A review of Locke's Education for Liberty, by Nathan Tarcov

The greatest weaknesses of twentieth-century liberalism stem from liberals' failure to maintain their ability to make moral judgments. Moral relativism has transformed sane liberals into manic depressives, who alternate between theo­retically unfounded activism and practically impotent wishy-washiness, between the attempt to have morality without judgment and the attempt to have judgment without morality.

Liberals have forgotten how to make liberal principles and strong moral positions mutually supporting. They have forgotten that the liberal attempt to put some distance between moral education and political power is based on the same premise as the attempt to separate church and state: that this separation is the best way of ensuring that both religion and politics-and both morality and politics-survive and flourish. They have forgotten that this liberal separation of state and society is not absolute. Not only is political power still derived from (and therefore bound to be colored by) society; less obviously, society, economy, morality, and religion still need political regulation, albeit now for the purpose of keeping them healthy and limited by the recognition of individual liberty, rather than (as before) healthy and neglectful of individual liberty. Liberal politics demands delicate moral and political judgment, not political indifference to morality or thought­less moralism.

Because of its loss of memory and confidence, liberalism in our day tends either to be reduced to a simplistic libertarianism, or to be perverted into a radical neglect of liberty or of liberal morality. Liberal politics loses its way. The practical result of this liberal disorientation is illustrated by an episode that was reported last May. The city of Indianapolis passed an ordinance that outlawed pornography, defined as the viola­tion of women's civil rights by the depiction of women as "objects for domination, conquest, violation, exploitation, possession, or use. . . ." Civil libertarians immediately challenged the constitutionality of the law. Opposing their challenge was an alliance of radical feminists (including an older if not wiser Linda Lovelace-Marchiano) and Moral Majoritarians. The three factions in this dispute were fragments or perver­sions of a wise, Lockean liberalism, which would teach the civil libertarians and the Moral Majority how liberty and morality need to be combined, and would teach the feminists how much that combination can support their cause.

Professor Tarcov's book is an excellent reminder and analysis of that wise liberalism. He gives us a fuller version of what in a previously published sketch he called "a 'non-Lockean' Locke."1 He states his thesis and his intention in the "Conclusion" of his book:

To understand [Locke's] view of human life as an entirely degraded one, bereft of any dignity, is to do an injustice not only to Locke but to liberalism and ourselves. . . . finding nothing decent or inspiring in the interpreta­tions of Locke that are offered to them, students of our political culture have gone off seeking ‘non-Lockean' elements in our heritage. They should discover, instead, the ‘non-Lockean' elements in Locke. (p. 210)

This "non-Lockean" Locke is primarily a non-Hobbesian Locke. Many scholars have recognized that Locke protests too much his innocence of the Hobbesian way of thinking about politics. Locke and modern liberalism do owe much to Hobbes's thinking. But they do not owe it every­thing. Leo Strauss once suggested that Hobbes could be seen as playing Sherlock Holmes to Machiavelli's Professor Moriarty;2 perhaps Locke should be seen as Dr. Watson or Sir Arthur himself, more concerned with educating citizens in liberal habits of civility than with instructing good or evil princes in the more troubling excep­tions to the rules. Hobbes's premises and ques­tions are often the same as Locke's, but his conclusions and answers are remarkably different. Hobbes preaches despotism, however tempered by a prudent latitudinarianism; Locke preaches liberal politics, however qualified by recognition of the need for "executive prerogative." Hobbes's atomistic individualism requires a leviathan state that dominates the family, educational establish­ments, and other social institutions; Locke's position is so opposite that Professor Tarcov is able to suggest that "the fundamental separation of powers" in Locke's doctrines is between political power and the power of education, which he entrusts exclusively to the private sphere. By emphasizing the similarities between Hobbes and Locke without also appreciating their great differ­ences, one risks mistaking the character of liberalism.

In his first (and longest) chapter, Professor Tarcov contrasts Locke's liberalism with Sir Robert Filmer's patriarchalism and Thomas Hobbes's illiberal individualism. He shows how Locke's reinterpretation of the family was fully as individualistic (and anti-patriarchalist) as Hobbes's, without being as corrosive. Liberal political thinkers are often accused of being his­torically and sociologically unrealistic in their assumption that individual human beings-class­less, raceless, sexless, parentless, and childless-are the units of political society. At the same time, many critics accuse liberals of abandoning their individualism and accepting sexist and patriarchalist assumptions when they discuss conjugal and parental relations. One of the most valuable services of this chapter is its carefully argued response to both of these accusations. One can quarrel with certain details of Professor Tarcov's argument. For example, he seems too concerned to explain away Locke's recognition of the natural tenderness that parents feel for their children (pp. 67-70); this recognition does not threaten the integrity of Locke's individualism as much as Professor Tarcov fears it does, because Locke recognizes this tenderness not as the motive for parents to undertake the government, nourishment, and education of children, but only as a force that tempers parents' government of children, once undertaken (Second Treatise, §63, 67, 170). Furthermore, while Professor Tarcov notes Locke's openness to the natural legality of polyandry and other unconventional family forms (pp. 75, 209), he overlooks Locke's argument that durable unions of one man and one woman greatly encourage a liberal society's industriousness, "which uncertain mixture, or easie and fre­quent Solutions of Conjugal Society would might­ily disturb" (Second Treatise, §80; see also First Treatise, §59). Locke makes the family serve the end of industriousness, which is, in turn, a means to the comfortable security of individuals. How­ever, these quarrels are meant only to improve Professor Tarcov's argument that Locke (like Hobbes) is individualistic but (unlike Hobbes) is not atomistic. Locke's thinking can be historically and sociologically plausible at the same time that it is politically liberal, because he understands both political society and the politically independent family as results of individualism rightly understood. The logic of liberalism is not opposed to families and other subpolitical, "intermediate" associations.

Locke also tries to understand morality as a product of individualism. He discusses the moral virtues in Some Thoughts Concerning Edu­cation, which he first published in 1693, four years after his Two Treatises of Government. The rest of Professor Tarcov's book (chapters 2-4) is an enlightening commentary on Locke's Thoughts. He helpfully points out the division of this work into three main parts, which first treat the establishment and methods of exercising parents' tutorial authority, then move up to the proper employment of that authority in the cultivation of certain virtues, and finally descend to more particular consideration of the several parts of education. He summarizes Locke's liberal virtues as "self-denial, civility, liberality, justice, courage, hardiness, humanity, industry, the avoidance of waste, and truthfulness" (p. 182). Locke clearly does not favor "a mean-spirited, selfish material­ism" (p. 210). But from merely listing the Lockean virtues, even without going through Professor Tarcov's detailed analysis, it is equally clear that he does favor materialism and does not seek to cultivate aristocratic virtues. (This is related to Locke's "philistine attitude toward poetry, music, and painting": pp. 204-205, 247 n.87.) He seeks rather to form "men of business and affairs," "fit and courageous, able to be soldiers if necessary," but much more importantly, "willing and able to concern themselves with their estates, perhaps even with trade, and to be active and informed in public affairs." Such men would be "in temper neither slavish nor tyrannical but free men, independent and self-reliant," but also "acutely sensitive to praise and blame, to the power of public opinion" (p. 5). Professor Tarcov's conclu­sion quoted above is carefully stated: Locke's view of human life is not "anentirely degraded one, bereft of any dignity" (my emphasis).

The deepest question raised by this book is the adequacy of liberal morality for human happiness. Granting that liberals both need and can justify moral virtues, do they not need (and can they justify) higher moral virtues than those put forward by Locke? Locke's "education for liberty" may avoid political domination of the formation of souls, but it still seeks to structure human choices, and that being so, does it not risk stifling some of the better parts of human nature? Professor Tarcov's account of Locke's educational thought ends with an outline of a way of defending Locke's "bourgeois or middle-class morality" against the Rousseauian critique that is still so appealing-today:

[Locke] may offend our moral taste by seeming to slight imagination, passion, and sexuality in favor of reason, self-expression in favor of self-denial, beauty in favor of utility. Our egalitarian but affluent society seems to yearn for some of the aristocratic ethos Locke had to criticize to make us possible. His emphasis on the harsh virtues of self-denial, courage, hardiness, and industry may offend our easy­going self-gratification, but these virtues may still be necessary to the individual liberty and comfort that we join with him in valuing. Locke saw that we have to be willing to deny our desires, face our fears, endure our pains, and take pains in labor in order to preserve our equal liberty and avoid being either tyrants or slaves. . . . For Locke, passion and imagination make us subject to the authority of others, exploited by their ambition and covetousness. (pp. 210-11)

This is a beautiful statement of a useful strategy for sensible liberals. Such a strategy can reveal both the dignity of liberal virtues and the low "effectual truth" of the "higher" virtues of Rousseau, Marx, and other radical critics of liberalism. But even thus fortified, Lockean liberalism faces a weakness (if not such a widely appealing challenge) on its right flank. There is a gap in Locke's educational system. He writes at length about the way to transform children into liberal citizens (and in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding he addresses the philoso­phers), but he leaves much to individual tempers and circumstances. He composes reflections on education for the English gentry of his day, and leaves other liberals in other times and places prudently to determine their own appropriate educational scheme. Locke may be a moral liberal but he is also a merely liberal moralist, whose morality is not an end in itself but a means to liberty. There is therefore an indeterminacy and open-endedness in Lockean morality, which makes it theoretically unsatisfactory, even if no less tenable and useful in practice.

The heart of this problem is made clear in Professor Tarcov's analysis of the low and narrow psychological foundation of Locke's political and moral thought. He avoids "the vexed question of the rational foundation of morality in Locke's writings" (p. 77), but boldly lays bare its psycho­logical foundation. For Locke, the "basic human desire" is not for sensual pleasure but for a more willful and less determinate end: "liberty," which means having one's own way, or being treated as a rational being (p. 133). "This indefiniteness of human desire is related to Locke's minimization of human nature …" (p. 115). In this light, Locke's frequent recognition of the rationality of human beings looks less like an idealistic statement about human nature than a realistic acceptance of the fact that human beings will insist on being treated as rational creatures, whether they are or not (Thoughts, §41). Perhaps no less than for radical critics of Lockean liberalism, for Locke himself human nature is too indefinite to make the perfection of human nature the end of education, even of education safely separated from politics.

Even if we "begin"3 with Professor Tarcov's more than commonly appreciative version of Locke's thinking, we end by wondering whether we do, after all, still need to seek "non-Lockean elements in our heritage" and in our own lives.


1. "A 'Non-Lockean' Locke and the Character of Liberal­ism," pp. 130-141 in Douglas MacLean and Claudia Mills, eds.,Liberalism Reconsidered (Totowa, N.J.: Rowan and Allanheld, 1983).

2. What Is Political Philosophy? (New York: The Free Press, 1959), p. 48.

3. "A 'Non-Lockean' Locke," p. 138.