New John Locke Manuscript in the News

“Independent scholar finds new John Locke manuscript” was the tag on an entry in the Heap of Links a couple of weeks ago. Since then, several publications have covered the story. New Locke is hot news, apparently.

pages from the manuscript, “Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others,” by John Locke

The manuscript, “Reasons for tolerating Papists equally with others,” was unearthed by J.C. Walmsley in 2015 in the archives of the Greenfield Library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. An account of the discovery was provided in a recent press release from St. John’s college, and Walmsley and Felix Waldmann (Cambridge) wrote about it in article in The Historical Journal.

The manuscript itself, handwritten by Locke, has been digitized and is available here.

The press release states that “the manuscript essentially consists of two lists: the first, a set of reasons for tolerating Catholics, which at the time simply meant not actively persecuting the group, and the second a list of reasons not to (which is his much wider-known opinion). According to Walmsley, the manuscript is directly connected to Locke’s Essay concerning Toleration, and, he says ‘was most likely its immediate antecedent and inspiration.'”

The discovery has been getting a fair amount of press. Articles about it have already appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe GuardianThe Baltimore SunSmithsonian Magazine, Spiked, Publico, and France Culture. [Update: Kenan Malik writes about the manuscript in The Guardian: “let us celebrate a great historical find in the new Locke manuscript. But if we want to address questions of tolerance we would do far better to look to Spinoza than to Locke” (via Oran Magal). Update 2: The story makes The Washington Post.]

The Wall Street Journal article, by Jason Willick, an assistant editor at the paper, was one of the first to appear, and it lamented the lack of attention the manuscript was receiving. “It’s an indicator of how far Locke has faded from view that the discovery of an original Locke manuscript has so far gone without mention in the major press,” Willick wrote.

It is unclear when this supposed golden age of U.S. culture was, in which journalists would immediately, excitedly, and widely report on the discovery of relatively minor philosophical manuscripts by Locke—or by any philosopher, for that matter—and to which our own time so unfavorably compares. If you have evidence that it ever existed, please do share it in the comments.

I don’t think Locke has faded much from view, nor have most other figures in the history of philosophy. I think that with a more patient outlook, with an unromanticized account of the past, and with a heap of other evidence we can keep in mind, we might come to a different view of our era: that today there is more media interest, and more public interest, in philosophy than at any other time in human civilization—and this includes historical figures such as Locke.

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