“John Locke as ‘Authoritarian'”

Leo Strauss, "John Locke as 'Authoritarian,'" review of John Locke: Two Tracts on Government, by Philip Abrams, Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (November-December 1967).


The question regarding the Hobbianism of the young Locke may be said to be of sonic importance with a view to the fundamental question regarding the political philosophy of the mature or old Locke, to the question which would have to be stated as follows: is the natural law teaching of the mature Locke fundamentally traditional (say, Hookerian) or is it a modified version of Hobbes’s natural law teaching?* Abrams admits that Locke has broken with the traditional natural law teaching but denies that he builds on the foundation laid by Hobbes (77–78). As he suggests, Locke has moved away, more or less hesitatingly, from the view according to which the law of nature is the law of reason and that it is obligatory because it is dictated by reason, in the direction of “fideism.” More precisely, while Locke never abandoned the notion that the law of nature is the law of reason or, which for him seems to be the same thing, that ethics can be made a demonstrative science, he never elaborated that ethics but asserted that the complete law of nature is available in the New Testament and only in the New Testament, i.e. only by revelation (86–90). In a word, Locke is “inconsistent” regarding the foundations of politics; “in the end he remained intellectually entangled in the tradition in which he had been educated” (91). Abrams arrives at this result partly by relying on Locke’s “relativistic” statements regarding “true religion,” i.e., by tacitly identifying “objective moral truths” (and therefore in particular that set of moral truths which underlies the political teaching of the Second Treatise) with “true religion,” and partly by disregarding the difference (which for Locke is crucial) between men in general and the “studiers” of the law of nature (94–95, 102, 107). Abrams could not have remained satisfied with his thesis if he had paid any attention to the fact of which he has heard and which he does not deny that “face value is something one cannot safely attribute to any work by Locke” or that the study of Locke’s writings must be enlightened by understanding of the character as well as the reason of his “persistent strategy” (68).

Intercollegiate Review
First Principles (ISI)