Birth: August 29,
1632 (Wrington, Somerset, England)
Death: October 28, 1704 (Essex, England)
School/tradition: British Empiricism, Social contract, Natural law
Main interests: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Political philosophy, philosophy
of mind, Education
Notable ideas: tabula rasa, "government with the consent of the
governed"; state of nature; rights of life, liberty and property
Influences: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Grotius, Samuel Rutherford, Descartes,
Hooker, Hobbes, Polish Brethren
Influenced: Hume, Kant, and many political philosophers after him, especially
the American Founding Fathers, Arthur Schopenhauer (August 29, 1632
– October 28, 1704) was an influential English philosopher. In
epistemology, Locke has often been classified as a British Empiricist,
along with David Hume and George Berkeley. He is equally important as
a social contract theorist, as he developed an alternative to the Hobbesian
state of nature and argued a government could only be legitimate if
it received the consent of the governed through a social contract and
protected the natural rights of life, liberty, and estate. If such consent
was not given, argued Locke, citizens had a right of rebellion.
Locke's ideas had
an enormous influence on the development of political philosophy, and
he is widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers
and contributors to liberal theory. His writings influenced both Voltaire
and, along with those of many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, the American
revolutionaries as reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.
Locke's father, who was also named John Locke, was a country lawyer
and clerk to the Justices of the Peace in Chew Magna, who had served
as a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early
part of the English Civil War. His mother, Agnes Keene, was a tanner's
daughter and reputed to be very beautiful. Both parents were Puritans.
Locke was born on
August 29, 1632, in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington,
Somerset, about twelve miles from Bristol. He was baptised the same
day. Soon after Locke's birth, the family moved to the market town of
Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in
a rural Tudor house in Belluton.
In 1647, Locke was
sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London under the sponsorship
of Alexander Popham, a member of Parliament and former commander of
the younger Locke's father. After completing his studies there, he was
admitted to Christ Church college at Oxford University. The dean of
the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university.
Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the undergraduate
curriculum of the time. He found the works of modern philosophers, such
as René Descartes, more interesting than the classical material
taught at the university. Through his friend Richard Lower whom he knew
from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the
experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the
English Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.
Locke was awarded
a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. He obtained
a bachelor of medicine in 1674, having studied medicine extensively
during his time at Oxford and worked with such noted scientists and
thinkers as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke and Richard Lower.
In 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who
had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was
impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue.
Locke had been looking
for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury's home at Exeter House
in London, to serve as Lord Ashley's personal physician. In London,
Locke resumed his medical studies under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham.
Sydenham had a major impact on Locke's natural philosophical thinking
— an impact that would become evident in the An Essay Concerning
knowledge was put to the test when Shaftesbury's liver infection became
life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians
and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo an
operation (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury
survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life.
It was in Shaftesbury's
household, during 1671, that the meeting took place, described in the
Epistle to the reader of the Essay, which was the genesis of what would
later become Essay. Two extant Drafts still survive from this period.
It was also during this time that Locke served as Secretary of the Board
of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords and Proprietors
of the Carolinas, helping to shape his ideas on international trade
a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political
ideas. Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord
Chancellor in 1672. Following Shaftesbury's fall from favour in 1675,
Locke spent some time travelling across France. He returned to England
in 1679 when Shaftesbury's political fortunes took a brief positive
turn. Around this time, most likely at Shaftesbury's prompting, Locke
composed the bulk of the Two Treatises on Government. Locke wrote the
Treatises to defend the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but also to counter
the absolutist political philosophy of Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas
Hobbes. Though Locke was associated with the influential Whigs, his
ideas about natural rights and government are today considered quite
revolutionary for that period in English history.
However, Locke fled
to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in
the Rye House Plot (though there is little evidence to suggest that
he was directly involved in the scheme). In the Netherlands Locke had
time to return to his writing, spending a great deal of time re-working
the Essay and composing the Letter on Toleration. Locke did not return
home until after the Glorious Revolution. Locke accompanied William
of Orange's wife back to England in 1688. The bulk of Locke's publishing
took place after his arrival back in England — his aformentioned
Essay, the Two Treatises and A Letter Concerning Toleration all appearing
in quick succession upon his return from exile.
Locke's close friend
Lady Masham invited him to join her at the Mashams' country house in
Essex. Although his time there was marked by variable health from asthma
attacks, he nevertheless became an intellectual hero of the Whigs. During
this period he discussed matters with such figures as John Dryden and
He died in 1704
after a prolonged decline in health, and is buried in the churchyard
of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had
lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. Locke never
married nor had children.
Events that happened
during Locke's lifetime include the English Restoration, the Great Plague
of London and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act
of Union of 1707, though the thrones of England and Scotland were held
by the same monarch throughout his lifetime. Constitutional monarchy
and parliamentary democracy were in their infancy during Locke's time.
Locke exercised a profound influence on philosophy and politics, in
particular on liberalism. He was a strong influence on Voltaire, while
his arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced
the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson,
and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In addition, Locke's
views influenced the American and French Revolutions.
Appraisals of Locke
have often been tied to appraisals of liberalism in general, and also
to appraisals of the United States. Detractors note that he was a major
investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal Africa Company,
as well as through his participation in drafting the Fundamental Constitution
of the Carolinas while Shaftesbury's secretary, which established a
feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves.
Some see his statements on unenclosed property as having justified the
displacement of the Native Americans. Because of his opposition to aristocracy
and slavery in his major writings, he is accused of hypocrisy, or of
caring only for the liberty of English capitalists. Most American liberal
scholars reject these criticisms, however, questioning the extent of
his impact upon the Fundamental Constitution and his detractors' interpretations
of his work in general.
Theory of value and property
Locke uses the word property in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad
sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations; more
narrowly, it refers to material goods. He argues that property is a
natural right and it is derived from labour.
Locke believed that
both ownership of property and value are created by the application
of labour. Labour accounts for the large majority of the property value
of an object. In addition, property precedes government and government
cannot "dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily."
Karl Marx later adapted Locke's theory on property in his philosophies.
Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterised
by reason and tolerance. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature
allowed men to be selfish and lustful. This is apparent with the introduction
of currency. In a natural state all people were equal and independent,
and none had a right to harm another’s “life, health, liberty,
or possessions.” Locke never refers to Hobbes by name, however,
and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day.
Locke also advocated governmental checks and balances and believed that
revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances.
These ideas would come to have profound influence on the Constitution
of the United States and its Declaration of Independence.
Limits to accumulation
Labour creates property, but it also contains limits to its accumulation:
man’s capacity to produce and man’s capacity to consume.
These limits are considered to prevent goods from being spoiled, or
wasted. Goods of greater durability are introduced, those exposed to
quick spoilage can be exchanged for something that lasts longer, for
example: plums for nuts, nuts for a piece of metal. The introduction
of money marks the culmination of this process. Money makes possible
the unlimited accumulation of property without causing waste through
spoilage. He also includes gold or silver as money because they may
be “hoarded up without injury to anyone,” since they do
not spoil or decay in the hands of the possessor. The introduction of
money eliminates the limits of accumulation and inequality. Locke stresses
that inequality has come about by tacit agreement on the use of money,
not by the social contract establishing civil society or the law of
land regulating property. Locke is aware of a problem posed by unlimited
accumulation but does not consider it his task. He just implies that
government would function to moderate the conflict between the unlimited
accumulation of property and a more nearly equal distribution of wealth
and does not say which principles that government should apply to solve
this problem. However, not all elements of his thought form a consistent
whole. For example, labour theory of value of the Two Treatises of Government
stands side by side with the demand-and-supply theory developed in the
Considerations. Moreover, Locke anchors property in labour but in the
end upholds the unlimited accumulation of wealth.
Locke on price theory
Locke’s general theory of value and price is a supply and demand
theory. Supply is quantity and demand is rent. “The price of any
commodity rises or falls by the proportion of the number of buyer and
sellers.” and “that which regulates the price... [of goods]
is nothing else but their quantity in proportion to their rent.”
The quantity theory of money forms a special case of this general theory.
His idea is based on “money answers all things” (Ecclesiastes)
or “rent of money is always sufficient, or more than enough,”
and “varies very little…” Regardless of whether the
demand for money is unlimited or constant, Locke concludes that as far
as money is concerned, the demand is exclusively regulated by its quantity.
He also investigates the determinants of demand and supply. For supply,
goods in general are considered valuable because they can be exchanged,
consumed and they must be scarce. For demand, goods are in demand because
they yield a flow of income. Locke develops an early theory of capitalization,
such as land, which has value because “by its constant production
of saleable commodities it brings in a certain yearly income.”
Demand for money is almost the same as demand for goods or land; it
depends on whether money is wanted as medium of exchange or as loanable
funds. For medium of exchange “money is capable by exchange to
procure us the necessaries or conveniences of life.” For loanable
funds, “it comes to be of the same nature with land by yielding
a certain yearly income … or interest.”
John Locke (1632-1704)
"Though the familiar use of the Things about us, takes off our
Wonder; yet it cures not our Ignorance."
---An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (III. vi. 9)
will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world
is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together
by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it...must
of necessity find another rise of government, another original of political
---from The Second Treatise of Civil Government
John Locke was an
Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, political operative,
economist and idealogue for a revolutionary movement, as well as being
one of the great philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
century. His monumental Essay Concerning Human Understanding aims to
determine the limits of human understanding. Earlier writers such as
Chillingworth had argued that human understanding was limited, Locke
tries to determine what those limits are. We can, he thinks, know with
certainty that God exists. We can also know about morality with the
same precision we know about mathematics, because we are the creators
of moral and political ideas. In regard to natural substances we can
know only the appearances and not the underlying realities which produce
those appearances. Still, the atomic hypothesis with its attendant distinction
between primary and secondary qualities is the most plausible available
Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government were published after the Glorious
Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne,
but they were written in the throes of the Whig revolutionary plots
against Charles II in the early 1680s. In this work Locke gives us a
theory of natural law and natural rights which he uses to distinguish
between legitimate and illegitimate civil governments, and to argue
for the legitimacy of revolt against tyrannical governments.
Locke wrote on a
variety of other topics Among the most important of these is toleration.
Henry VIII had created a Church of England when he broke with Rome.
This Church was the official religion of England. Catholics and dissenting
Protestants, e.g Quakers, Unitarians and so forth, were subject to legal
prosecution. During much of the Restoration period there was debate,
negotiation and manuevering to include dissenting Protestants within
the Church of England. In a "Letter Concerning Toleration"
and several defenses of that letter Locke argues for a separation between
church and state.
On Line Biographies
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Locke Time Line
1632 29 August Locke is born.
1642 The English
Civil War begins
1646? Locke is admitted
to Westminster School
1649 January 30.
King Charles I is executed, the House of Lords abolished; England is
declared a Commonwealth
1652 Locke goes
to Christ Church College, Oxford. From this time until 1667 Oxford was
Locke's usual place of residence.
1656 Locke graduates
1658 Locke graduates
1660 Locke meets
Robert Boyle, the chemist, who was to be his friend and correspondent
for thirty years. Locke writes his first treatise on the Civil Magistrate.
1660 Charles II
returns to England and is restored to the throne.
1661 Locke's father
1664 Locke is "Censor
of Moral Philosophy" at Christ Church. He writes the Essays on
the Law of Nature
1666 Locke visits Cleves as part of a diplomatic mission accompanying
Sir Henry Vane to the Elector of Brandenburg.
1665 Locke reads
Descartes and finds in him the first viable alternative to Scholasticism
he had encountered.
1666 Locke meets
Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the first earl of Shaftsbury). Locke is
granted a dispensation to keep his studentship without taking holy orders.
1667 Locke began
collaborating with Thomas Sydenham in medical research.
1667 Locke joins
Ashly's household in London as Lord Ashley's personal physician. From
this time until 1675 Locke resided usually in London. He writes an Essay
1668 Locke supervises
an operation to remove a cyst from Lord Ashley's liver. Astonishingly,
the operation is successful and the patient lives another 15 years!
Locke is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
1670 Locke (under
the supervision of Shaftsbury) writes the Fundamental Constitution of
1671 Locke writes
the first draft of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding From this
year until 1675 Locke appears to have been the secretary to the Lords
Proprietors of Carolina
1671 Locke, along
with Lord Shaftsbury and many others, buys shares in the Royal Africa
Company - the company chartered by the crown to carry out the slave
trade for Great Britain; he sells the shares at a profit in 1675
Locke visits Paris
1675 Locke graduates
M.B. On 12 November he goes to France and remains there until 1678
1678 Titus Oates
charges that there was a Popish plot to kill King Charles II and put
his Catholic brother James on the throne.
becomes Lord President of the King's Council. Locke returns to England.
A bill to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the Throne is passed
by the House of Commons but fails in the House of Lords 15 October Parliament
prorogued and Shaftsbury dismissed from office.
1681 Lord Shaftsbury
tried for treason but acquitted.
1682 Locke meets
Damaris Cudworth, daughter of Ralph Cudworth (a Cambridge Platonist).
1682 November 28.
Shaftsbury flees to Holland where he dies on 21 January 1683
The Rye House Plot to kill Charles II exposed; Locke flees to Holland;
Essex, Russell and Algernon Sydney (leaders of the Whig party) arrested.
1684 Locke expelled
from his studentship at Christ Church College, Oxford, by Royal command.
1685 Charles II
dies; the Catholic Duke of York ascends the throne as James II.
1685 Lord Monmouth's
(one of Charles II's illegitimate sons) rebellion. Monmouth invades
England from Holland, Argyle raises a rebellion in Scotland. Both are
1688 The Bibliotheque
Universelle publishes a fifty page abstract of Locke's Essay Concerning
1688 William of
Orange invades England and accomplishes the "Glorious Revolution
of 1688." James II flees to France.
1689 February. Locke
returns to England escorting the princess of Orange, who later became
Queen Mary. He meets Sir Isaac Newton and they become friends.
1689 The Epistolia
de Tolerentia was published, and translated by William Popple as A Letter
1689 December. The
Essay Concerning Human Understanding is published.
1690 The Two Treatises
of Civil Government are published.
1690 Jonas Proast
publishes The Argument of the 'Letter of Toleration' Briefly Considered
1691 Locke makes
Oates, the residence of Sir Francis and Lady Masham, his permanent home.
1693 Some Thoughts
Concerning Education published.
1694 The second
edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding published.
1695 The Reasonableness
of Christianity published anonymously.
1695 Locke answered
criticisms of the Reasonableness in A Vindication of the Reasonableness
1696 A Board of
Trade established and Locke appointed to it. The Board had a variety
of duties including overseeing colonial governments. Though ill of health,
Locke remained on the Board until 1700. He was its most influential
1697 A second Vindication
of the Reasonableness of Christianity.
1697-99 Locke engaged
in an extensive controversy with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester.
1700 Locke remained
at Oates until his death in 1704.