Locke: Freedom Isn’t Ignorant

We often heard that “freedom isn’t free,” usually applied to some notion of military service. In his essay “Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, John Locke argues that freedom is not ignorant either. In other words, freedom is only available to people who have the ability to manage their affairs.

He explains this by answering the question of how children can be both born free and subject to the control of their parents.

“We were born free as we are born rational; not that we have actually the exercise of either: age that brings one, brings with it the other too.”

Through this section of the essay, Locke is primarily focuses on parental power, and distinguishes it from political power. But he takes time to talk about freedom in general. One of the interesting passages concerns whether or not freedom and laws are able to coexist. Today’s political debate often rages around whether or not laws and government are good or bad. For Locke, there is a way to tell.

“For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices. So that however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’”

Locke says laws should help free and intelligent people – he requires that the people be intelligent, that they have some knowledge of how to manage their affairs and be mentally sound. We have seen laws attacked for being too restrictive or against freedom with an underlying argument that people should be allowed to do things that are bad for themselves – and even sometimes others. I have seen libertarians make an argument that drivers’ licenses are a bad idea. Yet, I think Locke would argue that licenses based on training people to do things better and more safely are those that direct people towards their proper interest. The less extreme debate is whether or not there ought to be training and licensing for gun ownership. Recent changes by the U.S. Congress say that even being mentally sound is not required, but I think Locke would disagree.

Locke wrote after serfdom, but before the rise of the corporation. I wonder what he would think the limitations on businesses should be in our modern context?

Laws can preserve and enlarge freedom by protecting us from “the violence of others” as Locke writes, but we need to understand that phrase in a modern sense. Does contaminating our water and food, threatening our financial stability, or taking away our access to information constitute violence? Perhaps it doesn’t in a physical sense, but an argument can be made that laws should free us from needing to test our water every time we want a drink.

All of this points to need for us to intelligent enough and to possess enough understanding to look after our own interests. Once we can do that, then, as Locke says, the unnecessary laws will vanish.

Marcus Aurelius Gets Us Ready for Monday — Philosophy and Modern Life

The classics continue to offer value to modern life, and I think we’d all benefit from reading them more often. Lately I have seen references to the Stoics on various self-help type posts, blogs, and articles, which led me to think about this bit of advice from Marcus Aurelius:

“Begin thy morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful and of that bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands. like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away.”

The first part of this statement — the acceptance that you will meet these people, is certainly the easy part. It is good to remind yourself that they will be there, because then you aren’t disappointed by expectations. I know what I am getting when I go into the office tomorrow.

Knowing that it is their ignorance that makes them this way, and that you are annoyed because you benefit from knowing better is a temptation to become arrogant yourself. But it is a little easier to be accepting when get that there is a reason for the behavior — even if a reason is not an excuse.

The third part is most comforting — knowing that you cannot be injured by them because they cannot put their ugliness upon you is an important thing to keep in mind. Once you realize this, then it is easier not get caught up in the games, politics, and silliness. But Aurelius warns us that we need to begin our mornings reminding ourselves of this. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when your co-workers are souring your work environment. You need to stay on the path.

The last part is the hardest one — you mean we still got to work together? Aurelius reminds us in several places that in effect — “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them or bear with them.”

To start I will go with the first three parts — the unpleasant people will be there; they are unpleasant because they don’t know any better; and they can’t hurt me or drag me down to their level because I know better.

I’ll have to become better before I will be good at working with them or making them better. Still, the Stoics have given me a start.

Acts of the Apostles – Christianity In the First Generation After Christ

The Acts of the Apostles took me a long time to read, but it was a good read because it contained a variety of concepts that have changed the conversation that came after it.  The Book of Acts separates Christianity from Judaism in concrete ways and also introduces concepts that have affected the Great Conversation of the Humanities as a whole up through the present day. 

One of these concepts was the idea of ‘from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.’ In the January issue of GQ magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan talks about this idea in his article about how the debate over health care has divided the United States. 

“A man you couldn’t see from where I was standing got up and said to Perriello—he didn’t so much say as intone—”From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” He paused. “Karl Marx said that was the credo of Communism. Now, I want you to tell me the difference between that…and what we’re headed for.”

It was the one time all day the place actually shook.

“But that’s from the Bible,” I muttered. “From the New Testament.” (I couldn’t help it, I used to be a hard-core Christian. Acts 2 and 4: The believers “had all things common…as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”)

The lady next to me reeled and looked at me like she’d just caught me sniffing my finger.”

The full article is here:


The relevant quotes are:

Acts 2:45

“And they sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

Acts 4:34-35

“Neither was there any of them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the prices of the things of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man as he had need.”

Once again, it is easy to see the Christianity is a hard religion, or ethos, to adhere to strictly. Still, I think that this idea should be considered. At what point are humans responsible for one another and what should we give? In the wake of the disaster in Haiti, this idea seems an urgent one to consider, even from the safety of my computer.

Along with, it is also worth noting that we ought to be careful what we cite when we want to debate an issue. There is a value in doing a comprehensive reading program like the Great Books because it gives us a chance to put things in perspective, connect ideas, and avoid being duped by those who would use guilt by association or ad hominem attacks.

This idea of distribution according to ability and needs is also important in less heated circumstances as well. For instance, we as a society give much more to children and the elderly than they can give back. We may give more to the handicapped than they can return. Most reasonable people would not argue that parking lots should be a free-for-all competition for the best spaces. We can give the closest spots to those who need them the most. The same thing on the Chicago buses: if a person in a wheel chair needs some extra time getting on and off, and their chair takes up three seats of room, no argues they are getting more than they deserve.

While we could go on about this concept at length, and whether there is any wiggle room, I think there are some other important concepts in Acts that I want to put forth for your consideration.

There is a great statement on faith in chapter 5, when the apostles are brought in front of a religious council. A doctor named Gamaliel says to leave the apostles alone and let them teach for

“if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannnot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.”

It is an interesting statement of fatalism, or maybe tolerance, or faith. Take your pick. But it certainly seems to be a statement that there should be freedom of ideas at least.

In chapter 6, there is an argument in a synagogue where the members say that the apostles speak blasphemy against Moses. I hadn’t realized before that there would be a grudge match between Jesus and Moses, but this passage and other later in chapter 10, show how Christianity breaks away from Judaism. In Chapter 10, Peter is starving but won’t eat anything around him because he thinks that it is unclean. God tells Peter to eat, and Peter thinks God is testing him, but in 10:15 God says “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

Peter extends this command to the way he treats people as well.

Acts 10:28 “And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

Again, here we see a statement of tolerance and openness being a Christian value. While there are strictures placed on behavior, this passage shows that salvation is not a birthright. It also says to me that regardless of what path people choose, we should not call them common or unclean, which means treat people as humans regardless of creed.

In the same way that we can’t be born to salvation, we also cannot buy it.

Acts 8:18-20 “And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”

So much for being judged on the size of a tithe.

Acts overall provides me with a fresh perspective on a number of aspects of Christianity. As someone who has not spent a lot of time studying the Bible, these readings have opened my eyes to how perceptions of religion in the public sphere differ from what the scripture actually says. I certainly will view any claims of piety or Biblical authority much more skeptically now.

Next Time: Getting Dirty with Augustine – The Confessions

Interlude: A Christmas Present

So, here is a Christmas present for you, a set of the Great Books for the first year.  I am travelling and don’t have my complete set with me, and began looking for electronic texts of some of the books. Librivox has the first year reading list with links to online versions of the text. So, if you want to follow along, you can always go here. (I am still on the Acts of the Apostles.)


Getting Biblical: The Book of Mathew

Let me start out by saying that I am looking at this text like any other and taking it as the text itself. I am not making any claims to divine revelation or understanding. That said, my approach to this text is that it should be read carefully as is, and I will try to look at it critically in light of popular interpretations of it.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Christianity is a hard philosophy to follow. While encouraging forgiveness for others, it is unforgiving to its own followers. At the same time, I think that many of the modern interpretations of the religion, are guilty of picking and choosing things that suit the members’ worldview rather than following the religion itself.

During one of the many pushes by various groups to have the ten commandments placed in a court house, Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that no one ever asked for the beatitudes to be posted anywhere.

“3: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“4: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
“5: Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
“6: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
“7: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
“8: Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
“9: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
“10: Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“11: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

As Vonnegut pointed out, there is not much call for mercy and peacemakers among some of the most fervent demanders of the Ten Commandments. It is amazing how often religion is used to sound the drum beats of war considering this passage.  Obviously this is nothing new to the modern era, but it seems as more people become educated and can read and as books get easier to get, that it should be harder for power-seekers to pervert the gospels.

It is also interesting to me that throughout the book of Mathew that Jesus repeatedly warns against doing your alms and prayers in public. He says that those who receive public recognition for the charity work and prayers they do have already received their reward and will receive nothing in heaven.

“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
“2: Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
“3: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
“4: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

This to me calls into question much of the behavior I see from people who are constantly talking about their faith and the influence of religion and God in their lives. It seems to me this runs contrary to Jesus’s teachings.  It is the whole question of faith, I think that this injunction raises, which is do you have the faith to wait for your reward in heaven, or from God, or do you need to seek it from the people around you?

The end of chapter 18 also talks about forgiveness and understanding in very clear terms. When I read this chapter I am struck by the story of how the servant who is forgiven by his lord refuses to forgive a fellow servant’s debt to him. It is clear to me that forgiveness is not something that should stop. This also seems to be a perennial problem where people who seek forgiveness refuse to give it to others. We all should cut each other a little more slack, it seems.

One of the injunctions that has always interested me from this book, and that I think shows the difficulty of following the Christian religion is the one below:

“21: And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
“22: But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Here Jesus is being pretty demanding, considering that he heals some people who just touch the hem of his garment. This has always troubled me, but there are times when I completely understand it.  It is hard to explain, but there are times when it seems that people are not ready to truly accept change that is necessary and unwilling to do it, and at that time one must “let the dead bury their dead.”

Jesus seems to demand more of his disciples than average people, but it is not clear whether Jesus wants everyone to be disciples or believers. Where do we all fit into this? It is not entirely clear to me.  Clearly everyone has responsibilities. Still, one should not claim discipleship if one is not ready to leave behind their previous life.

In the context of the set, it is interesting that the bible readings come right after Plutarch’s lives, which describe how leaders used religion to build states and others claimed divinity. Jesus refers to himself as the son of man. While we see leaders claim divinity or at least piety in Plutarch, in Mathew, we see a carpenter’s son challenge the Roman Empire and the religious leaders of his own people. He created a new religion. It is an inverse of what came before, which also happened with Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes. I think that paying attention to these readings show that this conversation definitely has more than one side and there is room for many viewpoints, despite the perceptions that there is one monolithic vein of “Western Thought.”

Next Time: Life After Jesus – The Acts of the Apostles

Reading the Bible – The Gospel According to Saint Mathew, The Acts of the Apostles [Hey, these books aren’t in the set!]

So there are two books of the Bible that are the readings for this time. The interesting thing is that the Bible is no included as one of the Great Books. But here is what editor-in-chief Robert Maynard Hutchins says about that in his introduction.“Readers who are startled to find the Bible omitted from the set will be reassured to learn that this was done only because Bibles are already widely distributed, and it was felt unnecessary to bring another, by way of this set, into homes that had several already. References to the Bible are, however, included in both the King James and the Douai versions under the appropriate topics in the Syntopicon.”

The Syntopicon is made up of two volumes in the set designed to help people find readings about various topics. It is sort of a set-wide index. Hutchins wrote this in 1951. I wonder how things have changed over the years and whether or not Bibles are as widely distributed and whether it would make sense to include them in a modern day set.  

 I have the King James version and will base my readings and post on that. If you happen to comment please mention which version you are using.