Acosta (1540-1600) was a Jesuit priest who worked in Peru from 1572 to 1586, spending his last year in Mexico. His Natural and Moral History of the Indies was published in Spanish in 1590. Following the structure of Pliny's Natural History, Acosta's book was a comprehensive survey of the physical, biological, and anthropological history of the New World. It was one of many travelogue descriptions of the New World that were avidly read in Europe. (Another reason for my interest in this book is that my wife and I will be touring South America this coming summer, including a few weeks in the Galapagos Islands in connection with the Mont Pelerin Society's meeting there on the topic of "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty.")
This was part of a critical turning point in world history, because for the first time in history, the entire Earth was in a global network of human exchange. The traditional histories of human life in Europe--as formulated in ancient philosophy and Biblical religion--were challenged by the discovery of an unknown world of human experience. Much of modern political philosophy was a response to this development--particularly, in the speculation about the original state of nature of humanity, which one can see in the work of Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Smith. Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle continued this tradition of global natural history as inquiry into the universal history of humanity on Earth.
As indicated by Peter Laslett's list of the books in Locke's library when he was writing his Two Treatises of Government, Locke had at least eight books on the history of the New World (or the West Indies), including an English translation of Acosta's book. In his critical edition of the Two Treatises, Laslett has indicated the influence of these books on Locke's writing. The best work that I know showing how these books shaped Locke's account of the state of nature and the evolution of politics is William Batz's article on "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke."
Acosta's book seems especially important for Locke, because it's the one that Locke directly quotes in the Second Treatise (sec. 102). This comes in Chapter 8 on "The Beginning of Political Societies," in which Locke argues that human beings are originally by nature free, equal, and independent, so that they enter civil society only by their consent.
He acknowledges that one objection to this argument is that there is no historical evidence for this claim that human beings were once free and equal, and that they established government by consent. Locke responds by arguing that there are two kinds of historical evidence for this--the history of America and the history of ancient society in the Bible.
Locke's appeal to history here is fundamental not only for his Two Treatises but also for most of his other writings. Contrary to what many of Locke's scholarly commentators assume, his reasoning depends not on the logical analysis of abstract ideas but on what he identifies in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Intro., 2) as "this historical, plain method." This method of historical reasoning from observational experience shows the influence of Locke's medical practice and experimental research, in which he followed the lead of his friend Thomas Sydenham, who insisted that medical science be guided by the experimental history of health and disease in particular patients rather than theoretical reasoning about abstract ideas. Remarkably, with the exception of a few scholars like Laslett and Batz, most commentators ignore this in their reading of Locke.
So, for example, many scholars debate the meaning of Locke's account of the state of nature as if Locke were engaged in a purely abstract argument without reference to the observable experience of history. This ignores Locke's clear declaration that "in the beginning all the world was America" (ST, 49), and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (ST, 108). Thus, Locke follows a methodological assumption that has been fundamental for evolutionary anthropology--that the study of hunter-gatherers who have survived into recent history can illuminate our understanding of what the first prehistoric human beings must have looked like.
That's why Locke turns to Acosta's book and quotes the following as a description of the original state of nature: "And if Josephus Acosta's word may be taken, he tells us, that in many parts of America there was no Government at all. There are great and apparent Conjectures, says he, that these Men, speaking of those of Peru, for a long time had neither Kings nor Commonwealths, but lived in Troops, as they do this day in Florida, the Cheriquanas, those of Bresil, and many other Nations, which have no certain Kings, but as occasion is offered in Peace or War, they choose their Captains as they please" (ST, 102, quoting Acosta, book 1, chap. 25, pp. 73-74).
Here's a new translation of this passage from Acosta by Frances Lopez-Morillas: "There are clear indications for a long time these men had no kings or any form of government but lived in free groups like the Indians of Florida nowadays and the Chiriguanas and Brazilians and many other tribes, who do not have regular kings but in accordance with the occasions that arise in war or peace choose their chiefs as they like."
Notice the ambiguity in this passage. On the one hand, there is said to be among these people "no kings or any form of government" or "no government at all," as Locke says. And yet, on the other hand, it is said that occasionally in war or peace, these people can choose chiefs or captains to lead them.
This is an ambiguity in Locke's account of the state of nature. At times, the state of nature seems to be an utterly asocial and apolitical state in which people live as solitary individuals with no structure of rule at all, which can be interpreted to mean that Locke is denying that human beings are political animals by nature. But, at other times, the state of nature does seem to have some structure of rule, because the family is said to be the "first society," and parental power over children is thus the first structure of authority, although this familial society falls short of "political society" (ST, 77).
This ambiguity is seen in Locke's definition of the state of nature as "men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them" (ST, 19). Living without any common superior or judge with authority might suggest an asocial state of solitary individuals, but "men living together according to reason" clearly indicates some kind of rule-governed social order.
A similar ambiguity is that while Locke says that the state of nature is a state of peace rather than a state of war, and thus disagrees with Hobbes, Locke also says that the state of nature easily becomes a state of war that induces people to establish government to enforce peace, which agrees with Hobbes (ST, 19, 123). Here is where the Straussians see Locke's Hobbesianism as his secret teaching.
But this assumption that this shows some complicated rhetorical strategy of secret writing becomes less plausible if one looks at the anthropological reports about America that Locke was studying. For example, one report from the French missionary Gabriel Sagard-Theodat describes the Great Lakes Indians in Canada as organized by familial and tribal attachments under the leadership of their chiefs, which shows, he concluded, that "man is a social animal who cannot live without company." And yet the reports of violence and warfare among the American Indians show that living without formal government made it hard for them to live always in peace with one another.
What look like contradictions in Locke's arguments actually show Locke's effort to accurately generalize conclusions about the complex variability of this historical experience, in which primitive people can live orderly social lives governed by informal customary rules, even though the absence of formal governmental institutions makes it hard to settle all disputes peacefully.
Acosta distinguishes three levels or stages in the history of government in Peru and Mexico. The first human beings to arrive in America were savage hunters who crossed over a land bridge from Asia to America. (Acosta was the first person to propose this theory of the original human migration from Asia to America over a land bridge, a theory that is now widely accepted by evolutionary anthropologists.) These hunters had no government. "They had no chief, nor did they recognize one, nor did they worship any gods or have rites or any religion whatsoever" (380-81).
The second stage is "that of free associations or communities, where the people are governed by the advice of many, and are like councils. In time of war, these elect a captain who is obeyed by a whole tribe or province. In time of peace, each town or group of folk rules itself, and each has some prominent men whom the mass of the people respect; and at most some of these join together on matters that seem important to them to see what they ought to do" (359).
The third stage is that of monarchy or empire--like that of the Incas or the rule of Montezuma in Mexico. Originally, this was a "moderate rule" that is the best, in which the kings and nobles acknowledged that their subjects were "equal by nature and inferior only in the sense that they have less obligation to care for the public good" (346). But later this monarchic rule became tyrannical as the rulers treated their subjects as beasts and treated themselves as gods (346, 359, 402).
In some passages of his book, however, Acosta combines the first two stages and suggests that even the most primitive hunter-gatherers had some informal leadership by which prominent people could mediate disputes and lead them in war, but always constrained by the informal consent or resistance of the community. The one passage quoted by Locke is an example of this, as though Locke figured out that even primitive foragers would have some episodic and informal structure of rule in which some individuals would have more influence than others, although excessive dominance would be checked by popular resistance.
In the state of nature, Locke observes, "they judged the ablest, and most likely, to Rule over them. Conformable hereunto we find the People of America, who (living out of reach of the Conquering Swords, and spreading domination of the two great Empires of Peru and Mexico) enjoy'd their own natural freedom, though, ceteris paribus, they commonly prefer the Heir of their deceased King; yet if they find him any way weak, or uncapable, they pass him by and set up the stoutest and bravest Man for their Ruler" (ST, 105). The American Indian Kings were originally temporary war leaders. "And though they command absolutely in War, yet at home and in time of Peace they exercise very little Dominion, and have but a very moderate Sovereignty, the Resolutions of Peace and War, being ordinarily either in the People, or in a Council. Though the War itself, which admits not of Plurality of Governours, naturally devolves the Command into the King's sole Authority" (ST, 108).
This appeal to the historical anthropology of the American Indians as showing that government was originally limited in its powers and its ends is part of Locke's argument for liberal toleration in his Letters on Toleration. He argues that there is no justification for European rulers in America to compel the American Indians to convert to Christianity, particularly since they are "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and the Law of Nature, and no ways offending against the Laws of the Society" (40).
In his Second Letter on Toleration, Locke writes: "There are nations in the West-Indies which have no other End of their Society, but their mutual defence against their enemies. In these, their Captain, or Prince, is Sovereign Commander in time of War; but in time of Peace, neither he nor any body else has any Authority over any of the Society. You cannot deny but other, even temporal ends, are attainable by these Commonwealths, if they had been otherwise instituted and appointed to these ends" (77).
In his attack on Locke's Letter on Toleration, Jonas Proast asserted that "Commonwealths are instituted for the attaining of all the Benefits which Political Government can yield; and therefore if the spiritual and eternal Interests of Men may any way be procured or advanced by Political Government, the procuring and advancing those Interests must in all reason be received amongst the Ends of Civil Society, and so consequently fall within the compass of the Magistrate's Jurisdiction" (69).
In response to Proast, Locke insisted that the question was whether government has any power to use force in matters of religion or for the salvation of souls. The argument against this is that governments are not established to use force for such ends. Rather, governments are established by men only to protect themselves against injuries from other men for which there is no protection except governmental force. Religious opinions or forms of worship do not injure those who disagree in any way that requires governmental force against those with those opinions or worship.
To support this conclusion, Locke points again to the American Indians:
"let me ask you, Whether it be not possible that Men, to whom the Rivers and Woods afforded the spontaneous Provisions of Life, and so with no private Possessions of Land, had no inlarged Desires after Riches or Power; should live together in Society, make one People of one Language under one Chieftain, who shall have no other Power but to command them in time of War against their common Enemies, without any municipal Laws, Judges, or any Person with Superiority establish'd amongst them, but ended all their private Differences, if any arose, by the extemporary Determination of their Neighbors, or of Arbitrators chosen by the Parties. I ask you whether in such a Commonwealth, the Chieftain who was the only Man of Authority amongst them, had any Power to use the Force of the Commonwealth to any other End but the Defense of it against an Enemy, though other Benefits were attainable by it." (76)
Today's evolutionary anthropologists might complain that Locke has confused two levels of primitive social organization--bands and chiefdoms. But still, Locke is remarkably accurate in describing how foraging societies without formal governments--called "stateless societies" today--enforce customary norms of conduct through private arbitration, while also organizing around war leaders in defense against outside groups.
But notice also that the American Indian societies to which Locke is appealing as a standard for political freedom and limited government are societies of hunter-gatherers in a primitive state, and they survived only as long as they remained out of reach of the Incan and Mexican empires. Thus, these hunting-gathering societies were both culturally uncivilized and militarily weak.
The problem for Locke's liberalism is how to combine freedom, civilization, and power.
Beginning 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture after the Last Ice Age, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, administrative, and monarchic bureaucracies.
These agrarian states provided the conditions for high civilization — economic wealth, technological innovation, cultural progress (particularly, through the invention of writing), bureaucratic administration, and military power. But that high civilization came with a big price — the loss of the individual freedom from domination that human beings enjoyed in foraging societies. Among foragers, the inequality of power, wealth, and status is minimal. Foraging societies don’t allow some to tyrannize over others. But agrarian states allow ruling elites to live by exploiting those they rule.
Consequently, the history of politics over the past 5,000 years has been largely a conflict between freedom and domination — with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There has often seemed to be no good resolution to the conflict, because human beings seemed to be caught in a tragic dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.
Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal republican capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a republican polity, and a capitalist economy promotes both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free, while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But we can mitigate this through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become unduly concentrated or unchecked. For classical liberals, such a system is imperfect. But it’s the best we can do.
The Darwinian history of politics provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage evolution of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.
Acosta, Jose de, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, trans. Frances Lopez-Morillas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).
Batz, William G., "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke," Journal of the History of Ideas, 35 (1974): 663-70.
Burgaleta, Claudio, Jose de Acosta, S.J. (1540-1600): His Life and Thought (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999).
Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010).
Some of these points have been developed in some previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.