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‘Safe enough in his honesty and prudence’ the ordinary conduct of government in the thought of John Locke

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While for many years Locke was viewed almost universally as the prophet of liberalism, today a successive reading of C.B. Macpherson's Possessive Individualism, John Dunn's The Political Thought of John Locke and Richard Ashcraft's Revolutionary Politics and Locke's ‘Two Treatises of Government’, might produce a schizophrenic vision of Locke as simultaneously an accumulative bourgeois villain, an irrelevant Calvinist moralist and a radical egalitarian revolutionary hero.

This essay addresses an issue examined to a greater or lesser extent by these and other interpreters: John Locke's thoughts on the conduct of everyday political life. Consideration of this topic can serve to moderate one's impression of Locke, just as currently Ashcraft holds Locke to be less radical and Dunn finds Locke less irrelevant than they did before. The essay seeks to identify the group of persons Locke presumed would govern in a well-ordered nation, to examine the qualities required of these governors in order for them to perform their calling, and to illuminate Locke's personal efforts to promote these qualities in the governors of the next generation. In particular, I will examine the concept of trust, which John Dunn in recent years has found to be of continuing political relevance. In the first section, I will review the use of the word ‘trust’ in Locke's Second Treatise to display the fact that trustworthiness in governors is constituted by possession of the qualities of virtue and prudence in the second section, I will argue that Locke's educational writings ought to be viewed as attempts to encourage the formation of the qualities necessary for good governors. In the following two sections, I will examine the meaning Locke ascribes to both ‘prudence’ and ‘virtue’ in his various political, philosophical, and educational writings. Finally, I will endeavour to show that an understanding of these qualities, along with the importance of status and breeding, are instrumental to an understanding of Locke's conception of the conduct of everday political life.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Minnesota.

Publication date: 1992-04-01

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