29 August 1632 - 28 October 1704
A great British philosopher of the 17th century, John Locke, greatly contributed to many fields of thought such as politics, economics, medicine and education, while he devoted the last 30 years of his life working on epistemology (or the theory of knowledge). Throughout his work, which he started publishing rather late in life, one can perceive an opposition to all kind of authority, whether it comes from an individual person or from institutions, such as the Church or the government. In his writings, he always uses reason to find the evidence for any proposed idea, and distinguish between legal and illegal practices of both individuals and institutions.
Eighteenth century England was greatly affected by Locke's thought, which became the basis for further studies on the human mind and human nature. His "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" is considered a masterpiece of philosophy, and it laid the foundations of modern Empiricism, which rejects the concept of innate knowledge and accepts the idea of learning through experience. Based on the fact that we cannot be certain about our ideas and religious opinions, Locke showed admirable tolerance for anything different, was totally against the imposition of any ideas or religious beliefs, and he was a great proponent of freedom of personal choice.
The Life of John Locke
John Locke was born at a time which was called the Age of Reason. Europe had left behind the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment was just beginning. Man had started using reason and had turned their attention towards science, the exploration of natural laws, religion and the universal order, and delved into the thoughts of scholars and philosophers.
John Locke was born on August 29th, 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, England and was brought up by his father, John Locke the senior, in Pensford, a small town near Bristol, as his mother, Agnes Keene, had died when John was still a baby. Because of his weak health and the Civil War, young John was at first educated at home, and at 14, he entered the Westminster School, which was a school of really strict discipline. In 1652, he entered the Christ Church in Oxford, where the traditional curriculum included grammar, geometry, Latin, Greek, rhetoric and moral philosophy. In 1658, he became a senior student and started teaching Greek and moral philosophy to younger students. He left Christ Church as he did not wish to be ordained and started studying medicine, and some years later he received his license to practise as a physician.
It was during those years that John Locke's interests came to include the natural sciences, the principle of moral, social and political life, he studied the work of Rene Descartes, and befriended Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, and Thomas Sydenham who was an eminent medical scientist. Under Boyle's direction, who was a founding member of the Royal Society, Locke was also accepted as a member in 1668.
In 1665, he took a post as secretary to the English Ambassador and went on a diplomatic mission to Brandenburg, but when he returned to England he became the physician and personal adviser to Lord Ashley, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, and in this way a lifelong friendship started. Lord Ashley later became The Lord Chancellor of England and Locke served as a secretary to the Board of Trade, and also drafted The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. In 1683, when Lord Ashley fled to Holland for political reasons, Locke followed him and remained in exile until 1689. It was during that period that Locke wrote his most important writings, but he returned to England after King James II had been overthrown, and until 1700, he served as a Commissioner of Trade, and made his work ready for publication.
His Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government were published in 1690, when Locke was 58 years old! He spent the remaining years of his life at Oates in Essex and Lady Masham, who was one of the rare women philosophers and writers of her time, looked after him till his final day, on October 28th, 1704.
The Philosophy of John Locke
John Locke wrote a great variety of important works that ranged from political to educational and from religious to matters concerning the natural human rights. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he tried to determine the limits of human understanding by developing the empirical theory of knowledge, and refuted Descartes theory that ideas are innate in the human intellect. He believed that all knowledge comes through experience, from external and internal sources of sensation and reflection, and that the human mind on birth is a blank slate, or white paper (tabula rasa) on which all experience in life, moral precepts, and whatever perceived through the senses are written.
He argued that if innate ideas existed, they would be present in children, those who have never had any education, or the savage. He also held the belief that we all acquire knowledge during our lifetime, but it is not possible to know something that we are not conscious of. This theory of empiricism has been a dominant part of British philosophy and a doctrine on which experimental science has based its discoveries ever since.
As for human nature, Locke divided it in three categories. The idealists, who believe that reality can be found only in thought, the materialists, who held that reality exists only in matter, and the dualists who accept that reality can be found both in thought and in matter. Concerning his own acceptance of God, Locke who considered himself a dualist, said that he accepted God as the ultimate source of thought, which was at the same time the proof for His existence.
Apart from philosophies on human nature, Locke also expressed strong views on government and affected the economic thought through his concept of property rights. In his work, Two Treatises of Government, which a century later was the inspiration behind the American Declaration of Independence, Locke, who was not a proponent of anarchy, tried to prove wrong the authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as it was expressed in Patriarcha by Sir Robert Filmer, and in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Locke viewed man as naturally moral, and the only reason man would willingly accept to enter an organized society and surrender their personal power to the government, would be to secure themselves against foreign force, and to be protected by the bravest members of the community in case of attack or war.
He rejected "myth, mysticism, and mystery" in government, and developed his doctrine on natural law and natural right, the public welfare, and the justice of the laws and regulations that concerned the obligations of the citizens. He was also against the "divine right" of kings and monarchs to exert arbitrary power on their subjects, and tried to set the limits of governments, with the consent of the people and the upholding of the basic human rights to life, peace, quiet, and property.
John Locke had a profound influence not only on English, but also on European and American political, economic, and philosophical thought. His ideas helped to shape the course of the Age of Enlightenment and became a source of inspiration for the pioneers of the French revolution and the founding personalities of the new Independent American nation. Thomas Jefferson wrote about him: "Bacon, Locke and Newton I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences."