Locke the key

Locke hardly read Hobbes, denied having read him when asked, and among Locke’s surviving notes which suggest serious attention to a wide range of authors, there would seem to be only one mention of Hobbes, and that rather dismissive. So that when I casually remarked, somewhere the other day, that Locke developed certain ideas from Hobbes I was, strictly speaking, uttering nonsense. I often do that, and feel slightly embarrassed later. Curiously, it was the mere sight of the spine of Laslett’s edition of Locke’s Two Treatises that sobered me, afterwards. (If I lived off e-books, I’d have no such prompts.) It has a long and, in the best sense, scholarly introduction I suddenly remembered having perused.

But I’m a hack, a mere journalist, wandering ignorantly through space and time, and people like me do not bother with footnotes. We find them too confining; raw memory will serve. (My hero Kipling refused even to keep notebooks.) What I think I meant was that Hobbes appropriated various ideas about the nature of politics and the human condition from the plein air, as it was circulating in his time; and Locke developed the same in the next generation.

Locke himself, pillar of our modern Gringo world, and the Anglo bits especially, is a slew of self-contradictions and vague sourceless references (see Laslett, again). Yet he was, too, a meticulous, if ignored, reviser of his own manuscripts. Charged, for instance, with having no intellectual appreciation of the foundations of Natural Law, he would become very snooty and fix the text in which he had left that impression. It was not his fault that all his careful corrections were dispersed unread at his death, only to be rediscovered centuries later. Others among his eccentricities incline me to love him as at least a fellow hack, ducking and weaving through the mudfights of his time, inching towards the celestial castle on its promontory, far far away.

It was in realizing my own, typically Twitterish mistake, that I recalled what made Locke, even more than Hobbes, novel and frightening and exhilarating to his own first readers. Hobbes’s nastiness, brutality, and shortness, is conducted in a full view of actual history. He sparkles with classical and biblical allusion, with his sense of the development of civil law, with an insistence on cumulative human experience. His prose style itself — among the most magnificent exhibitions of the English language — designedly throbs with such particulars, and is fretted with the old poetical renderings of beautiful words such as “warre.” To my mind, he is the enemy, but a fine and worthy one. I could close a pub, drinking with that man.

Locke is an enemy of a different, and rather abstemious kind. He writes almost exclusively about politics and the human condition “in principle,” and with an indifference to heritage that makes him seem sometimes to have been born yesterday. This was the revolutionary thrill he gave many of his interpreters: who felt, reading him, the power of his tabula rasa — his notion that the human child arrives in the world with a blank slate, upon which almost anything can be written. This was the kind of liberation he offered. Henceforth the old Aristotelian order was truly overthrown, and the work of Enlightenment could proceed. The American Constitution, to give just one example, could not exist without Locke, written as it was in the belief that we could throw out everything and start again. Rousseau and Revolution were, if I may make another of my irresponsible assertions, communicated by Locke’s key from England also unto France. (The French will deny this.) And history, uncoupled from its former drivers, could slide with a new, gravitationally-assisted speed, towards the Finland Station.

Is this a wild overstatement? Do I take Locke too seriously? Of that, my learned reader must decide. I, for my part, am content if I have found no more than a means to justify my absurd, almost perverse love for Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. For he was arguably the last of our literary, i.e. readable, political philosophers — those who assumed that the moral of the story must emerge from the telling of the story, as from the life lived; and that it does not descend from the sky as a species of sterilized gezo or manna. Even David Hume can be seen as something of a reactionary in this light, with his great concern for an actual British history, and his backward-looking habit of writing well. Even Voltaire (as I explained once in some review of a book by John Ralston-Purina) could be presented as a soi-disant Tory in this light, oriented to the past, by comparison to his self-styled “bastards.” Though if a Tory, Voltaire was, like Hume, a rather glib one.

To put this another way, I feel more at home in a house with furniture. And this, even if the furniture is a little tacky. I like to be able to sit somewhere: to find a chair, then maybe a pot to boil my lentils. I do not like to conjure them from scratch.