The Hebraic Roots of John Locke's Doctrine of Charity

By Leiter, Yechiel | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Hebraic Roots of John Locke's Doctrine of Charity


Leiter, Yechiel, Jewish Political Studies Review


In her path-breaking essays on political Hebraism, Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger identifies John Locke as belonging to the class of "moral economists" whose reading of the Hebrew Bible as a historical and political text caused him to argue for the hungry man's "right to surplusage"1 This means that even though Locke championed the idea that man's labor entitles him to unlimited acquisition of material possessions, God remains the ultimate owner of all property and as such the right to life of another overrules the right to property of the laborer. The aim of this paper is to expand on Oz-Salzberger's theory and show how and why Locke anchored his thinking on property-limitation and charity exclusively on the Hebrew Bible.

17th Century Biblicism

Martin Luther's theological revolution in the 16th century unsettled governmental authority as well. Until then the Protestant Reformation monarchies mainly drew their ultimate authority from the Catholic Church in Rome, but Protestantism left kings in search of a new source of authority to legitimize their rule. Rulers such as England's James I and Charles I sought to justify their absolute and arbitrary Royalist control through the use of scripture, as did their parliamentarian and Puritan opponents.2 Political theorists of the time who came to the defense of both sides in the debate also leaned on Old and New Testament sources, as well as on the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers and later day Christian theologians.

John Locke's (1632-1704) most important political writing, his Two Treatises of Government (1689), is unique because it circumvents the New Testament and instead relies almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible in order to establish his political theory. What makes Locke's use of the Hebrew Bible particularly interesting is the fact that the Two Treatises is not a defense of the old order but rather a magnum opus of classical liberalism in which concepts such as equality, freedom, individual rights, consensual government and the right of revolution are celebrated.

Modern Scholarship on Locke's Biblicism

However inadvertent, it would be deceptive to create the impression that Lockean scholarship is of one mind with regard to his Old Testamentism, as quite the opposite is the case. A vociferous academic debate raged during the latter half of the 20th century between the Straussian and Cambridgean schools of thought with regard to the true nature of Locke's political writing. The former, led by Leo Strauss (1899-1973), proffered that Locke followed Hobbessian atheism and referred to the Bible exclusively with obscurantist intent. Only the savants of the generation who could decipher Locke's esoteric writing were his real intended authence, according to Strauss, because only they could understand Locke's intent to dethrone God and establish human government purely on the basis of human reason.3

Using newly exposed and critically edited Lockean texts the Cambridge school led by John Dunn and John W. Yolton fired back at the Straussians, arguing that Locke was a pious Christian and meant every Biblical reference as it appeared. Cambridge did not deny the existence of esotericism in political writing but decried its application where it did not belong, Locke being the case in point. Practically this meant that Locke was no Hobbessian atheist, but it also meant that Lockean thinking was to be understood exclusively in the context of the events of the 17th century making him totally irrelevant for modernity.4

As a result of this academic donnybrook and the problems both sides present, a third school has surfaced over the past two decades which accepts Locke's religiosity but rejects the Cambridgean attribution of irrelevancy at the same time. This school, led by scholars of Locke such as Ian Harris, Jeremy Waldron, Kim Ian Parker, and Greg Forster,5 have formulated an eclectic reading of Locke which neutralizes most of the difficulties in the Straussian and Cambridge readings but are still plagued by one unnerving question: Why did Locke make such minimal and wholly ornamental usage of the New Testament (Christ is not even mentioned once) in his Two Treatises while copious resourcing (over eighty times in the First Treatise and over twenty times in the Second) is made from the Old Testament?

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