of mere glory); because the sovereign makes visible this distinction, Hobbes calls him "leviathan," whose epithet in the Bible is king of the proud.
In his final essay on Hobbes, Strauss seems even to anticipate what Zuckert considers Locke's innovation but he attributes it not to Locke but to Hobbes! "There could not be natural right in Hobbes's sense," he writes, "if there were not some natural property":
Hobbes recognizes that natural property, those "by nature private things" which even the communist Plato did not deny: the individual's body and his limbs (Laws, 739c7; De Cive, I, 7); and going beyond Plato, Hobbes extends the natural property even to the "inward thought, and belief of men."21
This is why natural right is inalienable for Hobbes, even if resistance is restricted to individuals sought for arrest or already arrested, and it points moreover to the complexity of Hobbes's account of human nature, which seems too simple only because it has been simplified so as to fit the sort of scientific frame that will enable, Hobbes thinks, true moral and political progress. Because Hobbes already thinks men have a property in their person, Locke's development of a theory of the origin of external property in the labor of that person can be said by Strauss to be a development of liberalism on Hobbesian principles. The change from Hobbes to Locke, to repeat, is not a change in the meaning of natural right, according to Strauss, but a development in the understanding of the consequences of Hobbes's own change in the meaning of natural right. In short, though a complete account of the adequacy of Zuckert's interpretation of Locke must turn to Locke and not just Strauss on Locke, Zuckert's critique of Strauss's revolutionary assimilation of Locke to Hobbes must take account of Strauss's revolutionary reading of Hobbes himself.
America and Modernity
Strauss's interpretation of Locke and of Hobbes, of course, does not occur in a vacuum. On the one hand, Strauss presents these modern natural rights thinkers in contrast to the classical tradition of natural right, noting among other things their debt to that tradition "for a single, but momentous, idea: ...that political philosophy or political science is possible or necessary."22
As he writes in the preface quoted above, he wants to reopen the question of the ancients and the moderns, that is, to awaken his contemporaries from their historicist slumber to the possibility that the classical understanding of political things is decisively superior to the modern one. On the other hand, Strauss turns to the early moderns because of what he characterizes in many of his writings as the crisis of modernity, and though he seeks to understand the early moderns as they understood themselves, he seems generally to grant that modern thought has an inner development or history whereby each subsequent author addressed and in a way corrected the shortcomings of those who came before. Put (too) bluntly, Strauss often writes as though Nietzsche or maybe even Heidegger showed the real implications of the break with classical natural right made by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; for him the study of these early moderns, then, is not the search for a viable alternative but the search for a bridge to the recovery of the past not of course as past, but as counsel for the present, as an account of the truth.
Zuckert, too, speaks of a crisis of modernity, even borrowing Strauss's insight about self-confidence:
It has become trite to observe that we live at a moment when liberal democracy, a system clearly descended from Lockean liberalism, is triumphant in the world on a scale perhaps no set of principles has enjoyed heretofore, and yet there is a crisis of sorts in this very liberalism, for we are no longer confident we can justify or even explain the foundations of our "triumphant" system.23
Though there is nuance in this statement and in what follows it, there is also ambiguity: Is the crisis of liberal modernity a failure of self-understanding in a system that itself is fundamentally sound, or is the failure of self-understanding indicative of deep unsoundness? If the former, then a return to Locke is practically advisable, even if theoretically difficult, and Zuckert is to be applauded for rehabilitating Locke as "star and compass" for our confused but inevitably modern world. If the latter, then our "triumph" is merely temporary, like the eye of a hurricane, deceptively lulling us into complacency as crisis looms. Though one can wonder whether Zuckert's Locke is fully coherent for example, if self-consciousness is the key to self-ownership, is there not here a new basis for inequality that threatens the equality of persons that is central to Locke's philosophy, for surely some people are surely more conscious of themselves than others, and especially conscious of the consequences and so the meaning of giving consent? I for one am grateful to Michael Zuckert for making clear that the effort on the part of some of Strauss's students to return to the early moderns for adequate guidance is an effort that requires, at some level or another, a critique of Strauss.
2 James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). href="#footnote2return">(Return)
3 Strauss's principal essay on Locke appears as the second part of ch. 5 ("Modern Natural Right") of his Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 202-51, the first part of which treated Hobbes. Another essay, in the form of an extended review of W. von Leyden's edition of Locke's Essays on the Law of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), appeared under the title "Locke's Doctrine of Natural Law" in Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1959), ch. 8, pp. 197-220. Locke is also discussed in some depth in the title essay, pp. 49-50. href="#footnote3return">(Return)
4 Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Harry V. Jaffa, paper delivered at the American Political Science Association, September, 2000 (?).href="#footnote4return">(Return)
5 Michael P. Zuckert, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), which includes essays written over the past thirty years, including new material. I will concentrate on this recent book in this brief essay, but for a more complete account of Zuckert's views on Locke, see also his Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), and on the American Founding, The Natural Rights Republic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). href="#footnote5return">(Return)
6 Zuckert, Launching Liberalism, p. 268. href="#footnote6return">(Return)
7 Lunching Liberalism, p. 3. href="#footnote7return">(Return)
8 Natural Right and History, pp. 231-35; on Locke's superior prudence, pp. 165-66; cf. "What Is Political Philosophy?," p. 49, where the latter consideration alone is stressed. href="#footnote8return">(Return)
9 Zuckert, Launching Liberalism, p. 3. href="#footnote9return">(Return)
10 Natural Right and History, pp. 181-82. href="#footnote10return">(Return)
11 Launching Liberalism, pp. 193-94. href="#footnote11return">(Return)
13 Launching Liberalism, p. 195; see also pp. 325-26. href="#footnote13return">(Return)
14 Two Treatises of Government, II, ch. 4, sect. 19. href="#footnote14return">(Return)
15 Launching Liberalism, p. 7. href="#footnote15return">(Return)
16 Ibid., p. 9. href="#footnote16return">(Return)
17 Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and Its Genesis, tr. Elsa Sinclair (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. xv. href="#footnote17return">(Return)
18 Ibid., p. 5. href="#footnote18return">(Return)
19 Ibid., p. 18. In his last major statement on Hobbes, which partly repeats in its title the title of the early book, Strauss reiterates this insight in a footnote that he later pointed to as addressing "the nerve of Hobbes' argument." See "On the Basis of Hobbes's Political Philosophy," in What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies, ch. 7, p. 176n, referred to in the "Preface to the 7th Impression (1971)" of Natural Right and History, p. vii. href="#footnote19return">(Return)
20 What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies, p. 193. href="#footnote20return">(Return)
21 Natural Right and History, p. 167. href="#footnote21return">(Return)
22 Launching Liberalism, p. 20. href="#footnote22return">(Return)