Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy
by Michael Zuckert
University Press of Kansas, 392 pages, $29.95
Paraphrasing the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was One. And the Word brought forth a world.” Can the words of man be equally univocal, and have the same capacity to usher forth a world?
In their study of the history of political philosophy, scholars seldom phrase their questions in quite this way; yet such study cannot long avoid the issue of the relationship between the written word-the “text”-and the world of which it subsequently becomes a part. In what sense do the texts written by the seminal authors of Western Civilization-the adjective already betrays one possible answer-bring forth worlds? Did the dangerously luminous writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger authorize National Socialism? Did Rousseau’s sometimes ecstatic ruminations give rise to the French Revolution? Did Locke’s ideas bring forth the American regime? In other words, do the writings of some authors loom so large that they cease to be mere “thought” and instead become “doctrine”-that is, a set of ideas of such definitive stature that they reconstitute the world rather than merely seek to understand and evaluate it in various ways?
I suggested at the outset that there are theological overtones to these overtly political and historical questions. But the history of political thought also provides a warrant of sorts for this way of viewing the relationship between word and world. Plato’s dialogues, various Roman writings, Machiavelli’s Prince, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil-all of these distinguished sources state or imply that founding ideas can constitute a world. You will note that this view cuts across time and political views. It is, then, ubiquitous in the history of political thought-a common point of departure for those for whom politics pertains to First Things.
In the twentieth century, the question of the relationship between philosophical ideas and political foundings became an especially urgent one, above all for those scholars whose personal destinies were bound up with the mid-century conflagrations in Europe. For these writers and thinkers, the history of political thought became the place to search for the source of the “doctrine” that animated National Socialism. The obvious choice for such a source were the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom traced the root of the Western “disease” (which Germany sought to purge through the total mobilization of revolutionary violence and war) to Plato. The issue was whether the overarching concerns and motivations contained in the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger-the longing for cultural renewal, the hunger to create afresh without reference to the “anachronism” of “morality,” the desire to “open” oneself to “fate” or “destiny”-could be seen as guiding the events that unfolded, much as a puppeteer guides his puppets. Did, in other words, the “words” of Nietzsche and Heidegger provide the “doctrine” for the Nazis
If this was the case, as numerous scholars of the time apparently believed, then responding to Nazism would require a return to the questions posed by Nietzsche and Heidegger. And this would lead, in turn, to a confrontation with Plato-the thinker whose words supposedly provided the ultimate, founding “doctrine” for Western culture as a whole, a culture whose decadence and decline, according to Nietzsche and Heidegger, no less than to Hitler, demanded a radical, even epochal, response.
After the war, several prominent scholars sought to engage in such a confrontation. Among the most influential of these was Leo Strauss. Michael Zuckert’s Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy is, in large part, an attempt to revitalize a Straussian reading of the history of political thought. Accordingly, Zuckert makes a series of arguments that will be familiar to those who have encountered that reading in Strauss’ own work or in the numerous books and essays produced by his many accomplished students (and students of his students): that the abundant inconsistencies and contradictions that scholars have identified in Locke’s corpus were intended by Locke; that these inconsistencies and contradictions mask a coherent esoteric “doctrine” that can be deciphered by interpreters of requisite care and attentiveness (like Zuckert himself); and that this Lockean “doctrine” was in some measure responsible for the American political founding.
All of these idiosyncratic claims can be traced to Strauss’ writing and teaching-most of which was animated by two central concerns. The first of these was historicism and its implications for morality. In light of the collapse of the moral world in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, historicism would indeed seem worthy of concern. After all, if our world is wholly contingent and contextual, lacking in any transcendent standard or limit, are not all things possible and permitted, including the Holocaust?
Strauss’ answer to historicism is that philosophers, at least, can be seen to transcend their historical context when we interpret their texts in light of the author’s deepest “intentions.” It is here that we encounter Strauss’ second main concern-namely, esoteric writing. That certain authors in the history of political thought wrote esoterically-that is, insinuated some of their ideas “between the lines”-is beyond question. What is crucial for understanding Strauss and Straussians like Zuckert is why Strauss thinks esotericism is an answer to historicism.
Historicism effectively denies authorial voice, since any possible understanding of a book reduces it to its historical context. Strauss’ response is that we can, in fact, establish authorial voice, not so much by what is explicitly written, but rather by identifying the manner in which an author covertly defects from, deliberately obscures, or undermines what he states on the surface of his text, the surface being that part of the text that conforms most closely to tradition and convention-in short, to the historical context in which an author finds himself. The author’s intentions, to speak somewhat geometrically, can be established by a careful reading of the locutional asymmetries in his text. Through a hermeneutics of suspicion and incredulity, the Straussian interpreter seeks to show that every tension or contradiction on the surface of a text points to a deeper, hidden but intended meaning on the part of the author, which shows that he did not blindly accept the conventions of his time and place.
Strauss’ method of reading, then, provides a potent and original response to Nietzsche and Heidegger: their attacks on, for example, the “Platonism” of the West miss the mark because Nietzsche and Heidegger take no account of the true esoteric “teaching” that Plato reveals to the careful reader. Their substantive claims about Plato are thus wrong, since the very aspects of Platonism that Nietzsche and Heidegger meant to refute were not intended by Plato to be taken seriously in the first place. Those aspects were merely the “exoteric” or surface teaching of those texts. Now, this is not to say that Strauss meant to deny that something called “Platonism”-above all in the form it took once it was co-opted and democratized by Christianity-is responsible for something very much like what Nietzsche and Heidegger considered the decline of the West. Strauss never ceased to believe that the “word” of the philosophers provides the founding elements of human cultures. But it is to say that Strauss’ doctrine of esoteric writing enabled him to “save” the philosophers themselves from those (surface) aspects of their writings that may have contributed to the decline.
There are several significant problems with the esoteric method of interpretation-but there is one that is particularly apparent in Zuckert’s Launching Liberalism. What I have called the “locutional asymmetries” that supposedly reveal an author’s intentions cannot be identified unless there is a stable backdrop against which they can be measured. In principle, it is possible to establish Locke’s esoteric intention only if it is possible first to establish a discontinuity between, say, what Locke says about Christianity and the unambiguous, definitive essence of Christianity itself. That is, it can only be shown, as Zuckert tries to do, that Locke subtly and intentionally misreads Christianity if the essence of Christianity can be definitively identified. In Zuckert’s words:
The evidence seems very strong that Locke’s doctrine is in disagreement with traditional authorities . . . and also the Bible, but that Locke seeks to enlist these authorities on his side, using them in misleading ways so as to obscure the real differences between him and them.
Without coherent entities like “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “modernity,” it is impossible to ascertain whether an author’s contradictions or subversions are intentional. Thus, in books like Zuckert’s we find an enigmatic mix of exquisite subtlety and bald assertion: on the one hand, extreme care in parsing a text for its multiple valences; and on the other hand, an unrivaled naiveté about the possibility of unproblematically identifying the essence of the “tradition”-since when is a tradition univocal and inflexible?-against which the author supposedly wrote his text.
Yet even under the assumption that such a univocal voice is possible at all, we are obliged to ask: When, for example, did Judaism become “Judaism?” Upon the completion of the Torah? Later? Earlier? Was Plato always “Plato”? Or can his dialogues be justly divided into the early, middle, and late periods? Is Christianity “Christianity” upon the occasion of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels? Or must the Epistles also be included? Does Christianity cease to be “Christianity” upon the advent of the Reformation? When does Hobbes become “Hobbes,” or Locke become “Locke”? When, in short, do the unities that must exist in the Straussian world in order for an esoteric reading to reveal an author’s intention actually become unities? These are not trivial questions. And however sympathetic one may be to the criticism of historicism that Strauss makes (and Zuckert’s restatement of that criticism is very powerfully and persuasively done), the alternative has its own profound problems.
The title of Zuckert’s book, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy, is itself revealing. First, there is a single, unified Lockean political philosophy. Second, it is responsible for “launching liberalism.” The univocal word brings forth a world-however subsequently modified.
With respect to the first claim, that Locke’s philosophy is coherent, most scholars remain unconvinced. And Launching Liberalism is unlikely to convince any who are not already persuaded by the suppositions on which Zuckert bases his analysis. Most scholars now believe that Locke was a nominal Christian of some sort-and that this belief suffused his writings, especially late in his life. Why else spend one’s last years toiling away on such books as The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul? Life is short, especially for the unbeliever. If the case is to be made that Locke was not a believer, it will not do simply to point out places in his writing where he subtly undermines some ideal version of “Christianity,” especially when, in the aftermath of the English Reformation, the very identity of Christianity was a topic of considerable dispute.
But Zuckert seldom mentions the Reformation. Indeed, when he turns to a consideration of the relationship between Locke’s First Treatise of Government and Filmer’s Patriarcha-which take opposing views on the place of Adam in establishing temporal political authority-Zuckert seems utterly baffled by the terms of the debate, and so invokes the deus ex machina of esotericism in order to make sense of the text before him:
It seems an almost absurd suggestion that Locke’s consent-based government and Filmer’s patriarchal government are the alternatives-surely Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Hegel, to name a few non-obscure philosophers, fall into neither one camp or the other.
Hence Locke cannot have believed what Locke claimed to believe. His choice to focus on the figure of Adam as a way of determining the original justification of government must, in other words, have been a ruse-an “intentional” act of covert conformity to his historical context. That Locke actually believed what he claimed to believe is unthinkable to Zuckert because he refuses to entertain a far less speculative possibility-namely, that, like so many other early modern political philosophers, Locke assumed that, within Christian Europe, the biblical historical horizon was the only justifiable point of departure for reflection on matters political. For this less intentionally deceptive Locke, the political options proposed by Plato, Aristotle, and the others could not be taken as seriously as Zuckert believes they should be precisely because these authors had little of value to say about this biblical horizon.
Within this horizon, the question to which Locke and Filmer give such different answers concerns the proper relation of Adam to Christ-and the proper relation of both to human government. And who, we may ask, is the author who first sets forth this pairing of Adam and Christ? It is none other than St. Paul, the very author whom Locke spent the last years of his life writing about in his A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul. Because St. Paul is one of the central figures to which the Reformers recurred in order, ostensibly, to think through Christianity anew, it seems eminently reasonable to assume that Locke himself was thinking within this world of biblical concerns. It thus also seems eminently odd that Zuckert insists that Locke’s “doctrine” intentionally undermines “Christianity”-a position that could appear to be plausible only by denying, against so much contrary evidence, that Locke intentionally worked (sometimes hesitantly, to be sure) within the range of categories and understandings that were established during the Reformation.
With respect to the book’s second main claim-that Locke’s philosophy launches liberalism-Zuckert is more careful, his title notwithstanding. His book contains four parts, the third of which is entitled, “Forging the Lockean Amalgam.” Here Zuckert recognizes that Locke, unadulterated, is not singularly responsible for the American founding. Yet even in this section of the book, it is perplexing that religion plays no part in the tale he tells. That lacuna, however, seems to be a necessary component of the larger Straussian tale he wishes to retell and preserve. It is a story that presupposes the existence of a univocal Christianity that the “wise” and ever-cautious Locke-like all philosophers of the modern period worthy of the name-rejected and subverted without ever deigning to announce it.
Joshua Mitchell is Chair of the Department of Government at Georgetown University.