John Locke

John Locke (August 29, 1632 - October 28, 1704) was an Enlightenment philosopher. An Englishman, Locke's notions of "government with the consent of the governed" and man's natural rights (life, liberty, and estate) had an enormous influence on the development of American law and government, allowing the colonists to justify revolution. Locke was one of the British Empiricists, which also included David Hume and George Berkeley.


Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, the son of Puritans. 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. While at university, Locke studied philosophy, science, and medicine, among other subjects. Although he was a capable student, Locke chafed under the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found reading modern philosophers, such as 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. Locke's interest in medicine proved important to his future endeavors when, in 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury suffered from a liver infection at the time, and he had come to Oxford for treatment. He met Locke and retained him as his personal physician, believing (probably correctly) that Locke had saved his life by directing an operation that was rather daring for that time.

Locke moved into Shaftesbury's home at Exeter House in London, and he soon became Shaftesbury's personal secretary as well as his physician. 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. Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688/1689 did Locke return to England. It was after his return period that Locke published most of his works.


Locke's first major published work was his Letter on Toleration. Religious toleration within Great Britain was a subject of great interest for Locke; he wrote several subsequent letters 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's most influential works were the two treatises On Civil Government [1]. The first treatise was intended to refute the political theories of Robert Filmer as stated in Filmer's book Patriarcha. Filmer's book was a defense of feudalism and a powerful monarchy. Locke's second treatise posited Locke's own justification for government and his ideals for its operation. He advocated that all men were equal and that each should be permitted to act as long as he harms no other. Using these foundations, he continued to make a classic justification for private property by declaring that the natural world is the common property of all men, but that any individual could appropriate some bit of it for himself by mixing his labor with the natural resources.

This treatise also introduced the "Lockean proviso" in which Locke stated that the right to take goods from the natural commons is limited by the consideration that "there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use;" in other words, that one should not simply take whatever one wanted, one had also to take the common good into consideration. In fact he was a firm advocate of salus populi suprema lex est (the welfare of the people is the supreme law). Consistently with this, in his economic writings, Locke fell squarely within the mercantilist tradition.

Although the treatises were composed largely before the Glorious Revolution, they served as both a vindication of the coup and as a statement of Whig principles generally. William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, interpreted the Glorious Revolution in terms of Locke's ideas. Locke's philosophy served as one of the prototypes for liberal British political thought in the 18th century. It was built upon by Locke's pupil, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, as well as the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Among the most influential successors of Locke were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, the authors of the libertarian tract Cato's Letters. '.

As the historian David N. Mayer wrote in The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson, "The influence of John Locke has been greatly exaggerated by some scholars and unjustifiably trivialized by others." Although Locke was not the exclusive influence upon the American revolutionaries, his work was known and frequently referenced in the years leading up to independence. Thomas Jefferson frequently cited Locke's treatises along with Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government as essential reading. American polemicists, among them Jonathan Mayhew, John Adams, and James Otis, also frequently cited Locke's ideas. According to Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, such polemicists cited Locke "often with precision on points of political theory, but at other times he is referred to in the most offhand way, as if he could be relied on to support anything the authors happened to be arguing." A notable reference to Locke's theory can be found in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. In that document, Locke's formulation of "life, liberty, and property" as inalienable human rights was paraphrased as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

This difference in wording is explained by American theorists' use of sources that supplemented Locke's theory. In addition to the Whig tradition, the revolutionaries also drew upon Puritan covenant theology and the legal theory of Sir Edward Coke, as well as the French thinkers Voltaire and Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. In a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson wrote, "All [the Declaration of Independence's] authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."

Locke is considered the chief protagonist of empiricism, commonly called the "blank slate" or "Tabula rasa" theory, an attack on the doctrine of innate ideas -- that is, ideas which humans possess from birth -- which had dominated Western epistemology since Plato. The "Tabula rasa" theory states that all people start out knowing absolutely nothing and that they learn from experiences and trial and error. This theory, outlined Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is considered the foundation for behaviorism. Locke's criticism of innate ideas was most famously attacked by Gottfried Leibniz.

In both his epistemology and his political theory, Locke is usefully viewed as a transitional figure. While, together with Francis Bacon, he was the founder of empiricism, his thought had strong rationalist elements; and while he was the "father of liberalism", he hung on to the Aristotelian idea that man is a social creature by nature.

Secondary literature
  • John W. Yolton (ed.), John Locke: Problems and Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Reassesses Locke's political philosophy from different points of view.
  • John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Introduced the interpretation which emphasizes the theological element in Locke's political thought.
  • Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknapp/Harvard University Press, 1967. Enlarged Edition, 1992. Discusses influence of Locke and other thinkers upon American political thought.

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