Although John Locke and Socrates existed over a thousand years apart in time, they had very similar views on how societies are formed, societies duties to its’ people, and the role which religion should play in society. The key difference in their views are shown in the duty one owes to society. In this essay I will take you through the perspectives of both philosophers so we can understand how after so many years the development of societies and logic behind them is still very similar. Locke believes that we are all born in an original state of nature, and therefore each individual is has natural rights. This natural state is, “A state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit.” 1 Although this state does not have an established authority, there is a law and that law is, the law of nature. Locke believed that God gave the world to man as common therefore, we are all equal and we are given what we need. Locke believed that we own what is the fruit of our work by our own hands, just so long as we do not take more than we need.
“Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” But it is when someone takes more than his own share, which takes away from another that the world is out of balance. This results in a fear which is, that only the strongest and most powerful will survive, and therefore the weaker are at a disadvantage. So, while people enjoy the idea of perfect freedom, the threat of invasion is so high in a natural state that people begin to enter into “social contracts”. “Social contracts” are how Locke felt governments within a society are formed. What these “social contracts” consist of is the people offer some of their “natural rights”, in exchange for protection and self -preservation. This is why Locke felt that the state can, and may only exist by the consent of the people. Governments are instituted with the delegation to avoid a state of war and with a purpose to save the people from the inconveniences of nature. Locke also felt individuals utilized the government only when it suited their needs for a profit or of self-love.
The result of this was that, since it is the people who give their consent to the government, the government may be overthrown if they feel the government is not acting on the best interest of the people. Locke believed the duties we have in a society are to preserve our neighbor’s rights, so long as it they do not interfere with the preservation of our own rights. It is a little different than how we hear in The Bible, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.2 Where Locke suggests, loving our neighbor, but only after taking care of your own needs first. In A Lettering Concerning Toleration, Locke discusses that governments should not force people to come to the “true religion”. Locke describes how neither, Jesus, or the teachings found in the New Testament ever indicate using force in pursuance of bringing people to salvation.
In, A Letter Concerning Toleration, Lockes gives three key reasons why governments should not use force to convert their citizens into religion these are: 1. You cannot deprive someone of the right over their soul when God does not give you the authority to do so. 2. While coercion can change someone’s actions it cannot change their beliefs 3. Even if coercion persuades someone to change that does not ensure their salvation. Locke wrote this because at that time many people were subjected to violent tactics and punishments when they were resistant to converting to the religion of the state. Another person who was resistant to the religion of the state was Socrates, who was condemned to death by the state for not acknowledging the Gods, which the state had acknowledge.
Socrates was an ancient Athenian philosopher. Although, Socrates never wrote his philosophical texts, we are able to see his views through the works of his student Plato. In the text, Crito, Socrates is imprisoned due to his lack of acknowledgment to the Greek gods and is condemned to death. His friend, Crito, comes to visit him and offers him an escape. Socrates declines this invitation, based on his principles and code of social contract. In Crito we see that when choosing to live in a society you are also choosing to live by the, “laws of the land.” Even though Socrates is actually being wronged by the people of Athens, he realizes that it was his choice to live by these laws. He had chosen to live there without compulsion or deceit and he had chosen to do this on his own free will. He states, “You had seventy years which you could have gone away if you did not like us.” He refers back to having the option to go to Sparta, or to Crete, both of which he felt where well governed, yet he chose to stay in Athens.
Therefore, by choosing to stay in the society he chose to accept and live by their laws. Socrates also views the government as somewhat of a parent to child relationship, that is, obey the laws of the city (the parent), and you will grow to be good. Socrates actually views the state as a something to be honored more than his own mother or father, he realizes that escaping would be an injustice to the system that raised and educated him. Socrates also strongly believed that it was his duty, and the duty of all citizens, to abide by the laws of society. This is why even when facing death he chose to not escape, but to stay and accept the punishment the law had implemented. Therefore, just as it is a citizen’s job to perform their civil duties such as, voting, or paying taxes, a citizen is morally obligated to accept the punishment for wrong doings against the state or other citizens.
I think that although Socrates and Locke may have had different feelings about one’s duties to society, they would have had similar opinions on how societies form. Socrates and Locke both viewed the state as a parent to child relationship. Socrates credited Athens for raising him and making his way of life possible. He described how he had chosen to stay not through coercion, but on his own free will. Therefore, by staying in Athens Socrates implied an agreement to abide by the law and to accept the punishments which the law had established. This is similar to how Locke describes that the government and societies exist through the consent of the people. However, I do believe that in Locke’s theory Socrates would have escaped, seeing his own self-preservation as the highest level of importance. While Socrates felt that the state should be held at the highest regard, even higher than your own parents; Locke felt that the state should be held to high regard, after your own individual regard is met.
In terms of religion and state, Locke argued that the state should not use coercion to force people to convert to the states religion. Socrates was condemned to death for not acknowledging “the Gods” that the city praised. Both men would agree that church and state should be separated and that people should be free to choose their religion. Locke states, “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.”4 Socrates never said he did not believe in God, he just stated that he did not believe in the stories and teaching of “the gods.” Therefore, I think that Locke would have tolerated Socrates teaching and found the punishment that Socrates was condemned to as unwarranted. In conclusion, Socrates and Locke had very similar views on societies.
Both were strong advocators of religious freedom. Socrates and Locke also both had similar perceptions of “social contract” and realized that societies can only flourish with the consent of the people. The only difference is that Socrates believed in treating your neighbor as you treat you would treat yourself. Locke believes we are all born common and should always do what is best for ourselves as long as it does not bring harm to another. While Socrates’ view is very modest, I believe that the majority of people live by Locke’s point of view. Most people do not wish to harm another person, yet they will always look out in their own best interest, and what makes them look better.