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.
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.
graduated in 1656 but remained at Christ Church studying medicine.
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.
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
|In 1667, John Locke wrote an Essay
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."
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.
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
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
Locke died 28 October 1704.
Locke devoted much of his time to writing on philosophy and political
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.
Locke's most important work of political philosophy was the Two
Treatises on Government, especially the
of Civil Government.
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.
Against the Tory contention that people were born in natural
subjection to their kings, John Locke argued:
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.
Individuals have a natural right to hold property, and this can never
be taken from them without their own consent.
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.
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
Locke extended this right beyond
mere self-preservation and self-defense and argued that by nature all
executive power of the law of nature
and are authorized
to punish infringements of the rights of others as well as to defend themselves.
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.
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)
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
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?"
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
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
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
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
"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."
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.
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.)
Locke did not believe that the state should redistribute property to
the poor. However, he did limit private property rights in two
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.
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.