Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

So I’m now getting around to writing an essay on Locke and Darwin. Here’s a taste pretty relevant to various recent POSTMODERN and CONSERVATIVE posts:

Darwin himself had a naïve faith in the almost inevitable natural evolution of the “moral sense” of members of our species—one hardly vindicated by most of the 20th century. That evolutionary faith in discernible human progress over time was usually described as Historical, as opposed to natural. That perception of Historical evolution was based on an understanding of who we are according to nature that’s basically Lockean. It was, more precisely, based on a thinking through—although, in a way, a distortion—of Locke’s fundamental premises about human nature by Rousseau.

For Locke, we are by nature free to invent and consent to various social institutions—such as the family and government— to satisfy our needs as emotionally free or asocial individuals. To be more precise, the Lockean idea of consent is based on a certain ambiguity about our natures. Locke, following Hobbes, seems to present us as naturally isolated and needy. But he occasionally says and typically presupposes that we have social instincts. His effort to reconstruct our understanding of every human relationship in terms of contract and consent is, in part, a polemic against the social instincts that turn free individuals into suckers. His effort to transform human life to make it consistently individualistic can’t be simply based on the thought that we are, by nature, solitary individuals. His struggle is BOTH against patriarchal, aristocratic, and theological conventions and against the social dimension of who we are as natural animals. A sophisticated, high-tech world where human beings acted consistently as free individuals would be one where various social inventions or conventions—such as money, property, and government—would be more indispensable than ever.

There’s considerable truth to the thought that Locke holds that we are the gregarious animals by nature that Aristotle and Darwin describe, but that natural understanding doesn’t do justice to our unnatural freedom. We, in our freedom, transform ourselves over time into individuals, into what we were not by nature. The existence of each particular human being becomes more free and less natural over time. And Locke’s individualism is really the injunction not to do what comes naturally or spontaneously, but instead to turn over all of our lives to labored calculation.

Tocqueville called this injunction the American or basically Lockean moral doctrine of self-interest rightly understood. Our natural instinct to love and serve those close to us described by Darwin must become conscious cooperation in the service of mutual interests. Turn friendship, the American moral doctrine commands, into networking to maximize the possible human progress away from nature.

The philosopher Rousseau distorts Locke’s intention by attempting to make his understanding of who we are by nature more consistent. If were are, by nature, solitary or isolated, self-sufficient individuals, then we would, in fact, have no distinctively human content. We would have no community, no language, and so no need and no capability to be emotionally tied to others or to think beyond the end of the day.

We would be without the longings that flow from love and consciousness of death. Our needs would be simple enough to be satisfied readily and on one’s own, and there would be no need to laboriously invent one’s way out of natural misery. We’d have neither the freedom nor the impetus to move away from nature, and we’d neither have nor need “natural rights.”

Genuinely radical individualism causes the free individual to disappear, because only the pure or genuinely self-sufficient natural individual remains. Rousseau’s anti-Lockean observation is that the emotionally self-sufficient individual, being all alone, is too apathetic and too stupid to think about bettering himself. There is, from his view, nothing that needs to be bettered. Tocqueville employs this insight to describe the emotional detachment that comes from the modern, democratic erosion of the social ties that have aristocratically or traditionally bound people to each other: Individualism, Tocqueville explains, is the “heart disease” that causes apathetic, asocial immersion in the present. But for the perspective of natural man, the disease that destroyed our natural contentment was the accidental or Historical enlargement of the heart in the first place.

In some way Rousseau and Darwin agree that who we are as human beings is an accident. But Rousseau holds that there’s no natural explanation for the cosmic accident we call human freedom. One animal alone has the ability to invent his way away from nature, and he must, at first, have done so quite accidentally. His natural existence, from his unconscious view, was lacking in nothing. Darwin and Rousseau do agree that to be free is to be Historical, because there’s no natural evidence—no support in what we really know through natural science—for our freedom. For Darwin, of course, the idea of History is a ridiculous inflation of the importance of one particular species.

Rousseau agrees with Locke that our freedom really exists. No Darwinian natural science can really explain all the inventive—including self-inventive—or technological accomplishments that characterize members of our species alone. Rousseau is both more consistent than Locke and opposes Darwin more radically with the thought that all our so-called social instincts—all human sociality—is unnatural. But Rousseau, Locke, and Darwin all seem to agree that distinctively human or polymorphous eros—the various forms of love—are unnatural, as is being moved deeply by consciousness of death. For Rousseau and (in a more ambiguous way) Locke, love, death, and freedom are unnatural, and for Darwin, strictly speaking, they, being unnatural, don’t exist at all. Rousseau and Locke are left with the strange thought that who we are, in freedom, is a mysterious leftover from what we know through natural science.

For Rousseau, we Historical beings accidentally make ourselves more free and more miserable over time. A perhaps less consistent version of that thought is already present in Locke: The most distinctively human natural characteristic is the pursuit of happiness, and not happiness itself. Each of us is impelled to exercise his freedom through an uneasiness or restlessness that points in no particular direction beyond momentary satisfaction.

Locke doesn’t say that through our uneasy inventiveness we actually change our natures, and the idea of natural rights is meant to suggest continuity with the tradition of “natural law.” But modern, individualistic democrats, Tocqueville says, almost seem to be of a different species than premodern aristocrats. And Locke and Rousseau do agree, after all, that the consequence of satisfying one human need is to create another and more difficult need to satisfy, and so people become increasingly rational and industrious in their increasingly Historical pursuits of happiness. The accomplishments of human freedom are in many ways unprecedented, and there are no natural limits that we can know for certain to what we can, in our freedom, accomplish. A reasonable Darwinian objection to the pursuit of happiness that ends only in death being natural is that there’s no explanation for members of one species alone not being hardwired, in effect, to be happy by doing what comes naturally.

The ambiguity in Locke that’s obliterated by Rousseau is that human beings are by nature free to free themselves from nature. In the state of nature, individuals have the freedom to satisfy their desire to free themselves from their natural condition. Rousseau might be right that it’s simply inconsistent for an individualist to hold that our human content or distinctiveness or freedom is natural. But, for a Lockean (such as our friend Jim Ceaser), there’s no denying the consequences of denying the reality of that freedom. If the human being has no natural content and is, by nature, totally alone, he is too easily subjected to Historical or political reconstruction for what’s seemingly his own good.

For Rousseau, the modern individual is miserably alienated, and he works, against his intention, to make himself more miserably restless still. The bad news is that History screwed up beings who were content by nature. The good news is that we might conscious enough to bring History under our control and alienation to an end. That insight is the main reason why Lockean or ambiguously natural thinking was displaced by consciously Historical thinking in the nineteenth century. The Darwinian metaphor of evolution was used to express a faith in a Historical future, in either the coming end of History (Marx) or a more indefinite perfectibility in which our alienating technological progress would finally be ennobled by a corresponding moral progress (say, John Stuart Mill or Walt Whitman) that would be the source of the elusive human happiness promised by modern liberation.

The idea of History included the reasonable thought that particular human persons can’t invent themselves out of nothing. So who they are is dependent, in large part, on when they live in History or how far they live away from nature. People don’t create themselves as individuals; they’re created by History. History, it turns out, is both the record of what free individuals or persons do and is a process as impersonal as nature.

Human perfection doesn’t occur in individuals but will occur in some historical point in the future. And so it makes sense to sacrifice human persons today for the achievement of that future perfection. Just as much as Darwinian natural thinking, Historical thinking regarded persons not as unique and irreplaceable beings but as part of a whole greater than themselves.

Darwin, from a Lockean view, turns individuals into species fodder, and History turns persons into “History fodder.” Either way, the evolutionary view sacrifices the particular being existing today to a process that doesn’t even claim to do him any particular good. That’s not to say that a Darwinian really believes that History exists.

The accidental Darwinian contribution to History is to the erosion of the belief that there’s a permanent human nature that describes who each of us is. But Darwinism’s more fundamental contribution is its denial of real significance to particular human beings—a denial that’s, of course, natural, not historical. It’s a denial of any real evidence of the reality of human freedom—a denial foreign to the idea of History.

Locke thought that there’s somehow enough natural content in the idea of natural freedom to make sense of the idea of consent. That idea exists to keep the individual from being sacrificed to any whole or cause or process greater than himself.

It’s easy to doubt that Locke allows each of us sufficient natural resources to protect individuals or persons from the forces surrounding them. Tocqueville, for one, said it was the religion of Americans—and not their theory—that protected them from the Historical temptation to employ all means necessary to secure a more perfect future.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.

Tags

Loading...

Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles