John Locke and the fable of liberalism

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JournalHistorical Journal
DateSubmitted - 5 Apr 2017
DateE-pub ahead of print - 15 Apr 2018
DatePublished (current) - 1 Sep 2018
Issue number3
Number of pages26
Pages (from-to)597-622
Early online date15/04/18
Original languageEnglish


This essay explores the ways in which John Locke was claimed by liberalism and refashioned in its image. It was Locke’s fate to become the hero of what is termed here ‘the fable of liberalism’, the story which liberalism recounts to itself about its origins and purposes. Locke is a pivotal figure—perhaps the pivotal figure—in this story, because he put into currency persuasive conceptions which contributed centrally to the emergence and spread of liberal ways of thinking about politics which continue to ramify. It was Locke who established that the legitimacy of a political authority was a necessary condition of obedience to it and that its legitimacy was a product of the consensual route by which it came into existence; and it was Locke who established that the route by which it came into existence determined the ends for which it existed and, with these, the scope of its authority. All this was explained in an exemplary way by Locke, the story goes, and he remains the great exemplar for understanding and conducting politics legitimately even today. The essay puts question marks beside the Locke who emerges from this story and seeks to substitute a different Locke in his place.

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