Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

1. Life and main works

John Locke was born at Wrington, Somerset in England on 28 August 1632. His father was a small property owner, lawyer and minor official, who served on the side of Parliament in the civil war under the more influential Alexander Popham. Through Popham, Locke became a pupil at Westminster School, then the leading school in England. From Westminster he was elected in May 1652 to a Studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, conditionally tenable for life.

During the next fifteen years at Oxford Locke took his degrees (B.A. 1656, M.A. 1658) and fulfilled various college offices, becoming Tutor in 1661. Between 1660 and 1662 he wrote three manuscripts on issues of Church and State, individual conscience and religious authority, two now published together and known as Two Tracts on Government, and An necesse sit dari in Ecclesia infallibilem Sacro Sanctae Scripturae interpretem? (Is it necessary to have in the church an infallible interpreter of holy scripture?). Although his answer to the last question was predictably negative, in the Tracts he expressed a less-than-tolerant view of conscientious religious unorthodoxy, assigning to rulers the right to determine details of religious observance for the sake of public peace. While Censor of Moral Philosophy at Christ Church in 1664 he completed the Latin manuscript now known as Essays [or Questions] on the Law of Nature, which presaged his mature views – both his general empiricism and his conception of moral obligation as an obligation to God to obey natural law. This work also rejects wayward and dogmatic appeals to conscience, in favour of reason based on experience.

The politics of religion, at the time a large part of politics, was not Locke’s only extracurricular interest. His reading-notes (‘commonplace books’) of this time indicate an interest in Anglican theology, and by 1658 he was reading and taking lecture notes in medicine with the assiduity appropriate to a chosen career. This interest extended to chemistry and, in the 1660s, to the new mechanical philosophy as expounded, for example, by Robert Boyle, whom Locke had met by 1660. Locke also read the main philosophical works of Descartes, and some Gassendi, but his record focuses on their versions of corpuscularianism, bypassing metaphysical and epistemological underpinnings (see Descartes, R. §§11–12; Gassendi, P. §§2, 4). On the evidence, natural philosophy attracted Locke more at this time than metaphysics, although the coarse empiricism of Essays on the Law of Nature is close to that of Gassendi. Yet Locke could hardly have remained ignorant of the battle among the new philosophers between ‘gods’ and ‘giants’ – between those, led by Descartes, in the Platonic-Augustinian metaphysical tradition and those, headed by Gassendi and Hobbes, who developed ancient empiricist and materialist theory.

In 1665 Locke’s university life was interrupted by a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg as secretary to Sir Walter Vane. About this time he decided against entering the church, but took the one way of nevertheless keeping his Studentship (without obligation to reside in Oxford) by transferring formally to medicine. In 1666 came a momentous meeting with Lord Ashley (Anthony Ashley Cooper, who became Earl of Shaftesbury in 1672), whose London household Locke subsequently joined in 1667. Here his medical and political interests alike received a more practical edge than they had previously possessed. He began collaborating closely with the pre-eminent physician, Thomas Sydenham, and in 1668 successfully supervised an operation on Lord Ashley to drain an abscess on the liver. In the years following he continued to act as medical advisor within Ashley’s circle, supervising the birth of Ashley’s grandson, later the philosophical Third Earl of Shaftesbury. A manuscript of this time in Locke’s handwriting (but perhaps wholly or partly by Sydenham), ‘De Arte Medica’, is strongly sceptical of the value of hypotheses, as opposed to experience, in medicine.

During this same period, presumably influenced by his patron, Locke wrote the manuscript Essay concerning Toleration (1667), departing from his earlier, nervously illiberal justification of constraint and advocating toleration of any religious persuasion not constituting a positive moral or political danger – provisos excluding, respectively, atheists and Roman Catholics. In 1667 Ashley became a member of the governing ‘cabal’ which followed Clarendon’s period as Lord Chancellor, and in 1672 became Lord Chancellor himself. Under Ashley, and for a while after Ashley’s fall from office in 1673, Locke was involved in government. He began to work on economic questions, and for some years helped in the organization of the newly founded colony of Carolina. He was registrar to the commissioners of excise (perhaps a sinecure) from 1670 to 1675, secretary for presentations (in charge of ecclesiastical patronage) in 1672–3, and secretary and treasurer to the Council for Trade and Plantations (no sinecure) in 1673–4.

Nevertheless he found time for new intellectual interests. Not later than 1671 he put down for discussion by a group of friends what he later claimed (inaccurately, given Essays on the Law of Nature) to have been his first thoughts on the powers of the understanding. He found the topic sufficiently gripping for a more extensive treatment than such an occasion would have demanded in Intellectus humanus cum cognitionis certitudine, et assensus firmitate’ (The human intellect, the certainty of knowledge and the confirmation of belief), dated 1671, with a longer (and as strongly empiricist and imagist) redrafting in the same year entitled ‘An Essay concerning the Understanding, Knowledge, Opinion and Assent’ – the manuscripts now known as Drafts A and B of An Essay concerning Human Understanding.

In 1675 Locke moved to France, beginning at the same time to write his journal. He met physicians and philosophers, undertook a programme of reading in French philosophy and continued working on his ‘Essay’. On returning to England in 1678, after the fabricated ‘Popish plot’, he was again caught up in politics and in attempts to exclude Charles’ brother James from the succession. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1681, and Shaftesbury led a group of Whigs planning insurrection. During this period Locke probably wrote the bulk of the Two Treatises of Government; the first, at least, to support moves for James’ exclusion, the second possibly later to advocate actual rebellion. He also wrote, with James Tyrrell, a long response (still unpublished, 1997) to Edward Stillingfleet’s Unreasonableness of Separation, defending the position of nonconformists against Stillingfleet’s criticisms. In 1682 Shaftesbury went into exile, dying soon after. When the Rye House plot to assassinate Charles and James was uncovered in 1683, Locke himself prudently moved to Holland, where he contacted other, more overtly active exiles. His connections provoked expulsion from his Christ Church Studentship in 1684, and at the time of Monmouth’s rebellion he went into hiding to escape arrest. His intellectual activities continued unabated, the Essay being largely written by 1686. In 1685–6 he wrote Epistola de Tolerantia (Letter concerning Toleration), perhaps in response to the revocation of the edict of Nantes. He made friends, and discussed theological questions, with the remonstrant Philippus van Limborch and Jean Le Clerc, publishing various items in the latter’s journal, Bibliothèque universelle et historique, including a review of Newton’s Principia (1686) and a ninety-two page abridgement of the Essay (1688).

In 1688 the ‘Glorious Revolution’ brought the deposition of James, and Locke returned to England the following year. He declined the post of ambassador to Brandenburg, accepted an undemanding post as commissioner of appeals (annual salary, £200) and set about publishing his writings. Epistola de Tolerantia was published pseudonymously in Holland in May 1689, and Popple’s English translation followed within months. The Two Treatises were revised and published anonymously, and the Essay followed in December (with authorship acknowledged), although both books were dated 1690. A Second Letter concerning Toleration (1690) and A Third Letter for Toleration (1692) were in response to attacks by an Anglican clergyman, Jonas Proast. Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money, partly based on the manuscript of 1668, was published in 1691 (dated 1692) against Parliamentary measures of the time. In 1691, Locke accepted the invitation of an old friend, Damaris Masham and her husband to live with them, as far as his concerns permitted, at Oates in Essex. Country life seems to have ameliorated the asthma which dogged his last years. Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693, revised 1695), a significant work in the history of educational theory, was based on a number of letters of advice to his friend, Edward Clarke. In 1694 came the second edition of the Essay, with important additions including a controversial chapter on identity. In 1695 he published a new work, once more anonymously, The Reasonableness of Christianity. John Edwards’ attacks on its liberal, minimalist interpretation of Christian faith were rebutted in two Vindications (1695b, 1697a) (see Latitudinarianism).

Locke continued to be engaged on economic questions, and in 1695 he joined a committee to advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer on monetary policy. His recommendations, supported by further papers, were accepted. In 1696 came an important government appointment to the Council for Trade and Plantations, and for four years he fulfilled fairly onerous duties on the Board of Trade for the considerable annual salary of £1,000. At the same time he engaged in an extended controversy with Edward Stillingfleet, who found the Essay theologically suspect. A Letter to the Right Reverend Edward, Lord Bishop of Worcester was followed by two further Letters in reply to Stillingfleet’s Answers. Despite its controversial style, Locke’s argument is often a cogent clarification of his position. The exchange prompted significant alterations to the fourth edition of the Essay (1700) and long passages were included as footnotes in the posthumously published fifth edition. In June 1700 Locke resigned from the Board of Trade, a sick man, and thereafter lived mostly at Oates. Pursuing a long-standing interest in biblical criticism, he set about the work which was posthumously published as A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, an important contribution to hermeneutics (see Hermeneutics, biblical). In 1702 he wrote the reductive Discourse of Miracles, and in 1704 began a Fourth Letter on Toleration. On October 28th 1704 he died as Damaris Masham read to him from the Book of Psalms. For the last years of his life he was generally respected as, with Newton, one of Britain’s two intellectual giants, a reputation undiminished by death.

Citing this article:
Ayers, Michael. Life and main works. Locke, John (1632–1704), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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