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From Foxes to Lions

February 20, 2011

Of all of Locke’s assertions in Two Treatises of Civil Government, one is particularly salient for me: “This is to think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions” (Ch. 7, Section 93).

Most of Locke’s thought is based upon the assumption that all men are rational, and only because they are rational are they also free. This assumption is a glaring blind spot in Enlightenment thought and the basis of the most damming criticism – for, when we look at our actions, reason seems to play a secondary or even tertiary role to both instinct and causality. An analysis of our actions often reveals the prevalence of daily cause and effect (little sleep leading to irritability) as well as habit born out of instinct (drinking coffee somehow makes the day worth living, even if we don’t really know why).

However, the above quote demonstrates an awareness that men are not always rational, and they are apt to lose their freedom as a result. When men are threatened, the sense of rationality tends to give way to instinct, simplifying the thought process to that of wild animals. When we are in this condition, we lose the ability to fully consider the consequences of our actions, and in the effort to escape from one evil, we take refuge in an even greater evil. By making a bad situation even worse, it is a pretty common occurrence for the freedom Locke believes to be the birthright of all rational men to disappear.

Hitler and President von Hindenberg after the 1933 election

An example that comes to mind is that of Germany after WWI. Germany lost and just as Germany was close to paying off the severe war reparations imposed by France and England, the Great Depression hit and it was even worse in Germany than in the United States. The government of the Wiemar Republic, never trusted by the public, lost all of its legitimacy and became dysfunctional, giving Germans an incredibly bleak hope for the future. Burdened by a crippled economy and a leadership vacuum, Germans became fearful and ended up electing Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists into power (needless to say, an even greater evil).

Locke attempted to put a positive spin on this weakness, using it as an argument against monarchy, but I am afraid that I have a more negative view of this aspect of human nature. As demonstrated in Wiemar Germany, even democracies, which Locke held up as a preferable alternative method of government, are susceptible to this tendency. I think that the only way to convince people to hold on to their liberty in times of crisis is to lead by example and be sure not to lose that which makes humans so powerful: our rationality.

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