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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Rights come from below: John Locke's exegesis and what it tells us.

Anyone whose actually read John Locke's argument against "the divine right of Kings" knows that it was founded on a profound exegesis taken from the bible as well as reason. In those days the notion that there even should be a conflict between reason and biblical study was foreign -- as long as boundaries were respected. What some histories don't show is that John Locke published his book post-humously, that he lived his final days in exile, and that he was taking his life in hand to write that book. Folks like to portray the Glorious revolution as bloodless, but it wasn't.

And his exegesis draws more from the long resistance of common folks to oppression in Britain as it does to anything from classical literature. It draws from the protestant movement as much as it does from the revival of "the enlightenment" and that movement owes its birth to common folks long before Martin Luther or Calvin, when the bible was translated into common languages and read by common people and painfully transcribed by scribes so that people could own a copy that would be a family heirloom. The elites of the church discouraged most common folks from reading the bible, but they couldn't completely suppress it anywhere and their ideas were championed by folks such as John Wycliff (1320-1384) who created the movement that eventually evolved into Protestantism;.... And folks like Watt Tyler (died 15 June 1381), who had the presumption to resist the Monarchy, [Peasants Revolt]. That this story is still seminal to modern issues is illuminated by the vast discrepancy between popular and historical accounts and official ones (compare the Wikpedia article on Watt Tyler to the version in ). To this day there are people who would build up Richard the II and defame the peasants who revolted -- and are passionate enough about it to continually rewrite Wikipedia articles.

The exegesis of the Peasant Revolt is similar to that of John Locke. The medieval historian Sir Richard Froissart explains the feelings of the peasants:

"The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed; that at the beginning of the world there were no slaves, and that no one ought to be treated as such, unless he had committed treason against his lord, as Lucifer had done against God; but they had done no such thing, for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men formed after the same likeness with their lords, who treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they labored or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it."

The author of the article writes: "The peasants had not formed a revolutionary doctrine, only the ideas of freedom, respect, and fairness in their attempts to support themselves." But the truth is the notion that peasants are not dogs and are equal to noblemen and other aristocrats is indeed revolutionary. And John Locke's two treatises pick up on the argument. She also notes:

"To them it would have appeared almost as incredible for the animal-people to turn on their masters as it would be for us to conceive our dogs banding together and hunting us down in packs. One dog might prove rebellious but we would never expect all the rebellious dogs to unite with horses and other beasts, as we are their divinely appointed masters."

But the Peasants of Wycliff and Watt read the bible and were quietly the equals of anyone. They shared jokes about the wealthy and expressed them in short poems, which were basically the tweets of the day. Some of which found their way into common literature. John Ball, who was a priest at the peasant revolt is said to have said:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,[a] Who was then the gentleman?[3] From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty" [John_Ball_(priest)]

More than a century later John Locke picks up this exegesis in his Two Treatises on Government. Locke's exegesis is powerful because he goes at it from both positive proofs and refutations. His opening comments on the subject directly descend from John Ball. He was arguing against the fallacies of one Sir Robert Filmer, who had passed away before he began writing. I introduces the notions of primogeniture and 'divine right' in his own exegesis beginning in verse §95:

"§95. If God, by his positive grant and revealed declaration, first gave rule and dominion to any man, he that will claim by that title, must have the same positive grant of God for his succession: for if that has not directed the course of its descent and conveyance down to others, nobody can succeed to this title of the first ruler. Children have no right of inheritance to this, and primogeniture can lay no claim to it, unless God, the Author of this constitution, hath so ordained it. Thus we see the pretensions of Saul’s family, who received his crown from the immediate appointment of God, ended with his reign; and David, by the same title that Saul reigned, viz., God’s appointment, succeeded in his throne, to the exclusion of Jonathan, and all pretensions of paternal inheritance: and if Solomon had a right to succeed his father, it must be by some other title than that of primogeniture."
Two Treatises on Government §95.

It was simple for John Locke to write his book as a refutation of the vanities of Sir Robert Filmer who was asserting a divine and patrilineal right to succession of English Kings. He was following on the arguments introduced by Wycliff, John Ball, and the common peasantry of England, and adding to them from his knowledge of Greek, Roman and modern historical narrative. The common folks had a vision of liberty that applies to everyone, while the vision of the noble only applies to "everyone" theoretically and under conditions of complete anarchy and "the state of nature". These universal notions of freedom and opportunity were invisible to the nobles, if not seen as a threat to their power and privilege, but not to many of the common people, who rejected the notion that they were mere "dogs." And of course there are shills among the intelligencia who dream of being among the nobility who will argue for this. Locke risked his life to argue differently.

And he uses many forms of argumentation, and examples he then comes back to the subject on page 101 verse 161:

“....Saul, the first king God gave the Israelites, was of the tribe of Benjamin. Was the “ancient and prime right of lineal succession re-established” in him? The next was David, the youngest son of Jesse, of the posterity of Judah, Jacob’s third son. Was the “ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government reestablished in him?” or in Solomon, his younger son and successor in the throne? or in Jeroboam over the ten tribes? or in Athaliah, a woman who reigned six years, an utter stranger to the royal blood?”
Two Treatises on Government §161 page 101.

The bible is not a good source for notions of hereditary nobility outside the creation of a class of slaves to God; the Levites and Cohain and repeated promises in the "haftorah" to the line of David. But reading Samuel, and considering that God first picks Saul, then David, then strips David of the Northern Kingdom, tells us that nobility as defined in scripture is provisional on the person keeping the trust of both God and the people he is supposed to lead. And almost none of them are elder sons and some of them, like King David, started as sheep-herders.

“If the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government were re-established” in any of these or their posterity, “the ancient and prime right of lineal succession to paternal government” belongs to younger brothers as well as elder, and may be re-established in any man living: for whatever younger brothers, “by ancient and prime right of lineal succession,” may have as well as the elder, that every man living may have a right to by lineal succession, and Sir Robert as well as any other. And so what a brave right of lineal succession to his paternal or regal government our author has re-established, for the securing the rights and inheritance of crowns, where every one may have it, let the world consider.”
Two Treatises on Government §161 page 101.

If nobility is to be established on the Bible, then that is a shaky foundation if anyone actually reads it. But Locke is frying more fish than simple patrilineal authority. He's after the whole notion of hereditary aristocracy, the idea that someone by mere inheritance has the right to rule others or control and exercise great wealth and power unchecked. But that was what Sir Robert Filmer's argument was; that patriarchy and patrilineal succession are established and sanctioned by God. Locke pretty much refutes this by the end of Chapter VII of Book 1.

But he continues the discussion in book II Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, Chapter 1. He first discusses Greek and Roman history and how it supports notions of commonwealth and common-weal. He does this argumentation in the context of an argument between the state of humans in a "state of nature" and how governments emerge out of that state of nature.

"95. Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and indepen- dent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfort- able, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoy- ment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the free- dom of the rest; they are left, as they were, in the liberty of the state of Nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one com- munity or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest...."
Line 95 of Book II

He makes the case for how men bond together to form communities out of the "state of nature" deals with the theoretical exceptions, that early kings mostly got their authority from their prowess as leaders and generals; and then he turns back to the bible, noting that the role for both judges and the early kings was that of a General and War-leader:

109. “And thus, in Israel itself, the chief business of their judges and first kings seems to have been to be captains in war and leaders of their armies, which (besides what is signified by “going out and in before the people,” which was, to march forth to war and home again at the heads of their forces) appears plainly in the story of Jephtha. The Ammonites making war upon Israel, the Gileadites, in fear, send to Jephtha, a bastard of their family, whom they had cast off, and article with him, if he will assist them against the Ammonites, to make him their ruler, which they do in these words: “And the people made him head and captain over them” (Judges 11. 11), which was, as it seems, all one as to be judge. “And he judged Israel” (Judges 12. 7)—that is, was their captain-general- “six years....”

And he continues pointing out example after example, he notes that:

"...And therefore those who, after Saul being solemnly chosen and saluted king by the tribes at Mispah, were unwill- ing to have him their king, make no other objection but this, “How shall this man save us?” (ch. 10. 27), as if they should have said: “This man is unfit to be our king, not having skill and conduct enough in war to be able to defend us.” And when God resolved to transfer the government to David, it is in these words: “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought Him a man after His own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over His people” (ch. 13. 14.)." [Verse 109]

And concludes:

"As if the whole kingly authority were nothing else but to be their general; and therefore the tribes who had stuck to Saul’s family, and opposed David’s reign, when they came to Hebron with terms of submission to him, they tell him, amongst other arguments, they had to submit to him as to their king, that he was, in effect, their king in Saul’s time, and therefore they had no reason but to receive him as their king now. “Also,” say they, “in time past, when Saul was king over us, thou wast he that leddest out and broughtest in Israel, and the Lord said unto thee, Thou shalt feed my people Israel, and thou shalt be a captain over Israel.”[Also verse 109]

He notes that kingdoms existed by necessity. Generals are born from the need for good strategy and a central figure to coordinate things. But this is a gift, an exchange, given by necessity, not heredity:

"110. Thus, whether a family, by degrees, grew up into a commonwealth, and the fatherly authority being continued on to the elder son, every one in his turn growing up under it tacitly submitted to it, and the easiness and equality of it not offending any one, every one acquiesced till time seemed to have confirmed it and settled a right of succession by prescription; or whether several families, or the descendants of several families, whom chance, neighbourhood, or business brought together, united into society; the need of a general whose conduct might defend them against their enemies in war, and the great confidence the innocence and sincerity of that poor but virtuous age, such as are almost all those which begin governments that ever come to last in the world, gave men one of another, made the first beginners of commonwealths generally put the rule into one man’s hand, without any other express limitation or restraint but what the nature of the thing and the end of government required."

But even this is:

..."was given them for the public good and safety, and to those ends, in the infancies of commonwealths, they commonly used it; and unless they had done so, young societies could not have subsisted. Without such nursing fathers, without this care of the governors, all governments would have sunk under the weakness and infirmities of their infancy, the prince and the people had soon perished together."

In this passage John Locke both concedes and refutes a central point of Patriarchy. Yes, we need executives, but these executives hold their jobs based on trust and virtue, not hereditary or arbitrary decisions from on high. He points out that the Kings portrayed in the Bible have their jobs by trust from men and God. And he concludes:

"Yet, when ambition and luxury, in future ages, would retain and increase the power, without doing the business for which it was given, and aided by flattery, taught princes to have distinct and separate interests from their people, men found it necessary to examine more carefully the original and rights of government, and to find out ways to restrain the exorbitances and prevent the abuses of that power, which they having entrusted in another’s hands, only for their own good, they found was made use of to hurt them."

If leaders have their positions from trust, then they hold them based on trust, and when they lose that trust they lose the right to be leaders. When they are excellent at what they are supposed to do they are virtuous leaders, when they no longer fulfil that trust they are neither virtuous, legitimate, nor can they claim God's support. That John Locke felt similar is shown in his concluding statements:

242. "If a controversy arise betwixt a prince and some of the people in a matter where the law is silent or doubtful, and the thing be of great consequence, I should think the proper umpire in such a case should be the body of the people. For in such cases where the prince hath a trust reposed in him, and is dispensed from the common, ordinary rules of the law, there, if any men find themselves aggrieved, and think the prince acts contrary to, or beyond that trust, who so proper to judge as the body of the people (who at first lodged that trust in him) how far they meant it should extend? But if the prince, or whoever they be in the administration, decline that way of determination, the appeal then lies nowhere but to Heaven. Force between either persons who have no known superior on earth or, which permits no appeal to a judge on earth, being properly a state of war, wherein the appeal lies only to heaven; and in that state the injured party must judge for himself when he will think fit to make use of that appeal and put himself upon it. "

And he concludes his work:

"243. To conclude. The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community—no commonwealth, which is contrary to the original agreement;" [Verse: 243]

He was referring specifically to the Legislature, but generally to all officers of the government.


I've written on this before, but I needed to write it down again, focusing on this piece, both to explicitly explain it and so I don't have to explain it over and over again. A friend pointed to the Peasants revolt to me more than a year ago and I didn't understand what she meant since they all were betrayed and murdered by the King in a betrayal that would do justice to the Wedding in "Game of Thrones". I continually refer to this subject so I wanted to write on it somewhere where I can quote myself. Locke's thesis should be a tautology, but the far right and it's patron aristocrats have their hands everywhere rewriting narratives in order to rebrand people who criticized them as their supporters and hijack their names to advance concepts that the authors would have opposed.

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