John Locke – An Essay on Reputation (1678)
Locke was a prolific writer. Many of his works are familiar to many, even if by name only. This essay, however, stands as one of Locke’s lesser known writings. Yet, it speaks to how people can hold legitimate power, a topic Locke would continually write about.
One of Locke’s lesser known essays, “Reputation” reflects Locke’s understanding about forces that can and do legitimate power. Having good “credit” or “reputation” among your peers can determine your life—but what is credible or builds a reputation also functions in a relationship with what is fashionable. Locke, as a Shaftesbury protégé and clerk for powerful, court-connected companies and institutions, saw this relationship play out first hand in the 1660s and 1670s. How does Locke examine the relationship between credit, reputation, and fashion? What does this relationship do for legitimating power? In Locke’s view, based on his experiences, is fashion and reputation more important than law?
12 December 1678. Marginal keywords: ‘Credit, Disgrace’. MS Locke, f. 3, pp. 381-2. This version comes from Locke: Political Essays (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series), Ed. Mark Goldie (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 271-2.
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The principal spring from which the actions of men take their rise, the rule they conduct them by, and the end to which they direct them, seems to be credit and reputation, and that which at any rate they avoid, is in the greatest part shame and disgrace. This makes the Hurons and other people of Canada with such constancy endure inexpressible torments. This makes merchants in one country, and soldiers in another. This puts men upon school divinity in one country, and physic or mathematics in another. This cuts out the dresses for the women, and makes the fashions for the men; and makes them endure the inconveniences of all. This makes men drunkards and sober, thieves and honest, and robbers themselves true to one another. Religions are upheld by this and factions maintained, and the shame of being disesteemed by those with whom one hath lived, and to whom one would recommend oneself, is the greatest source and director of most of the actions of men. Where riches are in credit, knavery and injustice that produce them are not out of countenance, because, the state being got, esteem follows it, as it is said in some countries the crown ennobles the blood. Where power, and not the good exercise of it, gives reputation, all the injustice, falsehood, violence, and oppression that attains that, goes for wisdom and ability. Where love of one’s country is the thing in credit, there we shall see a race of brave Romans; and when being a favourite at court was the only thing in fashion, one may observe the same race of Romans all turned flatterers and informers. He therefore that would govern the world well, had need consider rather what fashions he makes, than what laws; and to bring anything into use he need only give it reputation.
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