The Hebraic Roots of John Locke’s Doctrine of Charity

, December 24, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


In her path-breaking essays on political Hebraism, Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger identifies John Locke as belonging to the class of “moral economists” whose reading of the Hebrew Bible as a historical and political text caused him to argue for the hungry man’s “right to surplusage”[1] This means that even though Locke championed the idea that man’s labor entitles him to unlimited acquisition of material possessions, God remains the ultimate owner of all property and as such the right to life of another overrules the right to property of the laborer. The aim of this paper is to expand on Oz-Salzberger’s theory and show how and why Locke anchored his thinking on property-limitation and charity exclusively on the Hebrew Bible.


17th Century Biblicism

Martin Luther’s theological revolution in the 16th century unsettled governmental authority as well. Until the Protestant Reformation monarchies mainly drew their ultimate authority from the Catholic Church in Rome, but Protestantism left kings in search of a new source of authority to legitimate their rule. Rulers such as England’s James I and Charles I sought to justify their absolute and arbitrary Royalist control through the use of scripture as did their parliamentarian and Puritan opponents.[2] Political theorists of the time who came to the defense of both sides in the debate also leaned on Old and New Testament sources, as well as on the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers and later day Christian theologians.

John Locke’s (1632-1704) most important political writing, his Two Treatises of Government (1689), is unique because it circumvents the New Testament and instead relies almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible in order to establish his political theory. What makes Locke’s use of the Hebrew Bible particularly interesting is the fact that the Two Treatises is not a defense of the old order but rather a magnum opus of classical liberalism in which concepts such as equality, freedom, individual rights, consensual government and the right of revolution are celebrated.

Modern Scholarship on Locke’s Biblicism

However inadvertent, it would be deceptive to create the impression that Lockean scholarship is of one mind with regard to his Old Testamentism, as quite the opposite is the case. A vociferous academic debate raged during the latter half of the 20th century between the Straussian and Cambridgean schools of thought with regard to the true nature of Locke’s political writing. The former, led by Leo Strauss (1899-1973), proffered that Locke followed Hobbessian atheism and referred to the Bible exclusively with obscurantist intent. Only the savants of the generation who could decipher Locke’s esoteric writing were his real intended audience according to Strauss because only they could understand Locke’s intent to dethrone God and establish human government purely on the basis of human reason.[3]

Using newly exposed and critically edited Lockean texts the Cambridge school led by John Dunn and John W. Yolton fired back at the Straussians, arguing that Locke was a pious Christian and meant every Biblical reference as they appeared. Cambridge did not deny the existence of esotericism in political writing but decried its application where it did not belong, Locke being the case in point. Practically this meant that Locke was no Hobbessian atheist, but it also meant that Lockean thinking was to be understood exclusively in the context of the events of the 17th century making him totally irrelevant for modernity.[4]

As a result of this academic donnybrook and the problems both sides present, a third school has surfaced over the past two decades which accepts Locke’s religiosity but rejects the Cambridgean attribution of irrelevancy at the same time. This school, led by scholars of Locke such as Ian Harris, Jeremy Waldron, Kim Ian Parker, and Greg Forster,[5] have formulated an eclectic reading of Locke which neutralizes most of the difficulties in the Straussian and Cambridge readings but are still plagued by one unnerving question: Why did Locke make such minimal and wholly ornamental usage of the New Testament (Christ is not even mentioned once) in his Two Treatises while copious resourcing (over eighty times in the First Treatise and over twenty times in the Second) is made from the Old Testament?

A thorough analysis of Locke’s political Hebraism as understood through the usage of the Hebrew Bible in his Two Treatises is far beyond the scope of this paper.[6] Such a reading belongs to an emerging fourth school inspired in large measure by the essays of Oz-Salzberger. The intention here is to analyze but one concept discussed in the Two Treatises, that of property acquisition and its charity-based limitation in light of Lockean theory and the Hebrew Bible.

Locke and the Limitations of Property

Locke begins his fifth chapter of the Second Treatise with a description of the origins of property, but proving that his intention is far from purely academic he goes on to discuss the centrality of property to the human condition.[7] Property is attained through labor, and human labor is an extension of divine labor, i.e. creation. Locke has already taught us that “men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker. . . they are his property whose workmanship they are.”[8] God’s laboring at the creation of humankind makes man God’s property and because man is the property of God he cannot escape his owner nor can he be the property of anyone else. Hence, in order for man, like God, to have property, he must labor, and that labor allows for a similar exclusive entitlement to material goods.[9]

In the Bible, when God as part of his “great design”[10] gives “the earth to the children of men,”[11] men born into natural freedom and equality, he intends that the earth be used by them for their self and communal preservation, ergo to refrain from labor is to go against God’s design. This grant of the earth to man then creates not only a right but a duty to labor and preserve. As James Tully writes, “Locke wishes to emphasize that labour is the most suitable means for a rational animal to perform the first phase of his duty to preserve mankind.”[12] Jeremy Waldron makes this reading of Locke eminently clear:

Each person is directed ‘to the use of those things, which [are] serviceable for his Subsistence’ (I, 86). Each is required to help himself. And so his having the right to help himself to natural resources is intelligible not just in the light of his own purposes for himself, but in the light of God’s purposes for him. . . .Laboring is not just something we happen to do to resources . . . it is the appropriate mode of helping oneself to resources given what resources are for. Being permitted to help oneself is not a divine indulgence of the self-interested inclination of an acquisitive being. It is the naturally requisite next step following our creation once we accept that we were created subservient to God’s design “that Man should live and abide for sometime upon the Face of the Earth, and not that so curious and wonderful a piece of Workmanship by its own Negligence, or want of Necessaries, should perish again, presently after a few moments continuance.[13]

It is important to point our here that the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” begins not with the command to rest on the seventh, but echoing God’s work during the six days of creation, with the obligation to labor during the six days leading up to the seventh. “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work . . .”[14]

Labor, for Locke, is not just a means to an end, the end-goal of production. Labor is itself an intentional God-like occupation in resources, resources that were created to be labored in. Idleness therefore is a destructive force to be rejected even when there is no need for subsistence, in the case of the rich for example.

Nor indeed can man believe . . . that all this equipment for action is bestowed on him by a most wise creator in order that he may do nothing, and that he is fitted out with all these faculties in order that he may thereby be more splendidly idle and sluggish.[15]

Through the labor in the creations that God gave “men in common” (II, 26), man fulfills his natural duty to preserve himself and his fellow man and at the same time turns the fruits of labor into his own private property:[16]

The hare that anyone is hunting is thought his who pursues her during the chase; for, being a beast that is still looked upon as common and no man’s possession, whoever has employed so much labour about any of that kind as to find and pursue her has thereby removed her from the state of nature wherein she was common, and hath begun a property.[17]

The exclusivity of possession that ensues from labor is manifested in regard to other men, but not to God. Since man remains God’s property, man’s property is linked to divine dominance as well in a kind of joint ownership between man and God, and hence ultimately remains always under the guidelines of God’s moral law.[18] Those guidelines according to Locke include the ironclad stipulation of charity.

The obligation to give charity to the destitute as a limitation God sets on man’s material accumulation is presented by Locke in the First Treatise.

But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another that he may starve him if he please. God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him, so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want where he has no means to subsist otherwise. And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.[19]         

A preliminary procedural discussion of why Locke does not include this charity proviso in the Second Treatise must precede our more substantive assessment of Locke’s theory on charity because it will directly contribute to our understanding of Locke’s approach to the entire subject.

The absence of any mention of charity in the Second Treatise discussion of property does prima facie indicate that Locke has abandoned the doctrine by the time he reaches the Second Treatise,[20] a reading of course that Peter Laslett’s assertion that the writing of First Treatise actually followed the Second would militate against.[21] It is not just Locke’s silence though that raises the question of what he actually believed when writing the Second Treatise but the passages that beg for its reference if it is indeed still relevant. For example, in his discussion of the development of unequal possession due to the advent of money, Locke writes,

This I dare boldly affirm, That the same Rule of Property, (viz.) that every Man should have as much as he could make use of, would hold still in the World, without straitning any body, since there is Land enough in the World to suffice double the Inhabitants had not the Invention of Money . . . introduced (by Consent) larger Possessions, and a Right to them.[22]

Jeremy Waldron is correct in commenting on this paragraph that,

The clear implication is that some people are “Straitned” by the inequality that money introduced. If so, it seems odd not to mention the natural law doctrine of charity by which such straitening might be mitigated. Sure, this does not actually contradict the charity doctrine; but the passage is remarkable for the omission of the doctrine, if we assume it was one that Locke had in mind when he wrote it.[23]

Nevertheless, Waldron reaches the conclusion though that there is a “substantive case for importing the First Treatise doctrine of charity into the Second Treatise. . . around the premises of Lockean natural law.”[24] A foundational idea of Locke’s natural law is the duty to preserve mankind, not just a right or a duty to preserve oneself, but an obligation to preserve as many people as possible. “Everyone as he is bound to preserve himself . . . so by the like reason when his own Preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.”[25] It should be recalled that Locke begins his chapter on the acquisition of property by quoting from Psalms (cxv. 16) that God “has given the earth to the children of men.”[26] The verse states that the earth is “given to mankind in common”[27] by God in order to facilitate the human preservation upon which all natural law depends. Echoing Waldron, Gopal Sreenivasan cogently makes this point:

The right of charity exists to succour the disabled poor and needy, a group comprising the naturally disabled and those who, through poverty or misfortune, suffer from temporary disability. This right derives from the fundamental law of nature, which is the preservation of mankind (II, 6, 16, 135). The earth and the inferior creatures were given to mankind in common by God for the purpose of bringing about this preservation (I, 86-87, 97; II, 25, 172); indeed, the whole matrix of natural rights is subordinated to this end. In the case of disabled, however, God’s intention must obviously be fulfilled in some other way – whence the obligation of charity.[28]

The Idea of Entitlement

The Laboring of man allows for his obligatory preservation, hence he who cannot labor is to be supported through charity, which is the manifestation of mandatory interpersonal preservation. We have then a biblically rooted natural law obligation of human preservation and a biblically anchored theory of labor and property, making obvious the mandatory nature of charity. But Waldron, quite correctly, goes on to discover more in Locke’s thinking on charity.

I think it is extremely significant that Locke’s language in paragraph 42 of the First Treatise involves a denial that property-owners have the right to withhold their surplus goods from the poor. In other words, he seems to be committed not to a view about giving but to the view that neither the rich nor civil society on their behalf is entitled to resist the poor when the poor attempt to seize their surplus goods for themselves. It is not a question of forcing the rich to do anything: it is enough that they be compelled simple to stand back and let the poor take what (an account of their “pressing Needs”) is rightfully theirs. The needy have a right to surplus goods, and the rich have no right to withhold them. Though Locke does not talk at this stage of the role of the state in these matters, it is clear that what he has in mind are not so much affirmative charitable obligations (which, once introduced into the picture, might have to be enforced) but unjust and uncharitable withholding and denying (which may have to be prevented by the state).[29]

Locke refers twice in his First Treatise paragraph on charity (#42) to the “title” that those in need of subsistence have in the “surplusage” of another. In other words, there is not just a duty on the part of the self-sufficient to feed the needy, and a religious prohibition – Locke calls the withholding of charity a “sin.” Locke actually posits that the obligation is of a juridical nature, establishing an inherent legal right that the needy have in the surplus property of the able-bodied and the self-sufficient.

Although we began our discussion with the assumption that the obligation of charity appears exclusively in the First Treatise, the discerning eye will detect just such a reference in the Second Treatise as well. Locke states that:

He who gathered as much of the wild fruit, killed, caught, or tamed as many of the beasts as he could . . . by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a property in them; but if they perished in his possession without their due use, if the fruits rotted or the venison putrified, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbor’s share, for he had no right farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniences of life.[30]

Man’s labor serves to acquire for him exclusive ownership in what his efforts produce and it cannot be confiscated from him without his consent because the title he has in it cannot be compromised. But the surplus part of his produce engenders the entitlement of the needy, an entitlement so strong that the laborer cannot withhold that part of his produce, and were he to take it he would be held accountable for “invading his neighbor’s share” even though it is of his own making. James Tully accurately detects this rather thick adumbration of the charity obligation in the Second Treatise:

It should be noted as well that the positive duty of charity is not inconsistent with Locke’s definition of property as that which cannot be taken without the proprietor’s consent. The inclusive rights of each refer to the goods of a given society, and these are held individually because this serves the function of preserving mankind. If a case of need arises then, ipso facto, one man’s individual right is overridden by anther’s claim, and the goods become his property, By failing to hand over the goods, the proprietor invades the share now belonging to the needy and is liable to punishment (2. 37).  The necessary goods ‘cannot justly be denyed him’ (I. 42).  Individual ownership provides the means by which a moral agent may exercise his choice in performing his duties to others.  However, in a manner similar to that of Pufendorf’s analysis, if the duty is not discharged voluntarily, the claim right of the needy imposes the duty. As Lady Masham quotes Locke, the needy, like everyone else, have ‘a right to live comfortably in the world.’ [31]

Neither Tully nor Waldron suggest where Locke may draw his unique concept of entitlement from, as it is not original. This concept of the statutory right that the impoverished have in the property of the more solvent members of society originates in the Hebrew Bible and it is more than reasonable to assume that it is the Bible that serves as Locke’s inspiration. The laws of Pe’ah (corner of the field), Leket (produce that falls to the ground at the time of reaping), and Shichicha (forgotten produce) for example, are obligations the field owner has toward the destitute and rights that the destitute has in the produce of the field owner.

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of they field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of they harvest.  And thou shalt not glean  they vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of they vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.[32]

When thou reapest they harvest in they field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of their hands.[33]

It is readily apparent that each biblical commandment is actually a double one: to give and to not hold back from giving,[34] which translates into a title that the poor man has in the surplus property of the rich man. Thus writes Maimonides in his legal codification regarding “Gifts to the Poor” that if the owner of the field forgets to leave any of these divinely ordained gifts in the field he must return them to the poor even if they have already been “ground and baked.” And in a more sweeping identification of the nature of the title the poor have he writes “All the obligatory gifts to the poor include no benefit to their owners (the donors). Rather the paupers come and take them (the gifts) even against the wishes of the owners. . .”[35]

The influence of the Hebrew Bible here on Locke is eminently clear as is the fallacy of Strauss’s assertion that “Locke explicitly justifies man’s natural right to appropriate and to own without concern of the needs of others.”[36] Locke’s “doctrine of charity”[37] is in its granting of a statutory right to surplusage to the needy so entirely un-Hobbessian that Strauss could not have recognized it or its biblical antecedents and continued to maintain his general thesis regarding the Hobbesian nature of Lockean thought.

Locke “explicitly justifies man’s natural right to appropriate” but he does not do so “without concern of the needs of others.” Man’s right to private property is anchored throughout the Book of Genesis. The reason scripture gives for the flood is that “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness,”[38] with “corruption” and “lawlessness” understood in traditional rabbinic commentary as primarily the absence of any respect for private property.[39] Abraham recommends territorial separation from his nephew Lot so that their individual property rights will be respected.[40] The entire story of Abraham’s purchase of a burial sight for Sarah is an account of financial transaction.[41] Isaac confronts Philistines who close the wells that his father had dug (labored over),[42] Jacob purchases a field upon arrival in Schechem[43] and Joseph nationalizes the private property of Egyptians at a time of famine.[44]

The more contentious side of the Lockean equation though is his doctrine of charity, hence the need to use language more indicative of biblical precedent than in his justification of property. A close reading of Locke’s First Treatise concentration on charity reveals textual similarities as well. Locke begins his paragraph on charity with “But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another,”[45] but from where exactly we know this moral rule Locke does not say. That God wills human charity is known to all from the Biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Those two books contain God’s command to give charity and to take care of the poor, and in both places when the poor man in need of charity is mentioned he is called brother, the same term Locke uses no less than three times in his paragraph on charity. For example:

If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by our side. Do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your brother.  Do not lend him money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.  If your brother under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave.[46]

Another textual similarity with the Hebrew Bible is to be found toward the beginning of his Second Treatise discussion of property. In what Lockean scholarship calls the sufficiency limitation, Locke writes, “For this labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.”[47] What Locke means is that a man is required to leave enough for the use of others and that which he leaves must be qualitatively on a par with what he labored for, in order for his labor to generate his property in the product. We have seen the use of similar terminology before. When the Hebrew Bible issues the directives obligating the agricultural gifts to the poor that we saw above, it says, “thou shalt leave them for the poor.”[48] Is it to be deemed entirely incidental that where Locke is speaking of the requirement to supply the poor with the surplus of one’s labor that he too uses the terminology “left in common for others”[49]?

The Implausibility of Using New Testament Sources on Charity

This theoretical consistency and textual similarity with the Hebrew Bible makes it a far more plausible resource for Locke than the New Testament’s Luke 11. 41, as suggested by Peter Laslett.[50] That verse reads, “But rather give ye alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clear unto you,” and clearly Jeremy Waldron is correct in saying that there is “no textual basis for this attribution.”[51] It should also be emphasized that if a New Testament imperative is what Locke has in mind, his we know would be limited to Christians, something that would severely limit the scope of the Two Treatises. It is curious that even though Waldron identifies the uniqueness of Locke’s teaching on charity, in which he correctly classifies the “title” of the needy in surplusage as both a religious and statutory right, he does not attribute it to what is clearly of Hebraic convention for which a textual basis is apparent.

Waldron inadvertently provides us with another reason as to why Locke shuns referencing the New Testament to present his doctrine of charity. Waldron quotes Locke from The Reasonableness of Christianity to the effect that charity is enforceable; this in contradistinction to belief in Jesus as Messiah which his Letter Concerning Toleration argues is not enforceable. Waldron goes on to quote Locke’s interpretation of the very specific kind of charity found in the New Testament and then offers his comments on it.

Locke presents Jesus’ commandment to the rich young man ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ (Matthew 19:21) as a test only.  It is Christ’s test to see whether the young man in question really would be willing to follow his commandments, not a genuine imperative addressed to all of us. . . Selling all you have and giving it to the poor would be a form of what I want to call radical charity – giving away what you actually have a moral right to keep, giving away enough to impoverish yourself.  This is not what Locke is arguing for; it goes way beyond the charity which he argues for in the First Treatise – the charity that he thinks should be enforced.  Radical charity may be a particular requirement imposed on particular people, but it is not intended as a general command.[52]

Locke chooses to interpret the passage in Matthew as a test for a specific individual at a specific juncture and not a general commandment because he is, as Waldron argues, unequivocally opposed to the very notion of radical charity. Furthermore, for our discussion of charity in the context of the Two Treatises it must be clarified that a creed sanctioning if not advocating radical charity is absolutely not a creed which Locke can draw from. What Waldron does not point out though is that in this regard Locke is very much, once again, in tandem with Hebraic teaching. The general verse commanding the giving of charity in the Hebrew Bible reads:

If there be among you a poor man, one of they brethren within any of they gates in thy land which the LORD thy GOD gives thee, thou shalt not garden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother: but thou shalt open thy hand wide to him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks.[53]

Rabbinical exegesis on these verses is very clear. One is obligated to “lend him sufficient for his need” but one is not commanded to make him rich.[54] On the contrary, Maimonides actually limits the amount the donor is permitted to give and rules that the “sufficiency” clause cannot surpass one fifth of his possessions.[55] Locke then is well grounded in his reductionist interpretation of Matthew and his avoidance of new- testamentism in the Two Treatises.[56]

We can now answer our initial question why Locke chooses not to mention charity once again in his discussion of property in the Second Treatise. Waldron might be right in interpreting Locke as one who believes that the religious imperative of charity includes a requisite enforceability, but by the church, not by the state. In a treatise architecting the separation of church and state Locke is more than reserved about suggesting governmental enforcement of religious obligation even if he believes fulfillment of that religious requirement is necessary for the moral functioning of society. In the Second Treatise Locke is putting forward his theory on government, and he believes that government must insure the freedom to accumulate wealth for both moral and economic reasons. But it is not the job of government to enforce the religious duties of the individual, even if they are vital for the success of the very form of government he is advocating. Because charity is too important an issue to go unstated, it is in his First Treatise, the basis for the Second, where he sets the parameters for how the pursuit of private property will be guaranteed.

Employment as the Best Form of Charity

Locke’s doctrine of charity is also very much in keeping with the Hebraic notion of charity which focuses on the concept of tikun olam, fixing the world. In a “fixed” world everyone is able to work and support oneself without falling into a state of dependency on others. Hence the best form of charity is not by providing handouts, which exacerbates dependency, although that obligation nevertheless exists to alleviate immediate need.  The highest form is providing the destitute with employment, with the ability to labor and profit, preventing idleness and allowing him to be Godlike by creating his own property. In this discussion of the biblical obligation of charity Maimonides establishes eight levels, the highest degree of which is “to strengthen that person’s hand, so that she or he will have no need to beg from others.”

The highest degree, than which there is no higher is the one who upholds the hand of an Israelite reduced to poverty by handing that person a gift or loan, or by entering into a partnership with him, or by finding that Israelite work in order to strengthen that person’s hand, so that he will have no need to beg from others.[57]

It should come as no surprise that this is the approach Locke took as well. In his recommendations for the reformation of England’s poor law Locke wrote that “Everyone must have meat, drink, clothing and firing. So much goes out of the stock of the kingdom, whether they work or no.”[58] No one in society may be left to perish for want of food or shelter, but the responsibility of society is to eventuate the integration of the poor into the work force. It is a responsibility which must be taken with the utmost seriousness for “if any person die for want of due relief in any parish in which he ought to be relieved, the said parish [must]] be fined according to the circumstances of the fact and the heinousness of the crime.” Hence Locke’s proposal intended “to consider of some proper methods for setting on work and employing the poor of this kingdom, and making them useful to the public, and thereby easing others of that burden.” He was interested in compulsory employment for those seeking financial relief “as far as they are able to work.” This, “rightly considered, shows us what is the true and proper relief to the poor. It consists in finding work for them, and taking care that they do not live like drones upon the labour of others.”[59] Already in the First Treatise shortly after his mention of the charity obligation Locke adumbrates on the course he believes charity should take.

God sets him to work for his living, and seems rather to give him a Spade into his hand, to subdue the Earth, then a Sceptor to Rule over its Inhabitants.  In the Sweat of thy Face thou shalt eat thy Bread, says God to him, ver. 19. This was unavoidable, may it perhaps be answered, because he was yet without Subjects, and had no body to work for him, but afterwards…he might have People enough, whom he might command, to work for him; no, says God, not only whilst thou art without other help, save thy Wife, but as thou livest shall thou live by thy Labour.[60]

It is on this basis that Gopal Sreenivsan observes that Locke was careful about the terminology he used when speaking of those with a right to benefit from charity.

It is therefore at best misleading to refer, as is common practice, to the bearers of Locke’s right of charity as the ‘poor’ or ‘needy’, since this completely obscures the fact that there are needy individuals who do not enjoy any such right, namely, able-bodied ones.[61]

Sreenivasan then goes on to show how Locke’s proposals for reforming the poor law were intended to get as many people as possible to maintain themselves through their own labor. Conjointly, Waldron makes the interesting point that for Locke giving charity to the indolent is a second form of radical charity which he opposes.

This would be charity to someone who refuses to work when he could work, charity to someone who does not make any efforts to provide for himself or work to subsidize the cost of his provision.  And Locke is no more in favor of enforcing this than he is of enforcing the other sense of radical charity- ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor.'[62]


Everyone would agree that to ignore Lockean thinking on “property” would mean to ignore Locke. But curiously few scholars of Locke who admit the centrality of his thinking on the nature and limitations of human acquisitiveness attribute to him a “Doctrine of Charity,” as Jeremy Waldron perceptively did. But even Waldron overlooks the salient Hebraic nature of that doctrine.

Hebraic influences on Western liberalism have long been dismissed or disregarded. The result has been a great disservice not only to those Hebraic roots, but to the fruit-bearing branches of political theory as well. John Locke is but one political theorist of the politically tumultuous 17th century in England who used the Hebrew Bible extensively in order to establish his political theory, but he is critically important because of the unique way he did so and because of the crucial long-term influence he had on Western thinking. Hopefully the discussion above will provide but a small (charitable?) contribution toward the recently awakened interest in political Hebraism, ignited in no small measure through the works of the late Daniel Elazar and the Jewish Political Studies Review he founded.


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[1] Fania Oz-Salzberger, “The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom,” Azure, Vol. 13 (2002): 108. See also Fania Oz-Salzberger,”The Political Thought of John Locke and the Significance of Political Hebraism,” Hebraic Political Studies, Vol. 1, No. 5 (2006): 568-592.

[2] Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, (England: Penguin Books, 1994).

[3] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).  Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1952),  Stoner, James R., “Was Leo Strauss Wrong about John Locke?” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston Marriott Copley Place. Richard Cox, Locke on War and Peace, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960). Michael Zuckert, Launching Liberalism, (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 2002). Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[4]John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, ed. J.W. Yolton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). John Dunn, “What is Living and What is dead in the Political Theory of John Locke,” in John Dunn, Interpreting Political Responsibility, Essays: 1981-1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 9-25.

[5] Ian Harris, The Mind of John Locke, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).  Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Kim Ian Parker, The Biblical Politics of John Locke, (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004). Greg Forster, John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[6] Such an analysis is currently underway by this author in the context of a doctoral dissertation at Haifa University under the mentorship of Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger.

[7] Paul Rahe writes “Thus, what begins as an account of the origins of property swiftly turns into a paean of praise for human acquisitiveness and industry and for the “invention and Arts” that have so much “improved the conveniences of Life.”  Rahe, Republics, Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 503.

[8] II, 6, p. 289.  This and all further quotations are from: Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, a Critical edition with Introduction and Notes by Peter Laslett, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

[9] James Tully refers to this explanation of how property ownership materializes as the workmanship model. James Tully, A discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 35-42. Tully writes that “the workmanship model is a fundamental feature of all Locke’s writings.” Ibid., 4. Gopal Sreenivasan nuances the argument a bit differently. See Gopal Sreenivasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995), 62, 74-81.

The Talmudic discussion regarding whether or not “an artisan gains a title to the improvement of the utensil” (Oman koneh b’shevach keli) is especially pertinent to our analysis of Locke on property and the potential of Hebraic influences on him. The question relates to material (such as wood) placed in the hands of an artisan (such as a carpenter) to construct a particular artifact (such as a cabinet). If the wood was destroyed while in the hands of the artisan he would be responsible to reimburse his customer for the value of the wood. But if what was destroyed in the artisan’s possession was the ordered product which he had not yet transferred to his customer, does his own labor in the material give the artisan possession in the finished product, in which case he would have to reimburse the value of the wood, or does his labor not earn him ownership in the finished product in which case he would have to pay the entire value of the finished product? See Hebrew English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (London, The Soncino Press, 1966), 48b.  “…but here they dispute whether an artisan gains a title to the improvement of the utensil.”  Maimonides rules that the artisan does not gain title to the product through his labor.  See Maimonides, Yad Hahazaka, Laws of Rent, Chap. 10; 4.

[10] II, 41, 188.

[11] Psalms CXV, 16.

[12] Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries, 131.

[13] Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, 160.

[14] Exodus 20, 8-10.  This theme is poignantly taken up by Rabbinic commentary. See for example Avot d’Rebbe Natan, Chapter 11: “Shemaiah and Abtalyon took over from them,  Shemaiah says: Love work, hate lordship, and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers. . . Rabbi Tarfon says: The Holy One, blessed be He, likewise did not cause His Shekinah to rest upon Israel before they did work, as it is said, ‘And I let them make Me a sanctuary, then shall I dwell among them (Exod. 25:8). . . Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra says: If a man has no work to do, what should he do?  If he has a run down yard or run-down field let him go and occupy himself with it, for it is said, Six days shalt thou labor, and do all they work (Exod. 20:9).  Now, why does the verse say, And do all they work?  To include him who has run-down yards and fields – let him go and occupy himself with them!”

[15] John Locke, ELN, in Locke Political Essays, ed. Mark Goldie, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 105.

[16] In the beginning of his chapter on property, in the previous paragraph (II, 25), Locke, drawing from Psalms 115, 25 states that God “has given the Earth to the Children of Men, given to Mankind in common.” Tully’s exhaustive study on Locke’s theory of property shows that Locke was not alone in his “commonality” concept which Tully calls the “positive community.” Cumberland, Grotius, Pufendorf, Selden and Suarez differed with regard to the “consent” problem, (if everyone is an owner in common how can the individual attain proprietorship without consent of his “partners”?) but all agreed more or less with regard to common ownership. What is less clear is whether or not these thinkers also predicated their notion of commonality on the Psalms as well, something Tully does not discuss. Richard Tuck and John Dunn both disagree with Tully, arguing that Locke believed in a “negative community” in which people have an equal right to take material things from nature and make it their own but do not all own everything in common. The verse from the Psalms, it appears, can be understood either way.

[17] II, 31, 308.

[18] Much has been written about the apparent contradiction between Locke’s basic theory of God’s proprietorship of man and his statement here (II, 27) that “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”  Patrick Coby sees a total contradiction and Michael Zuckert concludes that “Locke’s shift in terminology must be either the product of very loose thinking or the expression of a shift in conception of some significance.” See Patrick Coby “The Law of Nature in Locke’s Second Treatise: is Locke a Hobbesian?” in Joseph Losco and Leonard Williams eds., An Introduction to Political Theory, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1991), 301-303. Michael Zuckert, Natural Rights and The New Republicanism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 221.  But of course Locke meant that “every man has a propriety in his own person” in regard to other men, while with regard to God he is still ultimately and everlastingly under God’s proprietorship. See Ruth W. Grant, John Locke’s Liberalism, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 69-70. It is worth mention that my interpretation suggesting a continued divine link to the products of man’s labor is somewhat different from Tully’s interpretation. In II, 27 Locke writes that “Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” From this Tully concludes that “His body and his limbs are God’s property: the actions he uses them to make are his own.” Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries, 108-109. Clarifying Tully’s point Sreenvinasan writes “What God enjoys, therefore, is a property in man, whereas what man enjoys is a property in his own person and labour.”  Sreenvinasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property, 66. See also Sreenivasan’s conclusion that there is no justification for dichotomizing between “creating” and “making” to the effect that it is God who performs the former and man the latter (ibid., 74-77).

My interpretation, though, explains more poignantly the divinely oriented limitations that always remain tied to the property man accumulates through his labor.  In addition it obviates the need to adduce contradiction with Locke’s negation of Filmer’s theory of parental ownership of their children. Locke argues that parents do not create their children alone because man does not have the knowledge and skill “to frame and make a living Creature” (I, 53). Furthermore, argues Locke, at the time of procreation man does not “thinks farther than the satisfying of his present Appetite” (I, 54). It is therefore not just an extension of God that is making something new to which God is the ultimate proprietor, but God is the full (perhaps primary) partner in the creation itself. Hence parenting does not grant parents proprietorship of their children. See the Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (London, The Soncino Press, 1966), 30b. “Our Rabbis taught: there are three partners in man, the Holy One, blessed be He, the father, and the mother.”

It is worth mentioning on a related matter that Robert Nozick poses what Sreenivasan admits is a “real difficulty” (Sreenivasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property, 85) with Locke’s reasoning that because man cannot understand his own origins he cannot be considered the real bearer of another life. To Robert Nozick, Locke’s refutation “seems to depend upon the view that one owns something one makes only if one controls and understands all parts of the process of making it. By this criterion, people who plant seeds on their land and water them would not own the trees that then grow. . . . Yet in many such cases, Locke does want to say that we own what we produce.” Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), 288. Nozick overlooks the fact that Locke is speaking of one very specific instance, that of giving human life, “How can he be thought to give Life to another, that knows not wherein his own Life consists?” (II, 52). Man need not know how a seed grows into a sapling in order for him to take credit for watering it and weeding around it. But to create a replica of the rational creature and potential creator that he himself is, he cannot take exclusive credit without becoming God himself.

[19]  II, 42, 188.

[20] This is precisely the argument made by Thomas Pangle: “Locke does not define or characterize charity as a duty at all: Lockean charity is a right, a conditional right, of the starving (and only them) to some of the “surplusage” (and only the surplusage) of the “rich,” or of those who possess “Plenty” (and only those). Or, as Locke also makes clear in this section, what he means by “charity” is just a subdivision of justice: an expression, in desperate circumstances, of the inalienable right and undeniable urge to self-preservation (cf. Second Treatise 183, 408-409). But this extraordinary construction of the traditional understanding of charity proves to be but a provisional or somewhat gruesomely playful stage in Locke’s argument in the Two Treatises (Locke drops charity from his discussion of property in the Second Treatise)” Thomas Pangle, (The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, 144).  I believe the forthcoming evidence will remove any doubt that Pangle is completely mistaken about, a) Locke seeing charity exclusively as a right of the taker rather than a duty of the giver, and b) that Locke abandoned his theoretical commitment to charity in the Second Treatise. What becomes eminently clear is that it is Pangle’s understanding of Locke that is “gruesomely playful,” not Locke’s discussion of charity.

[21] Regarding the debate over the order the Two Treatises were written see Peter Laslett, “Introduction”, John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 12-13.  J.R. Milton, “Locke John (1632-1704),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. www.oxforddnb. Com/view/article/16885. Esmond S. de Beer, “Locke and English Liberalism: The Second Treatise of Government in its Contemporary Setting,” in J.W. Yolton ed., John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, A Collection of New Essays (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1969), 34-35. John W. Yolton, A Locke Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 304. J. R Milton “Dating Locke’s Second Treatise” History of Political Thought, No.16 (1995), 356-390.

[22] II, 36, 311.

[23] Waldron, God, Locke and Equality, 183.

[24] Ibid, 184.

[25] II, 6, 289.

[26] II, 25, 304.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sreenivasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property, 103-104.

[29] Waldron, God, Locke and Equality, 185. See also Waldron’s article, “Enough and as Good Left for Others,” Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1979), 319-328, where he expands on the argument that for Locke charity is a matter of natural right.  A rich man that does not give anything to the poor is violating his rights (326).

[30] II, 37, 312-313. Pangle ignores this paragraph, with good reason.

[31] Tully, A Discourse on Property, 132.

[32] Leviticus, 19, 9-10.

[33] Deuteronomy, 24, 19.

[34] See Jeremy Waldron’s article “Welfare and the Images of Charity,” The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 36 (1986), 463-482.  There he speaks of two models of charity: active charity – giving and helping another, and passive charity – allowing another to help himself to the resources one has (471).

[35] Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, The Laws of Gifts to the Poor, chap. 1 laws 4 and 8. The Biblical verse reads, “If there is among you a poor man, one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God gives thee, though shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother…[but thou shalt open thy hand wide to him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he lacks.]” The Holy Scriptures, (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers LRD. 1977), Deuteronomy, Ch. 15 Verses 7-8.

[36] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 239.

[37] So dubbed by Waldron, God, Locke and Equality,186.

[38] Genesis 6,11

[39] Rashi on Genesis, 6, 13. “The verdict of the generation of the flood was determined because of their thievery.” Rash’s commentary here is based on Sanhedrin 108a, “‘And God said unto Noah, the end of all flesh is come before me’ R. Johanan said: come and see how great is the power of robbery, for lo, though the generation of the flood transgressed all laws, their decree of punishment was sealed only because they stretched out their hands to rob, as it is written, for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth.'” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, Soncino Press, 1969). The inherent connection for Locke between private property and the concept of injustice is worth nothing here. In discussing how he believed children should be inculcated with a sense of honesty he recommended that “The first tendency to any injustice that appears must be suppressed with a shew of wonder and abhorrence…but because children cannot well comprehend what injustice is, till they understand property, and how particular persons come by it, the safest way to secure honesty, is to lay the foundations of it in early liberty, and as easiness to part with to others whatever they have or like themselves. Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, part vii, section 110.

[40] Genesis, 13, 5-12.

[41] Genesis, 23, 3-20.

[42] Genesis, 26, 12-22.

[43] Genesis, 33, 18-20.

[44] Genesis, 41, 33-57.

[45] I, 42, 188.

[46] Leviticus, 25, 35-39.

[47] II, 27, 306.

[48] Leviticus, 19, 10.

[49] My terminological observation here is justifiable, albeit less so, even according to Waldron’s reading of the “enough and as good” clause. Waldron argues that Locke intended no limitation on appropriation (no “sufficiency limitation”) but was rather describing reality at the early history of mankind. See: J. Waldron, “Enough and as Good Left for Others.” For a full assessment of Waldron’s unique approach on the subject see Sreenivasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property, 37-41.

[50] Laslett, “Introduction”, 188.

[51] Waldron, God, Locke and Equality, 179-180.

[52] Ibid, 182. Waldron goes on to point out in a footnote that the young man in question significantly seems to have failed the test, for the text continues, “When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:22).

[53] Deuteronomy, 15, 7, 8.

[54] “Our Rabbis taught: ‘Sufficient for his need’ [implies] you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; ‘in that which he wanteth’ [includes] even a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him . . . ”  Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketuboth (London: Soncino Press, 1971) 67b.

[55] Maimonides, Yad Hahazakah, Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor, chap. 7, No.5.

[56] Alan Ryan writes that in “The Christian tradition, recognizing property as only conditionally legitimate in the manner of other social and political institutions . . . had emphasized the owner’s duties to the rest of the world rather than his rights.” Alan Ryan, Property and Political Theory, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 18-19.  While Locke’s positive duty of charity is commensurate with this Christian tradition, his definition of property as an inalienable right that cannot be taken without the owner’s consent is not.

[57] Maimonides, Yad Hahazakah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, Chap. 10, No. 7.

[58] John Locke, “A Report to the Board of Trade to the Lords Justices 1697, Respecting Relief and Unemployment of the Poor”, in H. R. Fox Bourne, The Life of John Locke, vol. 2 (London: Henry S. King, 1876), 382.

[59] Ibid.

[60] II, 45, 190-191.

[61]  Sreenivasan, The Limits, 45.

[62] Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, 187.

*     *     *

Yechiel M. Leiterhas served in several senior government positions.  He is presently a senior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is currently writing his Doctoral Thesis on the Political Hebraism of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government at Haifa University

Yechiel Leiter

Yechiel Leiter is the Chairman of Israel Ports Authority. He previously served as Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Education and was Chief of Staff to Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ministry of Finance. He holds a degree in law, an MA in international relations, and a Ph.D from Haifa University.