Saturday, 18 September 2010


In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689; IV:18) Locke laments that 'Religion, which should most distinguish us from the beasts, and ought most particularly elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts.' But this is puzzling. Locke obviously knew Psalm 104:
21 The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.

22 The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.

23 Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.

24 O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

25 So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

26 There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.

27 These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.

28 That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.

29 Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
I suppose the point of this (an elaboration of the Psalmist's more famous assertion, about the heavens declaring the glory of God) is that is portrays the holiness of beasts to be a kind of purely unselfconscious worship: at once unrelective and passive. I suppose Locke's point, accordingly, is that the rational worship of homo sapiens is, or should be, the opposite of that: it should be self-reflective, and it should define itself actively in opposition to, its object. But that's quite a radical claim, if you think about it.

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