Thursday, March 22, 2018

John Locke’s Debt to Spinoza

Spinoza; Locke
When he was accused by the Bishop of Worcester of being a follower of Spinoza, John Locke replied, “I am not so well read in Hobbes or Spinoza to be able to say what were their opinions in this matter.”

But there is evidence to show that Locke, Spinoza’s exact contemporary, acquired Spinoza’s works immediately after their publication and thoroughly studied them. The philosophy that Locke developed was built almost entirely on the foundations of Spinozism.

Locke did not want to acknowledge his debt to Spinoza, because, during those days, Spinozism was seen as a threat to the traditional way of religious and philosophical thinking. The political and intellectual establishment regarded Spinoza with horror; his works were forbidden in Holland, England and several other countries in Europe. Locke knew about the controversies surrounding Spinoza, and for his own safety he wanted to downplay his connection with Spinozism. In fact, Locke published his own political writings anonymously to avoid any personal risk.

Matthew Stewart, in his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, devotes several chapters to making the case that the foundational concepts in Locke’s philosophy are in essence a reproduction of Spinoza’s work. He writes: “So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.” In another book, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World, Stewart points out that Leibniz regarded Locke as a feeble imitation of Spinoza.

Stewart can be accused of being too unkind to Locke—in some of the passages it seems he is not taking into account Locke’s full context, and is giving too much credit to Spinoza. But in his two books (the ones that I am mentioning in this post), Stewart offers several sentences from Locke’s writing which closely mirror what Spinoza has written.

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