The Dialectic of John Locke’s Constitution Then and Now; or, The Turn from Enlightenment to Post-Enlightenment Culture

Robert Wess

Presented at the Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society
Iowa City, May 23, 1999

My paper today is part of a larger project that continues to evolve in unanticipated directions. In talking about Locke—specifically about his theory of property in his Second Treatise of Government—I’ll be returning to where the project began, but my discussion will be shaped by my efforts since then to position myself in a conversational context in the field of literary and cultural studies—emerging into prominence in the 1990s—around the term "ecocriticism."

This term itself is fairly recent, as Bill Rueckert is generally credited with coining it in an article he published in 1978 in The Iowa Review, "Literature and Ecology: Experiment in Ecocriticism." A number of recent texts signal the growing prominence of ecocriticism. Examples include Karl Kroeber’s 1994 book, Ecological Literary Criticism, and Lawrence Buell’s 1995 book, The Environmental Imagination, as well as anthologies such as The Ecocriticism Reader, published in 1996, and Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature, published in 1998. What the conversation about ecocriticism will amount to in the long run remains to be seen. But part of what attracts me to this conversation is that among the interesting issues arising in it is whether ecocriticism is compatible with postmodernism. Put simply, one can ask (1) whether ecocriticism is just one more "ism" to put under the umbrella of postmodernism or (2) whether ecocriticism is necessarily a break with postmodernism that can succeed if and only if it displaces postmodernism.

The main link between what I’ll be saying about Locke and my larger ecocritical project revolves around the topic of the earth. While puzzling over Locke’s theory of property, it occurred to me that his argument presupposes an earth that is different from our earth today, three centuries later. Part of what interested me about this side of Locke, moreover, is the extent to which one might (1) keep the logic of his argument, (2) substitute today’s earth for the earth of his day, and (3) by virtue of this substitution come to conclusions very different from or even diametrically opposed to Locke’s. In other words, Locke’s text might be read as changing its meaning in a fashion analogous to changes that Burke detects in the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. As Burke observes in "The Dialectic of Constitutions," rights that were initially asserted against the monarch by individuals acting as a group became, when shifted to a context in which there was no monarch, rights asserted by the individual against the group (Grammar 364). In an earlier version of this example, in The Philosophy of Literary Form, in a long footnote on the page where his famous parlor conversation appears (110-11), Burke adds a third stage in which he suggests the possibility of "the super-corporations" assuming the dialectical position monarchy once occupied such that the rights would once be asserted by individuals acting as a group. The analogy with Locke would be the extent to which, by virtue of a change in the condition of the earth, the meaning his text had in his day would be transformed into a different meaning in our day. One might, moreover, either stick to the letter of Locke’s text in this analogizing, or, alternatively, stretch the analogy a bit by modifying Locke’s text in a way that I’ll propose in my conclusion.

Burke’s dialectic of constitutions rewrites his "Situations and Strategies" model, introduced at the outset of The Philosophy of Literary Form, in a fashion that frames a range of analytic moves. Applied to Locke, this dialectic directs our attention initially to two sides of Locke’s text. These are the two sides that Burke distinguishes in the Grammar as tactics basic to constitutions that he discovered while reviewing two books, Poetry and Anarchism, by Herbert Read, and Marxism: An Autopsy, by H. B. Parkes. A review of Burke’s introductory discussion of these two sides can serve to frame our consideration of Locke.

On one side, there is a text’s place in the agonistic struggle of history—Burke’s "unending conversation." Parkes illustrates this constitutional tactic in affirming capitalism against Marxism. Burke calls particular attention to this tactic in the section he entitles "Strategic Choice of Circumference for ‘Freedom.’" Parkes’s choice is the free market such that there is freedom inside such a market and no freedom outside it (354-55).

On the other side, there is the structure of the "oar" by virtue of which one enters the unending conversation. It’s the Read text that Burke uses to introduce the constitutional tactic involved in the structuring of the "oar"—that is, the "act." His discussion of Read shows how an act of constituting mediates tensions and contradictions among interests that can coexist in a visionary ideal but come into conflict in varying ways when that vision is brought down to the earth of concrete action (349).

It’s the second of these two sides that gets most of Burke’s attention. The "oar" entering the unending conversation of history is not for Burke a stage in a historical narrative with a predetermined structure from beginning to end, as in the kind of dialectic we associate with Hegelian and Marxist dialectics of history. Hence, Burke’s main concern is generally not to position texts at such stages. The main exception would be the "Curve of History" section inAttitudes toward History, Burke’s most Marxist text. The unending conversation of history displaces this earlier version of history. Exclusive attention to agonistic struggles such as Parkes’s affirmation of capitalism against Marxism tends to simplify the opposed terms, turning drama into melodrama. Attention to the "oar," by contrast, tends toward complexity rather than simplification as one focuses on how the "oar" mediates among interests coexisting in varying relations of tension and contradiction. Part of Burke’s interest in the constitutional model is that it readily theorizes multiple competing interests and is open-ended to accommodate the invention of new ones.

In the case of Locke’s Second Treatise, the agonistic struggle of history is between the principle of the divine right of kings that Locke rejects and the principle of bourgeois democracy that he affirms. I say "bourgeois" because Locke explicitly incorporates the protection of private property into his statement of the purpose of government (2.123). Locke’s individual in a state of nature is a property-owner—my initial interest in Locke, I might add, grew out of an inquiry into connections between his theory of property and Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe. Locke’s political philosophy is built around a core reversal whereby the divine right of a king to rule is transformed into the divine right of individuals, who act in accord with God’s will as they live freely and equally in a state of nature, and as they come together in a social contract. God defines Locke’s "circumference." Later, we’ll draw on the resources of the pentad to consider ways to define Locke’s God dramatistically. Pentadic analysis, in other words, will be framed by the dialectic of constitutions.

Complexities in the "oar" Locke puts into the conversation of his day arise from his efforts to square historical reality, with its varying inequalities, with a philosophical principle of freedom and equality. These efforts involve Locke in the ambiguities that Burke detects circling around the interplay between logical and temporal firsts whereby logics imply narratives and vice versa. For Locke, these ambiguities center on private property.

While Locke’s main interest is private property, he begins his chapter by quoting Scripture to posit that God gave the earth to humankind in common (2.25: Psalm 115.16). Squaring private property with Scripture is the burden of proof that Locke defines for himself. As an individual in Locke’s state of nature, one is free to appropriate private property by mixing one’s labor with the earth. There is, however, a principle of limitation built in to reconcile this appropriation with Scripture. This principle of limitation operates in two ways: (1) one can appropriate no more than one can use, and (2) one can appropriate only if one leaves for others resources of the earth that are equivalent in quantity and quality. Individual accumulation is thus limited by the needs of other individuals. Private property is indistinguishable from sharing property since one doesn’t conflict with the other. Private property is thus sanctified. Its accumulation is consistent with God’s commands.

Money complicates this idyllic picture. With money, it becomes possible to accumulate beyond one’s individual needs. The principle of use is a limitation when one is dealing with perishable items such as apples, since this principle limits one to picking no more than one can consume before they begin to rot. But a piece of gold doesn’t perish. With money, one can pick more apples than one can eat but exchange the excess for gold without violating the principle of use. With money, one can also buy land and hire labor. Money, in other words, sets in motion economic development.

With the introduction of money, Locke squares his text with historical reality and its inequalities. For Locke these inequalities are consistent with God’s purpose. Locke insists, "God gave the World to Men in Common; but since he gave it them [sic] for their benefit . . . it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational, (and Labour was to be his Title to it;) " (2.34). He gave it first and foremost, in other words, to people like Robinson Crusoe.

But in squaring his text with the historical narrative of economic development, Locke seems to undermine his philosophical principle of individuals starting out free and equal, especially when one thinks of this equality not just among those alive at one point in time but also among different generations stretched out over time. The rights to which all individuals are entitled from a philosophical standpoint would seem to be taken away from individuals who arrive on the scene of historical reality only to find private property signs all around them. In such a situation, the rights of some individuals would seem to trump the rights of others to an equal chance. A part would seem, in other words, to trump the interests of the whole in guaranteeing equality to all. Evidence of the tension here between logical and temporal ordering in Locke’s text appears even in John Dunn’s conservative defense of Locke against the Macpherson thesis of "possessive individualism." For Dunn concedes that while economic development betters the material conditions of a society, "it restricts for many their opportunities for economic initiative, most particularly in the areas where they are born" (118).

The 17th-century earth enabled Locke to translate his logical principle into temporal terms. The nature of this translation is implicit in Dunn when he says that opportunities for new development are limited for those born into areas of high development. For Locke effects this translation through frequent references to America, an underdeveloped area, throughout his chapter on property. America provides virgin land available for appropriation. Native Americans may use the land, picking fruit off trees, but that only entitles them to the fruit. That doesn’t bar colonizers from settling the land, cultivating it, growing their own trees, and building fences to protect their private property (2.45). As long as there is virgin land somewhere on the earth, in other words, the opportunity for economic initiative in the beginning remains in place in the present and the philosophical principle of equality remains intact.

We need also to note one additional way Locke uses America. We’ll return to this example from another standpoint later. Earth improved by productive labor, Locke argues, provides far more consumer goods than unimproved earth. "I think," Locke proposes, "it will be but a very modest Computation to say, that of the Products of the Earth useful to the Life of Man 9/10 are the effects of labour" (2.40). Again Locke turns to America to substantiate this point with the consumerist argument that there a "King . . . feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England" (2.41). Hence, even if there is a loss of originary freedom by virtue of economic development, the loss is more than compensated for by the gain in consumer enrichment.

Our earth today is, of course, very different from the earth on which Locke stages his narrative of economic development. Overpopulated and exploited to exhaustion, today’s earth questions Locke’s narrative of open-ended economic expansion. To transform the meaning of Locke’s text by re-situating it in the context of today’s earth, it will help to add a pentadic level to our analysis. The dialectic of constitutions serves to situate a text in history and to map the competing interests that must be put into some kind of hierarchical order to act in this situation. The pentad provides terminological resources to produce such orderings.

Considered from the standpoint of action, Locke’s text is ambiguous. In one sense, it privileges the part against the whole as it reasons from the standpoint of individuals pursing their individual interests. Yet in another sense, it privileges the whole against the part by indicating that if the interests of these individuals run counter to the interests of the whole, Scripture dictates that the individuals have to give way to the whole. Throughout the text, in other words, there is a potential conflict between the part and the whole. If this potentiality were ever actualized, there would then have to be a hierarchical ordering, privileging finally one or the other, based on some pentadic terminology. But this potentiality is never actualized in Locke’s text, and my argument is that it was the state of the earth in Locke’s day that enabled him to skirt this hierarchical issue. Our earth today, by contrast, forces the issue, and the pentad can help us to define it as we shift Locke’s text from the 17th century to the 20th. We’ll define it from the standpoint of Locke’s circumference, namely God. Defining the issue in this fashion, however, limits us to Locke’s terminology. Hence, in concluding, I’ll propose revising his text by altering his circumference.

Defining this issue in Lockean terms essentially requires us to translate the part/whole ambiguity in his text into two meanings, each based on a different pentadic conception of God. Dunn’s reading explicitly identifies in different contexts these two Gods, though to Dunn, as presumably to Locke as well, these two Gods seem to be one and the same, perfectly compatible with one another. One is the God of the great chain of being; the other, the God of the Puritan cult of industry. The pentad can define the difference that eludes Dunn and Locke.

"Christian theology," Burke reminds us in the Grammar, "did speculate about the ‘grounds’ of God’s act, as in the scholastics’ argument whether God willed the good because it is good or the good is good because God willed it" (71). The former—God willed the good because it’s good—privileges the scene, positing in the scene a goodness that constrains even God. The latter—the good is good because God willed it—privileges the agent. In Burke’s words, "The doctrine that ‘the good is good because God willed it’ points . . . towards the modern centuries of subjectivism and idealism, with their great stress upon the ‘ego,’ the ‘will,’ and finally the ‘libido’" (71).

The God of the great chain of being is the God constrained by the objective goodness in the scene. Dunn affirms that the great chain is the scene Locke’s text shared with its antagonist, Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (87-88). According to Lovejoy, in his classic study of the great chain of being, the great chain attained its widest diffusion in the 18th century (183). Lovejoy cites the influence of Locke among others, noting that Locke can be distinguished from others in two ways: for him (1) the chain was "probable" rather than certain and (2) the plenitude and continuity of the chain need not be complete (354n1). This slippage in Locke’s commitment to the chain and particularly to its key principle of plenitude can be construed as a degree of textual slack that allowed him to incorporate an alternative God, albeit without altogether realizing it.

The principle of plenitude is the good in the scene that constrains God. God willed the good because it’s good, and the good He willed is the best of all possible worlds in the sense of 18th-century optimism, which defines the good from the standpoint not of the parts—the links in the chain—but of the whole. What makes this world the best is that it contains all possible modes of being—its plenitude.

The God of the Puritan cult of industry is God as agent. This God appears first when Locke invokes Him to distinguish his state of nature from Hobbes’s war of all against all in a lawless struggle for survival. In Locke’s state of nature there is a governing law of nature based on the recognition that, in Locke’s words, "Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his . . . Pleasure" (2.6). In short, God is a property owner of property owners. From this premise, Locke concludes that we do not have the right to end our own life or to take the life or possessions of another.

Locke’s privileging of the labor of property owners is crucial in his agonistic struggle with Filmer’s Patriarcha. It’s the property of industrious individuals that gives them their sovereignty in the political order. The industrious who make the earth more productive are doing God’s work. In effect, this God delegates to individuals the power to make this the best of all possible worlds in the sense of the consumer culture we live with today—the world of Don DeLillo’s contemporary classic, White Noise.

These two Gods do not conflict for Locke—nor for Dunn, whose book appeared in 1969—because the possibility of industry endangering the great chain was beyond his horizon. His text offers perhaps a glimpse of this possibility only in the passage quoted above that contrasts a laborer in England to a king in America to make the point that land improved through human industry is more productive than land in its natural state. For the passage can be read as saying that an earth improved by human industry is better than the earth God created. That’s the closest the text comes to recognizing a conflict between its two Gods, but it’s evident that Locke sees in economic development only an enhancement of our link in the chain, not a threat to the chain. Today, of course, this development threatens to break the chain and to end life on earth, but that’s a possibility beyond Locke’s horizon however much it’s within our own.

The 20th century earth, then, forces Locke’s text to address the issue that the 17th century earth allowed it to avoid. Given Locke’s indication that the part must give way to the whole when they conflict, his own text would force us to conclude that the equality of opportunity for expansion Locke affirmed must today be reread as an equality of opportunity for a fair share of limited resources, and these limitations become even greater, moreover, if one thinks not merely of those alive today but of future generations yet unborn. What will be left for them? History, from our standpoint in 1999, forces us to conclude that the theological debate behind the lines of Locke’s text must be decided against God as agent of industrial power in favor of the God who wills the good because it’s good.

To conclude, we can ask if we should revise Locke’s text by eliminating God altogether. The Copernican revolution that Newton completed for the Enlightenment decentered the earth, but subsequently our theological terminologies have tended to recuperate the Copernican decentering by making life on earth the center of the universe. Based on the evidence available, however, life on earth is the exception rather than the rule in the universe, maybe even the sole exception. Life on earth is radically decentered and deserves to be revered as such. Maybe the more we see life as rare and fragile, the more we’ll be willing to sacrifice to perpetuate it. Maybe some new form of paganism devoted to life on this planet rather than to immortal life elsewhere is what the 21st century needs. Maybe future generations on this planet should be immortality enough for any of us alive today. Narrowing the circumference of our scene to the earth and to the objective goodness of the life it supports, we can conclude by repeating Burke’s closing words in Permanence and Change:

for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edges of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depths of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and noman, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss. (272)

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

---. Permanence and Change. 1935. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

---. Philosophy of Literary Form. 1941. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Dunn, John. The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of theTwo Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of an Idea. 1936. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.