John Locke

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John Locke (1632-1704) became in his own lifetime one of England's greatest and most famous philosophers, advisor to many important political persons, founder of a long line of British empiricist thinkers and a subtle participator in many of the great political events of his day. Locke's works are still a fascinating subject of debate for philosophical, historical and political scholars across political spectrums. Details of his political activities are documented by the thousands of letters, notes, journals and books of his that were preserved.


Locke was the son of a lawyer who served as a legal clerk to the Justices of the Peace in the county of Somerset. He went to Westminster School, then to Oxford for six years, first as a student but later as a lecturer in Greek and rhetoric. In 1665 he went on a diplomatic mission to Prussia and shortly after his return he met the rich, intelligent and powerful Lord Ashley, whose life Locke proceeded to save by operating on him to cure his liver condition. As a result of their close friendship, Locke became a member of the Ashley family in London and when Ashley (Then the Earl of Shaftesbury) became Lord Chancellor in 1672, Locke was given various administrative posts and acted as political secretary and tutor to Shaftesbury's son. Shaftesbury lost his position the following year for opposing the King, and in 1675 Locke went to France in an attempt to improve his poor health. He remained there for four years, mixing with many of the followers of René Descartes, but then returned to England at Shaftesbury's request.

For the following two years Locke was engaged in political intrigue of the highest order; He worked on Shaftesbury's behalf against the future Catholic King, James II. When these intrigues were discovered, Shaftesbury was arrested, tried and acquitted. Fearing further prosecution he fled to The Netherlands, dying there in 1683. Later that year Locked fled to Holland, and went into hiding for a period under a different name as a result of English demands for his extradition. He used these years to work on his major work; Essay Concerning Human Understanding and to add to the Two Treatises of Government that he began several years earlier. Shortly after James II was driven from the throne in 1688, Locke returned to London and from 1690 onwards published most of his works on philosophy, education and religion for which he is best remembered. For his last fifteen years he lived a peaceful retirement on the outskirts of London, dying highly respected across Europe.

Political Philosophy

Locke's two Treatises of Government (1690) were written to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) was written in a plain easy to read style, differing somewhat from the sometimes confusing eloquence of Thomas Hobbes. Locke was a scholar, physician and a man experienced in politics and business. As a philosopher he accepted strict limitations for the mind, and his political philosophy is both moderate and sensible, aimed at a balance among executive, legislative and judicial powers, albeit with a bias towards the judiciary.

His first Treatise was devoted to disproving the Royalist doctrine of patriarchal divine right by descent from Adam, an idea closely defended by the monarchy of Europe at the time.[1] It was often believed that if this natural order were to be broken, it would result in chaos and anarchy.

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[2]

The authority of government derives from a contract between the rulers and the people, and the contract binds both parties. It is therefore a form of limited power, proceeding according only to established laws and used only in the interests of the public good.

Whatever form a government takes, in order to be legitimate it must be governed by reasoned laws, and since every man has property of one form or another, and has ‘mixed his labour’ with what he owns, government has no right to take it from him without consent. It was the threat of attack on the laws, property and the Protestant religion that had roused opposition against the Catholic James II. Locke expressed the concerns and interests of the landed gentry and the business interests with his writings, and it was through James’s successor, William III that the commonwealth remained innately conservative, limited the franchise and defended the interests of the propertied class. Judged from this, Locke was no democrat in the modern sense and was much more concerned about making the poor work harder. Like Richard Hooker, Locke assumed a conservative social hierarchy with a weak executive and defends the properties classes both against a ruler by divine right and against radicals. In advocating a wide measure of religious toleration he was more Liberal. He argued that freedom of conscience, like property, was a natural right of all men, but qualified this by excluding religions, such as Catholicism, subject to foreign authority, and also atheism, as subverting morality. Within the possibilities of the time, Locke 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 to the rise of liberal political philosophy. He vindicates the responsibility of government to the governed, the rule of law through an impartial judiciary, and the toleration of religious and dissenting opinion.

Locke's View of the State and Natural Rights

The idea that absolute monarchy was the only legitimate form of State was put forward in the 17th century by Sir Robert Filmer in England and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet in France. Both supported their views with the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. It naturally provoked reactions of one kind or another.

Locke built his political philosophy upon the natural rights of all men. By a right Locke meant a justified claim on another person, correlative to an obligation or duty that other person has toward the one who has the right. Locke’s natural rights arise from the traditional view of natural law as a moral law imposed by God. Locke wrote the three main natural rights: life, liberty, and property. The State of nature ensures that there is no impartial judge to arbitrate disputes and to punish breaches of natural law. Men are therefore willing to set up a state or political society, the function of which is to protect their natural rights.

Locke differed from Thomas Hobbes in believing that rebellion was sometimes justified, as in the 1688 revolution against James II. To avoid Hobbes’s supposition that the overthrow of a sovereign meant the dissolution of the state, Locke distinguishes the states source of authority from that of government. The state rests on a social contract. A government is entrusted with powers in order to protect life, liberty, and property. If it fails to do so, it forfeits its claim to obedience, and the citizens are therefore entitled to establish a different government.

Locke's theory had a considerable influence on the American U.S. Declaration of Independence, except that the pursuit of happiness replaced property as the third of the natural rights the revolutionaries were going to war to uphold. Although Locke said that property, understood in a wide sense, comprised all natural right, it would be more accurate to regard liberty as the most enduring of his natural rights.

Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, completed 1687, published 1690, Locke made his major contribution to theoretical philosophy, in effect starting the empiricist train of thought. He denied the possibility of a priori knowledge, arguing that knowledge is based on perception, or experience.[3]


  1. See Divine Right of Kings
  2. Richard Allen Epstein, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain (Harvard, 1985) pp. 3,4
  3. Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy. Allen & Unwin.1961