Monday, January 19, 2015

Reflections: Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration

I have a new Brow-Bruising Read.  John Locke's Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration is one of the most influential works of political philosophy ever published.  It's also quite a slog to get through. 

Without a doubt the most brutal part of Two Treatises is the first treatise in which Locke provides an exhaustive refutation to Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha.  The biggest issue I had with the treatise is not necessarily how it is written, although I did find it redundant and overwrought, but how irrelevant it is.  The thrust of Filmer's argument is that monarchy or political rule is derived from the first man, Adam.  No one is arguing this point in our day.  The debate feels more like a product of its time than any other political philosophy argument I have read thus far.  Often times these kinds of books provide first principles which are still being debated, albeit they have taken on a different outward appearance.  Locke's first treatise doesn't really do that.  It's a product of a particular place and a particular time, and it is so far removed from our current experience I found very little benefit from it. 

Locke's second treatise, however, does strike at the heart of many of our ongoing debates.  John Locke was certainly an influence on the founders of the United States and the political culture, traditions, and structure they designed.  (The extent of Locke's influence is debatable, of course, but his influence was present).  Locke's work is most interesting when you can see his commentaries intersecting with the considerations of today.  His explanations of socially and naturally important topics such as private property and political representation are fascinating and compelling.  It must be said that his writing is not terribly accessible.  Unless you love political philosophy and have a need to read one of its most influential works, I would steer clear of this book.

Lock's letter concerning toleration is probably the most enjoyable of this collection.  It's a skewering indictment of inquisition-like Christianity and the forceful expansion of any religious faith.  He asserts forcefully and persuasively the private and sensitive nature of religious faith and devotion, and the necessity for magistrates to protect religious liberty for all members of a society.  As a deeply religious person, I found Locke's observations on the matter poignantly instructive.  There is much to be admired in his prose, however obtuse it can be at times, and much more to be admired in his conclusions.  Locke has a powerful understanding of the spiritual and transcendent nature of mankind, and much of his political philosophy reflects that.

I'm so glad I can say I have read Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration.  It is an indispensable part of a political science enthusiast's collection and understanding.  It was also brutal to read.  I didn't enjoy much of it, but I'm glad I stuck through it. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France
Reflections: Democracy in America
What Every American Should Read

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