John Locke

Definition

Mark Cartwright
by
published on 21 November 2023
Available in other languages: French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish
John Locke (by Godfrey Kneller, Public Domain)
John Locke
Godfrey Kneller (Public Domain)

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher responsible for laying the foundation of the European Enlightenment. Locke believed that each branch of government should have separate powers, that liberty must be protected from state interference, and that the state must protect the private property of its citizens. These ideas greatly influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States. Locke also proposed a new theory of knowledge acquisition based entirely on experience and reflection.

Early Life

John Locke was born on 29 August 1632 in Wrington, in the county of Somerset, England, into a modest Puritan family of traders. In the troubled times of the English Civil Wars (1642-1651), John's father had fought in the army of the Parliamentarians, the ultimate victors who abolished the monarchy. John was educated at the Westminster School, then the best school in England. In 1652, he enrolled at the University of Oxford, with his father ambitious that he join the Church. As it turned out, although John maintained a life-long interest in ecclesiastical matters, he much preferred to study medicine. Other knowledge areas that piqued Locke's interest included meteorology – he meticulously kept a weather diary – and practical experiments such as using air pumps with the renowned scientist Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Locke became a member of London's Royal Society in 1668.

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Locke's big break came in 1667 when he became the personal physician and secretary to Anthony Ashley Cooper, who later became the Earl of Shaftesbury. The earl's policies would influence Locke's thinking since Shaftesbury was a staunch believer in restoring Catholicism as England's main religion and that the powers of the monarchy should be checked by those of Parliament. Locke resided in London and remained with the earl until 1683. Locke also spent time in France between 1675 and 1679, studying the work of philosophers like René Descartes (1596-1650).

Isaiah Berlin gives the following summary of Locke's character:

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He was a man of gentle, shy and amiable disposition, widely liked and esteemed, without enemies, and endowed with an astonishing capacity for absorbing and interpreting in simple language some of the original and revolutionary ideas in which his time was singularly rich. (30)

William of Orange Landing in England
William of Orange Landing in England
John Wyck (Public Domain)

Political Reality & Exile

Locke became active in English politics, but more turmoil came with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 when the increasingly undemocratic reign of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his successor, Richard Cromwell, came to an end. Charles II of England (r. 1660-1685) became the new monarch and so continued the Stuart line. Locke was involved in the formal establishment of the British Empire in North America. On 24 March 1663, Charles granted the lands of 'Carolina' in North America to eight noblemen. The colony's constitution was written by Locke, although it was surprisingly feudal in nature.

Locke's political system is based on his confidence in humanity's ability to work together for collective goals.

Locke's anti-Stuart politics and his close association with Earl Shaftesbury (who was accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London) eventually meant that he found it necessary to self-exile between 1683 and 1689 in the Netherlands. Locke did not waste his time but spent much of this period writing the works that would establish his name as one of the foremost philosophers of the 17th century. Locke returned to England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw Protestant William of Orange (l. 1650-1702) invade England but then peacefully take the throne of Catholic James II of England (r. 1685-1688). From 1689, Locke set about publishing his works on political philosophy while also continuing his career in politics by serving on several commissions.

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Treatises on Government

Locke published Two Treatises on Government in 1689. The second treatise became "a key text in the development of modern liberalism, [and although written years before] justified the Glorious Revolution by arguing that political legitimacy depended on the consent of the governed and asserting a right of resistance" (Chisick, 260). The treatises expound the belief that individuals are more important than institutions like absolute monarchs and the Church. Individual liberty must be protected from an overbearing collective authority. Locke presents the idea of a separation of powers for the various parts of government (monarch, upper and lower houses of the legislature, and judiciary) in his Second Treatise on Government. Locke proposed a government with three parts: an executive (e.g. a monarch who enforces the law), a legislative (a popular, majority-based parliament which decides the laws), and a federative (which deals with foreign policy). Punishment for those who break the laws is the responsibility of an independent judiciary. This idea of separating powers across several governmental bodies would be further developed by the French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1757) in his The Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748. Locke's separation is a little less rigid since he insisted that the executive maintain what he called a 'prerogative', that is, they may act as they see fit in cases when the legislative and even laws must be ignored if the common good of the people is at stake.

Locke's political system is based on his confidence in humanity's ability to work together for collective goals. He argues that, even in a state of nature, humanity abides by the universal law that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions" (quoted in Popkin, 77). A state or political apparatus is required in those cases where these rights have been infringed upon by other individuals or by another society. This is why laws, a judiciary, and a body to enforce the laws are all required. If that political apparatus steps beyond this function of protecting individual liberty and the common good, say, for example, when a despotic monarch does not respect the laws or who is corrupt, then the people are perfectly correct if they collectively decide to try and overthrow that monarch since he or she has broken the social contract; in effect, the monarch has failed in their responsibilities and declared a state of war against their own citizens.

American War of Independence, 1775 - 1783
American War of Independence, 1775 - 1783
Simeon Netchev (CC BY-NC-SA)

Influence on the Thirteen Colonies

Locke believed that the 'people' should rule for the simple reason that this is far less likely to end in authoritarian and despotic rule than a government ruled by a monarch alone or a small elite group. There must, too, be checks within a system of democracy to ensure that the individual liberty of all is protected. Further, a government is chosen by the people to protect them, and so it must serve them and not itself. Locke's ideas in this area (and those of other philosophers) were taken on by the Founding Fathers of the United States in the late 1780s, as the academic philosopher R. H. Popkin explains:

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A careful study of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution reveals both documents to be replete with phrases such as 'All men are created equal', 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness', 'We hold these truths to be self-evident', and so forth, which are culled almost literally from the Second Treatise.

(77)

In addition, Locke's views on a citizen's rights influenced another important U.S. document, the Bill of Rights. As Thomas Jefferson once noted: "as to the general principles of liberty, and the rights of man…the doctrines of Locke…and of Sidney [a British politician and writer]…may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens" (Gottlieb, 113-4). Locke proposed that all citizens possess certain rights, and it is no business of government to interfere with them.

Locke suggests that citizens have a right to rebel against what they consider an authoritarian government.

The most important right for Locke was the right to own private property. The state should not interfere here since Locke considered property to be actually a part of that individual since they had (in most cases) laboured for it. Investing labour which then makes common (or nobody's) property the property of an individual was an idea that allowed Locke to permit the seizure of land by colonists from indigenous people since he believed the latter had not properly developed their land. To attack, reduce, or remove a person's property was the same as assaulting that person, which is why Locke also includes the right to life and liberty within the umbrella term 'property'. Locke goes even further and states that because these rights are not given by any society, so they cannot be taken away by a society. A consequence of Locke's universal natural rights is that all persons are created equal before the law. If a government fails to protect individual private 'property' then the powers given to it by the people should be withdrawn until such time as a new and better government can be formed. In short, Locke's ideas that citizens have a right to rebel against what they consider an authoritarian government struck a chord with the people of the 13 colonies who saw George III of Great Britain (r. 1760-1820) as just such a despotic ruler.

Criticisms of Locke's Political Philosophy

Critics of Locke have argued that we cannot possibly know humans had the natural rights he describes before societies existed. In other words, Locke is merely saying that pre-societal humans should have had them, which is an opinion and not a fact. A second criticism is that Locke allows the majority to rule but does not provide any protection for the minority. This lack of protection will result in a certain part of the citizenry being no better off in a democracy than they would be under a despot.

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Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck
Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck
Google Cultural Institute (Public Domain)

Another criticism is, what do we do when certain 'property' rights conflict with the common good? For example, some might argue that protecting an individual's right to own a dangerous weapon is not conducive to protecting the good of the people who live around such an individual. A potential solution to the problem is to consider that some rights are not absolute but depend on particular circumstances. For example, a society may decide that a dangerous weapon may not be owned by an individual diagnosed as insane. Grading rights in this way, however, only creates more questions as to where the line should be drawn, and the practical result is that an individual's freedom is clearly not absolute when living in a society.

Locke on Acquiring Knowledge

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke presents more thoughts on how people can live and learn together. Indeed, during his own lifetime, it was this work rather than his treatises on government that gained him an international reputation as a philosopher with something to say. Locke proposes that humans are inherently self-interested but that the application of self-restraint and reason ensures they also pursue a common good because human nature is predisposed to good.

In the essay, Locke also discusses how we should improve our knowledge by not believing in things that cannot be tested by the senses; in this, he was influenced by the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). This approach, the foundation of the new Scientific Method, actually limited knowledge as thinkers began to exclude certain things as simply unknowable because they could not be empirically tested as true. For Locke, there are no innate ideas since the human brain of an infant is a blank slate or white paper, everything we know is learnt through using our senses, experience, and reflection. Further, Locke's "argument that knowledge enters our minds through our senses and that these sensations are combined in our minds into complex ideas would become the basis of eighteenth-century psychology" (Burns, 173).

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Locke proposed that we should be sceptical of what others say is true and learn to think for ourselves. In his assessment of the work of academics, Locke states that it is often "learned gibberish" since they wish to "cover their Ignorance with a curious and unexplicable Web of perplexed Words" (Gottlieb, 121). A heartwarming sentiment that has given solace to students of philosophy ever since.

Title Page of Two Treatises of Government
Title Page of Two Treatises of Government
Unknown Photographer (Public Domain)

There were some criticisms here, too, though, such as how do we explain the ideas we have that are not based on the senses and experience? – ideas that simply do not exist in reality, like mermaids and unicorns. Locke answers this criticism by dividing knowledge into two groups based on what he calls primary and secondary qualities. In our case of a unicorn, a human brain might experience the input of primary qualities such as the normal size, shape, and horns of existing animals, and the brain can then create secondary qualities by combining the primary qualities in an entirely new way to create an animal that does not exist. Another criticism is that if knowledge is based on experience and then formed in the mind, how do we know what is real and what is not? In other words, how do we know anything at all exists outside of our minds? Locke argued that we can compare our ideas with other people and inspect any similarities and differences using our reason, but for some, this is too vague a definition of what is and what is not knowledge.

It is important to state that Locke's views on the importance of empiricism did not mean he denied spiritual faith. He wrote: "we more certainly know that there is a GOD than that there is any thing else without us" (Essay, iv, 10). In short, for Locke, humans have an ability to gain knowledge because God has given them such an ability, a belief that classifies him as a pre-Enlightenment figure. The task of philosophers and scientists, according to Locke, is to find how best to maximise that God-given ability.

In summary, Locke's thoughts on knowledge had three lasting consequences for thinkers who followed, and for societies in general. The first was that if knowledge is not innate, then all humans must be equal because they all start with the same blank slate. Second, if knowledge and norms of behaviour are acquired through one's environment, then there should be toleration of different worldviews since no one is to blame for their beliefs; everyone is simply the product of their environment. Thirdly, society, and in particular rulers, have a responsibility to create an environment that fosters good moral behaviour. Humans are not born with a moral code and so must acquire one through the experience of passing through the system of education they do and living day by day in the state they do.

This new approach to knowledge acquisition seemed like religion and science (perhaps better called natural philosophy in this early period of the Scientific Revolution) were at odds, but Locke went on to defend Protestant Christianity's place in society in general in two further works: Thoughts Concerning Education and The Reasonableness of Christianity, published in 1693 and 1695 respectively. Between 1689 and 1692, Locke published another important work, his Letters on Toleration. Here, he called for the toleration of religious views since these had nothing to do with one's role as a citizen. Curiously, Locke does not extend this tolerance to Catholics because he believes they cannot swear allegiance to a particular state because their greatest authority on earth is the Pope.

Locke emphasises the importance of reason, and this "stress upon reason over faith and his rejection of some traditional theological doctrines as unnecessary for a believer were also found attractive by many Enlightenment writers" (Yolton, 302). Locke's major works were translated into French and German, ensuring his reputation spread across Europe as one of the leading thinkers of the age.

Statue of John Locke
Statue of John Locke
Ethan Doyle White (CC BY-SA)

Major Works by John Locke

The philosopher John Locke's most important works include:

  • Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)
  • First Treatise on Government (1689)
  • Second Treatise on Government (1689)
  • Letters on Toleration (1689-92)
  • Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)
  • The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)
  • Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706)

Death & Legacy

From 1691, Locke, never having married, lived at Oates, the Essex home of his friend, the married Lady Damaris Masham (1658-1708). The historian A. Gottlieb notes that the pair had been in regular correspondence since 1681 and remarks: "It seems from the letters that Locke and Damaris were in love with each other, though never quite at the same time" (153).

Locke continued in active politics, serving as secretary to the Council of Trade. In 1697, Locke's recommendations for dealing with the poor and unemployed were harsh indeed since he believed poverty was principally caused by what he called 'debauchery', most especially too much consumption of alcohol.

John Locke died at Oates on 28 October 1704. His work had a lasting influence on political philosophy, beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers, who further developed Locke's ideas on the limits of state power and individual liberty based on a new vision of human nature and knowledge acquisition. As we have seen, the United States has based its legal and political systems on many of Locke's ideas, something that many other democracies have also done.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.

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Questions & Answers

What is John Locke mainly known for?

John Locke is an English 17th-century philosopher most known for his defence of individual liberty and property rights of citizens. Locke proposed a separation of government powers and noted the right of the citizenry to overthrow a despotic ruler. All of these ideas influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States.

What are John Locke's three beliefs?

Three beliefs of the philosopher John Locke are: all citizens have the same rights, these rights must be protected by the state, and citizens can rebel against a bad government.

What is John Locke's theory of natural rights?

John Locke's theory of natural rights is that people had certain rights like liberty, property, and happiness before societies and state governments were formed. Therefore, governments must protect these rights since that is why they were created in the first place.

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APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2023, November 21). John Locke. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/John_Locke/

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "John Locke." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 21, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/John_Locke/.

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Cartwright, Mark. "John Locke." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 21 Nov 2023. Web. 18 Jun 2024.

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