Saturday, May 9, 2009

John Locke's Temper and Genius

Significant to our understanding of Locke's philosophy are the matters of his temper and discretion. The following passage from Macaulay's History of England has nothing to say about epistemology or political theory, and the one work that is mentioned, Locke's Letter on Toleration, is not examined. Nonetheless, this brief sketch, the longest passage Macauley devotes to Locke in his History, tells us a great deal about how Locke thinks. In addition to the model of prudence and wisdom presented in Locke's character, the passage underscores the importance of the sort of thinking Locke is engaged in, and should bring us to a deeper and more precise understanding of what it is Locke aims for when he is discussing scientific method, epistemology, or government.

The exiles were able to raise, partly from their own resources and partly from the contributions of well-wishers in Holland, a sum sufficient for the two expeditions. Very little was obtained from London. Six thousand pounds had been expected thence. But instead of the money came excuses from Widman, which ought to have opened the eyes of all who were not willfully blind. The duke made up the deficiency by pawning his own jewels and those of lady Wentworth. Arms, ammunition, and provisions were brought, and several ships which lay at Amsterdam were freighted.

It is remarkable that the most illustrious and the most grossly injured man among the British exiles stood far aloof from these rash councils. John Locke hated tyranny and persecution as a philosopher; but his intellect and his temper preserved him from the violence of a partisan. He had lived on confidential terms with Shaftsbury, and had thus incurred the displeasure of the court. Locke’s prudence had, however, been such that it would have been to little purpose to bring him even before the corrupt and partial tribunals of that age. In one point, however, he was vulnerable. He was a student of Christ Church in the University of Oxford. It was determined to drive from that celebrated college the greatest man of who it could ever boast. But this was not easy. Locke had, at Oxford, abstained from expressing any opinion on the politics of the day. Spies had been set about him. Doctors of divinity and masters of arts had not been ashamed to perform the vilest of offices, that of watching the lips of a companion in order to report his words to his ruin. The conversation in the hall had been purposely turned to irritating topics, to the Exclusion Bill, and to the character of the Earl of Shaftsbury, but to vain. Locke never broke out, never dissembled, but maintained such steady silence and composure as forced the tools of power to own with vexation that never man was so complete a master of his tongue and of his passions. When it was found that treachery could do nothing, arbitrary power was used. After vainly trying to inveigle Locke into a fault, the government resolved to punish him without one. Orders came from Whitehall that he should be ejected; and those orders the dean and canons made haste to obey.

Locke was traveling in the Continent for his health, when he learned that he had been deprived of his home and of his bread without a trial or even a notice. The injustice with which he had been treated would have excused him if he had resorted to violent methods of redress. But he was not to be blinded by personal resentment; he augured no good from the schemes of those who had assembled at Amsterdam: and he quietly repaired to Utrecht, where, while his partners in misfortune were planning their own destruction, he employed himself in writing his celebrated letter on Toleration.

--Macaulay's History of England, 1877

As a coda, I am mindful of this quote from Frank Zappa's father, who said of his son: "Frank is a genius: he knows who he is." Locke's thought as well as his actions are centered, I believe, in this crucial fundamental of understanding.