The man who made America: Reason, religion and the brilliant mind of John Locke

There will be no lack of odes to colonial America today. Let's also remember the man whose ideas made it possible

Published November 26, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

John Locke   (Wikimedia)
John Locke (Wikimedia)

Excerpted from "Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind"

After his triumphant return to London, John Locke’s theory of the mind gradually spread, as did his views on the processes of thought, consciousness, delusion, and the capacity of reason to control man’s passions. Along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, Locke became synonymous with the progressive advances of English culture.

Throughout Western Europe, Locke’s thought moved quickly throughout literary and philosophical circles, where its political implications were not missed. A swarm of French refugees, often trained in Protestant seminaries to reject divine right and employ private conscience, embraced Locke’s model of consciousness with its justification of inner difference. The French Huguenot exile Pierre Coste became Locke’s interpreter and French translator, and through Coste’s efforts the Essay spread throughout the continent.

Locke’s theories of the mind would become part of the curricula of universities, often finding a home among those who taught and studied logic. It also would be enshrined in those warehouses of learning, the Enlightenment dictionary and encyclopedia. In his seminal Historical and Critical Dictionary, the exiled Huguenot Pierre Bayle traced a line of thought from Thomas Willis’s animal soul to Locke’s thinking matter to an anonymous freethinker who considered humans to be no different than brutes. The 1747 Biographia britannica lavished seventeen pages of small type on the “celebrated” philosopher’s life and thought. Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert in their great Encyclopedia included a lengthy section on Locke, as did Johann Zedler’s German Universal-Lexicon. And in his famed Dictionary, Samuel Johnson turned to Locke’s authority 138 times. Johnson’s definition of madness as a disorderly jumble of ideas neatly followed Locke’s.

As this naturalized notion of the mind began to spread, some sought to push aside the paradoxes of God-given thinking matter and map out a fully natural model. In 1729, Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia defined psychology as “a Discourse Concerning the Soul” which was not a part of theology, but anthropology. In 1740, the Scotsman George Turnbull announced that he would study the human mind precisely as he studied the human body. When the Encyclopaedia Britannica emerged from Edinburgh, though it defined the mind as akin to spirit, the opposite of matter, it also allowed that the mind was now explored in the science of logic and morals, naturalistic inquiries that owed much to Locke.

The spread of Locke’s notions on the mind was greatly aided by his general celebrity. To many in England, he was a political hero. Magazines like The Spectator and The Tatler, created in the first years of the 18th century for an educated, middle-class audience, frequently referred to this great man as well as his model of reason. So assumed was it that a gentleman should have read Locke, that The Spectator found it amusing to contemplate the hilarity of men in the kitchen making cheesecakes, and ladies in the parlor reading Locke. In 1712, Joseph Addison assumed his readers were acquainted with the “great modern discovery, which is at present universally acknowledged by all the inquirers into natural philosophy” regarding the ideational nature of perception. For those shamefully in the dark, he cited chapter and verse from the Essay.

As Locke’s philosophy began to be assumed knowledge for the literate, his name and notions would be dropped in essays and poems. Christopher Smart’s poem “The Furniture of a Beau’s Mind” poked fun at the empty-headed lover, who resembled a Lockean child:

When infants are born, by experience we find,

With ideas so few they’re supply’d,

That Locke has most justly resembled their mind,

To a cabinet empty and void.

Among coffeehouse chatterers and those men and women of leisure, Locke’s theory would encourage interest in the minute, the private, and the fleeting, the most ephemeral moments of an individual’s consciousness. For according to John Locke, we become these experiences; they populate us and fill an inner void. Hence, Locke contributed to the explosive growth of autobiography. While precocious examples of the written examination of inner life predate this period—consider St. Augustine’s spiritual awakening in the Confessions, Renaissance writings like Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, and the essays of Michel de Montaigne—this form of self-scrutiny truly emerged as a robust English tradition after 1650 and especially took off in the later part of that century.

The earliest of these 17th-century autobiographies often fell into two genres: a legalistic brief based on complaints of being wronged or victimized, or come-to-Jesus spiritual conversions. The later narratives centered on God and the dramatic action took place around the soul’s private state of crisis and eventual rebirth. Examples include works authored by Dissenters such as John Bunyan in his 1666 Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and by Quakers like George Fox. Often, when the spirit of the Lord spoke to a man, he wrote it down. In 1648, Gerrard Winstanley, one of the legendary Diggers, went further and proclaimed that all of biblical history existed within: therefore every man’s story included that of fallen Adam, Cain, and Moses all the way to the savior Christ. He urged his fellow men to discover this by taking an inward journey.

Before Locke, few of these accounts took up the classical demands of narrative in which the self must rationally weigh dilemmas and sort out its fate. One precocious exception was by Margaret Cavendish of Newcastle, the second wife of Hobbes’s patron. In 1656, this poet and natural philosopher published A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life, a work that prefigured Rousseau’s Confessions. Cavendish’s self-portrait included a searching meditation on her crippling fear of social groups and her extreme bashfulness. It was a brave attempt to burrow into her inner world and make sense of her differences, qualities that made her individual.

Locke’s sensationalism encouraged reflection on the inner world as it was constructed through bits of daily experience. And so, side by side with these older narratives, there began to be a number of detailed, everyday stories of a person’s feelings and thoughts. Early autobiographers mixed the emergence of sin and reborn faith with the rise of worldly knowledge. For example, Samuel Johnson’s journals contained meticulous records of his gross sluggishness, dissipation, excess, and negligence. He noted his idleness and pressing need to approach the Lord with a clean heart, not today but tomorrow. His list of resolutions included worshiping more diligently and keeping a journal.

The most famed practitioner of quotidian self-scrutiny was Samuel Pepys. If the London functionary and member of the Royal Society conducted no laboratory experiments, he may be said to have conducted a running dissection of his own mind. Pepys catalogued the events of his day as they impacted his thoughts and feelings; without blushing, he recorded the socially shocking alongside the conventional. As an elaborate record of his misdeeds grew, he increasingly became concerned with the state of his soul. His many illicit amours would be attended by the hopeful phrase “may God forgive me.” While God might be so generous, Pepys’s chronicle cast him as everyman, struggling under the sway of his gluttonous desires. There was no redemption in this story, no renunciation, only moments of pained self-recognition and an attempt to give coherence and meaning to the frayed strands of sensation and reflection that made up his days.

Pepys’s writings came before a flood of English autobiographies. Men and women like the young James Boswell kept, and sometimes published, revealing records, attempts to find meaning in more secular lives not so tightly bound to religious narratives. In addition, writers like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and the doctor-turned-Grub-Street-hack Tobias Smollett, took to the novel to trace the formation of character, not through Christian allegory, but through the shifting impact of secular life and social environment. These two forms of self-exploration, memoir and fiction, merged at times as in Defoe’s masterful 1719 fictional autobiography, Robinson Crusoe.

By 1751, Samuel Johnson could write that England was passing through the Age of Authors, as men and women delved into the birth and growth of their own consciousness. By that time, Lockean verities were so widespread that they had become ripe for parody. In his farcical masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s hero related the sad story of his conception, a most unfortunate event in which his mother at the moment of sexual climax asked his father whether he had forgotten to wind the clock. From this “unhappy association of ideas which have no connection in nature,” his mother could never again hear a clock wound up without “thinking of something else,” and vice versa. It was a little bit of madness, the author agreed, a strange mix of ideas that “the sagacious Locke, who certainly understood the nature of these things better than most men, affirms to have produced more wry actions than all other sources of prejudice whatsoever.”


During the first decades of the 18th century, England built new legal and political structures. After 1688, when William of Orange took the throne, absolute monarchy died. With Anglicans and Dissenters mingling with Papists and Deists, a period of openness ensued in which rules for social and political conduct were in play. The demise of the Licensing Act, which had established laws of censorship in 1643, led to an explosion of publications and robust debates in print, as Grub Street became synonymous with a battalion of writers who churned out tabloids and pamphlets. Ever-expanding London became the central stage for debates over the emergence of a new kind of culture and a new kind of morality, one that placed more emphasis on reason and individual rights, and less on the fate of one’s soul.

The growing force of secular reason rattled the robed men behind their altars as well as those on their thrones. In every state save for England, the Netherlands, and Poland, princes and monarchs ruled, secure in the belief that they were divinely licensed to do so. It had once been a crime in England to argue against the divine source of royal authority, for if this power was stripped of its supernatural source and seen to stem from earthly reason alone, then these rulers would be naked. And John Locke knew it. A year after the Glorious Revolution, he released a series of essays that sought to finish off the old order.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government appeared in December of 1689. It began with a full-throated refutation of the hereditary, divine right of kings, and a scathing dismissal of Scriptural justifications for such power, such as claims by kings to be descended from Adam. The second essay outlined a civil society in which all men were created equal. This cohered with Locke’s theory of selfhood and the mind. What could all those blank slates be but equal at birth? Nearly simultaneously, he sent out his letter on toleration, that divisive subject that had long simmered in Western religious and legal circles. Hiding behind anonymity, Locke argued that civil interests included life, liberty, health, and possessions, but not the salvation of souls. Since belief emerged from the full persuasion of the mind, error could be challenged by reason only. Force was useless. Dissenters, Locke proposed, should be treated like odd fellows who did their hair up in a silly manner.

This too followed from Locke’s psychology. In an absolute world where the soul was saved or damned, it made sense to torture the possessed so as to rid them of evil, then convert and save their souls. However, if reason was in charge, with its quirky faults and little delusions, such absolute authority over others had no basis. Locke, who once denounced the Quakers as mad, now insisted state policy toward such religious dissidents be one of acceptance. The care of the soul should be left to “every man’s self,” he wrote. This little phrase signaled a stunning reversal: for over a millennium, the soul was the guardian of the self. Locke now would have the thinking and judging self be responsible for the soul.

Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration engendered scalding rebuttals. Jonas Proast, an Anglican clergyman, was incensed. Reason, he reminded his readers, could not alone battle Satan. Since the Church of England possessed the Truth, its members should not tolerate all the misguided and dangerous works of the Great Deceiver. Under the pseudonym “Philanthropus,” Locke quickly published a rejoinder: since absolute truth in Rome differed from absolute truth in Geneva, which differed from absolute truth in London, magistrates of all three places should get their noses out of such matters. They could secure the state by generally protecting individual rights and restraining those who were deemed to be mad.

Proast was falling out of step with the times. Decades of murderous religious warfare had done their work. So too had Baconian natural philosophy and the broad effect of skepticism toward the claims of scholastics. For nearly half a century, natural philosophers had been turning away from those old dogmas. And that meant that political and legal power would have to change shape as well. Absolute knowledge meant absolute power. Truth from supernaturally empowered monarchs and clerics compelled action and brooked no dissent.

However, if the monarch was but a man, then reason was his sole source of authority. And after John Locke, the mind that furnished a leader with intellect was often seen as filled with potential error, wrong conclusions, even cracked delusions. If the mind could so easily wander off, then it could not command unquestioning obedience from others.

In England over the late 17th century, a number of thinkers began to separate different kinds of knowledge claims and the kinds of certainty they commanded. If God’s knowledge was absolute and infallible, man’s was neither. By 1700, a consensus emerged in England regarding the hierarchy of human knowledge. Mathematical proofs and some metaphysical logic held universal truths that must be accepted by all reasonable gentlemen, while sensory observation and introspection offered perhaps a modicum of certainty that generally left room for error and debate. History, religious belief, and conclusions from everyday life were close to sheer opinion; this knowledge was at best probable and could not compel assent from others.

In this shifting landscape, years of attempts to increase toleration for religious difference were increasingly successful. The Toleration Act of 1689 suspended penalties against Nonconformists, though it did not mention Catholics, Deists, or non-Christians. Over the next twenty years, over 2,500 places of public worship for Nonconformists sprang up. Joseph Addison in The Spectator was delighted to espouse Locke’s notion that God was a complex Idea, which of course meant it would be necessarily different for varied people. Religious truth became a matter of different possible truths. Fallible minds armed with probable knowledge would necessarily need to accept disagreement. Of course, there were limits to such tolerance. For Locke, the line was clear. Enthusiasts and maniacs were not just of another opinion. Any religious group that espoused the eating of babies, for example, would be prosecuted. Any that reached such a “degree of madness” as to push for attacks on the foundations of society would also be intolerable.

As the eternal soul ceded more ground to the fallible mind, conceptions of everyday morality also began to shift. Before 1700, moral philosophy was simply a branch of theology, but increasingly that was no longer so. While French Cartesians living under their absolute monarch rejected the naturalization of reason, in England morality began to be thought of as a more mundane affair, a conflict between passion and reason in which the Prime Mover moved nothing. Like Democritus, the Epicureans, Hobbes, and Gassendi, Locke believed the dynamics of pleasure and pain motivated humankind. But he also followed Plato’s insistence that reason could still rule supreme. By taking this stand, Locke and his followers faced quandaries about how a loom of ideas could actively choose, want, or desire. At one point, Locke considered adding another component to his theory of the mind to reinforce reason and give it power: the will. But Locke remained suspicious of the scholastic tendency to explain phenomena by inventing new faculties. He dismissed this strategy and followed Hobbes, pointing out that the very term “free will” was oxymoronic. By definition, will was unfree; it was what made the blood pulse.

While motivated by their own desire, humans gradually learned which impulses must be resisted. In this way, they found freedom. Liberty came from the mind’s capacity to consider its urges and then freely choose how to act. Those who believed freedom meant orgiastic license lived in a misbegotten world where “madmen and fools are the only freemen.” Only the blind hedonist embraced intense moments of pleasure that resulted in long-standing remorse and pain, and only the cowardly refused to accept some pain now for long-lasting happiness. The ethics of pleasure-seeking were not the same as childish desire, and stemmed not from godly devotion and sanctity, but rather from a capacity to choose that which secured one’s sanity.

Could the social order stand on such a rickety foundation? Many shuddered at the thought. However, in placing so much weight on the power of reason to manage and guide our desires, Locke was not alone. The emergence of ethics predicated on the workings of reason mirrored the rise of rational religion among freethinkers who sought to silence enthusiasm’s loud party. Called Deists, they insisted God’s works could be known by logic and inquiry. No priest, rabbi, or pastor was required. No dogmas, creeds, or rituals, either. True understanding emerged from the discovery of immanent principles in Nature, which were the inscription of God’s moral law. Early forms of Deism relied on “right reason” to unveil God’s moral order. For many, Isaac Newton’s laws of universal order were crowning achievements of this movement.

John Locke didn’t quite fit the Deist mold, for he fully believed in miracles and biblical revelation. Furthermore, while Deists argued that the rational soul with its heavenly heritage could unveil God’s work, Locke’s mind had no such power. Worse, his rejection of innate ideas actually undermined Deism. For if the mind was a net of imperfect associations, prone to prejudice, superstition, and delusion, then it was hardly dominated by a universally endowed right reason, but rather pedestrian, often wrong, reason. Nonetheless, Locke’s ethics echoed some Deist views and attracted its advocates, since he also believed God’s desire was encoded in His design and could be found in natural law.

Among the most prominent of Deists was the Irishman John Toland. In 1696, he penned his Christianity Not Mysterious, a book deeply indebted to Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding. Reason, though deeply vulnerable to deception, was still the only grounds for certitude. Matters of faith should always be rational. Even biblical commandments must stand up to logic before becoming law. Hauled before a grand jury, Toland became notorious. Shunned as a pariah, he ended up homeless and destitute. Thirty years later, incensed believers, still bitter, assaulted his idea that God was an analogy.

In 1707, Locke’s pupil Anthony Collins dared to publish An Essay Concerning the Use of Reason, which denied religious mysteries and revelations, and argued that all morality rested on logic. Another Lockean, John Trenchard, used the master to debunk superstitions, noting how easily the mind could be fooled to worship shadows and clouds as gods. The deistic Matthew Tindal wielded Locke like a whip to demand that reason test all Christian beliefs.

These freethinkers were members of a tiny vanguard. During the early 18th century, British Deists were routinely chased down and prosecuted. Their books were dumped in bonfires. In French and Dutch periodicals, scandalized opponents breathlessly covered these developments, quick to denounce atheists and materialists. An “impious Sadducee who denies any immaterial substance,” snarled one journal, as it announced Locke’s death. Even Pierre Bayle, in his influential Dictionary, worried about the perilous implications of Locke’s thought, merely one step away from turning men and women into beasts.

However, decades of bitter warfare in which the absolute moral claims of Catholicism crossed swords with the absolute moral claims of Protestants, led a growing number of European thinkers to conclude this: either God was on everybody’s side or He was on no one’s. Disgusted by the waste of human life, a stream of dissidents dared to consider heretical alternatives like Deism. And a few went even further. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and the rights of Huguenots in 1685, a disgusted Pierre Bayle dared to ask an almost unthinkable question: could a society be moral without religion? Could a society of atheists be safely governed by reason alone? From his exile in the Netherlands, Bayle brazenly answered yes. With Locke as their guide, others now considered a path in which the “thou shalt nots” of an individual’s conscience could be transformed into rational operations guided by the mind.


Locke believed ethics were the “proper Science and Business of Mankind in general.” His theory of the mind underwrote a form of secular morality that he believed could ensure virtue, as well as public safety and order. In his last years, this venerated figure searched for ways to ensure the growth of a more tolerant, liberal society. In 1693, he published a book on education that claimed parents, not God or the church, created the inner regulations of reward and punishment that resulted in reason, conscience, and good or bad character. Conscience, Locke contended, was the residue of parental instruction, not matters of the soul. This parenting book went through twenty-five English and sixteen French editions by 1800.

At his death, Locke also left behind Of the Conduct of the Understanding, a work that promoted skepticism as a new ideal of mental health, one that did not get ensnared in that “disease of the mind as hard to be cured as any,” delusion. Madness settled in when “sandy and loose foundations become infallible principles” and became reinforced by habit. The cure for false beliefs was not more indoctrination of a contrary type, but rather the fostering of mental liberty. Children must be encouraged to question themselves, down to the roots of their own thought, a capacity often squashed by overbearing teachers. Those who possessed this reflective ability corrected the fallacies and fantastic constructs of their minds by themselves.

Moral conduct depended on such self-scrutiny in which the mind exerted mastery over itself. Of course, a man might also lose his head; passions might take control. Love, anger, grief, or fear all had the power to enchant, confuse, and provoke a “perfect madness.” Reason could also create delusion, by rushing off like a river, never pausing to consider its course. Finally, Locke spoke of spontaneous, bizarre experiences like hallucinations. All three of these were threats to one’s sanity and in large groups could imperil the moral order.

And so, morality and sanity both were rooted in mental freedom. In a heterodox world, the soul with its verities must yield to an autonomous, reflective self whose capacity to question, consider, and judge became the surest bulwark for a stable and just society. After centuries of absolutism, this claim struck many as bizarre. Virtue was dependent on self-questioning? The Anglican cleric and geologist Thomas Burnet was alarmed by the absence of any universal morality in Locke. But the Englishman refused to budge; education was the best we could do to create moral men. The payoff from this seemingly flimsy model was immense: no universal moral code meant no wars over absolute moral claims. Rome and Geneva and London each could have their own moral codes, as could natives of the New World, Asia, and Africa.

Still a number of Locke’s followers were discomforted by this ethical relativism. They dreamed of securing Locke’s theories by transforming them into universal laws, not unlike the law of gravity. However, these attempts to follow Newton faced problems, one of which was the howls of protest from Sir Isaac himself.

In 1693, Locke received an enraged letter from Britain’s genius. It had been six years since Newton published his masterpiece, Philosophiae naturalis principia Mathematica, which demolished what remained of Aristotelian teleology and codified mechanistic science for the coming century. Newton and Locke were acquaintances, but long ago the physicist had demurred when asked to venture into Dr. Locke’s domain, saying discussions on the soul and mind were “too hard a knot for me to untie.” “I can calculate the motion of Heavenly Bodies,” Newton had added, “but not the madness of people.”

After reading Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, however, Newton became furious. He accused Locke of destroying morality, being an atheist, and trying to embroil the mathematician in unseemingly sexual affairs. The last accusation was a tip-off that all was not well. Later, Newton apologized: “I beg your pardon . . . for representing that you struck at the root of morality in a principle you laid down in your book of Ideas. . . . I took you for a Hobbist.” Locke pressed Newton to further explain his strange and harsh censure. On October 15, 1693, the man who possessed perhaps the greatest mind of his age revealed that he had fallen victim to a mad delirium, and could not recall a single word of his own outburst.

Likely poisoned by alchemical experiments, Newton recovered his senses but did not change his view of Locke’s Essay. And this was not merely one dissenting voice. As honor surrounded him, Newton assumed the leadership of the Royal Society, where he exerted great influence over its agendas and exercised a good deal of vindictiveness toward his enemies. In these latter years, Sir Isaac dedicated himself to prophetic treatises and esoteric theological study, in which he would beat back the notion of materialism and fill the mechanical world with spirits of absolute morality and divine reason. There was no place for Locke’s mind in that.

And so as Locke’s psychology spread through the corridors of culture, most early modern natural philosophers like Newton refused to accept thinking matter, or a society dislocated from its religious commitments. And why should they? The kinds of evidence offered in Locke’s Essay were not experimental proofs or mathematical calculations. For the natural philosophers, logic could not compel assent. Demands to know the mind by ocular observation and experiment created an impasse, since the mind, though immediately knowable to itself, remained hidden to others. As Locke and his followers sought to establish a natural philosophy for inner life, they would find themselves cast out from the Church and denied entry into science.

A century after his death, Mersenne’s words were still mouthed by others. The Scottish Presbyterian clergyman Andrew Baxter, wrote that mechanics required the presence of a Prime Mover. Were Locke and his supporters ready to believe that the spontaneous movement of an elephant was but the “dull and dead” earth? “Our Moderns forget,” he wrote, “that he who believes that dead matter can produce the effects of life and reason, is . . . credulous.”

There seemed to be no way to adjudicate the disagreements between these new disputants, the soul and the mind. Locke’s Essay fell between the borders of mechanistic science and theology. However, unlike the work of Spinoza or Hobbes, Locke’s writings took root in that no-man’s-land. While undermining the rational soul, Locke’s mind made room for belief. And if Locke’s mind could not be proven in equations or experiments before the Royal Society, nor could it be falsified. A naturalistic conception that seemed to make sense of aspects of inner experience neatly mirrored scientific theories of knowledge. The inductive and empirical method required a mind that constructed its understanding of the world based on sensation and experience. According to Locke, Bacon’s rules were simply natural to the mind. Other perspectives became wrongheaded.


The most powerful rejoinder to Locke’s moral relativism did not come from horrified representatives of the Church or Royal Society stalwarts. Rather embarrassingly, his most vitriolic critic was a gentleman who knew Locke’s pedagogy better than anyone alive. Delivered into this world by John Locke, Anthony Ashley Cooper, who would become the third Earl of Shaftesbury, was educated for the first eleven years of life by his grandfather’s trusted physician, since his own father was deemed mentally unfit. Locke had been given dominion over the boy’s family: he had chosen Shaftesbury’s mother for his father and had absolute control over the education of the seven progeny that resulted from this union. Anthony, the least robust of the children, grew deeply attached to his tutor and referred to him as his foster father. Ultimately, however, this student would pay his teacher back with bitterness and ridicule. Mr. John Locke, he declared for the world to know, was a prig whose rejection of universal morality was absurd.

As Cooper revealed, being raised as a tabula rasa, a Lockean child, whose every experience might alter his identity, was intolerable. As he sailed off to Europe, the young man wrote to Locke and confessed that he needed to make the greatest efforts to be an honest man and a friend. Later, he would conclude that thinking of his own goodness in such contingent terms only fostered intense anxiety. It made it seem as if one “prostituted thy self and committed thy Mind to Chance and the next comer . . . as if there were nothing that rul’d within, and had the least control.”

That conclusion, however, only dawned on Cooper after years of discomfort and dislocation. In 1689 with the Glorious Revolution, Anthony, now the grandson of a national hero, returned home to take up politics. It didn’t suit him. Asthma and bad health prompted him to abandon London’s foul air for the Netherlands, where he surrounded himself with Locke’s enlightened friends like Pierre Coste and Jean Le Clerc, and turned his energies to writing. In 1708, Shaftesbury published his “Letter Concerning Enthusiasm.” Like Locke, he argued that hostile and punitive responses to crazed Dissenters only worsened their madness. The surest antidote for such fanaticism was satire, raillery, and laughter. Zealots should be ceaselessly lampooned, as should their grim, melancholic adversaries, a bit of advice that delighted and inspired Jonathan Swift.

In 1704, Locke died, and a few years after his death, Shaftesbury began to privately voice skepticism regarding the philosophy that his tutor espoused. “’Twas Mr. Lock that struck at all Fundamentals, threw all Order and Virtue out of the World, and made the Very Ideas of these . . . unnatural and without foundation in our Minds,” he wrote on June 3, 1709. In 1711, he published Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, which argued that humans possessed a universal, inborn ethical core, one not based on any theology. God was not necessary for ethics, since priests could be terrorists and heretics might be loving and Christ-like. Wise men of different cultures differed in their gods, yet many found the same path to goodness.

Therefore, humanity did not require any creed or any particular form of education to be ethical. Morality was everywhere. Just as we recognize beauty without being schooled in aesthetics, women and men have no trouble distinguishing virtue from vice for a natural moral sense resides in all. These moral antennae were as intrinsic to human beings as eyes and ears. And while others considered the control of the passions a key to moral behavior, Shaftesbury reversed things. Thanks to our inner moral sensor, virtuous acts feel good, and vice makes us pained. Hobbes was wrong: we don’t cynically categorize everything we like as good, but rather instinctively recognize what is moral and naturally like it.

This new spin on a secular theory of ethics shared Locke’s emphasis on tolerance. Pleasure from virtue and pain from vice was not a matter for Christians, Jews, or Muslims. A universal conscience, possessed by all, established harmony between the self and society, whether one was a priest, a heathen, or an animist. Amused skeptics congratulated Shaftesbury for his great discovery: humans had a “moral nose”! They wondered how this astonishing protuberance had been ignored for so long. Others rolled their eyes and reminded their readers that according to Shaftesbury, we lived in a blissfully good, kind, and peaceful world. Cooper’s celebration of universal moral goodness was echoed by the poet Alexander Pope:

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth in clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.”

Decades later, Voltaire in Candide, or The Optimist lampooned such views through the character of Dr. Pangloss, who after each rape or disembowelment, proclaimed this to be the most perfect of all possible worlds.

In this growing debate over the nature of morality, another voice rose up to scoff at such optimism. A Dutch émigré to England, Dr. Bernard de Mandeville agreed that ethics could not be taught. That was because what pedagogues like John Locke called virtue was actually vice. Born in 1670, Mandeville studied medicine in Leiden and developed a practice that first focused on hysteria and hypochondriasis. He traveled to London and took to writing fables, following Jean de La Fontaine. In 1705, he published The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turned Honest, a twenty-six-page poem that garnered little notice. In 1711, Mandeville’s Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions included a scathing indictment of his own profession, which previewed his views on morality. Doctors? They were hypocrites whose high-minded ideals hid a covetousness lust for money and vanity. Galen? A liar, who must have known his remedies did nothing. Thomas Willis made up discoveries to win fame. Speculation in medicine was nothing more than a ruse.

Shaftesbury’s ethics exasperated Dr. Mandeville. And so he expanded and republished his poem and gave it a more provocative title: The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. There was no inborn moral sense. In fact, what do-gooders called virtue and vice were like wine in the morning and breakfast at night, all upside down.

This theme of moral insincerity and hypocrisy was of course not new. On the Elizabethan stage, for example, portrayals of scoundrels who wrapped themselves in high-minded ideals were commonplace. Mandeville himself took inspiration from a different source: a group of 17th-century French satirists who had upended Christian and Stoical adages of “la Morale.” At the center of this circle of writers was an aristocratic Royalist, François de La Rochefoucauld, who in the 1660s began to toss out amusing aphorisms that mocked his society’s ethical dictums as screens for vanity and amour-propre. Stoical claims for superhuman self-restraint were just lies. Passionate self-love lurked beneath saintly acts of sacrifice. “Our virtues are, most often,” he wrote, “only vices in disguise.” French readers swarmed to La Rochefoucauld’s delicious turns of phrase, and some took up their own pens, such as Marin Cureau de La Chambre and Jean de La Bruyère.

With them, Mandeville concluded that Christian culture labeled self-interest as immoral, when it was in fact unavoidable and necessary. Therefore, the most upstanding men and women of a community were mostly pretentious frauds. But there was hope. While many honestly tried to resist their selfish passions, most failed. And that was a good thing. If too many succeeded, it would result in catastrophe for the community. For the “vice” of selfishness was critical to the maintenance of the hive. Without it, no society would survive. Mandeville’s paradox was that public well-being came about indirectly from private selfishness. Greed was good.

Reason, Mandeville also assumed, was acquired as per “Mr. Lock”; the child was a carte blanche that was filled with ideas. However, this doctor had a less hopeful view of education: it taught children to conceal their passions, not conquer them. It fed them shame and falsehoods. Higher morals were elaborate fictions used to control others, for without self-love, humans would be suicidal. As for the soul’s immortality, that was a farce that simply flattered the species.

In 1723, Dr. Mandeville added a new attack onto his Fable. It focused on a certain deluded “Noble Writer.” Only a gentleman born into luxury and indolence and educated “under a great Philosopher, a mild and good-natured as well as able tutor,” only such a fool might be tricked into believing in universal goodness. For those who could not see through the thin veil, the index at the end of the poem explicitly referenced “Shaftesbury.” There, the indexer acidly defined him as an optimistic believer in Goodness who was “refuted by his own Character.”

In England, Mandeville provoked outrage. Twice summoned before judge and jury, he did not shrink from denouncing philanthropic activities such as the supposedly opulent conditions wasted on the poor in hospitals. He rejected schooling and other forms of aid for the impoverished.

And so, in addition to the older models of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, Shaftesbury and Mandeville constructed their own brands of secular ethics. If morality once referred to religious rules of conduct, in England by 1730, this assumption was increasingly challenged by competing theories based on man’s relationship not to God, but rather to Nature. These views varied from asserting man’s innate righteousness to his inborn selfishness. In 1743, a professor named David Fordyce articulated this new approach: “Moral philosophy has this in common with Natural philosophy, that it appeals to Nature or Fact; depends on Observation, and Builds its Reasonings on plain uncontroverted Experiments, or upon the fullest Induction of Particulars of which the Subject will admit.” A modern mind and self had begun to vie for prominence with traditional notions of the soul as the new foundation for ethics, behavior, and social life. However, as the debates between Locke, Shaftesbury, and Mandeville demonstrated, the conclusions varied so far and wide as to call the whole endeavor into doubt.


At the heart of the debates over secular ethics was a problem Shaftesbury knew well. Locke had made the mind radically contingent. If every impression and experience could twist a man toward insanity or evil, then every moment, every day, was filled with uncertainty and dread, for events and environments molded humans like clay. Shaftesbury and Mandeville both disputed this, arguing for inborn forces that rooted human identity in something transhistorical. Shaftesbury mocked Lockists who required “schools of Venus” to teach lovers to do what they did, and assumed in some sober nation that the race of man might otherwise perish. Over the next centuries, some would line up for the forces of the environment and “Nurture” in the creation of human interiority, while others would take the side of inborn essences, instincts, and “Nature.” Did goodness stem from caring and hospitable surroundings, or was it inherent? The personal and political implications of each view would be vast.

As fascination with English progressive thought swept Europe, the competing secular proposals for morality and the mind filtered into an underground network of pamphleteers, freethinkers, lapsed abbés, natural philosophers, Huguenots, Quakers, and French philosophes. For by 1700, among those who dared to know, it was obvious that the jumble of absolute God-given truths in Christendom could not all be true. More thinkers began to share the goal expressed by philosophers like Hobbes and Locke: moral life, human conduct, and political order could not securely rest on belief and claims of divine knowledge.

While the English were enshrining individual liberties in a Bill of Rights, the publication of works by John Locke and Isaac Newton made it clear that whole new vistas now existed in the British Isles. Visitors began to come from Italy, Switzerland, and France, for it seemed that in merry England, Descartes’s theory of planetary motion and his theory of the soul had been simultaneously exploded. Foreigners returned home and then spread the word, but there was an impediment. Few on the Continent read English. This was especially problematic for Locke’s achievement, a good deal of which came through the creation of a new working vocabulary distinct from the discourses on the soul. Even worse, many of his terms had no obvious equivalent in translation.

Most centrally, there was no French or German cognate for “mind.” And so, Locke’s theory crossed linguistic borders in disguise: his mind was translated into words that meant “spirit” or “soul.” “Consciousness” presented another headache for Locke’s translators. Of course, these ambiguities could be a tactical strength. While Spinoza and Hobbes were vigorously condemned across Europe, Locke’s mind, filled with consciousness, did not elicit the same response. In French and German, his bold proposals were couched in familiar words—conscience, spirit, and soul—that created confusion which proved useful when confronted by censors and defenders of the faith.

And so, while natural philosophers at the English Royal Society or the French Academy of Sciences restricted their research to empirical demonstrations, mechanics, and mathematics, belief in a naturalized mind and secular ethics began to grow. The Christian Church’s dominion over moral life, long challenged from within by different sects, now faced a new challenge. Breathtakingly, the great John Locke had proposed that all of moral life could be subsumed in mental life. Ethical conduct could be created or destroyed, understood or mistaken, based on mental functions. If so, a new cadre of experts would be needed to focus on this modern mind and its capacity for good and evil.

Excerpted from "Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind" by George Makari. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by George Makari. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By George Makari

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