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

I’m currently teaching a course on the family in political thought. The reading list is inspired by, but does not slavishly follow, Scott Yenor’s very good book, Family Politics . (And yes, Ryan Anderson, I have assigned What Is Marriage? )

As we wrapped up our consideration of John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education today, we had what I (at least) thought was a very interesting discussion of the reach of Locke’s proposals. For readers unfamiliar with the work, but generally familiar with Locke, it puts a great deal of flesh on the bones of his treatment of the parent/child relationship in the Second Treatise . The goal stated in both works is to raise a child who is capable of assuming the status of a free (and equal) human being. As you read Some Thoughts , you discover that this is much more difficult than it sounds, which makes for a certain kinship between Locke’s work and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile . Immanuel Kant said of the latter work that he wished that Rousseau had shown how to develop a system of public education on its basis. That is impossible for Rousseau and also for Locke.

Indeed, Locke has rather choice things to say about what we would now call “socialization” in almost any kind of “public” school setting. In other words, his proposal, if it could be executed at all, would produce an individual capable of using liberty well and responsibly, inevitably embedded in a society in which most people would be sorely tempted to abuse their liberty. Young Master Locke (to give him a name) would rarely have to be constrained to “do the right thing” and forgo the wrong thing, while his peers would inevitably bridle against and at least sometimes overcome  the constraints that sought to keep them within their proper bounds.

The education Locke proposes is not one for “leadership” that prepares the way for social transformation or reconstruction. Young Master Locke is not in the first instance a political leader, let alone a revolutionary. He is, rather, a decent gentleman making his way discerningly through a society in which most of his fellows lack his good breeding. He deals with them respectfully, but is not gulled by them. Unlike them, he has been so raised as not to succumb to the natural human desire for dominion. If we had a society full of Young Master Lockes—which we don’t and can’t—we would have almost no need for the apparatus of coercion and constraint (however limited it be) that constitutes the early modern liberal state.

From these considerations, we can draw two tentative conclusions, appropriate to Locke and perhaps also to our own un-Lockean concerns. The first has to do with the ambition often expressed to reform, transform, or capture “the culture.” If Locke is right, this is not really a political project, but rather one that begins with the proverbial building block of society, the family. This kind of reformation occurs one person at a time, and that person is inevitably thrust out into a society that isn’t necessarily hospitable to or supportive of him or her. Borrowing from scripture, Kant says in a related context that we have to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Neither is easy, and both accomplishments are fragile.

The second conclusion is that the coercive state will always be with us, populated by men and women who may not be much like Young Master Locke. It will be hard to keep that state within its limits, and there will unlikely be enough Young Master Lockes around to take control of it. Thus the principal “political” task of the gentleman will be find ways of resisting the encroachments of the state into the family (while at the same time appreciating and encouraging its protections of our liberties), and for that he may need unsavory allies.

It’s quite hard to strike the right balance in our distant appreciation of the state, but Locke would likely suggest that it’s a sign of poor breeding and inadequate education to complain too vociferously about the constraints on ourselves and others necessary to preserve our liberty. Well-raised men and women do not really experience those constraints as constraints, but they are, as I’ve suggested, few and far between.

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



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles