What is our business here in this world? To learn about the Creator by learning as much as we can about the creature; to learn what our duties are; to provide for our material needs; no more. Our faculties, rude and imperfect though they be, are adequate to the due performance of those functions. Therefore, putting aside the hope of attaining any perfect and absolute knowledge of the things around us as something beyond the range of finite beings, let us content ourselves with being what we are, with doing what we can do and with knowing what we can know.
Thus Hazard summarizes Locke in Crisis of the European Mind. And so with Locke the world moves from absolutes to perpetual beta, always knowing we don’t have the whole picture and forever searching for the next truth. Not that the world pre-Locke wasn’t also in beta testing, it was but nobody would or could recognize or acknowledge that because you weren’t allowed to think for yourself.
With all this new-found freedom to think and test and push the boundaries, with the separation of morality from religion, Reason had to come up with a new proposal for how people should live their lives. So Locke comes along with his empiricism and a focus on human psychology. And Locke says, hey, why is everybody so worried and confused? There’s this thing called Natural Law and if we obey Natural Law then everything will be hunky-dory. Natural Law is a system of law determined by nature and is therefore universal.
Except there was one little fly in the ointment. People started asking what is Nature? And since there were all sorts of different answers, argument ensued. Of course the concept of Natural Law was not new, it goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. That’s one of the fascinating things about reading a history like this, you get a feel for how ideas are cycled around but through each turn they are not quite the same. It’s those differences where the really interesting stuff lives.
This time around Natural law rejects the supernatural and divine and substitutes the acts and purpose of a personal God with the order of Nature. And so we have the excellently named Samuel Pufendorf declaring that theology belongs to heaven and human reason to earth and so theology does not get to organize society. Natural law means we, as reasoning humans, choose to create a political pact and organize ourselves in a civil society.
And this leads to the idea that people are invested by nature with sovereignty, it is a right, and people have the right to delegate that sovereignty as they see fit. And this, of course, eventually leads to those famous words of 1776 in the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
And those other famous words a little further along in that document that Americans love to declare:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Except happiness meant something very different from how we think of it today.
To live a happy and contented life, one thing, and the first thing, we have to do, is to reason calmly about things like sensible beings, and put a curb on our imagination when it would magnify our ills.
To pursue happiness meant taking life for what it was and not asking too much of it. It meant having perspective and using what one had to one’s best advantage. It meant the freedom to think and order one’s life. It meant being able to enjoy the joys of daily life, a pleasant conversation, a good book. It also applied to so very few people because it could only truly be pursued by those who were educated and had an income and leisure. Our concept of happiness today is a bit more inclusive, but is it just me or does it also somehow seem shallower?
Tomorrow a bit about the art and literature during the period 1680-1715. A hint about what to expect: it’s where all the sentiment and laughter went to hide from Reason.