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On John Locke and His Woke Catholic Critics

August 10th, 2017 | 14 min read

By John Shelton

The world is going to hell.

This unfortunate development most certainly began with the Enlightenment (or was it Duns Scotus?) and it is entirely the fault of John Locke and his nasty gang of philosophy boys.

Thus proceeds the standard dirge of the Woke Catholic.

The Woke Catholic is a strange bird, squawking out apothegms from his favorite encyclicals, armed with a weaponized form of the Syllabus of Errors that can be fired from the safety of ultramontane. He is sometimes an Integralist, sometimes a Marxist, but only very rarely a Sedevacantist, for he loves his young pope, his nice pope.

There is a real, if weaker, parallel in the Woke Protestants: the lads who read John Milbank—and less radically, Oliver O’Donovan—as they writhe and gnash their teeth in lament of the eclipse of Calvin’s Geneva. Rather than the benighted Protestants who spend their days writing milquetoast farewells to uninteresting liberals, these Woke Protestants write “Farewell Servetus,” and after a couple ales brewed to perfectly replicate the fare at Herr Luther’s table, they can be counted upon to explain to you how Servetus really deserved to be immolated or why you should be moved by Calvin’s desire that he only be beheaded. But I digress!

The hoi polloi might be surprised to find out that Enlightenment thought is capable of such colossal destruction. “Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant—I didn’t even know that anyone read those guys!” Or perhaps you, a hos pollos (that you didn’t know the singular form of the Greek confirms my judgement that you are one), think something like this: “But those are the folks whom our founders read to establish the platonic form of government: America!”

Bingo. Now you’re seeing the argument: The current political establishment is based on a corrupt foundation, ipso facto, we are on the highway to hell and, much like Sammy Hagar, we can’t drive 55. Books and books have been written about why the foundation is foundering, just pick up anything written by the philosophers Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre: individualism, emotivism, and nominalism are some of the favorite bugaboos to blame.

MacIntyre traces these various bêtes noires to one fountainhead: the loss of teleology. And MacIntyre is not wrong to place the problem here. Thomas Hobbes, a titan of the Enlightenment, explicitly dismisses in his Leviathan what he takes to be the dead-weight of teleology: “there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.”

Hobbes wants to speak in certitudes and morality is too contested to be ‘scientific,’ leading Hobbes to conclude that morality claims are nothing more than claims about desires and repulsions. The only telos, if something so meager can be called that, is that every individual is concerned with his own self-preservation. If Hobbes can be taken for the Enlightenment in nuce, MacIntyre is right to denounce the period. Next to Hobbes, Nietzsche looks woefully unoriginal.

Without teleology, without a normative vision of how things are supposed to be and become, moral enquiry becomes impossible; without telos, morality is jettisoned. As myriad philosophers have pointed out, even descriptive enterprises fail without some level of telos and guiding norms. Descriptions, after all, are always bound within norms. For otherwise, what is the distinction between a war and a genocide?

More interesting, however, is whether MacIntyre is right in laying this claim about the loss of teleology against John Locke. Is Hobbes a just representation of every intellectual classified ex post facto as an Enlightenment thinker? Were the problems of the Enlightenment a miasma of which no one (perhaps other than the occasional Roman Catholic saint) could break free? And finally, is the loss of teleology a fair criticism of the whole of Enlightenment thought or is it simply a useful rule of thumb to describe the Enlightenment’s Hobbesian impulses?

The aforementioned Woke Catholic argument, albeit in miniature, has been advanced much more recently by Elizabeth Bruenig during a panel on Christianity and Poverty at the Acton Institute. (It is interesting to note that this argument really is a favorite of Catholics; Taylor, MacIntyre, and Bruenig are Catholic. If the Enlightenment is to blame then the Protestant Reformation is also culpable as its necessary precondition!)

Bruenig’s remarks are worth quoting in full:

It’s really by the time we get to liberal property theorists like Locke that you see them moving away from this medieval tradition of property and from the patristic tradition and they move to an intentionally secular theory of what property is—to an ontology of property: that it is a thing with a metaphysical relationship to a person that can be absolutely owned, dominated, controlled, and that though you may have moral obligations or whatever to do different things with the property that you absolutely own because of that metaphysical relationship it becomes immoral and unallowable for a civil authority to intervene, so this is a big transformation in the way we think about property.

And it really gets going at the Reformation and then it’s fully realized in people like Locke and other liberal property theorists from these liberal property theorists we get where we are today and thinking about absolute ownership, absolute rights to property—a property right that suggests a metaphysical relationship between people and things that is inviolate in terms of civil authority and perhaps even separate from civil authority.

Before I dispute Bruenig, I want to stop for a moment to clarify myself: Everyone ought to read Taylor, MacIntyre, and Bruenig. There is something very truly wrong with the world that these three seem to perceive more clearly than the rest of us. The Woke Catholics tend to have a far richer understanding of the history of ideas and that is a vital gift to the world. I wish all the panelists at the Acton Institute event engaged ethics in the mode of the Woke Catholic.

We absolutely ought to read deeply in the great Christian tradition and unshackle ourselves from our serfdom under defunct economists. After all, it was one of the 20th century’s greatest economists who warned the world that those who lacked a tradition were slaves to his guild.

So we ought to read the Desert Fathers in the morning and Basil’s sermons on poverty in the evening, and they ought to chill us to the quick as we, under the fear of the Lord, consider how to spend our money. Woke Catholics help us keep weird things that should never have been considered normal. Thank God for weird Catholics and their profound intimacy with the life of the church across time!

Though I write as someone in profound agreement with much of what Bruenig has to say, my concern with her and other Woke Catholic modernity critics is that their metatheory about the history of ethics tends to produce totally pisspoor, uncharitable readings of some profoundly important thinkers. One of my seminary professors once cautioned us that we owe the dead our charity, and that if we were not careful we might one day have to give an account to them about our careless dismissals of their lives’ labors. For after all, we believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

The Radical John Locke

Bruenig has laid two major charges against Locke, his ‘secularity’ and this idea of ‘absolute’ property, both of which I think fall under MacIntyre’s larger critique about teleology. I will take all three of these topics up in an effort to give to the dead a fair and honest account.

My aim is not to suggest that Locke is some immaculate thinker whom we ought to give our lives and our studies to. My aim is to offer a note of caution to the often overzealous hermeneutic of Woke Catholics and to recover an intellectual source Americans share as common heritage. The careful reader will find that Locke has much to offer in terms of critique of the economic establishment.

No secularist should claim Locke.

Secularity is a totally preposterous charge to bring against John Locke, unless by ‘secularity’ one really means Protestant Christianity. Locke’s first and second treatises on government are saturated with biblical thinking and engagement with ecclesiastical arguments. Suffice it to say that his first treatise is entirely concerned with the significance of Adam’s relationship to God and what that means for the divine right of kings.

One could argue that his is a religious argument aimed at dismantling religious argument but that reading requires such a totalizing hermeneutic of suspicion as to undermine the hermeneutic of charity Augustine says is necessary to read anything and understand it properly.

Locke’s understanding of property, laid out in the second treatise, is founded upon God’s ownership of the Earth. How, Locke asks, if God has given the earth to mankind as a common possession, can individual persons ever come to have this thing called “property”? In order to support his argument on the mechanics of this process, Locke makes recourse to the example of Abraham and Lot: how they split the earth between them when they outgrew their ability to share the land. If Locke is a secularist, he is not one any secularist today would recognize as an ally.

What does “absolute property” mean?

The claims about absolute property seem equally ludicrous. First let’s clarify what Bruenig means by “absolute property.” Absolute property is a form of ownership without limitation. This kind of ownership means that any use imaginable is licit. I am free to smash my sports car (if only I had one!) with a sledgehammer or drive it into my private infinity pool. I can fill my hot tub with a $20,000 bottle of champagne. According to an absolute theory of property, I own these things in a way that means I have a right to use them in this way, however strong your moral repugnance at my decadence might be.

It is a form of ownership grounded in a radically individualistic philosophy. For me alone this property exists and I, as master, may use it however I want. Any attempt to coerce me to use it otherwise is impermissible. When French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also mentioned in the Acton debate) proclaims “property is theft!” he has this particular conception of property in mind. But does Locke believe that property confers the right to abuse one’s holdings? Does his philosophy license my bourgeoisie existence, so long as I earned my wealth through legal channels? Absolutely not (pun very much intended)!

Despite what MacIntyre has to say about the loss of teleology in the Enlightenment, for Locke, property has a telos: a purpose, a goal. Property’s purpose is an extension of the telos of nature. The natural environment is meant to sustain humankind: “men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence.” This is what the world exists for, and before any discussion about governments and nations, Locke affirms the right of humans without qualification to use the earth to sustain themselves.

Locke’s account of property explains how this end can be furthered and not hindered by property. By mixing one’s self, that is, one’s labor, with the natural environment, a man or woman can acquire property. This is the same kind of logic that justifies squatter’s rights or even, later, allows Karl Marx to speak of a worker being alienated from his labor. Labor is a way to extend oneself into the natural world. To take that labor without just compensation is tantamount to kidnapping a part of a person. It is abduction.

But there are limits on how we might come to possess the earth. Property is justified because it takes a common possession and makes more, not less, of it. Legitimate ownership must always look like this and thus ownership only provides exclusive rights “where there is enough.”

Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.

Proper possession is a generative activity and not a zero-sum contest, “so that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.”

Far from ‘absolute property,’ Locke warned that anyone who possessed in a wasteful way “offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished.” For in wasting, “he invaded his neighbour’s share, for he had no right, farther than his used called for… and [his property] might serve to afford him conveniences of life.” “Nothing,” Locke insists, “was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.”

Locke as Radical Critic

I have already begun to suggest how Locke’s theory of property, rather than pave the way to absolute property, prepares the ground for the radical critiques of Karl Marx. Locke, as I read him, would be comfortable in joining Proudhon’s cry. The improper usage of nature is a kind of theft against society writ large.

Now, rather than unpack the ways in which Locke anticipates Marx, I want to look backwards to Thomas Aquinas and compare him briefly with Locke, as I believe both Locke and Marx are, in a very qualified sense, inheritors of Thomas’ intellectual legacy.

For all three, the presence of abject poverty is a delegitimization of property. Locke is not far off from Thomas’ decree in the Summa Theologiae that “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.”

If, as we have seen is true, nature exists to provide for humanity’s subsistence and property is a logical extension of this end, property is subverted whenever ownership prevents the poor from receiving what they need to live. Locke and Marx would surely nod their heads in approval with the rest of Thomas’ justification. Quoting Ambrose, Thomas writes, “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

It should give us pause to note that Thomas, Locke, and Marx all agree on something: poverty is a subversion of the created order. More than that, the legitimations of property, as an extension of the purposes of creation, are undermined by poverty. Material poverty, the inability to sustain oneself through the resources at hand in one’s environment, mocks God’s intention that the world provide for the needs of human beings.


It is easy to give Enlightenment thinkers short shrift and blame them for the problems we face today. More than that, it is vogue to stand in haughty judgement over them. But far better, albeit far more difficult, is the work of charitable reading. Whatever the shortcomings of Enlightenment thinkers are (and I have my own litany of disagreements with Locke’s broader system), careful attention to them sometimes can yield surprising and fruitful discoveries.

In the case of Bruenig, such a careful, loving hermeneutic would only strengthen her argument. For, to her point, not only have we gotten away from the foundational Christian perspectives on poverty and property, we have betrayed the intellectual sources of our own founding as a country.

So, three cheers for Locke, the proto-Marxist Thomist—and don’t let anyone tell you he was a libertarian.

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John Shelton

John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.