John Locke


1632 - 1704

John Locke was born in Bristol, England, on August 29, 1632. Locke's father was an attorney who collected taxes from seaport towns. He wanted his son to become a minister, but Locke rejected this and studied medicine. Locke entered Oxford University in England and was influenced by John Owen, Dean of Christ Church College. It was Owen who first introduced Locke to the idea of religious freedom and the idea that people should not be punished for having different views of religion. Locke believed that all sides had the right to be heard. Moreover, he felt that all conflicts could be resolved if the two groups could settle their differences by seeking a middle ground and compromise.

After college, Locke continued to study and read with passion. He expressed his views about freedom of religion and the rights of citizens. In 1682, his ideas were seen by the English government as a challenge to thie King's authority. He fled to Holland, and then returned to England in 1689. Shortly thereafter, Locke began publishing his writings, many of which focused on government. Throughout his writings, Locke argued that people had the gift of reason, or the ability to think. Locke thought they had the natural ability to govern themselves and to look after the well being of society. He wrote, "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which [treats] everyone [equally]. Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind... that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health or possessions."

Locke did not believe that God had chosen a group or family of people to rule countries. He rejected the "Divine Right," which many kings and queens used to justify their right to rule. Instead, he argued that governments should only operate with the consent of the people they are governing. In this way, Locke supported democracy as a form of government. Locke wrote, "[We have learned from] history we have reason to conclude that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in the consent of the people." Governments were formed, according to Locke, to protect the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to property. There rights were absolute, belonging to all the people. Locke also believed that government power should be divided equally into three branches of government so that politicians will not face the "temptation... to grasp at [absolute] power." If any government abused these rights instead of protecting them, then the people had the right to rebel and form a new government.

John Locke spoke out against the control of any man against his will. This control was acceptable neither in the form of an unfair government, nor in slavery. Locke wrote, "The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only have the law of nature for his rule." In addition, Locke felt that women had the ability to reason, which entitled them to an equal voice - an unpopular idea during this time in history. Despite fearing that he might be censored, he wrote, "It may not be [wrong] to offer new... [ideas] when the old [traditions] are apt to lead men into mistakes, as this [idea] of [fatherly] power's probably has done, which seems so [eager] to place the power of parents over their children wholly in the father, as if the mother had no share in it; whereas if we consult reason or [the Bible], we shall find she has an equal title."

Locke had extensive knowledge of and interest in European contact with aboriginal peoples. A large number of books in his library are accounts of European exploration, and colonization of aboriginal peoples, especially Amerindians and their ways. As Secretary to Lord Shaftesbury, Secretary of the Lord Proprietors of Carolina (1668-71), Secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations (1673-4), and member of the Board of Trade (1696-1700), Locke was one of the six or eight men who closely invigilated and helped to shape the old colonial system during the Restoration. He invested in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company (1671) and the Company of Merchant Adventurers to trade with the Bahamas (1672), and he was named as a Landgrave of the proprietary government of Carolina.
John Locke (August 29, 1632–October 28, 1704) was a 17th-century philosopher concerned primarily with society and epistemology. An Englishman, Locke's notions of a "government with the consent of the governed" and man's natural rights—life, liberty, and estate (property)—had an enormous influence on the development of political philosophy.

His ideas formed the basis for the concepts used in American law and government, allowing the colonists to justify revolution. Locke's epistemology and philosophy of mind also had a great deal of significant influence well into the Enlightenment period. Locke has been placed in a group called the British Empiricists, which includes David Hume and George Berkeley. Locke is perhaps most often contrasted with Thomas Hobbes.

Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, about ten miles from Bristol, England, in 1632. His father, a lawyer, served as a captain of cavalry for Parliament during the English Civil War. In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London. After completing his studies there, he obtained admission to the college of Christ Church, Oxford. The dean of the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university and also a Puritan. Although he was a capable student, Locke chafed under the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found reading modern philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, more interesting than the classical material taught at the University.

Locke earned a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. Although Locke never became a medical doctor, he earned a bachelor of medicine in 1674. He studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford, working with such noted virtuosi as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke, and Richard Lower. In 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and pressed him to become part of his retinue.

Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury's home at Exeter House in London, ostensibly as the household physican. In London, Locke resumed his medical studies, under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham. Sydenham had a major impact on Locke's natural philosophical thinking - an impact that resonated deeply in Locke's writing of the "Essay Concerning Human Understanding."

Locke's medical knowledge was soon put to the test, since Shaftesbury's liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was likely instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo an operation (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life.

It was in Shaftesbury's household, during 1671, that the meeting took place, described in the Epistle to the reader of the Essay, which was the genesis of what would later become Essay. Two extant Drafts still survive from this period.

Shaftesbury, as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas. Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672. Following Shaftesbury's fall from favor in 1675, Locke spent some time traveling in southern France. He returned to England in 1679 when Shaftesbury's political fortunes took a brief positive turn. However, Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot. Locke did not return to England until after the Glorious Revolution. The bulk of Locke's publishing took place after his return. He died in 1704 after a prolonged decline in health, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. Locke never married or had any children.

Events that happened during Locke's lifetime include the English Restoration and the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act of Union of 1707, though the office of King of England and King of Scotland had been held by the same person for some time. Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were in their infancy during Locke's time.

The influences of Locke's Puritan upbringing and his Whig political affiliation expressed themselves in his published writings. Although widely regarded as an important influence on modern ideas of political liberty, Locke did not always express ideas that match those of the present day.

Locke's first major published work was "A Letter Concerning Toleration." Religious toleration within Great Britain was a subject of great interest for Locke; he wrote several subsequent essays in its defense prior to his death. Locke's upbringing among non-conformist Protestants made him sensitive to differing theological viewpoints. He recoiled, however, from what he saw as the divisive character of some non-conformist sects. Locke became a strong supporter of the Church of England. By adopting a latitudinarian theological stance, Locke believed, the national church could serve as an instrument for social harmony.

Locke is best known for two works, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" and "Two Treatises of Government." The Essay was commenced in 1671, and as Locke himself described, was written in fits and starts over the next eighteen (18) years. It was finally published in December of 1689. Though the exact dates of the composition of the Two Treatises are a matter of dispute, it is clear that the bulk of the writing took place in the period from 1679-1682. It was therefore much more of a commentary on the exclusion crisis than it was a justification of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, though no one doubts that Locke substantively revised it to serve this latter purpose.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In the Essay, Locke critiques the philosophy of innate ideas and builds a theory of the mind and knowledge that gives priority to the senses and experience. His adherence to this doctrine is what marks him out as an empiricist rather than a rationalist such as his critic Leibniz, who wrote the New Essays on Human Understanding. Book II of the Essay sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the secondary qualities that are "powers to produce various sensations in us" (Essay, II.viii.10) such as "red" and "sweet." These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities. In Chapter xxvii of Book II, Locke discusses personal identity, and the idea of a person. What he says here has shaped our thought and provoked debate ever since. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith and opinion.

Two Treatises of Government

The First Treatise attacks Sir Robert Filmer, who was the author of the first criticism of Thomas Hobbes and of a peculiar theory of the Divine Right of Kings. The Second Treatise, or On Civil Government, purports on its face to justify the Glorious Revolution by 1) developing a theory of legitimate government and 2) arguing that the people may remove a regime that violates that theory; Locke leaves it to his readers to understand that James II of England had done so. He is therefore best known as the popularizer of natural rights and the right of revolution.

Locke posits a state of nature as the proper starting point for examining politics. Individuals have rights, and their duties are defined in terms of protecting their own rights and respecting those of others. Through the law of nature, which Locke describes as "reason," we are able to understand why we must respect the natural rights of others (including the right to property for which one has labored). In practice, the law of nature is ignored and so government is necessary; this can be created only by the consent of the governed, which can be had only to a commonwealth of laws. As law is sometimes incapable of providing for the safety and increase of society, man may acquiesce in being done certain extralegal benefits (prerogative). All government is therefore a fiduciary trust: when that trust is betrayed, government dissolves. A government betrays its trust when the laws are violated or when the trust of prerogative is abused. Once government is dissolved, the people are free to erect a new one and to oppose those who claim authority under the old one, i.e., to revolt.

List of Major Works

1689 - A Letter Concerning Toleration
1690 - A Second Letter Concerning Toleration
1692 - A Third Letter for Toleration
1689 - Two Treatises of Government
1689 - An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
1693 - Some Thoughts Concerning Education
1695 - The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures
1695 - A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity
1697 - A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity

Locke's Epitaph

(translated from the Latin)

"Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspected praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee,) thou hast one here and everywhere."



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