As I see it, part of the problem with the approach characteristic of Deneen and company is not merely a romanticizing of halcyon days that are now surely, if not entirely, irrevocably lost and an underappreciation of its own peculiar obstacles to virtue. They also fail to take seriously the ways in which a kind of hyper-Lockeanization of the individual, and the technological dimension of human freedom, actually illuminates the nature of human virtue, and to go one step further, often against its own intentions, further reveals some important truths central to Christian (or Pascalian) psychology.
I’ve made this argument before on this blog to partially rehabilitate Locke even while taking him to task: it is certainly true that his emphasis on the divide between nature and freedom plus the radical autonomy of the individual seem doomed to result in the transformation of every natural human relation into matters of consent and calculations of self interest. This is never more obvious than in his dissection of the family—marriage is nothing other than a “voluntary compact” between two individuals based upon rights and privilages to each other’s bodies and the care parents have for their progeny is reduced to an obligation based on a child’s insufficient measure of rationality (and therefore not yet entirely autonomous freedom). The paradoxical move in Locke’s social scientific thought experiment—attempting to account for all of human life through the prism of autonomous freedom—is that it requires a powerful abstraction of logos from eros—the relation we have to spouses is a matter of cerebral calculation versus erotic longing. Nevertheless, he recognizes that this doesn’t quite capture the incentive for coupling in the first place and therefore he also needs a corresponding de-eroticization of the body—- marriage is a kind of corporeal contract but those carnal motivations are weak enough to succumb to the language of pedestrian interest and computation. Locke, in typical modern form form, wants to liberate the intelect from the will which means reducing the will to the machinations of the intellect. He describes for us a pefectly rational but perfectly loveless family.
However, Locke’s otherwise perverse depiction of family life does manage to capture an important element of the real significance of the unique individual and of that unique individual’s choice that was historically neglected. He argues for the equality between the man the woman both within their own compact and with respect to the authority they wield over their children. He also argues for the protections that children deserve from harm, the care they must have and are morally obligated to receive, and a certain freedom they should have from their parents once they are capable of making decisions for themselves. Moreover, while Locke certainly goes too far in reducing marriage to one choice among many he does rightfully argue for some real choice consistent with real eros—that marriage is a loving relationship freely entered into by two free and equally significant individuals. Locke’s unhinged reductionism exposes the also unhinged reductionism of those who want marriage to be absorbed into the political, the traditional, or the natural or used to justify the subservience of one to the other. This is one somewhat quasi- Tocquevillian element in my purposely generous reading of Locke—that in loosening conventional ties he does not strengthen but further articulates, against his own intentions, something about the strength and limitations of natural ties.
Of course, Locke’s concessions here and there to the erotic nature of marriage and the loving ties of family life defy the parameters of his thought experiment—spouses can divorce each other at will when their interests no longer coincide and sons largely honor their fathers out of an expectation of their patrimony. Nevertheless, Locke’s exaggerated interpretation of freedom—that it only really finds full expression when contrary to nature—still helps to elucidate the way the free choices of the full human person are not simply identical to the dictates of nature or the contingent circumstances of history.
The F-Porchers recognize the technological dimension of freedom that Locke hyperbolically valorized—-they often talk of the tension created between us and nature by the fact of our natural selves and our freedom to transcend our natural selves. However, they seem to think that the modern emphasis (I won’t say discovery) on this individuality unbounded didn’t teach us anything helpful or true about who we are or even help affirm the truth of the Christian anthropology that sees each free, rational, and loving human being as simply irreplaceable and not reducible to any set of political, cultural, or natural circumstances. The problem of Locke’s view is that he narrows human freedom to this technological dimension creating a kind of modern schizophrenia—we are the masters and possessors of nature, the captains of our fate, but we only experience this mastery when our fate is to become other than what we really are—our mastery is driven by a deep misanthropy. Likewise, the problem for the F-Porchers is that they embrace certain conditions that make free moral life optimally possible but then reduce the possibility of that freedom to the historical circumstances within which it emerges. The have very reasonably rejected Locke but without learning some valuable lessons he offers about freedom, individuality, and our place in nature.