Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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John Locke | Biography


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 Wars (1642–51). In this conflict, the Parliamentarians opposed the Royalists, who maintained the absolute right of Charles I 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, when he was 14, Locke 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 at 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 English biographer Roger Woolhouse, Locke particularly disliked the "wrangling" and pedantic nature of academic debates. He also criticized the curriculum for its great emphasis placed 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).

In the late 1650s, after graduation (1656) and postgraduate studies, Locke was elected a senior student or fellow 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, best known 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, later the Earl of Shaftesbury. For more than a decade after the Restoration of King Charles II (reigned 1660–85), Shaftesbury played a leading role in English politics. 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 in modern times, though Locke did receive a bachelor's degree in medicine in 1672.) 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, still extant, was one of the earliest academies 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." This event was 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 was first intended to describe an unrealized revolution against Charles II and then worked to justify the revolution against James.

Locke's other major publication that year was An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a philosophical treatise that had been many years in gestation. Often considered Locke's masterpiece, the Essay elaborated several philosophical concepts which became keystones of the British Enlightenment. In it, Locke argued in favor of empiricism, the view that knowledge arises entirely through experience and not innately "stamped" on the mind before birth. He also challenged 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 explored 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 very 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.

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