John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy

So let me tell you the story of John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy1.
John Locke was born on the 29thAugust 1632, and grew up in the Somerset countryside some ten miles from Bristol. His parents were staunch Protestants, and his father fought in the Civil War on Cromwell’s side – indeed, Locke himself was reputed to have said to Cromwell, when Locke was 21, ‘You sir from Heav’n a finish’d hero fell’.
At the age of 14 Locke attended Westminster School – which he did not enjoy, due to the flogging – and then went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed until 1665. After leaving the university, partly in order to avoid having to take holy orders, he took up a post as physician and adviser to Lord Ashley, the man who – better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury – became the most prominent Whig politician of the period.
Due to the controversies in English political life, principally the tension arising from the potential accession of the Catholic James II to the throne, Locke spent two significant periods of his life abroad. His first ‘exile’ was from 1675 to 1679 and spent in France; the second, and more significant, was from 1683 to 1689, and was spent in Holland. He returned on the same ship that bore Queen Mary to England. Locke was the pre-eminent spokesman for the Whig ideology2, most especially in the sphere of religious toleration and a limited monarchy. He published (anonymously) his Letter on Toleration, then his Two Treatises on Government, and finally his masterpiece, the Essay on Human Understanding, all in 1689.
Locke was a man of nervous constitution – what we today might call ‘highly strung’ and it is clear that his views on religious questions evolved throughout his life. Having lived through the English Civil War as a teenager, his mature life was marked by the faction fighting and religious conflict endemic in the Royal Court. Locke’s perspective was conditioned by a rejection of religious enthusiasm, which he saw as responsible for the reckless slaughter and political strife experienced in England and Europe in his lifetime. This made a profound impact on his mature philosophy.
~~~
Locke’s principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve the destructive disagreements between different religious views, we should resort to the light of Reason. He wrote:
since traditions vary so much the world over and men’s opinions are so obviously opposed to one another and mutually destructive, and that not only among different nations but in one and the same state – for each single opinion we learn from others becomes a tradition – and finally since everybody contends so fiercely for his own opinion and demands that he be believed, it would plainly be impossible – supposing tradition alone lays down the ground of our duty – to find out what that tradition is, or to pick out truth from among such a variety, because no ground can be assigned why one man of the old generation, rather than another maintaining quite the opposite, should be credited with the authority of tradition or be more worthy of trust; except it be that reason discovers a difference in the things themselves that are transmitted, and embraces one opinion while rejecting another, just because it detects more evidence recognizable by the light of nature for the one than for the other. Such a procedure, surely, is not the same as to believe in tradition, but is an attempt to form a considered opinion about things themselves; and this brings all the authority of tradition to naught’3
Crucially, what Locke rejected was the idea that we should have recourse to a tradition at all, as he saw traditions as the source of all vice and pernicious beliefs (the ‘best are riddled with error’). In this he was very much a Protestant thinker, for the central issue in the trial of Galileo was the very same: the authority of the tradition. In Locke’s new account, appeal was made to something outside of any given tradition: reason, understood as the discriminatory judgement of probable beliefs.
Locke fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided, with three key elements: firstly, he argued that we have a moral responsibility for what we believe; secondly, that we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and finally, that in all things we should let reason be our guide. Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation.Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason – to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the 17thCentury.
Locke’s programme had at its centre that assertion that, to be morally justified in believing something, you must be able to demonstrate its rationality:
“Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything, but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his maker, who would have him sue those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of this accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth, by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as reason directs him. He that does otherwise, transgresses against his own light, and misuses those faculties, which were given him to no other end, but to search and follow the clearer evidence, and greater probability.”4
What was the rationality that Locke had in mind? It should be noted that Locke was not claiming that Reason is the source of our beliefs, only that Reason should be the judge of our beliefs (that reason should assess how probable our belief is, and we are then under a moral obligation only to give an assent to a belief in proportion to the relevant evidence.
“Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean, that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine, whether it be a revelation from God or not.”5
~~~
It is important to emphasise that, for Locke, there was no contradiction between a commitment to judging beliefs by the light of reason, and a clear faith in Christianity. Although revelation could not be accepted contrary to reason, there was – at the time Locke was writing – no general sense that Christianity was incredible. Consequently, as part of his philosophical program, Locke published ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’ in 1695, arguing that it was clear to reason that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the essence of faith was the ‘school of virtue’ formed by taking Jesus as the moral guide for life.
This sense that Christianity could be upheld by rational inquiry was rapidly and widely accepted – thanks in part to two prominent supporters. The first was Isaac Newton, whose Principia was published in 1687, and whose stature and scientific authority lent credibility to the project. Newton had a lifelong interest in alchemy and theology, and his last writings were attempts to reconcile the biblical chronology (which he took to have been falsified by wayward Roman Catholicism) with the insights of modern science, especially astronomy6.
More significant, the Church of England itself embraced the Lockean program, and it acquired the name ‘Latitudinarianism’ – meaning simply a respect for individual judgement, an acceptance of Reason as an authority (in the Lockean sense7) and a more critical engagement with tradition. This view gained many prominent defenders in the Church, including John Tillotson, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1689, but the most important was Samuel Clarke. Clarke not only embraced the Lockean philosophy, he united it with Newton’s cosmology, in arguments showing the Providence of God – that God was a type of constitutional monarch, just as had been granted to England in the Glorious Revolution, who oversaw a realm that was governed by a stable framework of law.
These three figures, Locke, Newton and Clarke forged a particular religious settlement – a settlement that was welcomed as not only enabling an end to religious strife but as providing a theological support for the new political framework – a framework which, in essentials, has continued through to the present day. That framework remains the dominant paradigm through which discussion about religion is conducted, especially in the English speaking world8. The basic foundation comes from Locke, in that we are obliged to justify our beliefs through an appeal to reason. Supplemental to that basic foundation is the claim – held by all three men – that Christianity9could be justified by reason.
The history of English Christianity since the Glorious Revolution could be described as the progressive rejection of that supplemental claim.

1 I am drawing on a number of sources here (see the bibliography), but the most important is Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
2 Roy Porter calls Locke ‘the presiding spirit of the English Enlightenment’. His influence was huge – see the discussion in Porter, Enlightenment, Penguin, 2000, especially pp 66-71.
3 John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature, taken from Wolterstorff, p3.
4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1990, IV, xvii, 24
5 Locke, Essay, IV, xix, 14.
6 This particular line of research culminated in the work of Archbishop Ussher, who calculated – on the basis of a rigorous and empirical assessment of the available evidence – that the earth had been created in 4004 BC. Such a task had not – and indeed, probably could not have – been undertaken in the previous history of Christianity.
7 There is much scholarly debate concerning the influence of Anglican theology on Locke, and whether the Lockean notion of Reason had been accepted earlier, in particular by Hooker. For a recent discussion, denying that this is the case, see Newey, The Form of Reason, Modern Theology, January 2002. My own view is that Locke was substantively original.
8 One might even call it a ‘Whig interpretation of religion’ that still awaits its Herbert Butterfield.
9 We now know, from the study of private correspondence, that the Christianity of Newton, and probably of Locke, was Arian, and therefore unorthodox, as it denied the full divinity of Jesus. That was not made clear at the time.

Rocks and beer

This was chosen by a family at a funeral I took recently. Hadn’t come across it before, but I thought it was worth sharing…

A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, rocks about 2″ in diameter.

He then asked the students if the jar was full? They agreed that it was.
So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.

He then asked once more if the jar was full. This time the students were sure and they responded with a unanimous “YES!”

The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and proceeded to pour their entire contents into the jar — effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, things that, if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car”.

The sand is everything else. The small stuff. “If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued “there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you”.

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out dancing. Do something for the community. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.

“Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”

The moral character of beauty

A question asked by RevSimmy in the comments: “the equation of the aesthetic and the moral – i.e. beautiful art/music has a moral effect. Do we agree? Why (/not)?”

I would say: yes, I have no doubt that beauty has an effect on character, partly from watching this programme recently (and I’ve purchased the book, but haven’t read it yet).

Of course, this is a complicated proposal. I happen to think that the Weeping Woman of Picasso is also tremendously beneficial to character – but I’m not sure I would count it as beautiful, even though I could (and have) spent ages contemplating it.

I feel on stronger ground when thinking about architecture – I think the living environment affects how we live, both directly and indirectly.

And of course music….

What do people think?

Scruton’s programme is available on Youtube, part 1 here:

The moral character of beauty

A question asked by RevSimmy in the comments: “the equation of the aesthetic and the moral – i.e. beautiful art/music has a moral effect. Do we agree? Why (/not)?”

I would say: yes, I have no doubt that beauty has an effect on character, partly from watching this programme recently (and I’ve purchased the book, but haven’t read it yet).

Of course, this is a complicated proposal. I happen to think that the Weeping Woman of Picasso is also tremendously beneficial to character – but I’m not sure I would count it as beautiful, even though I could (and have) spent ages contemplating it.

I feel on stronger ground when thinking about architecture – I think the living environment affects how we live, both directly and indirectly.

And of course music….

What do people think?

Scruton’s programme is available on Youtube, part 1 here:

The moral character of beauty

A question asked by RevSimmy in the comments: “the equation of the aesthetic and the moral – i.e. beautiful art/music has a moral effect. Do we agree? Why (/not)?”

I would say: yes, I have no doubt that beauty has an effect on character, partly from watching this programme recently (and I’ve purchased the book, but haven’t read it yet).

Of course, this is a complicated proposal. I happen to think that the Weeping Woman of Picasso is also tremendously beneficial to character – but I’m not sure I would count it as beautiful, even though I could (and have) spent ages contemplating it.

I feel on stronger ground when thinking about architecture – I think the living environment affects how we live, both directly and indirectly.

And of course music….

What do people think?

Scruton’s programme is available on Youtube, part 1 here:

Reason, emotion, judgement, faith

Here is one of those truisms that I quite like:

“The definition of insanity is to repeatedly do the same thing whilst expecting a different result.”

This seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to bring someone trapped in repetitious behaviour to realise that they are doing something wrong, and that if they are unhappy with some aspect of their present situation then they need to change something.

Now compare that with the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider making a web, which generates the truism ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. Once more, this seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to encourage someone not to give up, not to be daunted by a sense of failure but to learn to overcome the obstacles in their path and treat triumph and disaster just the same.

My point is not that one of these truisms is ‘more true’ than the other. My point is that discerning what is appropriate depends upon the faculty of judgement, what Aristotle called φρόνησις phronesis, or practical wisdom.

In my chapter 3 I was quite critical of “reason” – a position that I maintain. “Reason” – as understood in contemporary society – is, to my mind, radically inimical to the cultivation of phronesis. This is due to the idolatrous conception of reason, in particular, the way in which it systematically denigrates the emotional aspects of human life.

Now Scott responded with this comment: “Emotions follow beliefs. That is, they are involuntary reactions we have as things happen to us, but what they are (and how strong) depends on how those things are evaluated (subconsciously) by our beliefs. Hence, they are data that, if we are self-observant, tell us what our beliefs are — in particular, in this context, what we idolize. But the only way to change beliefs (short of personal revelation — different data) is through reason.”

I disagree with this. I would want to discriminate between “reason” – by which I would understand our capacity to exercise logical thought – and “intellect” which I understand in a much broader sense. Intellect is to my understanding something much more reflective and, indeed, a much more integrated-with-emotion sort of faculty. It is intellect which gives birth to phronesis. In other words, our emotional reactions are not (they do not remain) unconscious – the whole point of spiritual maturity is that the emotions progressively become more integrated into the wider personality.

What I mean by this is that the choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce can be made entirely rational on either side – I see that as simply a sterile working out from whatever premises are chosen, and trivially true. What the intellect can do, however, is work out which of sanity and Robert the Bruce is applicable in the particular instance. This faculty derives from, and is dependent upon, a high degree of self-understanding and awareness with regard to values. It is this faculty which, to my mind, can only result in faith – for all other value commitments end up producing idols. (I don’t expect this to be persuasive to those who currently worship such idols, but it makes sense to anyone ‘outside the bubble’.)

Which brings me to how this links in with faith. The commitment of Christian faith is that in Jesus Christ we see the truest account of what it means to be human – the image of God in human shape. In other words, Jesus Christ is the idol of the system, in the sense of being the capstone and summation of it. The choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce is one that ends up being drawn into an intellectual reflection that brings Jesus into the conversation (much more could be said in unpacking this – another time).

To walk with a particular faith is to make choices that reveal that the judgements formed derive from a specific set of assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality; in other words, a Christian faith is displayed by a series of decisions that only make sense if the actor is assumed to believe the truth of the faith. The worth of Christianity is then assessable by the fruits of those decisions made by such actors (called saints in Christian theology).

The saints are those whose capacity for judgement has been built up from the intellectual integration of reason and emotion; or, to put that differently, the emotions of the personality have been trained to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength. The saint is the one who has been enabled to desire one thing, and thus has purity of heart. That is why they see God.

Reason, emotion, judgement, faith

Here is one of those truisms that I quite like:

“The definition of insanity is to repeatedly do the same thing whilst expecting a different result.”

This seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to bring someone trapped in repetitious behaviour to realise that they are doing something wrong, and that if they are unhappy with some aspect of their present situation then they need to change something.

Now compare that with the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider making a web, which generates the truism ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’. Once more, this seems to embody some wisdom – it might be told in order to encourage someone not to give up, not to be daunted by a sense of failure but to learn to overcome the obstacles in their path and treat triumph and disaster just the same.

My point is not that one of these truisms is ‘more true’ than the other. My point is that discerning what is appropriate depends upon the faculty of judgement, what Aristotle called φρόνησις phronesis, or practical wisdom.

In my chapter 3 I was quite critical of “reason” – a position that I maintain. “Reason” – as understood in contemporary society – is, to my mind, radically inimical to the cultivation of phronesis. This is due to the idolatrous conception of reason, in particular, the way in which it systematically denigrates the emotional aspects of human life.

Now Scott responded with this comment: “Emotions follow beliefs. That is, they are involuntary reactions we have as things happen to us, but what they are (and how strong) depends on how those things are evaluated (subconsciously) by our beliefs. Hence, they are data that, if we are self-observant, tell us what our beliefs are — in particular, in this context, what we idolize. But the only way to change beliefs (short of personal revelation — different data) is through reason.”

I disagree with this. I would want to discriminate between “reason” – by which I would understand our capacity to exercise logical thought – and “intellect” which I understand in a much broader sense. Intellect is to my understanding something much more reflective and, indeed, a much more integrated-with-emotion sort of faculty. It is intellect which gives birth to phronesis. In other words, our emotional reactions are not (they do not remain) unconscious – the whole point of spiritual maturity is that the emotions progressively become more integrated into the wider personality.

What I mean by this is that the choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce can be made entirely rational on either side – I see that as simply a sterile working out from whatever premises are chosen, and trivially true. What the intellect can do, however, is work out which of sanity and Robert the Bruce is applicable in the particular instance. This faculty derives from, and is dependent upon, a high degree of self-understanding and awareness with regard to values. It is this faculty which, to my mind, can only result in faith – for all other value commitments end up producing idols. (I don’t expect this to be persuasive to those who currently worship such idols, but it makes sense to anyone ‘outside the bubble’.)

Which brings me to how this links in with faith. The commitment of Christian faith is that in Jesus Christ we see the truest account of what it means to be human – the image of God in human shape. In other words, Jesus Christ is the idol of the system, in the sense of being the capstone and summation of it. The choice between sanity and Robert the Bruce is one that ends up being drawn into an intellectual reflection that brings Jesus into the conversation (much more could be said in unpacking this – another time).

To walk with a particular faith is to make choices that reveal that the judgements formed derive from a specific set of assumptions and beliefs about the nature of reality; in other words, a Christian faith is displayed by a series of decisions that only make sense if the actor is assumed to believe the truth of the faith. The worth of Christianity is then assessable by the fruits of those decisions made by such actors (called saints in Christian theology).

The saints are those whose capacity for judgement has been built up from the intellectual integration of reason and emotion; or, to put that differently, the emotions of the personality have been trained to love God with all heart, soul, mind and strength. The saint is the one who has been enabled to desire one thing, and thus has purity of heart. That is why they see God.

A line of thought

“God” is the label that we affix to what we believe to be most important.

For some, there is more than one God. Integrity is not possible in this context.

For some, there is no coherence in what is desired, merely a living moment to moment. There is no integrity possible here, in a more obvious manner.

For most, however, there is a desire for some sort of integrity, for the experience of a life knitted together and formed by the pursuit of a higher purpose.

It has to be a _higher_ purpose; our own wills and desires are not a sustainable diet and soon become jaded. In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it, even, perhaps essentially, that there needs to be some sort of internal struggle in order to attain or achieve what that value might be.

This is the spiritual path. This is learning to see the world truly. This is learning to desire one thing.

For some, that one thing may be completely secularly explainable – say, pursuing the agenda of Amnesty International whole-heartedly. Yet for any identifiable value I believe it fairly straightforward to generate situations where that identifiable value comes into conflict with other similar values.

It seems to me that it is only a religious tradition – specifically, it is only a religious tradition which has a place for the apophatic – that can generate the intellectual resources which enable the higher values to be pursued with integrity.

In other words, and succinctly, I do happen to believe that it is not possible to be “moral” (= pursue a path of personal integrity) without a properly formed belief in and worship of “God” (= transcendent source of value with intellectual tradition enabling the exploration of the same).