Essentially concerned with the creating the philosophic foundation for consensual governments, Locke’s Second Treatise is haunted by echos of the Book of Genesis. This is not surprising given that Locke’s primary opponents are those who argue that all government should be modelled on the pattern of God’s rule and the most obvious place to see this pattern is in his absolute governance of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, one that extends to punishment by death.
Locke could merely point out that what whatever the nature of God’s rule, being so merely human, we are not gods, and, as such, require a different foundation for our governments. Yet he does not. Instead, through the structure and content of the argument he suggests that the progressive development of our natural rational faculties follows the same path as our Biblical ancestors. In so doing, he offers a new way to understand the nature of divine rule and, consequently, the proper nature and ends of civil states.
In broad strokes one can see the pattern of motion in and from the Garden of Eden within the structure of Locke’s argument. Beginning in a state of blissful peace, Locke describes the State of Nature as an idyllic garden. All are free and equal, and governed by the laws of Reason. While God commands Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge, telling them the punishment will be death, in Locke’s state of nature we know we have an inalienable right to life and are obligated to do what we can to preserve our own lives and those of others (Locke, II).
Of course, in the Garden of Eden, God’s command is soon broken, as Adam and Eve break the law and eat from the tree of knowledge. In Lockean terms, they have thereby indicated that they are not yet, at least, able to follow the dictates the reason. They have declared essentially a state of war and, condemned to die, God then treats him as his slaves (Locke, III, IV), sending them out to labour and transform the natural order from a land of wasted potential to a fruitful and productive landscape (Locke, V).
Of course, we, like Adam and Eve, are bothered by the fact that we have been ordered not to eat from the tree of knowledge and yet are supposed to be governed by a presumably rational God and rational laws. If they are rational, why aren’t we permitted to know them as such? Much of the content of Locke’s argument is an explanation of the progressive development of our reason and, by the same token, God’s tutelage of us from an age when we, without reason, had to be commanded by a parent, a father in this instance, to the point wherein we were capable to knowing the good and hard truth of our natures and set free to discern the best path for our mortal lives.
Freedom, Locke says depends on our capacity to understand and know the laws of reason, for only then will we be able to govern ourselves. Describing the rule of parents over children, Locke argues that, while children have been born for freedom and for reason, in the early stages of their lives they are neither. As such they must be ruled by those capable of guiding them until they are able to guide themselves. When this moment occurs, the child knows himself as an autonomous individual, separate from her parents and responsible for herself. In the language of the Garden of Eden, God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge is like a parent’s order not to cross the street by oneself. Neither command, Locke would say, is meant eternally, but instead is set down only until that moment when the child is sufficiently grown that she is able to deal with the subsequent responsibility that such freedom generates.
Importantly for Locke, in the Garden of Eden the age a maturity is announced with an act of labour. Adam and Eve take the apple from the tree, thereby mixing something of themselves with it (Locke, V.27). In Genesis the consequence of this act is that Adam and Eve now know themselves as different and thus autonomous from God. Whereas previously they had automatically done as God willed, they have now acted in opposition to that will and know that they are free. Further, they now understand what their divine father had meant when he said their punishment would be death. The full nature of their difference from God is their mortality. Up to this point, the law of nature – that dictated they should live – lay with their parent and creator, who was “responsible” for ensuring their comfortable preservation. Recognizing their autonomy means gaining their freedom. However, it also means that the responsibility for fulfilling the law, and preserving their lives and freedom, now lies with them. And so they labour.
For Locke the act of labour, of mixing oneself with the natural world, gives one an objective view of who and what she is. By investing our property with something of ourselves, it becomes an external representation of us, allowing us to see ourselves as independent “objects” co-existing in the world. The work of our labour both fulfills the law, allowing us to better preserve our lives, and results in our greater understanding and rationality, such that in fulfilling the law, we are better able to know it and will it. And so we labour.
Leaving the Garden of Eden, leaving the homes of our parents, we are tasked with re-creating them through our own work and reason. Left unattended, the natural world, Locke says, provides little of the commodities of life that we have grown to enjoy. Sure there are acorns and water, but bread and wine depend on the sweat of our brows. Without a divine or parental provider, we are tasked with creating these, for both our own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of our own children.
But what of government and what of our on-going relationship to the divine? For Locke, no individual, having grown in reason and experienced the full nature of her freedom would ever willingly return to a state of childish servitude or, much worse, absolute rule. We have now become, as Locke says, our parents’s equals, and, inasmuch as we are going to be governed, it can only be on the grounds of our own knowledge and full consent. Governments so constituted are done so on the understanding they will be co-labourers with us, assisting us in the preservation of our lives and liberties. Correspondingly, Locke’s argument suggests, a new relationship must be forged with God, whereby we, while not equals, nonetheless are capable of understanding and freely participating in the divine will. As our governments become co-labourers with us, we, in a similar way, become co-labourers with God, recreating an earthly Garden of Eden until such time as our mortal sentence is carried out.