John Locke

John Locke

Of all of the thinkers of modern times, few have had the wide impact of John Locke. Locke was born in Wrington, in Somerset, England, on August 29, 1632, during the political ferment that preceded the English Civil War (1642–49). At the time, Charles I was ruling without Parliament and exercising his firm belief in the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

This basically held that the king, anointed with holy oil at his coronation, was the representative of God on Earth and thus could commit no wrong in his rule. The idea of limiting the power of the monarch would dominate England through the rest of the 17th century and form the seminal basis of much of Locke’s great work.

Locke’s first significant educational experience was gained in the Westminster School, in 1646, while the English Civil War was at its height. Among noteworthy graduates of Westminster School were Jeremy Bentham (father of the utilitarian school of philosophy), Robert Cotton (founder of the Cottonian Library), England’s great poet John Dryden, and the historian Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. At Westminster, Locke was one of the gifted King’s Scholars.

Locke was a junior student at Christ Church College, at Oxford University, in 1652, where he studied medicine, although he did not receive his bachelor’s in medicine until 1674. At Oxford, Locke became acquainted with the leading minds of his day, including Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Netwon.

They left an indelible imprint upon Locke, who had found the medieval approach of studies of the ancient Greek philosophy Aristotle to be sterile and devoid of meaning for his times.

Initially, there was little to indicate that Locke would make his greatest contribution to the emerging study of the philosophy of politics. In 1666, while at Oxford, Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper, the later earl of Shaftesbury, certainly one of the boldest—and most unscrupulous—figures in the great age of English political intrigue.

As Shaftesbury’s ambition launched him on what became a drive for power, Locke loyally followed his patron. Shaftesbury’s eventual fall from grace led Locke to return to complete his studies at Oxford for his bachelor’s degree in medicine. This was followed by a 15-month tour of France, which may have been occasioned in part by his close identification with the fallen earl.

In Holland, Locke actively joined English exiles seeking to bring down King Charles and his brother. Charles’s agents infiltrated the group. When Charles II died in 1685, James II began a reign that would lead to the Glorious Revolution and the rule of William and Mary.

It is likely that Locke, with his wide contacts, played a role in the intrigue that came to a climax upon William’s and Mary’s landing in England. The extent of Locke’s role in the machinations seems clear from the fact that he sailed on board the same ship with William and Mary as a close counselor.

Back in England, Locke penned two works that would shape the future of philosophy and government. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he posited that human beings gain almost all knowledge through experience. Consequently, Locke became one of the founders of the empirical school of knowledge.

In helping to propagate the empirical view, he helped shape modern philosophy, removing forever the primacy of the teachings of Aristotle (against which he had rebelled years ago as a student at Oxford) and the medieval view of Thomas Aquinas.

Locke also looked at the political turmoil of his era and attempted to apply his perspective of reason to government. He produced a clearly written document free from the use of biblical Scripture and frequent appeals to ancient guides like Aristotle. Locke’s views are related in Two Treatises on Government.

In the First Treatise, he attacks the divine right of kings, which formed the basis of the governments of Charles I, and to a lesser extent that of his son, James II. The Second Treatise on Government would have important relevance to the American Revolution because America’s founders based much of their opposition to the tyranny of George III on the writings of Locke.

Locke’s theory of government holds that man, once in a state of nature, where arbitrary force ruled, agreed to government as a way to seek protection for all from the willful use of force to dominate them, to replace the law of the jungle with the rule of law.

With his Two Treatises on Government, Locke had used the political turmoil of his time to write a document that would transcend his time. No more would people accept willful, dictatorial governing.

Instead, all administrations would govern under the revolutionary concept that their government was done by the consent of those they governed. Locke died on October 28, 1704, at Oates in the home of his friends, Sir Francis and Lady Masham.