What Aristotle and John Locke said about political liberalism

What Aristotle and John Locke said about political liberalism
Images via Wikimedia Commons.

This diary is part of my series Philosophy Matters, which examines the ideas of some important philosophers and their relevance to politics. You can find the other parts by searching the #PhilosophyMatters hashtag on DK.


This time we’ll compare two important political philosophers, Aristotle and John Locke.

One of the most influential thinkers of all time, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle possessed a wide-ranging and insatiable curiosity. Most of his philosophy is what we would now call science: he wrote on biology, astronomy, zoology, physics, and psychology, to name just a few subjects. He also made important contributions to ethics and political theory. Unfortunately, the only works by Aristotle that have survived appear to be his lecture notes.

The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke was a pioneering political thinker. He had a major influence on the U.S. Founding Fathers and provided the philosophical justification for the American Revolution.

Aristotle on the goal of politics

According to Aristotle, the goal of human life is eudaimonia. The Greek word eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but a better translation might be “success”—not success at a particular activity but success at life. For Aristotle, eudaimonia means putting intellectual and moral excellence into action over a lifetime.

For Aristotle, the success of a person’s friends, family, and fellow-citizens is part of the person’s success. I don't just mean that a person needs help from others to be successful. We might say that Aristotle thinks of society as a team. Just as a person can win at baseball only by winning along with their baseball team, so a person can win at life only by winning along with their society. In fact, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that even after a person has died, the success or failure of their friends and family continues to affect how successful their life was (though Aristotle adds that this effect will not be enough to make a successful person unsuccessful).

Because he thinks that society’s success and individual success are inseparable, Aristotle says that society has an interest in ensuring that individuals are living intellectually and morally excellent lives. In fact, Aristotle thinks that making citizens excellent—not protecting them or providing for their material needs—is the main purpose of politics. As he puts it,

legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one. (Nicomachean Ethics 2.1)

Locke and social contract theory

John Locke helped pioneer what philosophers call “social contract theory.” Social contract theories differ from each other in important ways. For example, Thomas Hobbes says that a ruler’s power should be absolute, whereas Locke’s social contract theory includes the right to rebel. However, Hobbes’s theory and Locke’s theory rest on the same basic idea:

  • Humans create societies in order to protect their individual lives and rights.
  • If a government’s authority is justified, then it’s justified because the individual citizens freely agreed (or would have freely agreed) to create that government.

In Locke’s social contract theory, individuals have some rights (for example, the right to acquire and possess property) even before a society exists. Locke calls these rights “natural rights,” and he thinks that people naturally have the right to defend their own natural rights, defend the natural rights of others, and punish those who have violated people’s natural rights. But without a government, it’s hard to protect natural rights effectively.

According to Locke, people eventually get sick of living in this precarious state and agree to form a society. As part of the agreement, they give up their individual right to punish. From then on, only the government has the right to punish. But the government’s power is not absolute. Because the people created the government to protect their rights, the people have the right to resist or overthrow the government if it is no longer protecting their rights.

Aristotelian communitarianism vs. Lockean liberalism

Aristotle views humans as essentially social. As we have seen, he thinks that the individual and society are so closely connected that society’s success or failure can affect the individual’s success. This link extends even across death: even a dead person’s success continues to be affected by the success and failure of others. Hence, Aristotle thinks that society has a vital interest in ensuring that its members are excellent.

By contrast, Locke views humans as essentially individuals. Individuals, while remaining fundamentally individual, agree to form a society in order to protect their individual interests. On this way of viewing things, the government’s role is to protect individual life and liberty.

This theory makes Locke one of the founding fathers of political liberalism. Here I’m not using “liberalism” in its contemporary American sense. That is, I’m not using it as a euphemism for left-of-center politics. Instead, I’m using it in the way some political philosophers and social scientists still use it. Here “political liberalism” means the basic ideological framework that has shaped western political thought since the Enlightenment.

In its purest form, political liberalism says that only individuals are real (to quote Margaret Thatcher, “there are no societies”) and draws a sharp distinction between justice and value. Individuals can have private opinions about what is valuable, but pure political liberalism would see those opinions as irrelevant to what is just on a societal level: the purpose of society is to protect individuals, not to promote good values.

Obviously, no existing government implements pure political liberalism, and even Locke himself probably wasn’t a pure political liberal. Whenever a public school teacher tells a young child to share or say “please,” that’s a violation of pure political liberalism: it’s the government dictating the child’s personal values instead of leaving the child’s upbringing as a private family affair.

Nonetheless, we see political liberalism’s influence everywhere in western and especially American politics. On the left, political liberalism has appeared as the desire to “get the government out of people’s bedrooms.” On the right, political liberalism appears as economic libertarianism and opposition to “big government.” In western society more generally, political liberalism appears as a tendency to view societal justice as purely formal or procedural and to separate it from substantive questions about morality and human flourishing.

Why it matters

Political liberalism has played a vital role in breaking down traditional hierarchies and defending human freedom. At the same time, many left-wing and some right-wing thinkers have accused political liberalism of undermining community and encouraging selfish individualism. As rates of loneliness and depression increase, I suspect that this criticism will become increasingly common.

Aristotle and Locke have a part to play in discussions about political liberalism. Even if we don’t completely agree with either of them about human nature and the purpose of politics, their theories can serve as a starting-point for thinking about the proper role of society and government.

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