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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Thomas West On John Locke

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HH: Welcome to the last hour of the radio week, the Hillsdale Dialogue. Each week, I spend this hour with Dr. Larry Arnn and/or one of his colleagues from the faculty at Hillsdale College talking about something that has lasted, something that is important, something that ought to be talked about more often than it is except on college campuses like Hillsdale, and they are very few. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, and all of the work of Hillsdale College is available at, where if you will go even during this broadcast to, you can sign up completely free for the monthly speech digest, Imprimus, and you can find their world of free online courses that will edify and elevate you, and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it. I’m pleased to welcome back with Dr. Arnn this week Dr. Thomas West. He’s the Paul and Dawn Potter professor of politics. He was with us last week talking about Hobbes. He is back this week to talk about John Locke, the English philosopher and physician, often called the father of classical liberalism. If you go through college of any decency, you’ll read the second treatise on government. And if you go to any law school with a 1st Amendment class, you’ll read the letter on toleration. Dr. West, welcome back. Dr. Arnn, welcome back. How ought we to begin telling people about Locke? I’ve got a couple of your articles, and some very specific things I want to talk to you about. But what’s the overarching contribution that Locke has made to the way that we live today, Dr. West?

TW: Locke is the, probably the one European thinker that our founders most admired when it came to figuring out what government is for. Other philosophers like Montesquieu, they looked to him for constitutional structure, Blackstone for law. But Locke was the guy, the go-to guy for what are the principles? What’s government all about? And I think he did, partly, one of the reasons why the founders were so successful was that they were so willing to follow his guide on that point, and the guide which I think America today could benefit from.

HH: You have two articles which you sent me, the second one of which, The Ground Of Locke’s Law Of Nature, makes a statement which I found refreshingly candid. I being with the second treatise, because that is where most readers begin. Hardly anyone reads the first treatise today, and as far as I can tell, ever did. The second treatise is where Locke lays out most of the political doctrines that he is famous for. At the beginning of chapter two, Locke gives us two arguments that profess to explain how we know that we are governed by the law of nature, and part of what that law requires of it. What is the condensed version of that condensed second treatise?

TW: Well, I wasn’t trying to talk about the whole second treatise. My point was what’s the ground of the whole argument? What does he think is the way human beings know what’s right in wrong insofar as we have reason alone to guide us as opposed to Christianity, which Locke was also very appreciative of. But if you’re looking just to reason, he’s saying that’s the law of nature. But he’s somewhat, Locke’s somewhat coy about how do you know what the law of nature is, how do you derive it. And he gives you a bunch of different arguments in his writings, not just the second treatise, about that. What I wanted to emphasize was one of the themes that I think is most helpful for us, for understanding this point, is Locke says you’ve got to look to what’s going to be good for human beings in general. What’s going to lead to human well-being? Ultimately, what’s going to lead to human happiness? That’s the thing that society needs to be focused on if it’s going to construct the right kinds of political institutions.

HH: Somewhat coy is what you said. Actually, you’re less generous in the, or not less generous. You’re less condemning of his complexity when you write that he draws his reader into an amazingly complex line of reasoning scattered up and down in several of his books, leading finally to the real basis of his teaching on the law of nature. You add he writes treatises, not dialogues, but his treatises are written in such a way that the reader will have a hard time penetrating them if he does not follow Locke’s logos wherever it leads. Gosh, that’s asking a lot of a modern.

TW: It’s asking a lot, but look, I mean, Locke tells you what his conclusion is. So if you’re happy with that, go for it. He says all men are created equal, in effect. No one has the right to rule another without their consent. Government exists to secure our life, liberty and estate. Those are sensible ideas and obvious conclusions of the argument that the founders bought into and adopted with enthusiasm.

HH: Larry Arnn, you are yourself the expert on the founders as is Dr. West. And when we say that we built upon Locke’s foundation, I think Jefferson said he’s one of three people who mattered in all of human history. What exactly were they building on? To what do we most owe Locke?

LA: Well, you know, there are several phrases in the Declaration of Independence that are close to phrases from Locke’s second treatise. So that establishes a connection. But their whole understanding, you know, their argument with the king, for example, the king wrote them a letter in December of 1776. He gave his address in November of 1776 from the throne, and he caused it to be distributed across the lines at the Battle of Boston, at the siege of Boston, thinking that would persuade them all.

HH: Right.

LA: And instead, what they did was they all reenlisted. The army was melting away. And what was the difference? The king said in his speech, I’m the king, and you are my people. And I must treat you like my children and take care of you. But you must obey me. And everybody thought that argument was out of bounds. Everybody in America, and of course, we’d been living here for 150 years without him telling us what to do every day. And so what did they think? They thought authority starts with each governed person. And he must give his consent. And that’s the first element of American constitutionalism. It has to be representative, because the government works for the people and is chosen by the people. And that shift, in some ways, it’s like the classics who thought the difference between tyranny and just government is that tyranny serves the rulers, and just government serves the ruled. But Locke’s point is at the behest of the ruled, and only so long as they have that behest.

HH: Now Dr. West, in the piece I already cited, you said that the first treatise is, you know, as far as you can tell, no one read it. But in fact, in the other piece you sent me, Locke’s Neglected Teaching On Morality And The Family, you quote the first treatise, the opening of it, at least. Slavery is such a vile and miserable estate of man, and so directly opposites of the generous temper and courage of our nation, meaning Great Britain, that it is hardly to be conceived of an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it. And you note that James Otis quotes this sentence as relish in his 1764 pamphlet, Defending The Rights Of Americans Against British Encroachments. Is that the heart of the American indebtedness to Locke, that he introduced to them the idea that they were free and equal with their British counterparts?

TW: Well, Otis quoted that one sentence from the first treatise, and no other sentence from that book. It happens to be the first sentence in the book. So I’m still unrefuted about America, nobody reading it. But the second treatise, Otis then goes on to quote at length in that same publication about the importance of representation in a legislative body along the lines of what Larry Arnn just was talking about. That was crucial. That’s what they got out of Locke. You’ve got to have rule of law, you’ve got to have representative government, you’ve got to have law that protects the right to acquire and possess property, freedom of religion. All those features of our early America, they’re in there, and that’s what you get out of those documents.

HH: What was new to me is that he had actually spent so much time talking about moral formation. I really am astonished by this, that a gentleman in any age ought to be so bred as to be fitted to bear arms and be a soldier, that he wrote on moderation in desires, justice, courage, wisdom in the popular acceptation, honesty and good liberality, humanity and civility, good breeding. I mean, that’s not normally what people associate with Locke, is it?

TW: Well, that’s from his book on education.

HH: Right.

TW: …which was widely read in the 18th Century in both Britain and America. It was a book that was, it actually, I’ve actually thought of it as a book that I wish I had had when I had raised my own kids. I didn’t run into it until later. It’s just not read today, but it’s got all kinds of good stuff in there.

HH: Larry Arnn, is it a surprise to you as well? Or have you read that book?

LA: Well, I’ve known Tom West for a long time, so no. Yeah, no, you know, the arguments that Tom makes about that piece of writing are very powerful, as you were commenting before the show started. But add to that, that Locke draws in the second treatise his source of authority for everything from nature. And nature is a really big word, right? And it’s not will. It’s not whatever we want. It’s our nature. And he has a rounded understanding of that term. So it ought not to be surprising that Locke wrote this other thing, but the other thing is marvelously explicit. And Tom makes it more so, because he’s good at doing that.

HH: When you write, Dr. West, that Leo Strauss is responsible for what you call the dogmatic Straussian view of Locke, what is that? We have a minute to the break. What is that dogmatic Straussian view of Locke?

TW: Well, that’s a view that’s become very widely adopted among conservatives in America, unfortunately, the view that Locke is low, that he is crass, that he doesn’t really believe in anything high, doesn’t believe in genuine moral standards. Everything is calculated morality, and everything is property and economics. That’s the caricature, and it’s, it turns out to be easily refuted just from the surface of the second treatise.

HH: We’ll be back to talk about the refutation with Dr. Thomas West, Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College.

— – — –

HH: When we went to break, we were talking about what really a rounded view of Locke would be. Dr. West, you wrote, “I believe Leo Strauss chose to prevent a caricatured view of Locke as a fishhook to his readers to help reel them into the study of classical political philosophy.” That’s harsh.

TW: Well, I think, Strauss had an agenda in mind that is not really about America. It was about how to get philosophy going again. He was worried that the idea of using your mind to figure out what reality is had become so discredited by the most powerful intellectual forces of the 20th Century that he had to get people to get back to the willingness to look at philosophers not as people who had all the answers, but as people who were primarily interested in questions. And he thought getting back to Plato and Socrates was the way to do that. What I’m interested in here, in this particular Locke question, is what about us? What about America? Is it really right for us to allow people like Strauss to tell us we should look down on Locke as somebody who’s low and inferior and imperfect, and in light of the fact that Locke’s influence in America was so great and seems to have actually ended up helping us be a much better country than we probably otherwise would have been.

HH: Now would you pause and explain to the audience why that matters? Why it matters now in the middle of the meltdown, a cultural meltdown, a political meltdown, there’s even a public health meltdown around us, that it matters that you get Locke right?

TW: Well, I think most Americans of good will have a lot of respect for our Constitution and our founders. And I do, too, and people will say all the time I’m a Constitutional conservative, I want to get back to that. Fine. But what I would say is that’s good, but what is it that makes our Constitution intelligible? It’s not just that it’s a series of statements in a document. It’s that there’s a coherent vision of what government’s supposed to do and how government’s supposed to be limited that can guide us and help us think through how to get back to that older understanding and away from this contemporary situation where we have decided that government’s going to solve all the problems of humanity, and in particular, is going to focus only on the least among us as opposed to what about the common good, which was Locke’s concern, and the Constitution’s concern.

HH: Oh, Larry Arnn, how would you add to that or subtract from it?

LA: Well, Tom’s essay and Locke’s writings prove something, and that is freedom is grounded in something that is not immorality, but morality. And so lots of conservatives, and lots of liberals on very different grounds, both think if people are going to be free, they’ve got to get to do whatever they want to do. And inevitably, they will do whatever they want to do. And one of the things that’s beautiful about Locke is he derives the principles of freedom from our nature as moral agents in a universe that supplies a standard for our conduct. And those arguments can’t be unpacked from one another. They are, to use a topical reference, husband and wife. They go together. And so that whole thing, right, and then a second thing that’s a tendency today. So many people think that the things that have gone wrong in America have gone wrong because the people have become corrupt. And whether they are or not right now, it’s certainly true that this movement that has overtaken our government and our country extensively, it didn’t start with ordinary folk. It started with a bunch of thinkers, among whose hallmarks was a rejection of John Locke.

HH: Interesting. Dr. West, are you Catholic?

TW: I’m not.

HH: Because right now, there is this extraordinary synod of the bishops, and they are…

LA: But Hugh, he’s still okay.

HH: That’s okay, but I actually think…

TW: Thank you, Larry.

HH: …his theory on Locke ought to go to this extraordinary synod, because there, what you write about in your article on society, and I quote, “The purpose of government is the preservation of the society, whose purpose necessarily includes the promotion of the family. Without the generation, care and education of the next generation of children, society will perish. Government therefore has a strong interest in encouraging childbirth within marriage, and in making sure that parents fulfill their natural law, ‘obligation to preserve, nourish and educate their children.’ Locke implies that government should encourage marriage and discourage or forbid no-fault divorce and non-spousal sex.” Now the great institution in the world that has taken that position consistently has been the Roman Catholic Church. And they’re about to back away from it, probably to no good end.

TW: Right, but in that respect, the Catholics are only following the culture. And that’s, you know, the rest of the Christian dominations have pretty much already gotten on board, too. So you’re talking about a general trend in our current society. And it’s there. It’s a fact of life. We have to live with that for the moment. What I thought was helpful here about, in regard to Locke, was he gave you a way of understanding the family that didn’t get you into the question of that’s a Christian or a non-Christian argument.\

HH: Right.

TW: It’s detached from it. It’s this thing about what does society actually need to make it work. And one of the things I find difficult in the contemporary discourse is there are many conservatives out there who say that the only reason why the founding ever worked in the first place is because that bad guy, Locke, who only cared about liberty, had to be supplemented by Christian and English traditions that were all about morality. And what I’m trying to revive is the idea that the founders actually understood liberty to be part of a larger hole. As Larry was saying rightly, it’s, liberty comes from the law of nature. The law of nature is a moral law. It’s telling you what you need to do. And it’s a moral law that also includes things like parental obligation to children.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, the framers had a consensus. They may have disagreed about some things, but they had a consensus on this basic societal unit of the family that required its protection. They were not easy in matters of divorce. Certainly, they were not easy in matters of adultery. They were strict in those things. And what Dr. West is arguing, it’s a revelation to me, is that Locke was with them in this regard, though Jefferson, and maybe Ben Franklin, weren’t.

LA: Yeah, and the consistency is, it reaches farther than you said, although you probably know. It’s not just that they were consistent in their view of the family. They were consistent in their view that liberty requires that consistency about the family, because by the way, it’s a simple question. If the government is going to raise the children, or most of them, as you know, seems to be coming, how’s the government going to be limited? And if the government is not limited, then how are we going to control it? And you know, I know that we live in the professional age today where everybody’s scientifically trained, and administrators are neutral, and so they can be trusted with absolute power. But maybe the day will come when they can’t be. And how will we stop that then?

HH: And not an easy question to answer.

TW: Hey, Hugh, I can’t let that go about Jefferson and Franklin.

HH: Can you wait until after the break?

TW: I’ll have to.

HH: All right. Dr. Thomas West, I think I’m about to get put on a spit and turned, America. Don’t go anywhere. The public lynching of Hewitt will return when we come back to the Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – – –

HH: When we went to break, I had done a drive-by on Jefferson and Franklin, and Dr. West, in my defense peremptorily, it is because Jefferson was a slave holder, and Ben Franklin was indolent, and neither of them would seem to me to be particularly concerned with family and society, though they were with liberty.

TW: Well, they were both advocates of marriage, and strong supporters in their published writings. I think it’s important when we talk about the founders, let’s not confuse what their private foibles may have been with what their public principles and actions are.

HH: But being a slave holder is not a private foible. That’s a public act.

LA: Yeah, but publically, and you know, you have to remember about the founding, generally, that they inherited those slaves. And Jefferson in particular was indignant about that fact against the British, wanted to put it in the Declaration of Independence. And it’s a fact that they weren’t ready to liberate the slaves and make them equal citizens. That’s true. But on the other hand, within what, 20 years of the founding, slavery was gone in 60%, 70% of the Union? And the great abolition movement, you know, started with the Northwest Ordinance, which on Jefferson’s motion, for bad slavery and the first expansion of the America republic, on a gift from Virginia, a slave state, moved by Jefferson, a slave holder, and so they would give the land up, and you know, a huge amount of land, much bigger than Virginia. Five states are in it now, even the cussed Ohio, Hugh. And only on conditions that slavery not be permitted there.

HH: Oh, I know. Warren, my hometown, is the capital of the Western Reserve, and so I’m indebted to Jefferson. But it is, can you ever imagine Lincoln having owned a slave, Larry Arnn?

LA: Well, that’s right. No, I can’t. And you know, Lincoln’s life is very different from Jefferson’s. But Tom’s point, and my point is Lincoln and Jefferson held the same principles and worked in public for those principles on the question of slavery.

HH: And my question to Dr. West was if Locke was a such a society man, and a family man, then that part of it, and maybe because it’s in the first treatise, though it’s also in happiness, is lost upon Jefferson and Franklin, I named them specifically. I don’t know enough. It’s not lost on Madison. I know enough about Madison to make the statement. They were not men overly concerned with these things, it seems to me. They were indifferent to them. Am I wrong, Dr. West?

TW: Jefferson, all the founding generation cared deeply about the family and about its sustenance. And if you look at the state laws of that day, which I’ve gone into some, they’re amazingly firm and clear about the importance and fundamentality of the family. Everything, the reason why it wasn’t discussed in the founding, however, is because nobody had any question, nobody doubted it. It just wasn’t an issue. Slavery, on the other hand, it was discussed endlessly in the founding, because it was contentious. It was something that Americans divided over, and they knew they had to do something about it, people like Jefferson and Franklin.

HH: So the low critique of Locke by conservatives is simply wrong, because they are assuming that because it was not endlessly debated, it was not obviously assumed?

TW: Yeah. And I mean, I keep running into these scholars who say there’s no evidence whatever that the founders cared about using government to help sustain public moralities. Absolutely tons of evidence to the contrary in every state in the Union, in state constitutions, even in federal law like the Northwest Ordinance, talking about the importance of morality to the future and freedom.

HH: And Washington’s Farewell Address and…

LA: Yeah.

TW: Exactly.

HH: …I believe…11 of 13 colonies between 1776 and 1789 adopted free exercise clauses or some variant thereof in order to help extend religious freedom. But Jefferson and Franklin are two of the famous, if that, deists. And was Locke himself anti-religion in your opinions, Dr. West?

TW: No, he was not. Aboslutely, he was actually a leading Protestant theologian, another fact that’s not widely acknowledged.

HH: I did not know that.

TW: Yeah.

HH: I’m surprised by that.

TW: And he wrote two books on Christianity, one a commentary on St. Paul, one a commentary on the Gospels. And he was widely admired and read in 18th Century Protestant circles in both Europe and America, and became important in shaping the way in which American Christianity understood Scripture and morality.

HH: His letter on toleration certainly shapes our understanding of what free exercise is going to be in Madison, but I didn’t read it as being particularly vigorous in its defense of other faiths other than the sort of Church of England approach.

TW: It’s for toleration. He sang let’s not be mandating what religion people need to follow. Let’s leave that up to the individual and private choice.

HH: Provided it doesn’t pick his pocket.

TW: Right.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dr. West, Dr. Arnn.

— – – —

HH: In our last segment here, Dr. West, what is Locke’s understanding of what constitutes happiness, and how nature either propels us towards that or inhibits our getting there?

TW: Locke was an opponent of the view that there’s only one path to happiness for everybody. He thought that one of the reasons why he was a critic of classical philosophy was that he thought that when people read Aristotle or Plato that they would get the impression there’s only one way to live, and that’s to become a philosopher. And Locke’s point was no, people are different. You have to go with nature. You have to go with the different natures that people have. And so there isn’t, there won’t be one path. Now Locke is always criticized for that by people, by many people today. But what they fail to notice is Locke also says yes, but there’s much that people have in common that means that there’s to some extent a common path at least to the conditions of happiness. And that’s what he thought the natural law could help with – basic rules of human conduct that enable people to live together in peace and harmony, and make it possible for us to follow a path to happiness that may diverge when you get beyond those basic rules. Now the rules are the thing that make it possible for us to have a society that is a decent place where we can live together and then pursue our happiness individually.

HH: Why, then, would Eric Cohen write that even God needs His allies, and the ungodly Hobbes and Locke are indeed allies? Why would he write that?

TW: That’s, again, one of these common opinions now. Locke belongs to the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was anti-God. That is a common view that’s out there especially, again, among conservatives, but some liberals, too hold that opinion. I would, I have a hard time trying to reconcile that view with Locke as the way he presents himself to the public as a supporter of Christianity, as deeply interested in Christian theology, as a man who says in his letter on toleration you have to have theism as a foundation of society. You need to have at least belief in God, a God who cares about justice and injustice. How they can take those passages and turn them around and say Locke is one of these Enlightenment guys who thinks you can trash religion and throw it out is beyond me.

HH: You see, that’s my Jefferson problem, Dr. Arnn and Dr. West, is that they live unchristian lives, and yet they call upon, they exalt the idea that one needs Christianity for a good polis. And that doesn’t seem to me to hang together very well upon close inspection. And that’s where I think that comes from. I’m probably part of the problem that you see, Dr. West.

LA: No, well, let me say something about that. First of all, remember that these arguments about religious freedom cut in both directions. And what that means is if you think based on what you can think and reason, and also what you think as a Christian that the government ought not to be passing laws telling people how they’ve got to pray, because you’ll never save a soul that way…

HH: Right.

LA: And you will interfere with the saving of souls, likely, then if you think that, then that means that public people ought not to be proselytizing for their particular faith except with a certain level of abstraction and tone, an inclusive one. Remember that George Washington writes to some Jews, “is now no more that we speak of religious toleration as if it were by the indulgence of some that others enjoy their inherent natural rights.” So some of what you’re complaining about has to be marked up to the comportment proper, to a person ruling in a country, I argue any country, but certainly in a country devoted to religious freedom.

HH: Well, I get that. I understood Dr. West to be arguing not that, but that they really did, that Locke and his heirs really did believe in the efficacy of religion to save souls, not merely that they had to pretend to believe it.

TW: Locke takes the position in his Christian writings that okay, let’s assume this is true, what does it all mean, trying to explain Christian theology. And in his other writings, he will raise questions and doubts about the grounds of faith because of the question of evidence, and how well do we actually know what happened, let’s say, two thousand years ago. So he’s a man who is willing to give the case for religion and willing to entertain the case against. And that’s, by the way, characteristic of philosophers. They’ll do that. Now what is the practical takeaway from that, thought, for Americans? People like Washington, even Jefferson, understood whatever your private beliefs may be, it’s really important for a nation to have a religious foundation if it’s going to have the capacity to protect liberty.

HH: That is, you know, that is the takeaway from this hour, and I don’t think that can be said often enough. But I also think very few Americans believe that anymore, and very few public people will argue that, will they, Dr. West?

TW: That’s true, but I think it’s because now we have, basically, we’ve redefined liberty in such a way that it is in conflict with the traditional Christian teachings that the founders thought were essential. Take the example of marriage. The Ten Commandments, one of them is don’t commit adultery. And so the assumption there is you need to have the monogamous family, you need to not be cheating, you need to have husbands and wives raising kids. Honor your father and mother. I mean, you know, father and mother. That’s already about non-gay marriage. So you know, think about how the world is today, and the way the world has been conceived by post-60s liberals to include the idea that there shouldn’t be any standard of right and wrong when it comes to sex and family.

HH: Agreed, and you make that case in this article, which I wish was online. I would link to it. I would send it to everyone. I don’t suppose Locke’s Neglected Teaching On Morality And The Family is easily available online?

TW: I’ll get it to you, Hugh, and you can do that.

HH: Yeah, I would love to post that up. I think people ought to read it. Dr. Arnn, is that recoverable? Is that Washingtonian, Jeffersonian, Lockean view of the necessity of morality recoverable?

LA: Thomas Jefferson – You can drive nature out the front door with a pitchfork, but it’ll come in the back before you can turn around.

HH: Which means?

LA: So it’s possible that, you know, I mean if our families decline to the place where our kids don’t have a proper upbringing, and you know, there’s data about this, right? Kids do better when they’ve got two parents.

HH: Right.

LA: Then that could be the end of a civilization. But that doesn’t mean that nature has changed, you know, that that kind of thing has happened before, although I must say not very often.

HH: And not to any good end. Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Thomas West, thank you for a great, very provocative Hillsdale Dialogue, all of which are available, including this one, soon, at

End of interview.


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