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History of Modern Philosophy
(b) Practical Philosophy
by Falckenberg, Richard

Locke contributed to practical philosophy important suggestions concerning freedom, morality, politics, and education. Freedom is the "power to begin or forbear, continue or put an end to" actions (thoughts and motions). It is not destroyed by the fact that the will is always moved by desire, more exactly, by uneasiness under present circumstances, and that the decision is determined by the judgment of the understanding. Although the result of examination is itself dependent on the unalterable relations of ideas, it is still in our power to decide whether we will consider at all, and what ideas we will take into consideration. Not the thought, not the determination of the will, is free, but the person, the mind; this has the power to suspend the prosecution of desire, and by its judgment to determine the will, even in opposition to inclination. Four stages must, consequently, be distinguished in the volitional process: desire or uneasiness; the deliberative combination of ideas; the judgment of the understanding; determination. Freedom has its place at the beginning of the second stage: it is open to me to decide whether to proceed at all to consideration and final judgment concerning a proposed action; thus to prevent desire from directly issuing in movements; and, according to the result of my examination, perhaps, to substitute for the act originally desired an opposite one. Without freedom, moral judgment and responsibility would be impossible. The above appears to us to represent the essence of Locke's often vacillating discussion of freedom (II. 21). Desire is directed to pleasure; the will obeys the understanding, which is exalted above motives of pleasure and the passions. Everything is physically good which occasions and increases pleasure in us, which removes or diminishes pain, or contributes to the attainment of some other good and the avoidance of some other evil. Actions, on the contrary, are morally good when they conform to a rule by which they are judged. Whoever earnestly meditates on his welfare will prefer moral or rational good to sensuous good, since the former alone vouchsafes true happiness. God has most intimately united virtue and general happiness, since he has made the preservation of human society dependent on the exercise of virtue.

The mark of a law for free beings is the fact that it apportions reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. The laws to which an action must conform in order to deserve the predicate "good" are three in number (II. 28): by the divine law "men judge whether their actions are sins or duties"; by the civil law, "whether they be criminal or innocent" (deserving of punishment or not); by the law of opinion or reputation, "whether they be virtues or vices." The first of these laws threatens immorality with future misery; the second, with legal punishments; the third, with the disapproval of our fellow-men.

The third law, the law of opinion or reputation, called also philosophical, coincides on the whole, though not throughout, with the first, the divine law of nature, which is best expressed in Christianity, and which is the true touchstone of the moral character of actions. While Locke, in his polemic against innate ideas, had emphasized the diversity of moral judgments among individuals and nations (as a result of which an action is condemned in one place and praised as virtuous in another), he here gives prominence to the fact of general agreement in essentials, since it is only natural that each should encourage by praise and esteem that which is to his advantage, while virtue evidently conduces to the good of all who come into contact with the virtuous. Amid the greatest diversity of moral judgments virtue and praise, vice and blame, go together, while in general that is praised which is really praiseworthy--even the vicious man approves the right and condemns that which is faulty, at least in others. Locke was the first to call attention to general approval as an external mark of moral action, a hint which the Scottish moralists subsequently exploited. The objection that he reduced morality to the level of the conventional is unjust, for the law of opinion and reputation did not mean for him the true principle of morality, but only that which controls the majority of mankind--If anyone is inclined to doubt that commendation and disgrace are sufficient motives to action, he does not understand mankind; there is hardly one in ten thousand insensible enough to endure in quiet the constant disapproval of society. Even if the lawbreaker hopes to escape punishment at the hands of the state, and puts out of mind the thought of future retribution, he can never escape the disapproval of his misdeeds on the part of his fellows. In entire harmony with these views is Locke's advice to educators, that they should early cultivate the love of esteem in their pupils.

Of the four principles of morals which Locke employs side by side, and in alternation, without determining their exact relations--the reason, the will of God, the general good (and, deduced from this, the approval of our fellow-men), self-love--the latter two possess only an accessory significance, while the former two co-operate in such a way that the one determines the content of the good and the other confirms it and gives it binding authority. The Christian religion does the reason a threefold service--it gives her information concerning our duty, which she could have reached herself, indeed, without the help of revelation, but not with the same certitude and rapidity; it invests the good with the majesty of absolute obligation by proclaiming it as the command of God; it increases the motives to morality by its doctrines of immortality and future retribution. Although Locke thus intimately joins virtue with earthly joy and eternal happiness, and although he finds in the expectation of heaven or hell a welcome support for the will in its conflict with the passions, we must remember that he values this regard for the results and rewards of virtue only as a subsidiary motive, and does not esteem it as in itself ethical: eternal happiness forms, as it were, the "dowry" of virtue, which adds to its true value in the eyes of fools and the weak, though it constitutes neither its essence nor its basis. Virtue seems to the wise man beautiful and valuable enough even without this, and yet the commendations of philosophers gain for her but few wooers. The crowd is attracted to her only when it is made clear to it that virtue is the "best policy."

In politics Locke is an opponent of both forms of absolutism, the despotic absolutism of Hobbes and the patriarchal absolutism of Filmer (died 1647; his Patriarcha Declared hereditary monarchy a divine institution), and a moderate exponent of the liberal tendencies of Milton (1608-74) and Algernon Sidney (died 1683; Discourses concerning Government. The two Treatises on Civil Government 1690, develop, the first negatively, the second positively, the constitutional theory with direct reference to the political condition of England at the time. All men are born free and with like capacities and rights. Each is to preserve his own interests, without injuring those of others. The right to be treated by every man as a rational being holds even prior to the founding of the state; but then there is no authoritative power to decide conflicts. The state of nature is not in itself a state of war, but it would lead to this, if each man should himself attempt to exercise the right of self-protection against injury. In order to prevent acts of violence there is needed a civil community, based on a free contract, to which each individual member shall transfer his freedom and power. Submission to the authority of the state is a free act, and, by the contract made, natural rights are guarded, not destroyed; political freedom is obedience to self-imposed law, subordination to the common will expressing itself in the majority. The political power is neither tyrannical, for arbitrary rule is no better than the state of nature, nor paternal, for rulers and subjects are on an equality in the use of the reason, which is not the case with parents and children. The supreme power is the legislative, intrusted by the community to its chosen representatives--the laws should aim at the general good. Subordinate to the legislative power, and to be kept separate from it, come the two executing powers, which are best united in a single hand (the king), viz., the executive power (administrative and judicial), which carries the laws into effect, and the federative power, which defends the community against external foes. The ruler is subject to the law. If the government, through violation of the law, has become unworthy of the power intrusted to it, and has forfeited it, sovereign authority reverts to the source whence it was derived, that is, to the people. The people decides whether its representatives and the monarch have deserved the confidence placed in them, and has the right to depose them, if they exceed their authority. As the sworn obedience (of the subjects) is to the law alone, the ruler who acts contrary to law has lost the right to govern, has put himself in a state of hostility to the people, and revolution becomes merely necessary defense against aggression.

Montesquieu made these political ideas of Locke the common property of Europe.[1] Rousseau did a like service for Locke's pedagogical views, given in the modest but important Thoughts concerning Education 1693. The aim of education should not be to instill anything into the pupil, but to develop everything from him; it should guide and not master him, should develop his capacities in a natural way, should rouse him to independence, not drill him into a scholar. In order to these ends thorough and affectionate consideration of his individuality is requisite, and private instruction is, therefore, to be preferred to public instruction. Since it is the business of education to make men useful members of society, it must not neglect their physical development. Learning through play and object teaching make the child's task a delight; modern languages are to be learned more by practice than by systematic study. The chief difference between Locke and Rousseau is that the former sets great value on arousing the sense of esteem, while the latter entirely rejects this as an educational instrument.

[Footnote 1: Cf. Theod. Pietsch, Ueber das Verhältniss der politischen Theorien Lockes zu Montesquieus Lehre von der Teilung der Gewalten Berlin dissertation, Breslau, 1887.]


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