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  John Locke

The Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso


Victor Nuovo


Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2017

Hardcover. xi+263 p. ISBN 978-0198800552. £55


Reviewed by Peter R. Anstey

University of Sydney






There have been many interpretations of the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), but until now no scholar has attempted to write one from the perspective of his theological, his moral and his natural philosophical views. This is the task Victor Nuovo sets himself as he takes us through Locke’s major philosophical and theological writings (excluding his political philosophy) using the organising theme of Locke as a Christian virtuoso. It should be said at the outset that Locke never uses the term ‘Christian virtuoso’ either of himself or anyone else. The term derives from his friend and mentor Robert Boyle who was the Christian virtuoso par excellence and who published a book entitled The Christian Virtuoso (1690-1691) which is, in effect, a description and defence of his own vocation. Nuovo, quite naturally and plausibly, extends this to Locke, and so Christianity and virtuosity – the latter in its peculiar sense pertaining to fellows of the early Royal Society – are the recurring motifs around which Nuovo constructs his interpretation of Locke’s philosophy.

Not only did Locke own a copy of The Christian Virtuoso, he even read it in draft. Furthermore, Boyle actually calls Locke a virtuoso in his earliest extant letter to him from 1666. So we can be confident that Boyle himself would have approved of Nuovo’s interpretive frame and would have thoroughly enjoyed the ride through the book’s eight chapters. The first three set the scene, dealing with Francis Bacon, Boyle and the phenomenon of Epicurean atheism in the mid-seventeenth century. Chapters four to seven deal largely with Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding (4th edn., 1700), its origins and central themes, structured according to Locke’s preferred division of the sciences into logic, natural philosophy and ethics. The final chapter deals with Locke’s main theological writings.

Boyle may have approved the interpretation of Locke as a Christian virtuoso, but one feature of Nuovo’s narrative that he would have found puzzling is the constant references to empiricism. For, like so many before him, Nuovo approaches Locke from the post-Kantian historiography of the Rationalism / Empiricism distinction. Yet it is difficult to see how these categories still earn their keep in the interpretation of early modern philosophy, especially since the actors’ category of experimental philosophy has so much richer explanatory value. The latter helps us to understand not only the prioritising of experiment and observation over theorising, but also the role of hypotheses, the nature and role of natural histories and natural philosophical practice, all themes close to Locke’s heart. Indeed, it was Boyle himself who stabilised the meaning of the term, not least in works such as The Christian Virtuoso whose subtitle is ‘Shewing, that by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian’. It is not that Nuovo fails to mention experimental philosophy, but rather that the content of that approach to natural philosophy is subservient to Locke’s ‘empiricism’ in his exposition of Locke’s philosophy as a whole.

Having said this, what is particularly helpful and interesting about Nuovo’s approach is the manner in which he shows how the triumvirate of Francis Bacon, Boyle and Locke applied a kind of heuristic rule that allowed them to negotiate the relations between the separate, though conceptually interdependent, domains of theology and natural philosophy. Nuovo calls this Bacon’s Rule: ‘one must not mix theology with natural philosophy, naturalism with supernaturalism, or confuse natural causes with supernatural ones, and … in the search for natural causes of things, one must employ only empirical methods’ [2]. If we are to come to grips with the integrated intellectual persona of Locke, we cannot simply ignore his theological premises and motivations. What Bacon’s rule gives us is a way of demarcating modes of epistemic access to knowledge of nature on the one hand, and knowledge of God on the other. And it was primarily in the domain of epistemic access to nature that Locke developed his very powerful and sophisticated theory of ideas.

Nuovo is at his best when dealing with Locke’s theological writings and he uses his expert knowledge very effectively to set out the points at which both atheism and a thorough-going materialism pose threats to Locke’s theocentric world view. Thus, the chapter on ‘Epicurus, Lucretius, and the Crisis of Atheism’, far from being a digression, is integral to the whole interpretation as it sets the backdrop to a whole host of philosophical issues and philosophico-theological motivations on Locke’s part. One such issue is Locke’s argument for the existence of God, the background to which Nuovo skilfully elucidates, showing in detail the influence of the Cambridge philosopher Ralph Cudworth and the manner in which Locke leverages his argument off the cogito of Descartes [152-172]. Nuovo views Locke as arguing for a scientific naturalism akin to Epicurus, but one that has room for spiritual entities and the divine being.

One consequence of Nuovo’s ‘spectre of atheism’ thesis is that wherever possible he looks for antecedents and connections between Locke and the writings of Epicurus and his paraphrast Lucretius, even indulging in a long digression about Lucy Hutchinson’s translation of Lucretius’ De rerum natura first published in 1996! [68-76]. Yet this does seem a bit forced for, unlike Boyle, Locke hardly mentions Epicurus or Lucretius in any of his writings and there is little if any evidence of a concern with the atheistic implications of his atomism. Nevertheless, it is atomism that Nuovo takes to be the salient matter theory for both Boyle and Locke [44], even though this runs against the emphasis in recent scholarship on corpuscular matter theories which regards Boylean corpuscularianism as a self-conscious via media between the Aristotelian / Cartesian continuist and Democritean / Epicurean atomist theories. Locke’s references to the Corpuscularian Hypothesis, together with his very natural and repeated causal talk about corpuscles in the Essay, really tend to confirm this, and together with the paucity of references to Epicurus in Locke, they lead one to the impression that Nuovo has over-played the Epicurean atheism card.

When Locke does refer to Epicurus it is to his moral writings, and Nuovo does devote a whole chapter (seven) to Locke’s ethics. This is entirely fitting, not merely because ethics is third of Locke’s three sciences, but because, as Nuovo rightly points out, the normative aims of the Essay are absolutely central to Locke’s overall project. Thus, he discusses Locke’s natural law theory, his theory of the will and volition and briefly discusses Locke’s conception of the person as a forensic notion. All of this is preparatory for the final chapter on the final theological stage of Locke’s intellectual output. Yet here too, some of Nuovo’s claims run counter to the best of recent scholarship. In the case of Locke’s extended discussion of the problem of the will and volition (Essay II : xxi) Nuovo regards Locke as having ‘botched the job and created a monster’ [201]. Samuel Rickless, by contrast, concludes his recent exposition of Locke’s theory by claiming it ‘remains a shining paradigm of generous intellectual synthesis, and in this respect deserves our everlasting admiration’ (‘Will and motivation’ in The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century, 2013, 413). We might highlight the divergent methodologies of these two scholars by pointing out that Rickless singles out Locke’s treatment of the weakness of the will, akrasia, in Essay II : xxi, as a remarkably ‘coherent explanation’, whereas Nuovo does not refer to weakness of the will at all. Instead he finds a possible source of Locke’s reflections on the thesis that voluntary actions can be unfree in the Westminster Confession of 1643 [206-207].

Nevertheless, Nuovo has furnished us with a broad-ranging yet highly integrated interpretation of Locke’s philosophy around the theme of the Christian virtuoso. As such it gives due weight to Locke’s theological interests and the theological turn that came to dominate the final decade of his life. And in the final chapter on Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity and Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St Paul, Nuovo shows convincingly why Locke never pursued the task of constructing a demonstrative moral philosophy, in spite of the urging of friends. For, as Locke saw it, that task had been rendered superfluous in the teaching of Christ: ‘All his Commands become Principles’ [Reasonableness of Religion, quoted at 229], that is, the content of a definitive demonstrative science of morals is to be found in the Gospels.

As it stands, Nuovo’s study is an important complement to Michael Ayers’ Locke : Epistemology and Metaphysics (1991) and Nicholas Jolley’s Locke : His Philosophical Thought (1999). To be sure, it is not the first book to deal with the theme of the Christian virtuoso in Bacon, Boyle and Locke and it is surprising that Nuovo fails to mention Sorana Corneanu’s Regimens of the Mind : Boyle, Locke, and the Early Modern cultura Animi Tradition (2011), or for that matter Catherine Wilson’s Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (2009) and J.J. MacIntosh’s Boyle on Atheism (2005). Notwithstanding these omissions and the misgivings set out above, John Locke : The Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso will be read by all scholars and students of Locke’s thought with profit.


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