Writer/blogger Paul Cella—a social conservative with whom I often find myself disagreeing—has written a very interesting article about the political philosophy which founds this nation and the problem with ascertaining what those philosophers really meant and were attempting to accomplish. His interests in these matters clearly dovetail with mine:
But aside from these technical problems, there is the still the nagging question of what a given theorist is trying to say. There is the question of his object and intent, which for many great theorists would remain controversial even if we possessed a perfect authoritative manuscript of the text.
That’s true. Different phrases have more than one meaning and are subject to more than one interpretation; writers often would contradict themselves—so if we need to extract a coherent, consistent theory from say, Locke, we will need to interpret passages that could contradict one another in ways so they don’t. And often there is more than one choice of interpretations.
Moreover, we must keep in mind the context of the time. Free Speech/Free Exercise of Religion didn’t exist at the time that many philosophers wrote. Thus, controversial ideas could get Western philosophers killed just as easily as Salmon Rushdie received a Fatwa from the Ayatollah. As Walter Berns writes about Locke in Taking the Constitution Seriously, “Locke himself was a victim of the day’s pervasive religious intolerance and, to escape it and to reduce the risk of his ending up on the gallows, he too fled to the continent.” p. 159. In other words, there is sound reason to believe that, for entirely practical reasons, Western philosophers at that time, would “beat around the bush,” or write certain messages in “code” as the Straussians argue. (And there is also reason to believe that Strauss himself, for different reasons, also wrote in esoteric texts. For instance, Strauss never himself came out as an atheist/nihilist; in fact he explicitly denied he was. But anyone save Harry Jaffa or his followers who knew Strauss intimately will tell you that he was).
Here is Cella on Locke:
Another example: Did John Locke really assent to the doctrine of Natural Law, which he seems to do when he acknowledges his debt to Richard Hooker and takes swipes at Hobbes? Or was this mere "window-dressing," implicitly and resoundingly refuted by the force of his teaching? Does Locke represent a point of continuity with the ancients and mediaevals, or a break with them? This is still a matter of dispute.
Closer to home, there is the question of why The Federalist, the most magnificent document of American political philosophy, has so often been denigrated as "propaganda" by historians. Why have so many gone to such lengths to brand it for history not political philosophy at all but mere polemic?
Or, again, there is the question of whether Locke was as pivotal an influence on the American Founders as schoolchildren have been led to believe; whether the Founders were primarily Lockeans -- a question which throws us back, now with greater consequence, to the question of Locke's posture toward the philosophical tradition of the West.
If they were indeed Lockeans, and Locke was indeed a profound innovator, even a revolutionary, then America was indeed the vanguard of political modernity. But if they were not Lockeans, if the bulk of the founders in fact rejected the emerging Lockean innovations and instead drew from an earlier philosophical tradition, then America was a vanguard of reinvigorated premodernity. The consequences of a definitive answer to this question, it should be clear, are about as far-reaching as one can imagine.
Personally, I think our founders were Lockeans and that Locke did intend to break with the classical/Biblical view of politics. America truly is “the vanguard of political modernity” as Cella terms it. But it must be noted that “modern” in this sense means Enlightenment. To say that our founders were “modern liberals” is to say that they were “Enlightenment liberals." If our founders were “modern liberals,” then today’s leftist liberals would be termed “postmodern” liberals. If we refer to today’s leftist liberals as “modern liberals” then our founders are to be termed “classical liberals.” I know this is confusing. But this is the language that Leo Strauss and his followers speak in.