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John Locke

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17th-century philosophy
(Modern Philosophy)
John Locke

John Locke

Name: John Locke
Birth: August 29, 1632 (Wrington, Somerset, England)
Death: October 28, 1704 (Essex, England)
School/tradition: British Empiricism
Main interests
Metaphysics, Epistemology, Political philosophy, philosophy of mind, Education
Notable ideas
"government with the consent of the governed"; state of nature; rights of life, liberty and property
Influences Influenced
Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes Many political philosophers after him, especially the American Founding Fathers

John Locke (August 29, 1632October 28, 1704) was a 17th-century English philosopher. He developed the Lockean social contract, which included the ideas of a state of nature, "government with the consent of the governed," and the natural rights of life, liberty, and estate. Locke was also the first to fully develop the idea of tabula rasa.

Locke's ideas had an enormous influence on the development of political philosophy, and he is often seen as one of the most influential contributors to liberal theory as well as Enlightenment thinkers. Locke's writings formed the basis for many ideas of American revolutionaries as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Locke has often been classified, along with David Hume and George Berkeley, as a British Empiricist. He is perhaps most often contrasted with the contemporary Thomas Hobbes.



Locke's father, also named John Locke, was a country lawyer who had served as a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early part of the English Civil War, and his mother Agnes Keene was a tanner's daughter who was reputed to be very beautiful.

Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, 11.42 miles (18.38 km) from Bristol. He was baptized the same day. Soon after Locke's birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton.

In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London under the sponsorship of Alexander Popham, a member of Parliament and Locke's father's former commander. After completing his studies there, he was admitted to the college of "Christ" Church at Oxford University. The dean of the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university. Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found reading modern philosophers, such as René Descartes, more interesting than the classical material taught at the university.

Locke was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. Although he never became a medical doctor, Locke obtained 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 persuaded 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 physician. 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 probably 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 travelling across France. He returned to England in 1679 when Shaftesbury's political fortunes took a brief positive turn. It was around this time, most likely at Shaftesbury's prompting, that Locke composed the bulk of the Two Treatises of Government.

However, Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot (though there is little evidence to suggest that he was directly involved in the scheme). In the Netherlands Locke had time to return to his writing, spending a great deal of time re-working the Essay and composing the Letter on Toleration. Locke did not return home until after the Glorious Revolution. The bulk of Locke's publishing took place after his arrival back in England - the Essay, the Two Treatises and the Letter on Toleration all appearing in quick succession upon his return from exile.

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, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act of Union of 1707, though the thrones of England and Scotland were held by the same monarch throughout his lifetime. 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 18 years. It was finally published in December 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.

A Letter Concerning Toleration

Main article: A Letter Concerning Toleration

Locke originally published the Letter anonymously, in Latin, in Amsterdam, though it was almost immediately translated into English. He distinguishes a church from a civil government by the ends each pursues and by the means most appropriate to those ends. Government exists for the sake of peace, and must use force to achieve it; a church is a voluntary community for the salvation of souls, and must therefore use persuasion. Individuals cannot alienate control over their own souls, and so cannot make the government responsible for their salvation; force cannot bring about the changes necessary for salvation; and even if it could, there is no certainty that the religion doing the oppressing is the true religion. As a result, even were the government inclined to support a particular church, it could not do so without disturbing civil peace.

Government may, however, regulate religion for political reasons, e.g., to forbid the public slaughter of all animals for health reasons, even if this prevents certain religious practices. Religious sects that refuse to accept Locke's doctrine of toleration of necessity seek a change in the government, and so may be suppressed as revolutionary. As there is no reason to keep promises without fear of God, and as civil peace requires that men keep their promises, the government may take an interest in promoting some form of religion.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Main article: 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 thoughts 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

Main article: 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 True End of Civil Government, purports 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 laboured). 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, that is, to revolt.


Locke exercised a profound influence on subsequent philosophy and politics. His remarks concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In particular, the Declaration of Independence drew upon many 18th century political ideas, derived from the works of Locke.

Appraisals of Locke have therefore been tied to appraisals of the United States and of liberalism in general. Detractors note that he was a major investor in the English slave-trade, as well as his participation in drafting the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas while Shaftesbury's secretary, which established a feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves. Some see his statements on unenclosed property as having justified the displacement of the Native Americans. Because of his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings, he is accused of hypocrisy, or of caring only for the liberty of English capitalists. Most scholars reject these criticisms, however, questioning the extent of his impact upon the Fundamental Constitution and his detractors' interpretations of his work in general.

List of major works

Major unpublished or posthumous manuscripts

  • (1660) First Tract on Government (or the English Tract)
  • (c.1662) Second Tract on Government (or the Latin Tract)
  • (1664) Essays on the Law of Nature
  • (1667) Essay Concerning Toleration
  • (1706) Of the Conduct of the Understanding
  • (1707) A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul

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 suspect 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."

Secondary literature

  • 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.
  • John Dunn, Locke Oxford University Press, 1984. A succinct introduction.
  • 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.
  • Roland Hall (ed.) `Locke Studies' is an annual journal of research on John Locke (obtainable from the editor for £12; the current volume is 300 pages).
  • John W. Yolton (ed.), John Locke: Problems and Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Reassesses Locke's political philosophy from different points of view.


  • If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom?"
    -Two Treatises of Government
  • "Truth certainly would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself. ... She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force, to procure her entrance into the minds of men." — John Locke, January 31, 1689

See also


  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.