Locke on Slavery: A Puzzling Set Of Assertions


            John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has little to say about slavery, but what is said is said early. Chapter Four, entitled simply enough, Of Slavery, is but a couple of pages long. Bear in mind that the Second Treatise was published in 1690; England did not formally abolish slavery until 1807, when Parliament passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
            In previous chapters, Locke talked about government arising from consent of rational actors in the state of nature. Folks in the state of nature were in a perpetual state of potential war with one another, arising from the lack of any central authority to resolve disputes among them.
In previous essays, we’ve critiqued some of the central ideas at the foundation of this classic work of political theory. The goal here is to re-work the entire book, from front to back, asking, always, whether the vision of government arising from the consent of rational and autonomous individuals actually makes sense, or whether it carries hidden consequences perhaps inconsistent with human flourishing. I don’t have a destination in mind here; I simply have questions.
            Slavery, Locke told us in chapter three, is against the “Right of my Freedom.” He goes a little further in Chapter Four: “[N]o Man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a Power over his own Life.” A slave, it seems, violates his own rights, by accepting an unnatural condition.
            I am, once again, struck by the power of an assumption uncritically adopted.
            There are few things more unilaterally within my power than the ability to take my own life. Live to a certain age, and you will come to know folks who, for one reason or another, take their own lives. Suicide is a shocking act, an act which, however convenient it may seem to the suffering soul who arranges a final exit, leaves a horrifying wake. I’ve sat with the families of suicides, sometimes for days, as shock, grief and anger come roaring into the vacuum left by the departed loved on. We have the power to take our own lives; Locke recognizes this, in a roundabout, indirect, way.
            Do we have the power to give our freedom away? No, Locke says, recognizing something like an implicit duty to resist slavery.
            Perfect freedom, the antinomian dream of anarchists, is beyond our reach.
            Even in the state of nature, we are ruled by the law of nature, he writes. Whether that is an empty assertion is not for today’s essay. In society, once we have left the state of nature, we have the liberty of living under law. To some ears, that will sound contradictory, or, at the very least, paradoxical. Isn’t law a limitation on freedom?
            No, says Locke.
            “Freedom of Men under Government, is to have a standing Rule to live by, Common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; A Liberty to follow my own Will in all things, where the Rule proscribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another man,” Locke writes.
            So how to explain the nearly constant presence of slavery in civilization? (Recall Aristotle wrote, in the Politics, that some folks are “slaves by nature,” a line that is certain to get him cancelled on certain college campuses these days.)
            I can’t explain slavery. I’m no natural law theorist, but the sense of despair necessary to make perpetual bondage acceptable is simply a gene I think I am missing. It is missing in Locke, too.
            While he does not support the right to suicide, he does support the right to resist an unjust government. He refers to this right throughout the Second Treatise as the “appeal to heaven.” When government becomes intolerable, when it violates natural law, a person, or a people, can attempt to shake off the chains of bondage. They can do so even if they are certain to lose their lives in the process
            As he writes in chapter four: “[W]henever he finds the hardship of his Slavery out-weight the value of his Life, ‘tis in his Power, by resisting the Will or his Master, to draw on himself the Death he desires.”  Is this an indirect form of suicide, or simply dignity’s imperative?
            It’s a bleak conclusion, frankly. You can’t kill yourself directly if life becomes too much, but you can throw your life away by drawing the fatal scorn of those in power. Locke is a long way from St. Paul’s admonition in Colossians: “Slaves, obey your masters in all things.”
            We are our own masters, Locke asserts. Circumstances may place us in intolerable servitude justifying the wasting of our lives. Written at a time when slavery was common in the Western world, the argument is puzzling, even troubling. It’s almost as though Locke were subtly asserting that those who find themselves in slavery have violated their own right to freedom; they’ve preserved their shells at the expense of the rich meet within.
            Locke’s fragmentary account of slavery is wholly unsatisfying.

Comments: (1)

  • St. Paul
    Locke is a long way from St. Paul’s admonition in Colossians: “Slaves, obey your masters in all things.” - I am familiar with this Bible verse. Wondering If the definition of slavery has changed over the centuries Wondering what the original Aramaic? Latin words were? Could it be that this verse was translated incorrectly to fit a narrative of a particular time. Good read.
    Posted on April 3, 2021 at 5:37 am by CPTBJHESQ

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