J.P.Sommerville

 

JOHN LOCKE

 

bullet

John Locke was one of the most important and influential philosophers ever. The French Enlightenment drew heavily on his ideas, as did the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution.

bullet

John Locke was born in 1632 into a well-to-do Somerset family. He was educated at the prestigious Westminster School, London, and in 1652 went on to university at Christ Church, Oxford.

 

Locke graduated in 1656 but remained at Christ Church studying medicine.


 

bullet

In 1666, John Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper (soon to be created1st Earl of Shaftesbury.) Locke treated Shaftesbury for an abscess in the liver, joined his household, and the two men became good friends.

bullet

Shaftesbury was an important political figure during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, and managed to retain influence after the Restoration of Charles II. Shaftesbury was hungry for power and shifted positions accordingly, but he did consistently support policies of religious toleration.

 

In 1667, John Locke wrote an Essay On Toleration in which he argued that Protestant Dissenters who objected to some aspects of Anglican worship should have full civil rights.

"It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided), but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted,) that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion."

 

bullet

Charles II agreed with Shaftesbury and Locke on the advantages of tolerating Protestant Dissent, but (unlike them) he was also wiling to excuse the Roman Catholic sympathies of his brother, James. Shaftesbury, Locke, and many others thought that James wanted to force popery and absolutism on England. Shaftesbury led the Whigs in an attempt to exclude James II from succession to the English throne.

bullet

The Whigs failed to prevent James' accession, and first Shaftesbury and then Locke were forced to flee to the Netherlands.

 


Medal struck to commemorate the accession of William and Mary. The reverse shows an orange tree growing in place of the fallen, rotten oak.

Locke remained in the Netherlands until February 1689, when he returned with Mary who was about to be crowned with her husband William of Orange in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.

Locke was offered (but refused) a job as an ambassador, and eventually (1696) accepted a place on the Board of Trade and Plantations.

Locke wrote on economic questions, including  Some considerations of the consequences of the lowering of interest, and raising the value of money and Several papers relating to money, interest and trade. He took an important part in organizing the re-coinage of the English currency.

Locke died 28 October 1704.


 

bullet

Locke devoted much of his time to writing on philosophy and political thought. His Essay concerning human understanding (1690) suggested that the human mind was a tabula rasa (blank slate) which acquired knowledge only from the information provided by the senses - sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. There were no "innate ideas" known from birth by all people. Common ideas of morality and reason arose because all people shared the same basic natural characteristics and so reached essentially the same conclusions from similar experiences.

 

 

The political ideas of John Locke

bullet

Locke's most important work of political philosophy was the Two Treatises on Government, especially the Second Treatise of Civil Government.

bullet

Although only published in 1689, the Two Treatises attacked Tory beliefs that had been formulated early in the seventeenth century, and became prevalent in the period after the English Civil War and Interregnum.

bullet

Against the Tory contention that people were born in natural subjection to their kings, John Locke argued:

  1. The power of the king (or any government) is derived from the people, who contract to obey their rulers in exchange for law and security.

  2. Individuals have a natural right to hold property, and this can never be taken from them without their own consent.

  3. If a ruler infringes the terms of the contract that empowers him or seizes property without consent, the people can resist and depose him.

     


    The family of Sir Thomas Lucy

    John Locke rejected Filmer's equation of paternal and political power. Locke insisted that both parents had power over their children, but that this power was strictly limited and lasted only as long as the children were incapable of taking control of their own affairs.


     

bullet

In their natural state, Locke insisted, all adults were equal; each individual was subject to no one but God. All individuals could acquire and defend the property needed to support themselves, and none had the right to "harm another in his life, Health, Liberty or Possessions." There was an equivalent right of self-defense against unreasonable attack on person or property.


 

bullet

Locke extended this right beyond mere self-preservation and self-defense and argued that by nature all individuals possess the executive power of the law of nature and are authorized to punish infringements of the rights of others as well as to defend themselves.

bullet

Locke argued that people tended to be biased in their own cases, and that (to avoid the disorder that resulted from partial judgments) they would accept the arbitration of a common authority.

bullet

Although individuals transferred their rights of judgment to the whole community, it would be wise for this sovereign body to delegate different types of power (legislative, executive and federative) to different bodies. Normally, the law-making (legislative) body would control the law-enforcing (executive) and treaty-making (federative) institutions.

bullet

Whatever the distribution of power, the majority of the community always has the final say. When individuals consent (whether tacitly or explicitly) to become citizens of some society, their consent entails agreement to be governed by majority decisions.

 

The Glorious Revolution was welcomed in England, and John Locke's Two Treatises were frequently reprinted.

The English did not see fit to apply Locke's ideas to Catholic Ireland, which was compelled by military force to accept William and Mary's supplanting of James II.


The Battle of the Boyne, July 12 1690

The French Huguenot skeptic Pierre Bayle commented that the Whigs state "that the peoples of Great Britain can create a new king;" so "don't you think that the peoples of a neighboring island are entitled to remain obedient to their old king?"

(Pierre  Bayle, Avis important (1690): "que les peuples de la Grande Bretagne ont pu se faire un nouveau Roi;" "ne soûtenez-vous pas que les peuples d'une Ile voisine, n'ont pas pu perseverer dans l'obeïssance de leur ancien Roi?")

 


The wider implications of Lockean theory

bullet

It has been argued that Locke's political theory justifies the "tyranny of the majority." Certainly, Locke believed that policies favored by more citizens should prevail. However, he also insisted that there are moral basics that must be followed whatever the majority wants.

"It is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people: for it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person, or assembly, which is legislator; it can be no more than those persons had in a state of nature before they entered into society, and gave up to the community: for nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself; and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another."

 

bullet

The suggestion has been made - but not proved - that Locke wanted to exclude poor people from full citizenship, extending this privilege only to landowners. In fact, Locke extended certain general rights of property (to life, liberty, basic necessities etc.) to all people, although property in land and other major assets was restricted to a minority.

bullet

Locke  believed that the earth and all its products were given by God to all people in common for their preservation. Since everyone had a duty to preserve themselves, everyone could and should turn nature's bounty into food, clothing, shelter, and so on. The work needed to make natural resources useful itself made these into a person's property.

 

"Now of those good things which nature hath provided in common, everyone had a right ... to as much as he could use, and property in all that he could effect with his labour; all that his industry could extend to, to alter from the state nature had put it in, was his. He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples, had thereby a property in them, they were his goods as soon as gathered. He was only to look, that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share, and robbed others."


 

bullet

Once money was introduced, it was possible to accumulate property (since money was made of materials that did not "spoil" or decay,) and this increased prosperity but also increased the potential for conflict - making political society still more desirable.

bullet

Property existed before the state, and all people have a right to own property. The state exists to protect property rights, and cannot legitimately create villeins or slaves incapable of holding property (except that slavery is a possible punishment for crime.)

bullet

Locke did not believe that the state should redistribute property to the poor. However, he did limit private property rights in two important respects.
1. When faced by starvation or exposure, everyone could take what they needed to preserve life.
2. Produce could not legitimately be left to spoil: if goods were going to waste (e.g. crops were left to rot,) they could be taken by those who did have a use for them.

bullet

Locke's major intention was to protect property against arbitrary seizure by absolutist governments. He largely restricted the state's role to protecting people in the peaceable pursuit of prosperity and to adjudicating conflicts between individuals.