A review of John Locke and Modern Life, by Lee Ward

Consider modern life: metaphysics, once the backbone of the academy and the church, is now the coin of a very small realm within both. Knowledge is almost entirely an empirical affair, but at the same time it is rarely considered to transcend the boundaries of one’s opinion. The family, once a patriarchal institution bound to inflexibilities of conjugal nature, is now thought to be a contractual arrangement intended to secure legal benefits. Education is no longer the domain of aristocrats and classicists; now practicality and commerce are its raison d’être. Parish churches, where baptism once paralleled citizenship and dogma was fundamental to civic virtue and concord, are now little more than voluntary associations. Constitutional interpretation, once rooted in the rhetoric of commonwealth and tradition, has become bipolar, asserting both the rights of the people and the inviolable authority of the state to guarantee those rights. And the triumphal rhetoric of democratic equality continues to advance, even in places once firmly in the grip of both tribalism and tyranny. Is all this because of John Locke?

Lee Ward’s John Locke and Modern Life is a rich and impressive meditation on modernity, and on Locke’s treatment of social and political themes like the family, education, the church, constitutional government, and international relations. Though the author, a professor of political studies at the University of Regina, can stay disappointingly close to previous scholarship when a fresh reading is needed, he often breaks new ground. Experts interested in theoretical themes will find it an ambitious and essential contribution to Locke studies. Novices will gain a helpful overview of where Locke studies have been and where they may be going next.

Ward “means to show that Locke’s influence on modernity was so pervasive that many, although certainly not all, matters that were of philosophic import to him continue to matter to us today.” His thesis is that what matters to Locke matters to us in a unique and important way, alien to pre-moderns, because Locke argued so powerfully that we have a duty to consider major questions of politics and society for ourselves. Ward explains that Locke offers a “unified and coherent philosophy of human freedom” rooted in a “democratization of mind” that enables the confident pursuit of knowledge gained from sensation and reflection, apart from “tradition, custom, and conventional inequality.” In short, he prescribes individual investigation and decision-making free from epistemological hierarchy as both a right and a responsibility.

Ward argues that Locke was not simply echoing his predecessors or contemporaries, but that he was, epistemologically speaking, his own man. One cannot understand Locke by starting with Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, or Spinoza, for example—and in fact, Locke thought his early modern contemporaries were as dogmatic as the scholastics.

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When Ward proceeds in a Lockean manner, eschewing the conventional wisdom, the result is a thoughtful and rich inquiry. But his argument sometimes disappoints in his discussions of moral hierarchy. Though he has not joined the chorus of critics who cast Locke an amoralist or a simple hedonist, he echoes an all-too-common view that is in dire need of reexamination. Ward rightly argues that Locke’s particular moral calculus hinges on a God who rewards and punishes individuals who are accountable for themselves. But elsewhere he makes the mistake of arguing that Locke’s teaching excludes teleology, and that Locke’s recourse to the state of nature and self-preservation makes his teaching essentially Hobbesian. Ward should have ignored the secondary sources on this point and instead doubled down on his own fine treatment of Locke’s argument in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that we must suspend our desires in order to focus on eternal ends that transcend immediate pleasures and pains.

Ward’s larger argument is impressive despite this misstep. Overall, he seems to understand that what appears to be the rejection of teleology is actually a call to discern and pursue human flourishing through our own devices. Our understanding of “everlasting Happiness, or Misery” cannot be certain—Locke firmly rejected dogmatism (whether secular or sacred), arguing that there is no innate or intrinsic connection between human reason and the reality it seeks to understand. This does not make rational discovery impossible, though, and it is this complex relationship between the mind and reality that makes Locke’s teaching appear both conservative and revolutionary. He appears conservative as he seeks the true meaning of the law or nature, or the church, or sovereignty, but he is a revolutionary in ensuring that these concepts take on new forms that respect the individual. His teaching retains retains a telos, but he rejects any authoritarian means of achieving it.

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Ward’s book succeeds where some of his predecessors have failed because Ward, in the spirit of Locke, does not draw his subject’s conclusions for him. Locke recast our whole understanding of church, the state, education, and the family, so that they could be used to help the individual think about the world without telling him what to think. If Locke did not think the individual capable of shouldering this burden and apprehending his proper end with the help of those institutions, his project would not have been nearly as ambitious or inclusive.

Did Locke’s democratization of mind reject what Ward calls the “majestic alliance of biblical revelation and classical philosophy”? Or does it only appear this way because Locke made it difficult to imagine either without an authoritarian hue? Locke’s goal was neither to give us an outline for our social and political institutions, nor to tell us what we cannot use as a guide. He became a founder of modernity by persuading us that we must think for ourselves. The challenge of modernity is to determine precisely what that means.