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John Locke’s Commitment to Freedom, and the Temptation of Order

John Locke

Throughout the 17th century there was, in continental Europe, a tenacious and protracted struggle for freedom. The regrettable Thirty Years' War (16181648), which paradoxically was fought in the name of freedom by various religious denominations, fortunately ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. But Europe was aware that a warlike and intolerant spirit was still prevalent and could not be stopped with any formal armistice. A cultural battle for a broad and deep understanding of freedom was forthcoming. And, in the second half of the 17th century, three major commenters arose to address this struggle to overcome intolerance: Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), Baruch Spinoza (Theological-Political Treatise, 1670), and John Locke ("The Second Treatise of Government," 1690).

Like continental Europe at this time, England also experienced a long period of civil war, embodied in two English revolutions. It was in this context that John Locke, first in his "Letter on Toleration" (1689) and later in his "Second Treatise on Government," would articulate his thoughts on liberty, the liberal state, and toleration. John Locke was the true father of the modern liberal state, not Hobbes, who remained tied to an absolutist conception of the state with little care for inalienable individual liberties.

In 1603, Elizabeth I died with no heirs. The Tudor dynasty was extinguished, and Scottish king James VI, son of Mary Stuart, ascended the throne of England as James I (1603-1625). The two crowns of Scotland and England (including Ireland) were thus united into one, under the name of Great Britain. The new kingdom, however, was deeply torn by religious divisions. There were several opposing alignments. First, there was an Anglican State Church, which had an episcopal hierarchy (High Church) of royal appointment as well as traditional rites and sacraments. Then, there were the Catholics. They were divided into three camps: outright dissenters who were openly at odds with the official church; non-communicants who attended the Anglican Church while remaining outside the community; and schismatics who were ostensibly part of the Anglican community but loyal in their hearts to the old religion. Finally, there were the Puritans, who were close to Calvinism and hoped to eliminate harmful remnants of "papist" superstitions from the English Church. In particular, they argued that the Anglican hierarchy, based on bishops, was not scriptural and therefore should be replaced by assemblies of elders (presbyters), modeled on other Calvinist churches. 

Inevitably, religious division produces political division. James I followed a policy of strong monarchical centralization. In fact, he dissolved Parliament for two consecutive years. The contrast between king and Parliament became more pronounced during the reign of James I's son and successor, Charles I (1625-1649). The situation came to a head when Charles attempted to impose the Anglican Church and its "Book of the Common Prayer" on a Calvinist-leaning, Presbyterian-majority Scotland.

In December 1641, Parliament presented Charles with the "Grand Remonstrance," which demanded control over the recruitment of armies and ministerial appointments. Charles then committed the mistake of a coup d'état on January 4, 1642, bursting into Parliament with a host of armed men. The attempt failed, and he fled to Oxford. It was the beginning of the First English Civil War. Between 1642 and 1643, the war dragged on. The decisive turning point came only when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) appeared on the political and military scene. In January 1649, King Charles I Stuart was tried, convicted of high treason, and beheaded. Shortly thereafter, the monarchy was abolished and the English Republic, or Commonwealth–dominated by Cromwell's strong personality–was proclaimed.

The Second English Civil War was triggered by the succession of Charles II to the throne. There was a very heated dispute. Part of Parliament did not want James II, Charles's younger brother, to take power. So, the “Exclusion Bill” was drafted in 1678, which prevented James from succession because of his Catholic faith. It was feared that once James took power, he would associate his Catholicism with an absolute method of government, as was happening in France.

James's place could have been taken by the Duke of Monmouth, but not everyone agreed. This is when the two political parties–Whig and Tory–formed. The Whigs were in favor of the Exclusion Bill, while the Torys opposed it and advocated respect for the line of succession. On April 23, 1685, James was solemnly crowned at Westminster Abbey. But by June of that year, the so-called Monmouth Rebellion took place, aiming to have James deposed.

James II's reign opened with the convening of Parliament, but all Whigs were excluded. This Parliament was very different from previous ones and was unable to provide much help to James in his attempt to subject the country to Catholicism. A combination of events led to his deposition and replacement by William and Mary–William III (Prince of Orange) and his wife Mary II Stuart. This was not a simple succession struggle but rather the beginning of a new parliamentary-type monarchy which–with the “Declaration of Rights” and the “Bill of Rights” (1689)–recognized the prerogatives of Parliament and the limits of royal authority. The king was essentially left with only executive power.

The revolution that resulted in this power shift is known as the "Glorious Revolution," an adjective aimed not at great episodes of military valor but at the fact that it took place without bloodshed or massacres in England (unlike in Ireland, among Catholics). It was also named for its success in bringing about a political and religious order that united previously divided men and parties. The order achieved in 1689 led to a new and wider freedom, and the long-lasting rivalry between the monarchy and Parliament gave way to cooperation between the two powers. The impending danger in early 1689 also led the Whigs and Tories to reach a revolutionary arrangement (“Revolution Settlement”) that continued to be the firm basis of English institutions for a long time.

The English Church remained Anglican, but the “Forbearance Act” of 1689 gave support to Protestant “nonconformists,” i.e., those Protestants who were not part of the Anglican Church. It assured them the right to worship, albeit with many restrictions that were considered necessary to keep the peace. The Catholics, excluded from the clauses of this measure, were neither frightened nor persecuted after this proclamation, but they were not granted rights to assemble and pray. Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism remained powerful cultural forces, and William III was unable to completely dampen the Protestant fury against Irish Catholics.

The “Act of Toleration” of 1689 marked a definitive break with past politics and principles. Tolerance of a wide diversity of religious opinions and rites, although not yet fully embraced within England, entered the liberal practice of the Stuart sovereigns, Mary and then Anne. But anyone–whether Anglican, Puritan, or Catholic–who was unhappy with his lot, could travel to America and pray as he wished. This promoted the nascent American colonies and was later a major factor in the contest for colonial supremacy.

In his "Letter on Toleration" and "Second Treatise on Government," written during the unfolding of the Second English Civil War, John Locke starts with ideas from Hobbes. But he puts a different interpretation on Hobbes’ revolutionary idea of founding the modern state from a contractual premise. First, like Hobbes, Locke begins with the state of nature. But he considers it less in an individualistic manner and more in a relational and social sense. Second, unlike Hobbes, who calls for individuals to relinquish all their rights to make coexistence possible, Locke calls only for the relinquishment of the right to "revenge." He leaves other rights, compressed to that of private property, under the management of individuals. Third, the state, which to Hobbes remains an absolutist one that takes rights away from individuals, appears in Locke’s writing as an entity guaranteeing individual rights through limits that the state must respect.

Thus, Locke is the true father of modern liberalism because he succeeds, unlike Hobbes, in bringing together the value of freedom and the prerogatives of the modern state. With the value of individual liberty, he melds the divine and traditional orders that had hitherto conditioned the state's functioning. Hobbes, in contrast, was still excessively subordinated to the overweening power of the state.

But a one-sided view of freedom is still present in Locke and could easily become a "negative freedom"–defined only as a lack of constraints. This could consequently still lead to a disruptive view of society. There are four criticisms we can make of Locke's liberalism. First, its contractual basis prevents Locke, much like Hobbes, from seeing that relationship and bonding precede an individual’s choice. Second, the derivative individualism might not be a solution over time. It could instead become a problem to be solved, since it is unable to stay in the bond without receiving a benefit. Third, Locke has an underlying utilitarian premise, one that would be consolidated a century later by Jeremy Bentham. It shifts the ethical emphasis, both individually and socially (in politics and economic policy), from "good" to "useful." It thus confuses two seemingly close concepts that are very different in reality: the "common good" with the "total good." Fourth, his conception of tolerance was limited by excluding Catholics and atheists.

In his "Essay on Toleration" (1667), as in his other four letters on the same subject written between 1685 and 1704, Locke conceives of toleration as an "effective method of government." In other words, the security of the state and the prosperity of society can best be ensured through the exercise of toleration. Only secondarily is toleration an ethical-religious value. And, in further subordination, it is corollary to a philosophical truth, namely the equality of all men, magistrates, and subjects.

The temptation for order wins out in Locke over the desire for freedom. Freedom implies and generates movement, diversity, and some level of unpredictability. It cannot be controlled by standard measures, and thus the greatest libertarian systems can become the grave of freedom. Obsession with order is a constant danger and perhaps more perverse than disorder and vice. And what happens in politics and societies unfortunately also happens in religions and churches, including Adventism.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Title image: Godfrey Kneller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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