Professor brings to life works of influential political thinker

By Costa Maragos Posted: June 13, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Professor Dr. Lee Ward has edited John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, which will serve students well for years to come
Professor Dr. Lee Ward has edited John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, which will serve students well for years to come Photo by Rae Graham - U of R Photography

Professor Dr. Lee Ward has brought new life to the works of a man known as one of the philosophical founders of modern liberal democracy.

Ward has had the honour of being asked to edit, write the introduction and provide notes for the new version of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. The book is published by Hackett Publishing.

Locke is still one of the most widely read political thinkers, more than 300 years after his death. Ward’s introduction is described by one reviewer as “clearly written, intelligent, and the argument is sound. I know of no better short introduction to this work."

Ward is Alpha Sigma Nu Distinguished Associate Professor in Campion College at the University of Regina and teaches in the Department of Political Science. He is the author of John Locke and Modern Life, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010 and has become known as a foremost scholar on Locke’s works.  We spoke with him about his latest Locke project.

Lee you have said it is an honour to be asked to edit Locke’s Two Treatises. What do you mean by that?

It is always an honour when a great publisher like Hackett approaches you to edit a work as important as Locke’s Two Treatises.

But this was especially gratifying to me because when Hackett published their edition of Locke’s Second Treatise back in 1980, they asked the legendary C.B. MacPherson to edit it and write the Introduction. At that time, MacPherson was arguably one of the most influential political theorists in the English-speaking world.  To be asked by Hackett to try to do for today’s students what MacPherson did forty years ago—to invite me to join such esteemed company—is deeply humbling.

Why does John Locke still matter today?

John Locke argued "that every human being is an owner of him or herself." 

Locke still matters today because, in my view, he did more than any other political thinker to shape the modern world.  In so many crucial respects his concerns remain our concerns. 

In our time, when many nations all across the globe continue to suffer under dictatorships and repressive governments, Locke’s seminal argument for representative government and constitutionalism resting on popular sovereignty remains an inspiring vision of democracy. 

Locke’s claim that every human being is a rights-bearing individual capable of determining one’s own beliefs and life plan, and whose rights require legal protection, lies at the root of our idea of human rights. 

These are theoretical ideals that we see challenged in practice every day from the refugee crisis in Europe to the demands for reconciliation and greater inclusion in our own country.  So much of our thinking about social justice calls us back to Locke.

Further to Locke’s philosophy on property rights. You write in your introduction that Locke “revolutionized the modern world’s understanding of what it means to own anything.” How did this change people’s thinking about owning property?

Prior to Locke, the dominant philosophical view was that ownership of things, and even of people, was determined by one’s status in a divinely-ordered universe.

In this view, everything and everyone was properly speaking the property of God, or for practical legal purposes God’s representatives on Earth; namely, kings, lords, religious leaders and fathers in the family.  Obviously this produced a very hierarchical social and political system.

Locke, however, argued that the right of ownership in things derives from human labour, but even more fundamentally from the primary moral fact that every human being is an owner of him or herself. 

Once Locke discovered that individuals contain within themselves the source of property rights, he helped set history on a course that would lead to capitalist economics and unleash the vast productive capacities of human labour. 

Of course, as we see today, with capitalist economics and technological progress, new and profound threats to equality and human rights emerge that require us to reconsider and challenge some of Locke’s assumptions about property.”

You point out in the book that “you have designed this book to serve the needs of students who are examining Locke’s political thoughts for the first time.” How did you manage to achieve that?

The great works of political philosophy can be intimidating when you approach them for the first time.

One of the factors that made this project so attractive to me is Hackett Publishing’s track record of providing high-quality, accessible primary texts at an affordable price. Hackett volumes are both first class and inexpensive. The spirit of accessibility guided my editorial vision for this volume in several respects. 

First, I created a version of the text that modernized Locke’s seventeenth-century spelling, punctuation and font in order to make it easier for students to read. I also included explanatory notes to provide context for some of Locke’s references that may seem rather obscure today. 

Finally, I wrote an introduction that aimed at helping contemporary students see the connections between Locke’s often neglected First Treatise and his more famous Second Treatise, as well as the underlying rationale for his broader political and philosophical teaching.

I hope this volume of the Two Treatises can bring Locke’s complex, profound and at times controversial ideas to life for a new generation of readers.

Professor Dr. Lee Ward is teaching Locke’s work and will be using this text in PSCI 413 Modern Political Theory: The English liberal Tradition in the Winter semester of 2017.