One of the pioneers in modern thinking was the English philosopher John Locke. He made great contributions in studies of politics, government, and psychology.
John Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, on Aug. 29, 1632. He was the son of a well-to-do Puritan lawyer who fought for Cromwell in the English Civil War. The father, also named John Locke, was a devout, even-tempered man.
The boy was educated at Westminster School and Oxford and later became a tutor at the university. His friends urged him to enter the Church of England, but he decided that he was not fitted for the calling. He had long been interested in meteorology and the experimental sciences, especially chemistry. He turned to medicine and became known as one of the most skilled practitioners of his day.
In 1667 Locke became confidential secretary and personal physician to Anthony Ashley Cooper, later lord chancellor and the first earl of Shaftesbury. Locke's association with Shaftesbury enabled him to meet many of the great men of England, but it also caused him a great deal of trouble. Shaftesbury was indicted for high treason. He was acquitted, but Locke was suspected of disloyalty. In 1683 he left England for Holland and returned only after the revolution of 1688.
Locke is remembered today largely as a political philosopher. He preached the doctrine that men naturally possess certain large rights, the chief being life, liberty, and property. Rulers, he said, derived their power only from the consent of the people. He thought that government should be like a contract between the rulers and his subjects: The people give up certain of their rights in return for just rule, and the ruler should hold his power only so long as he uses it justly. These ideas had a tremendous effect on all future political thinking. The American Declaration of Independence clearly reflects Locke's teachings.
Locke was always very interested in psychology. About 1670, friends urged him to write a paper on the limitations of human judgment. He started to write a few paragraphs, but 20 years passed before he finished. The result was his great and famous 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding'. In this work he stressed the theory that the human mind starts as a tabula rasa (smoothed tablet)--that is, a waxed tablet ready to be used for writing. The mind has no inborn ideas, as most men of the time believed. Throughout life it forms its ideas only from impressions (sense experiences) that are made upon its surface.
In discussing education Locke urged the view that character formation is far more important than information and that learning should be pleasant. During his later years he turned more and more to writing about religion.
The principal works by Locke are letters--'On Toleration' (1689, 1690, 1692); 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' (1690); two treatises--'On Civil Government' (1690), and 'Some Thoughts Concerning Education' (1693); and 'The Reasonableness of Christianity' (1695). He died in Oates, Essex, on Oct. 28, 1704.
It was John
Locke, politically the most influential English philosopher, who
further developed this doctrine. His Two Treatises of Government
(1690) were written to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89,
and his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) was written with a plain
and easy urbanity, in contrast to the baroque eloquence of Hobbes.
Locke was a scholar, physician, and man of affairs, well-experienced
in politics and business. As a philosopher he accepted strict
limitations for mind, and his political philosophy is moderate and
sensible, aimed at a balance among executive, judicial, and
legislative powers, although with a bias toward the last.
Treatise was devoted to confuting the Royalist doctrine of
patriarchal divine right by descent from Adam, an argument then
taken very seriously and reflecting the idea of government as an
aspect of a divinely ordained chain of being. If this order were
broken, chaos would come about. The argument was part of the
contemporary conflict of the ancients and the moderns.
Locke tried to
provide an answer by defining a limited purpose for political power,
which purpose he considered to be "a right of making laws with
penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the
regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of
the community in execution of such laws, and in the defense of the
commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public
good." The authority of government derives from a contract between
the rulers and the people, and the contract binds both parties. It
is thus a limited power, proceeding according to established laws
and "directed to no other end but the peace, safety, and public good
of the people. “Whatever its form, government, to be legitimate,
must govern by "declared and reasoned laws," and, since every man
has a "property" in his own person and has "mixed his labor" with
what he owns, government has no right to take it from him without
his consent. It was the threat of attack on the laws, property, and
the Protestant religion that had roused resistance to James II.
Locke is expressing the concerns and interests of the landed and
moneyed men by whose consent James's successor, William III, came to
the throne, and his commonwealth is strictly conservative, limiting
the franchise and the preponderant power to the propertied classes.
Locke was thus no democrat in the modern sense and was much
concerned to make the poor work harder. Like Hooker, he assumes a
conservative social hierarchy with a relatively weak executive power
and defends the propertied classes both against a ruler by divine
right and against radicals. In advocating toleration in religion he
was more liberal: freedom of conscience, like property, he argued,
is a natural right of all men. Within the possibilities of the time,
Locke thus advocated a constitutional mixed government, limited by
parliamentary control of the armed forces and of supply. Designed
mainly to protect the rights of property, it was deprived of the
right of arbitrary taxation or imprisonment without trial and was in
theory responsible to all the people through the politically
conscious minority who were thought to represent them.
Though he was socially conservative, Locke's writings are very important in the rise of liberal political philosophy. He vindicates the responsibility of government to the governed, the rule of law through impartial judges, and the toleration of religious and speculative opinion. He is an enemy of the totalitarian state, drawing on medieval arguments and deploying them in practical, modern terms.