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John Locke | Biography

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Early Years

John Locke was born in the village of Wrington in Somerset, England, on August 29, 1632. His father, known as John Locke the Elder, was a lawyer who served in the Parliamentarian cavalry during the English Civil War (1642–51). In this conflict the Parliamentarians opposed the Royalists, who maintained the absolute right of King Charles I (1600–49) to rule Great Britain, even without Parliament's consent. It seems probable that as a youth Locke followed his father in rejecting the monarchy's claim to absolutist rule. Much later in life he would formalize his criticism of absolutism in his Two Treatises of Government (1689).

In 1647 Locke, then age 14, won admission to the renowned Westminster School in London. There he studied classical Greek and Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, mathematics, and geography. In 1652 he matriculated to Christ Church, then the largest and most prestigious of Oxford's constituent colleges. Despite his extraordinary intellect and the excellent preparation at Westminster, Locke found university life stressful and unpleasant. According to biographer Roger Woolhouse (2007), Locke particularly disliked the "wrangling" and pedantic nature of academic debates. He also criticized the curriculum for its great emphasis on formal logic at the expense of plain communication. Both of these tendencies were widespread in the British universities of Locke's day, and both are criticized in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689).

Locke graduated in 1656, and after his postgraduate studies, he was elected a member of the Christ Church faculty. Through this prestigious post, he made several important contacts among the philosophers and scientists of his day. He found a mentor in the famed natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627–1691), best known today for his work in chemistry. Through Boyle, Locke developed an interest in medicine, which eventually led to his becoming a professional physician.

Career Beginnings

In 1666 Locke was befriended by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury (1621–83), who played a leading role in English politics for more than a decade after King Charles II (r. 1660–1685) was restored to the throne following exile after some military defeats. This friendship had a profound effect on Locke, who served as Shaftesbury's aide and personal physician in London. (At the time credentialing of doctors was much less strict than it is now, though Locke did receive a bachelor's degree in medicine in 1674). Shaftesbury supported civil liberty, constitutional monarchy, economic growth, the rule of Parliament, and religious toleration—values also embraced by Locke.

Two years after he met Shaftesbury, Locke was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. This prestigious group of academics and inventors was one of the earliest organizations to focus on the progress of scientific research. Locke's social and professional circle continued to widen in the 1670s, when he made the acquaintance of Thomas Herbert, the future Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. An amateur philosopher and patron of intellectual activity, Pembroke became the dedicatee of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Exile in France and Holland

After Shaftesbury lost favor with King Charles II, Locke traveled to France, where he remained for nearly four years from 1675 to 1679. Shaftesbury enjoyed a brief return to royal favor in 1679, and Locke joined him in returning to England. Soon, however, Shaftesbury was forced to flee once more—this time to Holland—when he failed to defuse the "exclusion crisis," a bitter wrangling over whether Charles's brother James should be excluded from succession to the throne. James was Roman Catholic, and the exclusionists, including Shaftesbury and Locke, feared his rule would undermine the nation's largely Protestant government. Locke followed Shaftesbury in seeking refuge in Holland, remaining there from 1683 to 1689.

Final Years

Locke's two best-known works were both published in 1689. Two Treatises of Government, his major work of political philosophy, was likely written in the context of the exclusion crisis. It critiques the concept of the divine right of kings, which Locke saw as fundamentally at odds with basic human freedoms. Later Locke updated his work, adding a preface that alluded to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when King James II was deposed and his daughter Mary and her husband William ascended the throne in 1689.

Locke's other major publication, also released that year, was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a philosophical treatise that he had labored on for years. The Essay elaborates several philosophical concepts that became keystones of the British Enlightenment (period of free thinking regarding speech, science, religion, government, and economy that followed the restoration of the monarchy). In it Locke argues in favor of empiricism, the view that knowledge arises entirely through experience and is not innately "stamped" on the mind before birth. He also challenges the notion that human knowledge is unlimited, even in theory, instead proposing a more limited view of human intellectual achievement. In accounting for human irrationality, Locke also explores concepts of memory, personal identity, and association of ideas. All of these topics proved to be foundational in the later development of psychology.

Locke returned from Holland to England in early 1689, crossing the English Channel in the same vessel that carried the future Queen Mary II. Even in retirement he remained active as a writer, editor, and defender of his major works of philosophy. He died at his home in High Laver, Essex, on October 28, 1704, after a prolonged illness. Locke is remembered as among the first and most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers. His works, including the Essay and Two Treatises of Government, remain widely read more than three centuries after they first appeared.

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