John Locke (1632–1704)


John Locke was born in Somerset, the son of a lawyer. His parents were both strong Puritans, and his father had fought on the side of Parliament in the Civil War. Through family connections John Locke was given a prestigious education at Westminster School and Christ Church College, Oxford. At university he was more interested in philosophy, science, and medicine than the classical literature that dominated the curriculum. However, he took his degree in 1656, and became a college fellow before holding lectureships in Greek and Rhetoric.

Through his continuing interest in experimental science, Locke became a friend of eminent figures like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. In 1666, his medical knowledge brought him into contact with the key figure in his life. He successfully treated the leading Whig politician, the Earl of Shaftesbury, for a serious liver disease. The two men became close friends, and in 1667 Locke moved to London as Shaftesbury’s doctor, secretary, and personal adviser. Through Shaftesbury, Locke was also given the government post of Secretary to the Board of Trade. However, the connection with Shaftesbury was no guarantee of a secure career in the service of the state. As a strong opponent of absolute monarchy, he frequently clashed with King Charles II and was imprisoned in the Tower of London more than once in connection with plots against the king’s life. In 1682 Shaftesbury fled to Holland, and died there soon afterwards. Locke himself decided to leave for the European mainland in the following year.

Locke became closely associated with other exiled Whigs. In 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, which deposed Charles’s brother James II, he returned to England in the same ship as Princess Mary, who would shortly take the throne along with her husband, William of Orange. He went to live in Essex as a companion to an old friend, Lady Masham. In 1696 he returned to public life, as a member of a revived Board of Trade. He retired due to ill health in 1700, and died four years later.


Locke has been an enormously influential figure in both philosophy and political theory. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) is a classic early statement of empirical philosophy, in which he argued that there are no “innate” ideas and that the mind begins as a blank slate which is formed by external stimuli.

Locke’s greatest contribution to political theory was his Two Treatises of Government (1689). This followed Thomas Hobbes in asserting that government arose from a “contract.” However, while Hobbes had regarded the original contract as an agreement between people who were fearful of one another, Locke saw the “state of nature” as being relatively peaceful and civilized. People enjoyed certain natural rights, such as the right to hold property (for discussion see pages 37–38, Chapter 1). Government was only founded because an impartial judge was needed to settle disputes. For Hobbes, the severance of the contract between people and government meant that society dissolved and returned to a state of nature. Locke disagreed; in his theory, individuals enter into a contract to form a society before they entrust power to a government. Thus if the government loses the confidence of its citizens, it can be replaced without a violent upheaval.

The Two Treatises can be regarded as the first comprehensive statement of modern liberalism, and proved that Locke had remained faithful to his Puritan parents. Its message was an implicit justification for those who had taken up arms to resist Charles I in the English Civil War. Locke also supported the related cause of religious toleration (although he refused to extend this liberal principle to Catholics).

Having been regarded as a dangerous dissident for many years, in 1688–9 Locke suddenly found himself at the right place at the right time. His doctrines could not be wholly welcome to William of Orange, who was no more anxious to acknowledge the subject’s right to rebel than any other member of the Stuart dynasty. However, it was undeniable that he had succeeded to the throne because James II had governed badly, so that his subjects had withdrawn consent from his regime. Thus, the appearance of Locke’s book so soon after the Glorious Revolution gave the (somewhat misleading) impression that the Two Treatises represented an authoritative explanation of the origins and workings of British politics. Locke was a major source of ideological support for the American rebels during the War of Independence (1775–82); in particular, his views on the sanctity of private property could be cited by those who resented the British attempt to levy taxation without consent. His work was greatly admired by the French philosopher Voltaire, and his influence was also felt during the French Revolution.

John Locke’s work does not anticipate all the liberal democratic practices of today. He did not, for example, advocate universal suffrage; and his theory of consent provides more problems than answers for those who seek a watertight account of political obligation (see Chapter 3). For some critics (such as Karl Marx) he should be regarded primarily as an apologist for capitalist exploitation. His view that the institution of private property was an unmixed blessing was turned on its head by another social contract theorist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that it was the source of all human misery. Even so, more than three centuries after his death, Locke’s claims on the attention of students of politics are beyond dispute.

Further Reading

Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Princeton University Press, 1986.

John Dunn, Locke, Oxford University Press, 1984.

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