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The Muddled Philosophy and Life of John Locke

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The examination of philosophy requires an in-depth look at two aspects of the philosopher. First one must examine their writings to grasp their points and perspectives, and then one must be able to examine the philosophers’ personal lives to see whether they maintain their written philosophies, or whether they live their lives by alternative standards. The examination of John Locke thus becomes inherently necessary and extremely tricky. Often described as an incredibly virtuous man and portrayed as the founder of modern democracy, Locke is in truth a far more complex human being than many are aware. Although John Locke appears to condemn slavery on paper, his actions reveal a man torn between the acceptance and condemnation of slavery.

According to Locke, it is only a certain kind of slavery that is inappropriate. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke protests outright slavery where the slave is owned as property by the slave holder and the slave subsequently no longer has in his possession the rights given to him in the state of nature. Locke explicitly states, “For a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot by compact or his own consent enslave himself to any one” (Locke 22). With this statement Locke firmly and pointedly argues against what at the time was the growing popularity of chattel, or “ownership” slavery. This practice had slaves surrendering power over their own lives to owners who then used them at their discretion. Locke writes, “Nobody can give more power than he has himself”; in essence, he believes that since no man has full power over his own life (that power is reserved for God) he cannot under any circumstances surrender himself and his life and liberty to any other man (Locke 22). Locke, in his writings at least, seems fully prepared to fight the growing rise of ownership slavery, perhaps even to the point where he would lose his own standing in the public eye and in the government. Also, under this tenet of his philosophy Locke would deem the rising practice of enslaving Africans in North America wrong and illegal because it is blatant ownership slavery. Despite this vaunted position that Locke takes on chattel slavery, he does condone slavery under certain conditions.

In his Second Treatise Locke comes to terms with two types of slavery. First off, there is “retribution” slavery, which he sums up as the perfect condition of slavery: it entails limited power on one side of the contract and obedience on the other (Locke 23). It is also defined by Locke as a continuation of a state of war in which the person who has committed such an act as deserves death is given delay by the person whom he has attacked in order that he may make him useful for his own services (Locke 22). This form of slavery is modernly defined as imprisonment. Simply put, someone who has done wrong must enter into a contract with those whom he has wronged in order to make retribution for his actions. This idea is often called retribution slavery because the criminal is making up for what he has done by forfeiting his services to the government or person that he has harmed in some way. The other type of slavery that Locke recognizes is the kind found in the Bible. He only condones this because “it is plain this was only to drudgery, not to slavery” (Locke 23). He says that the Jews were not under full control because the master did not have the power to kill them at will; therefore, this was not chattel slavery and was thus somewhat acceptable. These two cases are important to a full understanding of Locke’s ideas on slavery. He allows imprisonment and Biblical slavery because their tenets do not fall under the category of chattel or ownership slavery, which he feels is wrong. As many scholars and authors have noted, Locke frequently contradicts himself in his writings, but he may also have contradicted himself in his actions, as well.

In Chapter V, Locke discusses the nature of property and how it factors into the ownership of a man. It is through labor that a man can make any piece of the state of nature his. By taking something from the state of nature and mixing it with his inherently held labor, a man makes that something his own. He clarifies this idea further by saying, “For this ‘labor’ being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to” (Locke 26). This clarification raises an obvious question in terms of slavery: if a slave uses his inherent labor to make something from the state of nature his property, is it really his, or is it his master’s? Locke never truly addresses this contradiction; it seems that there is no obvious explanation. It can be surmised, however, that Locke would say that a slave is not a man and does not have to rights that men do; thus, he has forfeited his “labor” to his owner or master. If slaves are not men, how can Locke stand behind his premise of all men being equal in stature in the state of nature? Locke also found other ways to contradict his stance on slavery by writing a highly controversial charter for the Carolinas and investing in the slave trade itself. The charter that Locke wrote for the Carolinas (which was never used) gave them the right to institute slavery and gave the men who settled there the right to import and own slaves in the form of chattel slavery (Norton Anthology). How is it possible that a man who condemns chattel slavery would suggest that this very form of slavery was condonable?

There is another case to be made for Locke’s acceptance of slavery that involves his personal actions. Locke’s commercial trading activities as a government official eventually spilled over into the slave trade. He was an investor in the East India Trading Co.: one of the first companies to precipitate the slave trade (Norton Anthology). He is said to have viewed the slave trade as an important and economically empowering venture for England. This may seem preposterous given his opinion of chattel slavery, but there is strong empirical evidence to support this contention. Whatever Locke may have written on the topic of slavery, he most certainly did not back up his stated beliefs with his personal actions.

Although it is impossible to definitively state why a man who wrote a treatise that condemned chattel slavery would have gone on to invest in that same form of slavery, that is the legacy of John Locke. We can discern from his Second Treatise of Government that he condemned outright ownership or chattel slavery, but we can also discern that Locke wrote an unused charter for the Carolinas that included a provision allowing chattel slavery and that he then went on to invest in companies that precipitated the slave trade for the sake of his country’s economic advancement. Whatever Locke’s writings may say about his perspective on slavery, they directly contradict with the actions of his personal and professional life. Indeed, it appears that John Locke led a decidedly muddled life outside of the philosophies that he committed to paper.

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The Muddled Philosophy and Life of John Locke. (2018, April 20). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from
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