John Locke

The Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso

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Victor Nuovo
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book, Victor Nuovo, who has already done substantial work on the theological dimensions of John Locke’s thought, wants to show that Locke’s philosophical project is best understood as the product of a Christian virtuoso: an “experimental natural philosopher, an empiricist and naturalist, who also professed Christianity” (1). Of course, Locke wasn’t the only Christian virtuoso who flourished in England during the 17th century. Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, and many other members of the Royal Society of London preceded Locke and indeed exemplified the very idea of Christian virtuosity. Bacon’s cardinal rule of virtuosity was that “one must not mix theology with natural philosophy, natural with supernaturalism, or confuse natural causes with supernatural ones, and that in search for the natural causes of things, one must employ only empirical methods” (2). By keeping theology and natural philosophy separate, one could be a practicing Christian and a proponent of the new learning. They were not only compatible, but mutually sustaining. 

As the early archetype of the Christian virtuoso, Bacon, according to Nouvo, sought to reconcile ancient Greek atomism, as found in the writings of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, with Christian supernaturalism. Bacon’s rule, as Nuovo sees it, was to “grant complete liberty or autonomy to investigate nature,” which was an attempt to “safeguard the integrity of nature and its operations and to insure proper respect for sacred mysteries” (11). This was a controversial move, and one that went beyond the earlier Augustinian “handmaiden” approach to natural knowledge. As Nuovo points out, in Bacon’s unfinished Abecedarium novum naturae, he goes so far as to recommend feigning “atheism in order to understand nature correctly” (26). Despite this bold recommendation, the ultimate goal of natural knowledge for Bacon was grounded in a theological position: namely, to usher in the Sabbath rest and to gain a complete knowledge of divine revelation. This was the task of Bacon and subsequent Christian virtuosi.

Bacon’s “two spheres” or “two books” argument was taken up by Boyle and other members of the Royal Society. In his writings, Boyle sought to offer “a harmony of the books of nature and Scripture” (39). Indeed, it was Boyle who first coined the expression “Christian virtuoso” in a work against those who maintained there was a conflict between pursuing both vocations. In doing so, Boyle compares the role of the Christian virtuoso to a high priest and biblical critic, interpreting both the natural world and revelation. At times Boyle’s attempt is “tortured,” as Nuovo correctly points out. Nevertheless, Boyle endeavored to clarify and defend his dual vocation.

Although Nuovo does not mention it, this was, of course, the task that most of the early Church Fathers set themselves. So there is indeed a long history of Christian intellectuals appropriating the best of what other non-Christian traditions have said about the natural world. But whereas early Christians subordinated the study of the natural world as a “handmaiden” to theology, early modern figures like Bacon, Boyle, and members of the Royal Society separated theology from the study of nature, maintaining their independence in an attempt to preserve the integrity of both natural philosophy and theology.

But according to Nuovo, Democritean naturalism caused a crisis that threatened fundamental beliefs and values about God, creation, providence, reason, morality, law, and civil society (3). Reconciling Christianity and naturalism was no easy task. According to Nouvo, there were many “obstacles to achieving a plausible synthesis of Christianity and virtuosity”—that is, to combining the idea of “the sufficiency of material nature” and the “omnipotence of God” (61). Ironically, the intellectual crisis that emerged between a self-sufficient nature and Christian theology was a direct result of Bacon’s “two spheres” or “two books” metaphor. Nouvo looks at a few case examples, particularly the reception of naturalism among early modern English poet-translators of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, such as John Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson, and the libertine poet John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. The latter’s critique of the Latitudinarian attempt at mixing and, thus, confounding natural philosophy and supernatural divinity was especially prescient, for in subsequent years the “two books” metaphor ultimately collapsed into the one book of nature, where supernatural belief came to be perceived as an obstacle to scientific progress.

According to Nouvo, the task Locke set for himself was the reconciliation of both spheres. Engaged concurrently in major philosophical and theological projects, from the beginning Locke endeavored to find some reconciliation between Christian faith and the new natural philosophy. As such, Locke’s philosophical system must be seen as Christian philosophy. Perhaps most original in Nuovo is his conviction that Locke’s system was pervaded by skepticism and moral pessimism. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understandingoriginated from questions regarding the relationship between revealed religion and morality and concludes that a science of nature is impossible because humans are epistemically fallible and extremely limited creatures. However, a science of morality is possible, and indeed should be the proper business of humanity. This is made possible by revelation. 

Often ignored by other scholars, Locke’s theology played a central role in his project. For Locke, reason without revelation is moral paralysis. Thus Locke argued that Christ offered the most effective means to moral realization. Ethical naturalism was not an option for Locke. This transformed what might have been a “dreary secular system of philosophy into a Christian philosophy that pointed beyond itself to a grand narrative of sacred history that culminated in the world to come” (248-49).

Thus according to Nouvo, Locke’s theological writings, particularly The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, represent the completion of his philosophical program rather than some tangential project. There is, then, significant continuity and coherence between his early philosophical treatises and later biblical theological writings. Despite Locke’s notable goal, his thought remained “deeply conflicted,” and the reconciliation he achieved was “fragile and not enduring” (249).

While Nuovo prefers the “wisdom of Lucretius over that of the Bible and its interpreters” (250), he nevertheless offers greater sensitivity to Locke’s religious beliefs than other scholars have. My only qualm is that he ignores the close associations between Locke and the so-called English deists, particularly Anthony Collins, John Toland, and Peter Annet. A more detailed examination of the wider religious context would have also revealed that Locke’s views were little different than other Latitudinarian divines and their promotion of a more “reasonable” religion, which was not altogether different from the “natural” religion of the English deists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Honorary Post-Thesis Fellow at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Victor Nuovo is Charles A. Dana professor of philosophy emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont, and senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He taught at Middlebury College from 1962 to 1994. He is the editor John Locke: Writings on Religion (2002) and of the Clarendon Edition of Locke's Vindications of the Reasonableness of Christianity (2012), both published by OUP.



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