The Great Art of Government

Locke's Use of Consent

Peter Josephson

That government should be rooted in the consent of the governed may be the most accepted aspect of John Locke's liberal theory. Yet to this day Lockeans have reached no consensus over what constitutes consent or whether Locke even intended consent to be a standard of legitimacy.

Peter Josephson now takes a close look at Locke's writings on both consent and the art of governance to show how each informs the other. Moving beyond previous scholarship, he gives us a Locke as much concerned with the effective functioning of government as with the roots of its moral legitimacy.

“Peter Josephson’s subtle and pertinacious book sets a high water mark for the abundance of studies of Locke’s contributions to political reflection written under the inspiration of the late Leo Strauss. . . . Josephson shows better than any previous analyst Locke’s very delicately balanced appreciation of the always potentially antithetical relation between government and consent, and his keen feeling for both its immense practical importance and its ineliminable hazardousness and ambivalence. . . . As a piece of thinking about Locke’s political texts (the Two Treatises more particularly) this is impressively integral in its own right. It is also exceptionally useful for scholars whose own interests are more historical or biographical. To anyone hoping to sharpen their own understanding of politics by learning from great political thinkers in the past [and not unduly fastidious about the inferential basis of the conclusions that they draw], it is exhilarating to read and stimulating to think about.John Dunn in

—Eighteenth-Century Thought

“Josephson provides us with a Locke that could engage our contemporary liberals and postmoderns at the deepest level. His attention to detail is remarkable. His arguments are made with great care...

—The Review of Politics
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According to Josephson, if we wish to understand "the great art of government," as one of the founders of modern liberalism presents it, we must examine the principle and practice of consent in Locke's political scheme. In examining the foundation of Locke's political theory, Josephson explores ways in which Locke's government by consent can coexist with the preservation of the law of nature or reason. As Josephson shows, Locke argues that reasonable customs can bridge the divide between the will of the people and the rule of reason.

Josephson's work makes important new contributions to understanding Lockean thought. In particular, he shows how Locke joins normative theory with a practical concern for the art of effective government. He also argues that Lockean liberalism is not neutral with regard to conceptions of virtue, character, or the good life: indeed, the liberal regime requires virtues of toleration, civility, and industriousness in order to succeed and must teach its subjects those virtues in order to preserve that regime.

While others have variously branded Locke's philosophy as majoritarian, aristocratic, or monarchist, Josephson cuts through these disputes to present a previously unrevealed Locke. His meticulous study pays keen attention to the details of Locke's works, while reconciling many of the disparate and often confusing features of Lockean thought. In sum, it offers serious readers a richer, deeper, and more nuanced understanding of this formative thinker and the liberalism he inspired.

About the Author

Peter Josephson is visiting assistant professor of political science at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.