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Brief Lives

John Locke (1632-1704)

John P. Irish goes into full Locke-down with a titan of philosophy.

Before 1689, when he was almost sixty, there was very little in John Locke’s life that would have indicated that he was to become one of the most important philosophical minds of the Western world. Before that, he was little more than a footnote in English history, with no major publications, and only a few minor writings which were all published anonymously. But after 1689, with the publication of his two magnum opuses, the Two Treatises of Government and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the world would take notice of this powerful intellect.

John Locke
John Locke by Herman Verelst

Birth, Education and Early Writings

John Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, a small town just south of Bristol, England, on August 28, 1632, to parents of moderate means. His father, John Locke, Sr., owned some land and property, and supplemented his income from these by practicing as an attorney and taking administrative posts in local government. Locke remembered his father being severe and his mother being affectionate. His family had Puritan sympathies, and his father was an officer in the Parliamentary cavalry in the English Civil War, under Alexander Popham.

In 1645 Popham served as a Member of Parliament, which allowed him to recommend boys for places at the Westminster School. At the time the Westminster School was considered to be the finest school in England. Locke entered it in 1647. Education at the School consisted primarily in the study of ancient languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Westminster School had a connection with Christ Church, Oxford, for which it could recommend scholars. Locke entered Christ Church on this recommendation in 1652. Education at Christ Church then had deep roots in the Aristotelian canon. Students were also expected to hone their skills at analysis through disputation. Locke did not find this curriculum very interesting, and spent most of his free time reading literature, much of it translated from French. But it was at Oxford that Locke began to develop his interest in science and medicine. Locke began his informal education in these subjects as he read Boyle, Gassendi, and Descartes. Locke later claimed that his interest in the epistemological (knowledge-related) questions of the day began with exploring the writings of Descartes as a young man at Oxford.

Locke’s attention at Christ Church was not exclusively on scientific and medical matters. He was also engaged with some of the most important political and religious questions of the day. After Oliver Cromwell’s death, Locke welcomed the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, even though it meant the re-establishment of a strong, even authoritarian, monarchy. In that year, in response to Edward Bagshaw, a classmate at Oxford, Locke wrote a short work titled Two Tracts of Government. In opposition to Bagshaw Locke affirmed the power of the civil magistrate to determine the form of religious worship. This work reflects Locke’s early belief that the return of the King would bring peace and political stability. Initially, Locke intended for part of this treatise to be published; ultimately though, he decided not to publish any of it. It remained unpublished until 1967. From 1661 Locke served as a tutor, and was appointed to several positions at Oxford: a lecturer in Greek; in rhetoric; and finally, in moral philosophy. Soon he also considered a second work for publication, known as the Essays on the Law of Nature. These were most likely lecture notes, organized and revised in 1664. However, Locke lost interest in the project, and they too were not published until 1954. However, these unpublished essays indicated two themes that would remain constant interests for Locke throughout his career as a thinker: the voluntarist theory of law, by which people should be free to choose the laws they live by; and the empiricist approach to knowledge, by which all knowledge comes to us through experience: ‘There are no innate ideas’, as Locke was later to argue in his Essay.

In 1665 Locke was offered a diplomatic position as secretary to an embassy in Cleves, a German city near the Dutch border. He seems to have enjoyed his first trip abroad. The experience also led him to reassess his views on religious and political tolerance, especially as expressed in his Two Tracts. In Cleves, members of different religious denominations lived together in peace. He would remark in a letter, “they quietly permit one another to choose their own way to heaven, [without] quarrels or animosities” (Corr., L177).

In 1666 Locke returned to Oxford. Back in England, he would form one of the most important friendships of his life.

Origins of the Essay and the Two Treatises

Anthony Ashley Cooper, future Earl of Shaftesbury, arrived at Oxford in 1666. His health was poor, and he sought drinking water from the spa at Astrop, about ten miles north of Oxford, which was rumored to have positive medicinal qualities. Locke was introduced to Shaftesbury, and the two were highly impressed with each other. This friendship would have both great and grave influences on Locke’s life.

In 1667 Locke left Oxford to serve as Shaftesbury’s secretary. This allowed Locke to continue his interests in science and medicine, as Shaftesbury maintained an extensive laboratory at his home in London. In 1668 Shaftesbury’s health became worse, and Locke supervised an operation to drain an abscess on his liver. Shaftesbury survived; and he believed that Locke had saved his life.

Locke had not abandoned his interests in politics and religion. The years he spent at Shaftesbury’s home allowed him sufficient leisure to draft works on these topics. Within a year of arriving in London, Locke had written an influential work dealing with religious and political toleration: An Essay Concerning Toleration. This modified views from his earlier Two Tracts. Locke also showed his interest in economic policy and financial concerns by writing several economic works. But the most significant and lasting intellectual contribution during this time involved an early draft of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In a well-known passage in its opening ‘Epistle to the Reader’, Locke describes the origins of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He and a group of friends met to discuss the origins of religion and morality. Not finding sufficient answers, the group got frustrated and turned to an even more fundamental problem – the limits of human understanding. Following this initial meeting Locke jotted down some notes, and he brought them with him to their next meeting. Evidence from the first draft, known as Draft A, shows that Locke had began writing this document before July 1671. A larger draft, known as Draft B, has ‘1671’ on the title page. Both drafts were left unfinished, and more importantly, left unresolved some of the problems that led to their being written in the first place.

In 1675 Locke left Shaftesbury for France, under the guise of bad health. While in France, he began to keep a journal, made several acquaintances related to his interests in science and medicine, hired a tutor to teach him French, and began reading books in that language. One of the figures whose works he sought after in French was René Descartes.

Locke returned to England in 1679, to a country in social and political crisis. The ‘Popish Plot’ – a conspiracy to assassinate the Protestant Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother James – was ‘revealed’, even though it was a complete fabrication. Notwithstanding, the political environment was dangerous, and there were attempts by the Crown to deal with the growing political unrest. Shaftesbury and his associates attempted to use constitutional means to exclude James from the throne: two Exclusion Bills, in 1679 and 1680, sought to ban the ascension of this Catholic. Neither passed into law, but by 1681 Charles had no interest in summoning Parliament again. Here a split occurred within the Whig party. The moderates crossed over, siding with the monarch. The radicals, represented by Shaftesbury and others (possibly including Locke), considered political insurrection to prevent James from eventually becoming King (which he did, eventually). Charles II, fearing that Shaftesbury was his most dangerous political enemy, charged him with treason. The prosecution failed, but Shaftesbury, now fearing for his life, fled to Holland.

Despite a vacuum within their political leadership, the radicals plotted an assassination. The plan involved an attempt to assassinate both Charles and James at Rye House, just north of London (this became known as ‘the Rye House Plot’). In 1683 the scheme was discovered and disclosed to the government, and arrests immediately began. The extent of Locke’s involvement with these radical Whigs is unknown, but he knew enough to be worried. He believed that his life was in danger, and soon followed Shaftesbury to Holland.

While in Holland, Locke reached out to other political exiles. His actions were reported back to the English government, he was accused of aiding political dissidents, and in November 1684, Locke was expelled from his fellowship at Christ Church. His name was added to a list of political exiles who were to be arrested upon their return to England.

In 1685 Locke began a new work on the subject of religious and political toleration, Epistola de Tolerantia (A Letter on Toleration). The issue of political and religious toleration had been on Locke’s mind since his Oxford days, but the immediate source of inspiration was probably the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October 1685, which ended the right of Protestant Huguenots to practice their religion in mostly Catholic France.

Locke’s letter was written in Latin, showing that his intended audience was European. This work presented the strongest argument in favor of religious toleration that Locke would pen, coming almost full circle from his earlier Two Tracts. In an impassioned plea, he argues for complete freedom of conscience: “I may grow rich by an art that I take not delight in; I may be cured of some disease by remedies that I have not faith in; but I cannot be saved by a religion that I distrust, and by a worship that I abhor” (Works, VI., p.28). When Locke left Holland, he left the manuscript with Philip Limborch. The document, along with the English translation by his friend William Popple, was published in 1689.

Back in England, things were taking a rather unusual turn. The success in 1688 of Dutch King William of Orange’s expedition to become the British (Protestant) King, and the subsequent flight of (Catholic) James II, made it now safe for Locke and the other political exiles to return to England.

The months that followed his return saw Locke preparing the final manuscripts of his two chief works: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises of Government. Both were published in 1689. Locke’s Essay has become the cornerstone of empiricist epistemology, in which all knowledge finds its basis in experience, while his Two Treatises lay the groundwork for his beliefs in natural law, the social contract, and his ideas about the origins and ends of political society.

For a long time, it was believed that Locke wrote the Two Treatises following the new King William’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. However Peter Laslett, a noted Locke scholar, has argued for it having been written between 1679 and 1683 – making it an even more fundamental and radical text. In any case, both books are canonical in the history of Western philosophy.

Later Writings and Revisions of the Essay

While in Holland, Locke wrote letters to his friends Mary and Edward Clarke giving advice on rearing and educating their son to become a gentleman. These letters resulted in a subsequent work, published in 1693 as Some Thoughts Concerning Education. This was only the second work published under Locke’s name, the first being his Essay (the Two Treatises did not initially bear his name). Some Thoughts attracted the attention of many of Locke’s friends, especially those with young children, and despite its rather limited focus on producing a young gentleman, the book has assumed a major place in the history of educational thought. The work also reflects Locke’s larger concern over developing moral character, and was grounded thoroughly in his empiricist philosophy.

Soon Locke began thinking about material for a second edition of the Essay. John Norris, an English admirer of Malebranche, was the first to publish any critical remarks about the Essay. Norris and Locke had been friends, but their relationship had turned sour when Locke was accused of treason – Locke believed that Norris was spying on him. In 1692 Locke published ‘JL Answer to Mr Norris’s Reflection’, then a year later published two documents related to Norris’s criticisms of the Essay : ‘Remarks upon some of Mr Norris’s Books’, and ‘An Examination of P. Malebranche’s Opinion of Seeing All Things in God’. Locke’s cordial correspondence with William Molyneux also added to the new material to be included in the revised Essay. Molyneux posed this question: would a person who had been blind their entire life, but all of a sudden gained sight, be able to distinguish between a sphere and a cube just by looking? Their discussion led Locke to include a new chapter in the second edition of the Essay, ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ (Molyneux also raised other issues, which made Locke rethink and revise significantly the chapter ‘Of Power’). The second edition was published in 1695. Locke would also publish The Reasonableness of Christianity that year.

Following the publication of the second edition, further correspondence allowed Locke to rethink other chapters in the Essay. The Bishop of Worcester, Edward Stillingfleet, initially believed that there was nothing controversial with the Essay. John Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) took an approach to theology that went well beyond anything that Locke intended with his theology. However, Toland’s theory of knowledge, derived heavily from Locke’s Essay, caused Stillingfleet concern. Soon Locke and Stillingfleet would lock horns about this in public correspondence, and this would eventually lead to two new chapters in the fourth edition of the Essay, published in 1699.

The correspondence would also result in a chapter Locke wanted to include in the new edition but which was deemed too long. ‘The Conduct of the Understanding’, which was begun in 1697, was never published in Locke’s lifetime. But it was published posthumously in 1706, as per Locke’s request in his will.

Retirement and Death

By 1700 Locke had retired entirely from public office, and had begun working on his last major publishing project. Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St Paul reflected his long-standing interest in biblical interpretation. Locke believed Paul’s letters in the New Testament were being misinterpreted by those who tried to understand each verse in isolation. He argued that the letters must be understood as a whole.

This writing reveals the deeply religious character of Locke’s mind. Locke would work on two other religious pieces, which would also be published posthumously: Discourse on Miracles and fragments of a Fourth Letter on Toleration.

Locke spent the remainder of his life resting. In 1704 he believed that he did not have much longer to live, and in April of that year he made his will. Although his body was deteriorating, his mind remained clear and active. It was in 1704 that Locke first publically acknowledged writing the Two Treatises of Government.

On October 28, 1704, Locke felt better than usual and asked to be moved to his study. But soon after lunch, while listening to a friend reading scripture to him, he died. He was buried three days later in the churchyard of the parish church at High Laver in Essex, where his tomb remains to this day.

© Dr John P. Irish 2020

John P. Irish teaches American Studies at Carroll Sr. High School in Southlake, Texas. He received a Doctorate in Humanities from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my student and friend, Sarah Lacy (2002-2020). Her philosophical journey was cut way too short.

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