Acton Institute Powerblog

John Locke and a Chinese Investiture Controversy

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Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg has two new pieces today, in Public Discourse and The American Spectator.

The first is a response to Greg Forster’s “Taking Locke Seriously” on June 27 in First Things. In that article, Forster took issue with Gregg’s June 22 Public Discourse piece, “Social Contracts, Human Flourishing, and the Economy.” Gregg argues, in a July 29 response to Forster titled “John Locke and the Inadequacies of Social Contract Theory,” that Locke’s political thought is based in a false understanding of human nature, which any student must keep in mind. Locke’s unrealistic social compact theory, based as it is in a State of Nature myth, reveals his ignorance of man’s innate political drive, and thus his whole nature. Says Gregg,

Locke … has an inadequate grasp of the workings of intentionality, practical reason, and the will, and therefore of human freedom and human flourishing.

These insufficiencies might owe something to Locke’s metaphysics of the person, which essentially locates human identity in consciousness. As for Locke’s conception of the will, Locke specifies that “the will in truth signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose.” Taken together with his tendency to treat freedom as absence of constraint, these constitute a potent combination of dualism, voluntarism, and perhaps even nominalism.

Gregg’s other target is across the globe, but China’s leadership share the same nominalist confusion about human nature. What precisely they may think about human nature is not a matter of public record, but it’s a good bet they don’t agree with the Acton Institute. The Chinese government is having trouble controlling the economic freedom it has granted to citizens: it turns out morality and economics are connected, and now Chinese in free enterprise zones are turning to the Church for metaphysical answers Maoism can’t provide. That grounding is essential to a polity:

Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.

Beijing’s predicament, however, is that the same Christianity which provides people with a moral compass in rapidly changing societies also insists the state is not God and may not exercise religious authority over the Church. This position is especially pronounced in Catholicism. It receives doctrinal and canonical affirmation in Catholicism’s insistence upon the need for all Catholic bishops to be in full communion with St. Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome. Among other things, this means Rome’s approval must be granted before ordination as a Catholic bishop is considered licit.

China is a living example of what starts to happen when the metaphysic of a people is deeply and swiftly uprooted. The political theory of John Locke threatens to encourage that same uprooting if it is not tempered with Christianity. Let us rejoice that even in China, the state does not seem to be able to quash man’s religious impulse.

Kenneth Spence


  • Roger McKinney

    Gregg makes excellent points, but it seems to me that
    Forster hasn’t read Gregg’s articles and addresses issues irrelevant to the


    Seems to me that the idea of a social contract was invented
    by the scholars of Salamanca about
    a century before Locke to explain the limits of the king’s authority, not in
    order to devise a theory of government. The scholars assumed that the king had
    legitimate authority, but he needed guidelines as to the limits of that
    authority. Locke made the social contract carry a burden it couldn’t support.


    Seems to me that the origin of government is obvious: it’s
    based on the family. Heads of families got together and selected leadership for
    the entire tribe. Later government became based on military victory, the victor
    assuming that God had given him the victory and therefore God intended him to


    It’s reported that Genghis Khan said that the Persians must
    have been extremely wicked people for God to give him the power to kill as many
    of them as he did.


    Reason is a “reasonable” guide to decision making, but it’s
    easy to reasonably argue for any point of view if you establish the appropriate
    assumptions. Revelation is a far more certain path to knowledge than is reason,
    and God has revealed the best form of government in the Torah.


    That doesn’t mean we should treat every law in the Torah as
    relevant for today. Many are not because they address a particular situation
    that no longer exists. But we can always distill the principles behind the laws
    and those should be applicable for all people at all times.


    And we should take God’s warnings through Samuel about the
    evils of a highly centralized government seriously, more seriously than we take

    • Reason is a “reasonable” guide to decision making, but it’s easy to reasonably argue for any point of view if you establish the appropriate assumptions.
      Indeed–so when Locke says that reason is “our only star and compass” he’s spitting nonsense.

      I don’t know that the social contract theory is a good way to establish limits to the King’s authority though: that would be better done by appeals to Justice, right? Always better to ground these things in the truth