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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Commonwealth according to Locke

The word commonwealth may have entered English sooner, but it was John Locke who gave it a more modern definition (literally) segueing from a speech by King James that referred to the concept. In his book "Twin Governments he contrasted the concepts of commonwealth with those of monarchy, admitting that only with checks and balances can a Kingdom be a commonwealth and of a state of nature with that of a "man in society,"

Related Posts:
Attributes of a Virtuous Commonwealth
The Concept of Commonwealth as antidote to Tyranny
Locke Talked of the importance of the Collective
Principles of Federalism

Definition of Commonwealth

Locke distributes his argument among many arguments, so understanding him requires one to analyze what he says a bit out of of order, as he builds up the arguments supporting his argument before summarizing them. One has to read the whole book through and then go back (unless one has perfect recall).

133. "By “commonwealth” I must be understood all along to mean not a democracy, or any form of government, but any independent community which the Latins signified by the word civitas, to which the word which best answers in our language is “commonwealth,” and most properly expresses such a society of men which “community” does not (for there may be subordinate communities in a government), and “city” much less. And therefore, to avoid ambiguity, I crave leave to use the word “commonwealth” in that sense, in which sense I find the word used by King James himself, which I think to be its genuine signification, which, if anybody dislike, I consent with him to change it for a better."

We can thank Locke for introducing the term in it's modern form. Not a "direct" democracy, but one where government is by consent of the governed. Ironically in the British monarchal mind, thanks to years of propaganda from the monarchy, the word has become synonymous with monarchy. But when Locke introduced the term it was in contrast to monarchy. As a Democratic Republican who believes in the concept of Commonwealth I find this ironic.

For example one argument made by the royalists was that monarchs have the power to make war:

"§132. The actual making of war or peace is no proof of any other power, but only of disposing those to exercise or cease acts of enmity for whom he makes it, and this power in many cases any one may have without any politic supremacy: and therefore the making of war or peace will not prove that every one that does so is a politic ruler, much less a king; for then commonwealths must be kings too, for they do as certainly make war and peace as monarchical government."[Two Treatises. page 85]

Political Power

In Book II chapter 1 he notes (page 106):

3. [Legitimate] "Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good."

Liberty in Context of Commonwealth

From Chapter IV Of Slavery:

21. "The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of Nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it."
"Freedom, then, is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us:
“A liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws”;
but freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of Nature."

Locke uses negative illustration to contrast freedom with slavery:

22. This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to, and closely joined with, a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life together. For a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot by compact or his own consent enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another to take away his life when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself, and he that cannot take away his own life cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life by some act that deserves death, he to whom he has forfeited it may, when he has him in his power, delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service; and he does him no injury by it. For, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.
23. This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else but the state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive, for if once compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a limited power on the one side, and obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases as long as the compact endures; for, as has been said, no man can by agreement pass over to another that which he hath not in himself—a power over his own life.

Henry George on Commonwealth

John Locke's common sense and progressivity is important to understand in our own Day. Henry George Encapsulated the concept in his Apostle of Freedom 1878 speech:

"It was a commonwealth based upon the individual – a commonwealth whose ideal it was that every man should sit under his own vine and fig tree, with none to vex him or make him afraid. It was a commonwealth: in which none should be condemned to ceaseless toil; in which, for even the bond slave, there should be hope; and in which, for even the beast of burden, there should be rest. A commonwealth in which, in the absence of deep poverty, the many virtues that spring from personal independence should harden into a national character – a commonwealth in which the family affections might knit their tendrils around each member, binding with links stronger than steel the various parts into the living whole." Henry George []

All Quotes from Two Treatises of Government, my downloaded copy.
My Essay:
Edmund Burke Versus John Locke
Definition of Tyranny according to Locke:
Property and Reason:
Rights come from Below:
Commonwealth as an Antidote to Tyranny:
John Locke Teaching:
The real problem:
Henry George, apostle of Freedom speech:

First published 9/9/2014, Revised 12/9/2014, Christopher H. Holte

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