John Locke: An open and shut case?

Nick Clegg may be a Locke fan, but philosophers would make terrible legislators – and should stay away from politics

The philosopher Julian Baggini recently observed British politics to be going through a rare phase of philosophical literacy.

Among the various smear attempts on the Liberal Democrat leader, it was revealed that Nick Clegg was sometimes to be found reading John Locke. Baggini rather amusingly concluded that in effect polling day will represent a choice between three philosophers: Hobbes (Brown), Locke (Clegg), and Rousseau (Cameron).

The current crop of prime ministerial candidates may have their failings, but I'd choose any of them over the aforementioned sages. Handed the untrammeled reins of power, it is more than likely that Hobbes would have ended up making a virtue out of tyranny, Rousseau a tyranny out of virtue, and Locke, a closet anarchist … actually, on that basis, I'd vote for Locke.

Still, one needn't examine the lessons of history too closely to realise that the best diviners of truth don't make the best legislators. As anyone who has read The Republic knows, Plato was of the view that because philosophers are guided by truth itself, rather than by the instrumental value of any particular truth, they should therefore be given responsibility for affairs of state. Two spells in Syracuse, spent trying to influence first Dionysius I – responsible for supplying the Greek word "tyrant" (literally "absolute ruler") with its pejorative sense – and later his son Dionysius II both ended in disaster.

Later examples abound. The end result of the philosopher and author of Utopia Thomas More's principled attempts to moderate Henry VIII's ingenious pragmatism is too well known to comment upon. An optimistic attempt by Denis Diderot to guide Catherine the Great in her diurnal activities met with severe disillusionment – the only positive result to emerge from the collaboration was the considerable swelling of Catherine's library. Karl Marx never managed to seize power himself, but those who did so in his in his name are not best known for their rational even-handedness, wisdom or compassion. As for Martin Heidegger. Great philosopher, required reading, Nazi. Need one say more?

But the reason that philosophers and rulers should stay well away from each other is not purely anecdotal. Rather it concerns the contrasting nature of each enterprise. The capacity for abstract thought originates as the suspension of action: in evolutionary terms, humans learned to think in situations where their instincts failed to prompt a course of action. In requiring absolute freedom of thought, therefore, philosophy renounces the possibility of action. Politicians, in turn, must renounce freedom of thought in the interests of limited power to act.

True, there have of course been rulers who have tried to combine complete absolute freedom of thought with absolute freedom of action, but these tend to be rulers given to coining phrases like "final solution". That is not to say Hitler was a great philosopher. But like philosophers, he preferred to see a solution, and to try to bring it about with the greatest possible efficiency, than to waste his time navigating the muddier waters of democratic process.

If philosophers and politicians are to meet, it is perhaps best that they do so in the manner prescribed by Socrates, who described Athenian democracy as "a great a noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly." He reserved the role of gadfly for himself, though he perhaps hadn't quite envisaged being rather cruelly swatted when the horse turned nasty.

But Socrates was right that philosophy's role in politics should simply be as a source of irritation, a reminder that the vastly limited power of our rulers to really effect change in society should be illuminated by a set of ideals that stand outside the murky business of politicking. But as for philosophers themselves taking power? As any good spin doctor knows, truth is perfectly welcome to speak to power, but would be in error if it thought it would get a straight answer.

Popular Posts