Civics for Life

John Locke: The 17th Century Philosopher who Shaped American Thought

July 06, 2023 Civics for Life
Civics for Life
John Locke: The 17th Century Philosopher who Shaped American Thought
Show Notes Transcript

The Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy presents a Civics for Life Conversation with author and historian Claire Rydell Arcenas and Liam Julian, director of Public Policy at the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute. 

In her book America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Rydell Arcenas seeks to better understand and illuminate the crucial 17th century philosopher by showing how he influenced Americans at different historical moments. Widely known as the founding father of modern “liberal” thought, Locke pioneered the ideas of natural law, social contract, religious toleration, and the right to revolution that proved essential to both the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution that followed.

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Liam Julian:

Thank you for joining us. Welcome to an O'Connor Institute and Civics for Life conversation with Claire Rydell Arcenas. Claire is the author of the book, American Intellectual, Cultural and Political Exchange Between the Late 17th and the Mid 20th Centuries. And her first book, which we're going to be talking about today, is titled “America's Philosopher, John Locke in American Intellectual Life”. And that book investigates the influence of the 17th century English philosopher John Locke on American thought and culture over the last 300 years. Thanks for being here. 

Claire Rydell Arcenas:
I'm delighted to be here, Liam. Thanks so much for the invitation.

Liam Julian:
Yeah, of course. Now, your book is excellent. It's really interesting. We should say at the start, it's not a biography of John Locke at all, really. I mean, it focuses much more on John Locke's sort of, as we were saying, his influence on American intellectual life and his reception in America. However, I still thought it would be useful for us to begin with a little bit of biography. Maybe you could give us a bit of background about John Locke, who he was, where he's from, all of that good stuff.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:
Yeah, absolutely. So as Americans in particular, early Americans knew well, John Locke was many things. He wore many different hats. He was a very he was what I call a polymath. He was born in 1632 and lived for his time quite a long time. He lived until 1704. So, we saw the dawn of the 18th century. But he's a 17th century philosopher, a man of a very tumultuous period in English history, arguably one of the most tumultuous moments in English history that there has been. He lived through the English Civil War, what we know as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was, as the historian Mark Goldie put it so well, a child of the Reformation and a progenitor of the Enlightenment. 

He's living in these really transformative moments in politics and religion and culture and intellectual life. He is a well-educated man. He attends Oxford University Christ Church and then teaches there. He is the author of hundreds and hundreds of letters and tracts and essays on topics ranging from money and politics to religion and child rearing. And he is, I think, also a very ordinary man in many ways. And I think that's maybe something we'll get into in our conversation. And I think his ordinariness is one of the things that Americans find so appealing about him. He's not some esoteric philosopher in his ivory tower. He's a man sort of the people in many ways. And that ordinariness is something that I think Americans find very appealing about him.

Liam Julian
Yeah. And English. And never in his lifetime set foot in America. Correct?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:
Correct. So, he's born in Somerset, dies in Essex. He is in exile in France and Holland and travels in Europe, but never crosses the Atlantic, never sets foot in what will become the United States - what were the North American colonies at the time.

Liam Julian
Exactly. And, a medical doctor, right? When he leaves Oxford and he chooses a profession, that's his profession. He doesn't come out as a philosopher. He comes out as a doctor.

 Claire Rydell Arcenas:
Right. So, he receives medical and philosophic training, but he really gets I mean, one of his most important jobs is personal physician to Lord Ashley, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury. And in this capacity as a physician, right, as a medical doctor with that kind of medical expertise, then he finds himself in Ashley's and Shaftesbury's sort of intellectual and political circle. But he really, as you said, gets his start as a as a doctor, not as a political thinker or a philosopher even.

Liam Julian
Yeah. And what you what you just said is so important, right, because in that capacity is the personal physician to the first Earl of Shaftesbury. He's not only living through these transitional and tumultuous times, but he is really a part of it. I mean, he is sort of thrust into the debates of the day and like you said, finds himself in exile. And I don't know, would you would you say it would be correct to make the claim that that a lot of John Locke's political writings, really his philosophy is generated by his deep involvement in this in the issues of his time?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:
Yeah, absolutely. And I would say it's not just his political writings that are influenced and emerge out of his, as you said, deep involvement in this sort of period of turmoil. It's also his religious writings and it's his writings on things like education and what we would call epistemology or metaphysics, how human beings understand the world around them. And there are very consistent themes that across all of Locke's writings, this opposition to authoritarianism and opposition to sort of longstanding, not particularly sort of well interrogated traditions, whether they're religious or intellectual. And instead, Locke is writing to sort of free the individual mind and encourage and allow for sort of space for individual human beings to make an impact in their society, in their world. And he does this in all different ways, education, religion, politics, and the ways in which he's conceiving of these ideas, right, they're emerging exactly out of his real-world experience. They're not emerging out of his sort of study in some dusty library. They're emerging because he's on the ground in this in this 17th century English world.

Liam Julian
Is this well, let me just ask you what when you said earlier that he was in many ways an ordinary man, you know, I think Oxford medical doctor exiled to Holland, you know, it doesn't sound super ordinary. But you mean more in terms of what his approach to knowledge, his approach to attaining knowledge, the way he lived. What do you mean by that?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:Exactly. So, I think by that, I mean that he's not, I would say, primarily in the way that we would maybe think of, say, a 19th or 20th century philosopher, someone who's inside the academy and someone for whom their primary identity and job is as a sort of as a thinker. Someone who writes and teaches. Locke is a thinker. He's a philosopher. He writes these very profound and important tracks, these philosophical works, and they're big and long and dense. But he's doing so while he's also serving as a civil servant for the British government. He's doing so, you know, as a personal physician to the Earl of Shaftesbury. He's doing so, you know, as he's living his life. And he's not doing so in the context of a professional academic appointment. And I think also, maybe by ordinariness, I also mean that you get a real sense in his writings that he's very attentive to the experiences, the struggles, the concerns of people less privileged than himself. And so, people who aren't necessarily going to Oxford or whatever else, but he's very interested in how, you know, how can one be a generous human being? How can one be a good friend? How should one sort of live a healthy, you know, a healthy life? How should one rear good children? And these are sort of questions and concerns that may strike us as sort of odd given what we know of Locke today, but he's very concerned with the sort of mundane aspects of human life and human living and human existence. And I think this is one of the things that I find so intriguing about him. And it's also one of the things that Americans over the centuries have really found themselves quite drawn to.

Liam Julian

Yeah. And this is sort of gets to what is, you know, maybe the argument in your book, but certainly a major argument in your book, which is that what we learn about John Locke in school, that John Locke was sort of the philosopher who most influenced the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence, doesn't really get to the whole story.As you're saying that he was concerned with a whole panoply of ideas, many of which were of interest to ordinary people. And so, you know, you write about his reception in early 17th or rather early 18th century America as being largely not political philosophy as much as it was these things that you're talking about, right, these more ordinary concerns of people.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:
Exactly. And so, for 18th century Americans and 19th century Americans, Locke's primary sort of Locke's basis of authority, the thing, the single thing that Americans know Locke best for is his essay concerning human understanding. So, his work on how humans gain knowledge about themselves and about the world around them through use of their five senses. And this text is what Americans, if they're reading one thing by Locke, or if they hear the word Locke, the name Locke, this is their primary association. Then with this as Locke's primary association for early Americans, what they're doing with Locke, the ways that they're understanding then and using his authority is, as you said, in these very sort of everyday mundane ways. And so, they take Locke as this kind of guru, as I put it, for living a good life. And so, they're turning to Locke for very specific recommendations. Locke isn't this kind of, as I put it in my work, he's not this kind of adjectival abstraction in the way that today we think of Lockean liberalism or Lockean libertarianism, or we sort of understand Locke as this kind of adjective. In the 18th century, he's writing about how mothers should keep their children's feet cold in ice baths to make them hardy youngsters. And mothers, 18th century American mothers, mothers of revolutionaries and founding fathers, they're doing this, they're rearing their children following Locke. And they're understanding Locke's authority very widely.

Liam Julian

He had no children.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Exactly. And this irony isn't lost. They call him the bachelor philosopher. This irony is not lost on them that you have some childless man providing wisdom. But that's an indication of just how profound Locke's authority was in early America, right? That they respected him so much that even though he had no children of his own, they took his word for what to do when it came time to raise your own.

Liam Julian

Yeah, that's really funny. Yeah, so in an essay concerning human understanding, this is where Locke, you can correct me if I'm wrong, right? This is where he essentially sets out the notion of there are no innate ideas that all of your sort of ideas are sort of come to you through your senses and therefore and should consistently be tested. And it was interesting to me because just at first blush when you think about this, I suppose this is what we would call empiricism. It seems to be what would be in conflict with some of the sort of early 18th century American Christian ideas. And yet it wasn't really. Can you talk a little bit more about how those two ideas kind of work together? I mean, Locke himself was an avowed Christian, I believe, a Protestant.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Very much so, indeed. And many of his most important works had to do with religion. We have things like his letter concerning toleration, which advocates for, as the title says, religious toleration. And then you also have works that we don't tend to read as much today. He has works on the reasonableness of Christianity, right? Where he's arguing that there is fundamentally a reasonableness to, we'll say, Protestant Christianity. But to your question, right? So, in his essay concerning human understanding, Locke is arguing against the idea that humans have innate knowledge.

And he instead puts forward what, as you said, we would think of as a kind of empiricism, that we gain knowledge, both of ourselves and our world around us, not because we're born with ideas, but because we gain knowledge through experience, through our experience of the world, through our rationality and use of our five senses. And this does in many ways run counter to many aspects of Christianity, in particular some tenets of Puritan Protestantism, and in particular the idea of innate sin. And this is something that Locke is arguing against. Now, he says that we can't have innate knowledge of God, for example, but he says that we can have certain knowledge of God.

But this, of course, is not entirely satisfactory to people of Locke's time or to 18th century Americans who are really grappling with many of these questions. And so, you don't see a wholesale, it's important to be clear, you don't see a wholesale acceptance of Locke's religious writings or his epistemological writings. In fact, you have Americans arguing against an essay concerning human understanding. You have Harvard professors, Puritan Harvard professors in the 18th century saying, no, no, no, we don't want to teach our students an essay concerning human understanding. And instead, they're bringing in more recent modifications of Locke's work that try to be a little softer when it comes to maybe the sort of innate knowledge of God, we'll say. You have people like Isaac Watts and others, other theologians and philosophers who Americans are reading alongside their reading of Locke. And they're doing so in a way to sort of soften some of Locke's arguments, make them a little more palatable. 

But what I would say, and just one more thing here, is that at the time he's writing in the 17th century, many of Locke's writings are incredibly controversial, right? He's publishing anonymously. His name isn't attached to, say, his two treatises until after he's dead. But in the 18th century American colonies, Locke becomes decidedly uncontroversial. Over the course of the 18th century, there comes to be a way in which Americans of all different sort of denominations and persuasions can find some common ground in Locke's writings. He's this kind of unifier, even though he was incredibly controversial in the context of his own day.

Liam Julian

Yeah, and that gets to another thing that you do really well in this book, which is to show Locke's kind of coming in and out of fashion, his ideas. I mean, I think most people think of fashion as being, sure, clothing goes in and out of style, different architectural styles. But ideas themselves can come in and out of fashion, not necessarily due to anything inherent in the idea, but simply sort of the climate surrounding them. We'll talk more about that. But before we leave the early 17th century, I wanted to talk about an American who seems to me, and I'll let you talk about this to see if I'm right in this way of thinking, to share sensibilities with John Locke, and that's Ben Franklin. This idea of being sort of a polymath, someone who really understands science and sort of wants to sort of meld science with the humanities and use that to the benefit of common people. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Locke's influence on Franklin and what we know about it.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Yeah. Yeah. So, Locke has a profound influence on Benjamin Franklin, and it's a profound influence on Franklin throughout the course of his very long life. And Franklin, young Ben Franklin, encounters the essay as a very young sort of teen and is immediately drawn to Locke's epistemology. So really, as far as we know, the first work of Locke that Franklin reads and is familiar with is an essay concerning human understanding. He's familiar with a range of Locke's writings, though, certainly the two treatises of government, certainly very. Sort of strange works are strange to us in the 21st century, but Franklin is drawn to maybe even obsessed with many of Locke's writings on education and then much more far afield works.

For example, Franklin, in the course of his work, sort of thinking about, as you put it so nicely a minute ago, Liam, to think about sort of how can individual human beings better their communities? Franklin's very interested in doing this and he's very interested in doing this in Philadelphia. And we have all these sorts of examples of Franklin that we know of trying to make a difference, not just in individual people's lives, but in his Philadelphia community. And he does so by turning to Locke and in particular, some of Locke's recommendations for creating sort of learned societies. And Franklin's famous Junto is derived sort of rules for creating a learned society that Franklin's drawing on.

These are coming directly, almost verbatim, from Locke's works. And so, we don't have this very sort of vague sense of, oh, maybe Franklin, maybe Locke was sort of in the air and Franklin's this. Maybe he's a Lockean liberal, whatever that means. We'll get to that in a minute.

No, we have very concrete evidence that Franklin is reading most likely sort of multi-volume, three-volume edition of Locke's compiled works that was most popular at the time. And Franklin is quite literally sort of taking directly from Locke and from Locke's ideas about creating something like his Junto. And then Franklin implements this on the ground in Philadelphia.

Liam Julian

Yeah. Yeah. And that's so interesting for a few reasons. I guess one being for you as a historian, it's so nice when these connections seem to actually be less hypothetical and very evident. And what's interesting here, too, is I guess also for our audience, we should say, you know, John Locke dies in 1704 and Ben Franklin is born in 1706, I believe. And so, they're, you know, kind of it's a little passing of the torch. There are these two transitional figures, really, a kind of that span these times where we're moving into the Enlightenment and John Locke and then into Franklin. So, it's fascinating. But I'd like to, Claire, ask you about something you said about Franklin using Locke's theories in a practical way. And I was going to sort of ask you more about this later on, but we might as well jump into it now. John Locke, one of the reasons why John Locke ends up falling out of favor with the public or just is less read or is because people see him as too theoretical. I think you make the case in your book that after the American Revolution, that the concern is less with these theories of government than actually running one. So, when you talk about Ben Franklin using Locke's theories and putting them into practice, that just sort of kind of made me think about that. I mean, is this a was this a fair criticism of Locke that he was too theoretical, that he was too in the clouds? I mean, and you can maybe talk about his. Oh, what was it, the fundamental the constitutions of Carolina? You could talk about that maybe in this context as well.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Before I ever say is something a fair assessment of Locke, I'm always asking people, you know, for whom, at what time? Because what we would consider a fair assessment today is very different than what someone in Franklin's day or in the 19th century, whatever it might be, would consider a fair assessment. But you're absolutely right. So, it's important to say. So, I mean, Franklin, many of the works. So just sort of to say one more thing about Franklin before I move on to the fundamental constitutions and to your question more specifically. I mean, Franklin's not just drawing on Locke's sort of theoretical philosophies. He's actually drawing on like specific, very specific things, saying Locke says a society for the cultivation of knowledge and community should meet X number of times a week. And Franklin says, oh, OK, I'm going to meet X number of times a week.

But but I mean, to your question, right, there's a really interesting and for me, it was, I think, probably the most surprising part of my research was uncovering this very profound transition, transformation in the way that Americans can conceive of and approach, in particular, Locke's political writings. And this happens. In the late 18th century, in the 1770s, in the 1780s, and it happens in the context of the American Revolution, but also in the context of the French Revolution as Americans in the new United States are looking across the Atlantic and saying, oh, no, what's happening in France? We don't want that to happen here. But so, what's happening is that in the late 18th century, and then we see it really develop in kind of a crescendo and it's very pronounced in the 19th century.

We see Americans being very concerned about the role that theorizing and abstract political thinking has on politics and government, and they begin to draw a distinction between the theoretical ideas of government and the actual application, actual forms of government, the administration of a government. And they're using Locke's writings to help them think about what I think many of us listeners and maybe you and me would think of as a sort of chief characteristic of American political thinking, you know, we're anti-theory and we're pro-practice. And, you know, a lot of that isn't true. But at the same time, you do see late 18th and early 19th century Americans saying, no, no, no, we don't need abstract philosophical theorizers coming in and telling us how to create a government. We need a government that emerges organically from the people on the ground and from those people's own experiences. And the work that they turn to, these late 18th and early 19th century Americans, the work that they turn to, not just, and this isn't just of Locke's, but the sort of the work of any work that they turn to help them sort through these questions, is Locke's Fundamental Constitutions for Carolina. And just very, very briefly, this is a work that is now sort of Locke's involvement in the creation of this document is debated.

But 18th and 19th century Americans understood this work as a work primarily of Locke's. And this is a set of fundamental constitutions, a set of 120 constitutions for the English colony of Carolina that emerges in the 1660s. 1669 is the first sort of date of its issuance. And it's a profoundly anti-democratic aristocratic sort of pro-slavery document and plan of government being put forward by the Lord's proprietors of the Carolina colony in England in the 1660s. And Locke is the personal secretary and physician for one of the Lord's proprietors, Lord Ashley, later the Earl of Shaftesbury. And so, in the 1660s, Locke, Americans understand that Locke was somehow involved in creating this plan of government for the Carolina colony. It's this total disaster. It never is actually implemented. And it's a very, it's a sore point for Carolinians for many, many, many centuries that their first plan of government, in contrast to some of the other charters of other North American colonies. But this plan of government was such a failure. And it's known as a failure and a disaster. And Locke created it, or at least Americans are understanding Locke as having created it. So, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans are turning to the fundamental constitutions, and they're using this text to help them think about the shortcomings of abstract thinking of someone who's not on the ground in Carolina coming up with a really shoddy plan of government for this colony. And instead, they're saying, look at what Locke did. Even someone as wise and as brilliant as Locke, look, he couldn't do it. It was terrible. What we need is we need government emerging of and for the people on the ground. Those Americans who were in Carolina, they're saying should have created their own government.

Now, what's interesting, right, is that when someone say like George Bancroft, prominent 19th century historian of the United States, when Bancroft is thinking about Locke as an American lawgiver, as he puts it, he's thinking of the fundamental constitutions. Americans today, I don't think, read the fundamental constitutions or think about them very often. So, when we think about Locke as a political thinker, right, we think of his two treatises, especially the second treatise. 18th and 19th century Americans, they were thinking of the fundamental constitutions of Carolina and how bad it was. And this tarnishes Locke's political reputation. But at the same time, it also provides it's very much in line with the ways that Americans are using Locke, which is that they're really engaging with him. And they're taking this text as a really good example of what not to do, as this kind of negative example. So, we have Locke as the positive exemplar. And then we actually have Locke as the negative exemplar. And in particular, this is Locke, the negative exemplar as a political theorizer and a creator of government. 

Liam Julian

Well, how do you as a scholar, Claire, how do you sort of how do you square those two different Locke's? It's a little like Jekyll Hyde. Like how why are they why are these documents seemingly so at odds? Is this a product of not necessarily knowing how engaged Locke was in the documents, the fundamental constitutions, where he was essentially writing these to the extent that he did on behalf of a bunch of earls, you know, lords or whatever? Is that the idea? Like this wasn't really Locke's political philosophy at work. We could say that now in the 21st century, although in the in the 19th century, they may have thought differently.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Right. So, I think I think you put it very nicely just there. So, I mean, this isn't this is not a work of Locke's, even if he was involved in its creation to some extent. And that's, I think, a very that's a very sort of live, ongoing scholarly conversation. What I'm interested in is, right, the sort of second part of what you said, which is, you know, how did 19th century Americans sort of grapple with this paradox? And in some ways, they don't. And it's always it's always challenging, maybe as a historian, when you see something so clearly, which is that I understand the fundamental constitutions of Carolina, for example, as a profoundly sort of unphilosophical work. And so, the idea that you would be sort of like really wrestling with the idea that someone as wise and sort of good as Locke could create something like this. It's like, well, no, this is a very different kind of document from the two treatises or from an essay concerning human understanding.

He's also creating it insofar as he's sort of, let's say, he's writing it decades before he's writing these other works. And that's, I think, something that I that I'm always struck by when I'm looking back in my sort of 19th century notes and what I'm finding in the archives. 19th century Americans, for example, don't seem particularly aware of the sort of chronology of Locke's life. But I can't, my job as a historian isn't to blame them or to say, oh, they were wrong. They didn't understand that this was a product of the 1660s when Locke's thinking was very different, not the 1670s or 1680s or 1690s. Instead, I have to wrestle with sort of what they were seeing as the important paradox here and use that right to understand what was driving their concerns.

Whereas today, right, we have, you and I have so much more knowledge of Locke's intellectual development, thanks to the work of people like Maurice Cranston, his 20th century biographer, who shows that Locke was actually much more sort of pro-authoritarian, pro-monarch in the 1660s than he would later become. And so, it's very easy for us to forget.

We think of, oh, Locke's a philosopher and it's this kind of, you know, static, you know, person and thinker. And we forget that, right, Locke, you know, over the course of his long life, he's changing his mind and he's writing different things at different times. And Locke in the 1660s isn't Locke in the 1690s and vice versa. And that's an important reminder, but it's a really easy thing to forget.

Liam Julian

Yeah. And an important reminder for any historical writer that we should keep in mind is that sort of chronology and the fact that, you know, the best minds often evolve. So that's a really good point, Claire. Yeah, Locke's writings, the ones that we tend to read most often, right, came at the end of his life for the most part. Or toward the end of his life in the in the later part, very later part of the of the 17th century, after maybe his ideas about government were influenced by the fact that he was an exile. Right? You know, I mean, this this makes a difference. You know, if you're if you're writing in Holland because you can't be at your house in England, you know, maybe that influences your political philosophy a little bit. So good to keep those things in mind. 

One thing I definitely want to talk about before we leave the 18th century entirely is Thomas Jefferson. And so, this is a bit of a you know, I don't know if it's controversial, but there was a review of your book in The Wall Street Journal, which congratulations, that's great. The reviewer did take issue, however, with what he thought was your sort of downplaying of Locke's influence on Thomas Jefferson. You know, when what we learn in school is that Locke was sort of very influential in Jefferson when he wanted Jefferson. He's writing the Declaration of Independence. You say in your book, not the whole story. The reviewer, The Wall Street Journal said you're not giving Locke enough credit, but maybe you are actually giving Locke credit where it's due. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? The whole Locke and Jefferson and The Wall Street Journal, too?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

No, I think it's a good question. And so, I think the first thing I'll say, perhaps the most important thing is that Locke has a profound influence on Jefferson and Locke has a profound influence on the founding fathers. And it's a profound influence, we'll say, in the revolutionary period and the founding era as a whole. And my hope is that readers of my book get it, get a sense of that and that readers of my book also get a sense of the argument that I'm making, which is not that Locke was unimportant, but that he was actually so important that when we extrapolate and take just one tiny question, one tiny bit or one work, we'll say the Second Treatise, and try to interrogate whether or not Thomas Jefferson drew specifically from the Second Treatise or was influenced by it in some sort of more indirect way, we're missing the main story, the main act. And I think it's a challenging case to make, I think, particularly given Americans' present day attachments or rejection. So, it's not that it's a very live, controversial question, we'll say, of to what extent Thomas Jefferson was influenced by the Second Treatise or not. And in some ways, that's a perfectly fine question to ask, but it's not the most interesting one, because it misses what it would have meant to have been influenced by the Second Treatise, we'll say, in the context of the 18th century.

So, what do I mean by that? Right? So, this goes back to the most important takeaway, when thinking about Locke and Locke's importance and perception and influence in the 18th century, is that Locke is everywhere, all the time. It would have been inconceivable to have someone, be it Jefferson or Adams or anyone else, understand Locke as a political thinker in isolation. That's sort of point number one.

Point number two is that all of the things that we might, as contemporary or present day readers, that we might associate with and attribute to Locke, that these are things that in the 18th century, say, ideas about consent-based government, the importance of representative government, the importance of privileging the sovereignty of the people, all of these things, these are what 18th century Americans, Jefferson included, are understanding as being key tenants of the English constitution itself, English political thinking. And they are in no way understanding Locke as having been the sort of origin point for any of these ideas. And so, when they're using Locke, as they do in the decades and years leading up to 1776, as they're using Locke, they're understanding Locke as providing support for their arguments, not as providing a kind of origin story or origin point for ideas, say, about consent-based government, representative government, whatever the case may be.

Now, I think what is probably, might strike some readers as potentially controversial, or at least striking, is my discussion of Thomas Jefferson, and in particular his, sort of the language of happiness, rather than what we would think of, even though it isn't necessarily, but the sort of Lockean construction of life, liberty, and property, government's role is to protect life, liberty, and property of individuals, and Jefferson, you know, instead of property, it's life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the question of to what extent was Jefferson simply taking from Locke and saying, aha, instead of property, I'm going to say pursuit of happiness, but by pursuit of happiness, I really mean the acquisition of private property. I think there's very clear evidence, and I'm certainly not the first historian to make this case by any means, but there's very clear evidence that by the pursuit of happiness, Jefferson means something entirely different from a very narrow conception of individual property rights and property acquisition. He means something much more along the lines of a kind of public happiness, a safety and well-being of the people, rather than the acquisition of material goods for an individual.

Liam Julian

And so, Claire, that's so interesting, what you were saying about the idea of Locke not being necessarily the origin of a lot of these ideas, necessarily, and I guess that's the case for a lot of sort of Locke's ideas, right? Like with education, for example, in the 17th century, there was a shift in the way that people viewed children, where the idea of play as education became important. And so, Locke is sort of, in many ways, kind of in step with the progression of ideas of his time, not necessarily out of step with them, is that correct?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Yeah, so I would say in some ways he's ahead of his time in certain respects. And so, he's sort of out of step in that he's maybe two or three steps ahead. And so, by the time we arrive at the 18th century, it's, okay, now, you know, we've caught up with Locke. And so he's bringing together, as you said, all of these different thinkers and theories and philosophies of the 17th century, and he's articulating them, for the most part, very sort of clearly. And I'm not going to say succinctly, necessarily, he tends to sort of write long works. But he writes them in a way that's accessible, we'll say, to sort of, you know, relatively well-educated people. And by the time that you have Americans in the 18th century reading his works on education or epistemology or religion or politics, right, it's sort of every day. And there's a kind of moderation, moderateness, that I think they find very appealing in Locke.

And I think this is one of the reasons, too, why you have revolutionary figures, you have people like James Otis, Jr., who are turning to someone like Locke, even when it doesn't always quite make sense, because they're actually saying something slightly different than Locke was saying, say, in his second treatise. They're turning to Locke rather than, say, someone like Algernon Sidney, who was martyred, they're turning, it was a little more radical, they're turning to Locke because he's perceived as having been relatively moderate. And so maybe in step in line with his time, and certainly, you know, by the 18th century, he's seen as such.

Liam Julian

Yeah, and I that's a great point you're making, because I wondered often in reading your book, how much of the attraction to Locke was less about the ideas per se, than about his way of being and his way of thinking that he sort of advocated, so that even if you disagreed with his actual ideas, you still sort of were drawn to the way that he was going about getting there. Does that make sense?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Absolutely. I think that's a really, really good way of putting it. And I think that's a pretty important and maybe even humbling reminder for those of us living in the 21st century, to pay attention to process, right, and the ways that someone arrives at their plans or their proposals or their recommendations, rather than just what it is, what they produce in the end. And we see, I mean, 18th and 19th century Americans are very aware of this. One of the examples that I think I talk about in my book is in the 19th century, Americans are, quite frankly, obsessed with following Locke's model for creating a commonplace book, which is essentially a kind of personal journal for keeping track of one's readings.

But again, they're turning to, like Locke has a very specific program down to how you should format the index for this commonplace book. And this is being reprinted and Americans are essentially copying and pasting this into their own commonplace books. But then you have 19th century editions of Locke's commonplace book come out and sort of acknowledge that this maybe might not be actually the best system, but it's gained this kind of reputation as being the best because of Locke's status and Locke's reputation as this good thinker and someone with whom it is good to think with. And that's an interesting, I think, an interesting realization because in many ways in the 20th century, in the 21st century, Americans aren't thinking with Locke. We're thinking about Locke or we're debating or we're arguing about Locke or we're forgetting or ignoring Locke. We're not really thinking with him. And in the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans are.

Liam Julian

Well, that's a great point, because you say about how in the beginning of the 20th century, Locke is sort of like, I mean, he's becomes in America somewhat irrelevant. He's not really read that much or maybe he is in the Academy, but he's certainly not this sort of as he was in the 19th century, the 18th century. But then later he undergoes sort of a renaissance for political reasons. Maybe you could talk a bit about his evolution in the 20th century that brings us up to where we are today.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

So in in 1900, we'll say at the beginning of the 20th century, as I put it, Locke teeters on the brink of irrelevance. There has been a very concerted effort over the course of the late 19th century to properly historicize thinkers like Locke, to create a kind of wall or barrier separation between the present day and the past worlds that these thinkers were writing and operating in. And so, we have at the end of the 19th century, in the early 20th century, an idea that Locke may be important, as you said, to sort of study in the context of one's college class, say, on history of philosophy or on history of political theory. But it's not actually there's not much that's sort of immediately relevant to ordinary Americans' everyday lives. And so, Locke becomes something that people and Locke becomes a thinker with whom people engage only in the context of college classes, a very short period of their lives. And he's old. He's something sort of a product of the 17th century. 

There have been now centuries worth of new philosophies, new thinkers. You have American pragmatism. You know, you have sort of modern, we'll say, social science. And all of a sudden, Locke's thought experiments, his attachment to something like the state of nature or social contract. These are seen as having been sort of hokey 17th century, you know, ideas. And no, we are good sort of modern social scientists and we understand that this isn't actually how government originates. Government originates organically through the people rather than a kind of social construct of consent. And so, at the beginning of the 20th century, it's not clear that Locke's going to be anything other than just, you know, sort of a name in a textbook on the history of philosophy, history of political theory. And this changes and this changes dramatically over the course of the mid 20th century, where in the early decades of the 20th century, the 19 teens, 1920s, 1930s, there begins to be a sense that Locke may actually be relevant to present day questions, especially present-day political questions about the relationship between the state and the state and the individual.

So, these are sort of just very basic sort of questions of to what role, to what extent does the state have a responsibility to sort of, you know, the betterment of individual human beings? To what extent, you know, should we be privileging or prioritizing a kind of atomistic individualism, a kind of small liberalism, individual liberty and rights? And Locke is all of a sudden sort of seen as being relevant to these to these questions, these questions of the progressive era, sort of long progressive era, we'll say. But it's not entirely clear in the 19 teens, 20s and 30s, if this relevance, like what exactly this looks like and if it's a good thing.

So, you have a lot of folks, people like Merrill Kurdi, historian Charles Beard, and others who are understanding that Locke's theory of private property in particular is the most sort of important part of his political work, and that this plays a continued role in American political and intellectual life. But there's a kind of uncertainty over whether or not this is a good, something to be celebrated or something to be worried about and rejected, and maybe that we should be doing something about it. 

Now, with the Second World War, and then the early days of the Cold War, all of this uncertainty and this waffling and this kind of like maybe Locke's relevant, but is it capitalism or is it actually socialism or what's going on here? That goes out the window. And now all of a sudden, Americans are going, oh my gosh, okay. So, the Soviets, the communists, they have a political tradition. They have Marx. They have Lenin. They have something that sort of provides a foundation for their way of thinking, their political beliefs. And Americans are going, well, wait, what do we have? Do we have founding fathers? Maybe. But what's actually at the foundation of the American political tradition? And this is in the 1940s, the first time that Americans begin to use this word of the American political tradition. And they say, oh, we have Locke. We have representative government and importance of private property, Christianity.

These are all of the things that we find sort of in Locke that make us unique and exceptional, and that Americans continued and continual attachment to Locke is what sets us apart from those societies that are falling in their eyes to totalitarianism, communism, fascism, et cetera. And Locke undergoes this really profound transformation in the 1940s and 1950s into I think a Locke that is most familiar and most recognizable to Americans today, someone whom we're very comfortable saying, ah, okay, sort of, you know, Lockean liberalism. Okay, we understand, you know, basically that's, you know, a sort of privilege and individual rights and liberties. And we understand the kind of package of concepts associated with that. And that emerges only in the mid-20th century in the context of these greater geopolitical struggles. And it doesn't emerge before that. And then it becomes controversial in the late 20th century, but I don't want to go on too long here.

Liam Julian

Yeah, no, no, no, that's helpful. Well, let's talk about that. I mean, when does it become controversial in the late 20th century?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

So, it becomes controversial really at the same time, very shortly after you have this kind of liberal consensus regarding Locke's importance for the American political tradition. But what I think many listeners may find interesting or surprising, or at least I did, was that some of the very early and the most important pushback against Locke as the standard bearer of sort of the American political tradition, this is coming from the right. This is coming from conservatives. It's coming from people like Leo Strauss and Russell Kirk in sort of different ways and Wilmore Kendall. And there's a cohort of conservative political philosophers and political thinkers in the sort of mid to late 20th century, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, who are pushing back against what they see as an American obsession with a kind of atomistic individualism, an idea of sort of, you know, everything. Like there is no sort of guiding, like deep abiding principle in American intellectual life. Like freedom without tradition or freedom without, is that what you're sort of getting at? Exactly, this kind of anything goes mentality.

And they're saying that this emerges from sort of Americans' obsession with and attachment to Locke, who they see in many ways as providing this sort of starting point for a break with this sort of ancient tradition. Locke provides a kind of break from this ancient tradition to a sort of more modern anything goes relativist, atomistic individualist political philosophy. And so, they're pushing back on Americans' attachment to Locke, on Locke himself. And then they're joined by, and this is also I think very interesting for me as well, they're joined by a cohort of historians, American historians writing in the 1970s and 1980s, who are all of a sudden looking back to the founding era in particular.

And they're saying, you know, maybe someone like Locke and sort of other so-called small-l liberal thinkers weren't the most important influences on the American founders. And instead, the American founders are being influenced much more by sort of a Republican tradition with sort of attention to civic and sort of virtue. And they're turning to sort of Republican thinkers. But in arguing against the kind of Locke, so-called Lockean origin stories of the American founding moment and the American political tradition, they actually end up cementing Locke to this American political tradition and this American founding moment much more even than he was in the 1950s and 1960s. Because now all of a sudden, they're saying, in arguing against it, they have to make Lockean liberalism a thing. And this is something that, for example, the historian Daniel Rogers has traced very nicely. But there's this sort of profound pushback against the Lockean political tradition in the 1960s and 1970s. But the outcome is actually a stronger and more sort of devoted or, let's say, clearer understanding that Locke somehow was central to and integral for the American political tradition.

Liam Julian

Yeah. No, that's fascinating. You know, I know, Claire, that you're sort of trained in the classical tradition, right? You were a classicist, I guess. That was your major undergrad? So, I mean, I feel like there's another hour where we could talk about, you know, the linkages between Locke. But I know we don't have another hour. You have things to do. I don't. But I'd like to sort of like end with two questions. And I'm going to ask you to sort of leave your historian sort of role for a moment and sort of maybe, I don't know, but see how comfortable you are with this.

To what extent do you think, the first question is, to what extent do you think, having done all this research, that the variety of opinions and approaches to Locke, to what extent do these, does this variety at all, if at all, implicate Locke himself as being not a very specific thinker, but rather a more theoretical thinker that allows for all these different interpretations? So that's the first question. And then the second question would be, here we are in 2023.How do you think that we are as Americans, how are we coming to Locke today, now?

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

So, to your first question, does this implicate Locke as being a kind of wishy-washy or we can interpret him in all these different ways and use him in all these different ways? I mean, yes, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I don't think that necessarily implies intellectual inconsistency or a sort of misunderstanding on Locke's part of what he's doing. I think we see across Locke's writings, right, I mean, this profound sense that we need a philosophy, we need institutions, we need whatever it is, we need people to help combat these longstanding oppressive regimes, whether or not it's a sort of mysticism or authoritarian forms of government. And we see this across Locke's work. The fact that we can read Locke in all these different ways and use Locke in all these different ways, I mean, I view that actually as a strength, right, that we have someone who's created this corpus, this range of work and writing that has been and continues to be relevant and debated and misunderstood and argued with and argued against and all of that.

And I think this maybe brings me to your second question, which is where does Locke stand in 2023? And maybe sort of implied in that is, you know, where will Locke be in five years, 10 years, 20 years? And I mean, this is where I think I can't leave behind my historians, sort of Cape Hat identity, whatever it is, my time traveling Cape as I tell my students. Because I think if the past is any guide, just at the moment that we think Locke is irrelevant and teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and right now we see Locke being attacked from both the right, the new right and the left. Right now, it's very easy to say, oh, you know, maybe Locke will sort of just fade and disappear from American intellectual life. And I think if the past is any lesson, that's not going to be the case. Now as a historian, I'm not going to predict what the future holds for Locke. But I think he'll continue to be relevant and maybe even someone with whom Americans once again will be interested in thinking with rather than just thinking about.

Liam Julian

Yeah, that's a good point. And as we were saying earlier, you know, beyond the ideas, there might be something in Locke's sensibility of how he got to the ideas, how he tests his own ideas, how he's constantly sort of evaluating ideas. There might be something in that that we could all sort of benefit from at this moment, I would think. Claire, thank you so much for spending time with us. Your book is excellent. It does such a wonderful job of showing the evolution of Locke and how we view him throughout time. That's such a great, and I know it's sort of an academic work, but it reads as if, you know, I mean, anybody could pick it up and gain something from it. It's well written. It's wonderful. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for spending some time to talk with us today.

Claire Rydell Arcenas:

Thank you so much. I so appreciated it.