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John Locke: the Revolution of Reason in the Age of Enlightenment Essay

For many people, particularly Americans, phrases like “inalienable rights,” “the pursuit of life and liberty,” and concepts such as religious tolerance, and separation of Church and State, are all too familiar. Many people are unaware, however, of the period, and the man, from which these ideas came. The “inalienable rights” and “pursuit of life and liberty”–words straight out of the United States’ Declaration of Independence—were not written by Thomas Jefferson first.

In fact, those words, and the philosophy behind them, precede Thomas Jefferson by approximately one hundred years. The preceding century, and the source of the ideas that formed the basis of the American Revolution, is known as the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment, or sometimes known more simply as, the Enlightenment, follows several ages of mankind in which the entire world, morally, socially, politically, and culturally, revolved around the Church. The Enlightenment is the period in which Western Civilization broke away from this tradition:

The intellectual and philosophical developments of that age (and their impact in moral, social, and political reform) aspired toward more freedom for common people, based on self-governance, natural rights, natural law, central emphasis on liberty, individual rights, reason, and the principles of deism. These principles were a revolutionary departure from theocracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and the divine right of kings. (“Age of Enlightenment”) Deism, as mentioned in the previous quote, is defined by Prof. Gerhard Rempel: “English deism… emphasized an impersonal deity, natural religion and the common morality of all human beings.

Deism was a logical outgrowth of scientific inquiry, rational faith in humanity, and the study of comparative religion. All religions could be reduced to worshipping God and a common sense moral code. There was a universal natural religion” (Rempel). In other words, deism is an extreme simplification of all religions according to the basic premise that every religion worships God, and serves as the foundation of several schools of religious tolerance, which proved to be the foundations of liberal thought, the founder of which, was John Locke; “…

Locke launched liberalism by tempering Hobbesian absolutism and clearly separating the realms of Church and State” (“John Locke”). As this passage demonstrates, the ideas of religious tolerance served as the foundation of separation of Church and State. Religious tolerance is one of many issues pursued and defended by one of the greatest philosophers and writers of the Age of Enlightenment: John Locke. The philosophies of John Locke owe their “immortality” largely to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution increased access to information and lowered prices: “Increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the ‘social’ Enlightenment. Developments in the Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals–‘media of the transmission of ideas and attitudes’” (“Age of Enlightenment”). The Industrial Revolution stemmed out of the Age of Enlightenment, due to the overwhelming infatuation with reason that took hold during that particular time.

It is due to the sudden ease of obtaining works of literature, (which previously were very expensive and belonged only to the wealthy upper classes—the only literate members of society), that contemporary readers still know the name: John Locke. John Locke was the primary voice of the Enlightenment, even though he spent some of the most important years of his life and writing career in exile. While his works influenced writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, his influence on the rest of the world extends even farther.

The words in the American Declaration of Independence–”inalienable rights,” “the pursuit of life and liberty”–are the words of John Locke. John Locke altered the course of history through his influence during the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century. His theories regarding the sense of “self” changed the collective identity of the people during the Enlightenment, encouraging them to ask questions that, previously, had always been answered by the Church, and even more revolutionary—to seek out the answers to those questions themselves, with the use of reason.

John Locke also held tremendous sway over the political world of the Enlightenment, which was fraught with civil war and unrest; John Locke’s writings on the role of the government in the lives of the people played a tremendous part in the Glorious Revolution and the shift of power from the King to Parliament. Finally, John Locke also revolutionized the people’s perception of God, and advocated powerfully for religious tolerance, proclaiming the ideas of deism, as mentioned before, which took hold and strongly influenced the principles of separation of Church and State.

While Western Civilization still answered only to the King and the Church, John Locke was busily redefining the sense of “self,” which would be the foundation of all modern, independent thought. Independent thought was founded in Locke’s love for reason; “Locke was the first philosopher to define the self through a continuity of ‘consciousness. ‘ He also postulated that the mind was a ‘blank slate’ or ‘tabula rasa’; that is…

Locke maintained that people are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived by sense perception” (“John Locke”) In other words, John Locke’s love for reason is the primary way in which he argued that people can develop their own ideas, based on their own experiences, rather than propaganda from religious or political officials, who would try to control what the people would think. John Locke describes this in his work, the Conduct of Understanding: …

this is that which seems to me the proper and only measure of distinctions and divisions; which he that will conduct his understanding right must not look for in the acuteness of invention, nor the authority of writers, but will find only in the consideration of things themselves, whether he is led into it by his own meditations, or the information of books. (Locke 263) This passage from Locke’s text describes the importance of the independence of the thinker from writing that would try to control thought.

Locke makes a distinction between “writers” and “the information of books. ” Writers, (that is, writers of propaganda), according to Locke, are the enemy—the ones who attempt to push their ideas onto others, rather than presenting impartial information. The information of books is Locke’s way of referring to the ideas and facts within books that the individual is responsible for learning by using his reason. The individual must be able to discern which information belongs to the facts, and which belongs to the impressions of the writer.

The individual person’s response to his experiences is also the foundation of his moral judgment. The decisions he will make in the future will be based on the experiences he’s had throughout his life. One critic describes Locke’s view of this concept; … Locke conceives of moral goodness as a conventional relation, then it stands to reason… goodness and even moral goodness do not exist independently of what we believe about them and therefore cannot be the property of an action nor can they be thought to have a nature that exists independently of our beliefs.

(Zinaich 171) Essentially, Locke’s concept of morality is that it is defined by the self. This is a tremendous revelation in an era that defined its morality based on what the Church claimed was moral or immoral. There are limits to this independence of morality, however, as a biographer of Locke describes: “The ‘state of nature’ is a ‘state of liberty’, but it is not a ‘state of license’, for even though people in it are not bound by the will of another, they are subject to the divinely ordained ‘law of nature’” (Woolhouse 185).

Essentially, while an individual is free to define his own morals under Locke’s philosophy regarding the “self,” the limits lie in whether or not the morality crosses over into the rights of another person. In a “state of nature,” every man is free to create his own morals, but those morals cannot infringe on the rights of others. This is a rule that not only man must obey, but that, according to Locke, he must understand—a principle, which he describes in his Second Treatise on Civil Government: “Is a man under the law of Nature?

What made him free of that law? What gave him a free disposing of his property, according to his own will, within the compass of that law? I answer, and estate wherein he might be supposed capably to know that law, that so he might keep his actions within the bounds of it” (Locke 102). As this passage describes, in order for a man to step outside of the “natural law,” he must step into the overlapping laws of the men around him.

This, in effect, is what leads to Locke’s revolutionary principles of government. Prior to the Enlightenment, government belonged entirely to the King, based on the principles of “divine right”: “The Enlightenment encouraged people to participate in government and to rethink old ideas like feudalism and primogeniture” (Dowling). John Locke played an extremely large role in this shift: “Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672” (“John Locke”).

Locke’s friend Shaftesbury was the primary reason that Locke became involved in politics and began writing about government, but when Shaftesbury fell away from popularity, Locke soon found himself in exile. Locke wrote even more voraciously about government during his time in exile, however, establishing the principles of self-governance that would so tremendously alter the ideas of government current at that time. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, he defines society and the beginning of government: “…

that which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capably of majority, to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world” (Locke 125). As Locke describes, the foundation of a government begins with free men in the “state of nature” who come together and can agree, in majority, on which morals they are to follow.

Also, “Locke maintained that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. He further maintained that all human beings, in their natural state, were equal and free to pursue life, health, liberty, and possessions; and that these were inalienable rights” (Landry), and, “Locke defended the proposition that government rests on popular consent and rebellion is permissible when government subverts the ends (the protection of life, liberty, and property) for which it is established” (Landry).

In other words, because government is based on the agreement and majority of people coming together—the self-governance of the people is the foundation of the government—the government has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people. These revolutionary ideas not only altered the ideas that were circulating amongst the people during the Age of Enlightenment, but also directly altered the course of history.

As Locke’s biographer states: “… the support which the Treatises gave to William’s actions against James is exhibited in what reads as a commentary on the events of the revolution itself: James’s leaving the country, the request to William to take over the administration, the eventual offer of the throne, and the transformation of the Convention into a Parliament” (Woolhouse 276).

Because William of Orange and his wife Mary were supporters of Parliament, and through their support of Parliament, supporters of self-governance by the people, the Treatises by John Locke were tremendously influential in the support that both preceded and followed William and Mary’s ascension to the throne of England: “… the Glorious Revolution of 1688… marks the point at which the balance of power in the English government passed from the King to the Parliament. Locke returned to England in 1688 on board the royal yacht, accompanying Princess Mary on her voyage to join her husband” (Uzgalis).

Because of the tremendous support that came with Locke’s Treatises and the rule of William and Mary, John Locke was finally able to return home to England from exile. The independence of thought that led to the new perception of self, which subsequently led to new ideas about the kind of relationship that the government should have with its people, also had a tremendous effect on the ideas governing perception of religion. In addition to political strife, there was a great deal of religious tension in England, particularly between various Protestant sects.

During the Enlightenment, however, the principles of reason, established by John Locke, began to become the foundation of religious tolerance: The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society. This view argues that the establishment of a contractual basis of rights would lead to the market mechanism and capitalism, the scientific method, religious tolerance, and the organization of states into self-governing republics through democratic means.

(“Age of Enlightenment”) This religious tolerance, and the encouragement of independent reason, however, lessened the power that the Church had over the people: “It was the Enlightenment… that dislodged the ecclesiastical establishment from central control of cultural and intellectual life” (Rempel). Simply put, the infatuation with reason that took hold of the people during the Enlightenment took power away from the Church and put it into the hands of thinkers like John Locke, who encouraged independent thought.

As mentioned before, John Locke was an avid supporter of intellectual independence. John Locke had an agenda for his principles of reason—to liberate the people around him from oppression of the intellectual and spiritual kind as well: “Much of Locke’s work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This opposition is both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church” (Uzgalis).

As Uzgalis states, John Locke was determined to release the people from the authoritative grasp of the Church, which controlled much of their thinking, and answered all of their questions with answers that would add to their power. One of the primary issues regarding the Church’s control over the people, however, lay in the issues that divided the different denominations of Christianity that populated England at the time. Each sect was fighting with the other, claiming that their faith was the true path—the ONLY path. John Locke had an argument to this theory, which he described in detail in his work, the Reasonability of Christianity:

… if all sinners shall be condemned, but such as have gracious allowance made them; and so are justified by God, for believing Jesus to be the Messiah, and so taking him for their King; whom they are resolved to obey, to the utmost of their power, ‘What shall become of all mankind, who lived before Our Savior’s time; who never heard of his name, and consequently could not believe in him? ‘ To this the answer is so obvious and natural, that one would wonder how any reasonable man should think it worth the urging.

No body was, or can be, required to believe what was never proposed to him to believe. (Locke 52) Locke simply states that those people who did not know of Jesus, because they lived before his time, cannot be held accountable or punished for not believing in him because, to them, he did not yet exist. This was a revolutionary idea because nearly every Christian during Locke’s time believed that a soul could not reach heaven unless the person belonging to that soul fully believed that Jesus was the Messiah, or savior.

Locke takes this tolerance of pre-Christians, however, and extends it even to those in his contemporary society, and argues for tolerance not only of who people worship, but of how they worship as well: “To be worshipped in spirit and in truth, with application of mind and sincerity of heart, was what God henceforth only required. Magnificent temples, and confinement to certain places, were now no longer necessary for his worship, which by a pure heart might be performed any where” (Locke 68).

In other words, Locke argues that worshipping God is a far more personal endeavor, rather than one that is meant to be accomplished in a specific time and place, with a specific group of people. So long as the worshipper is steady in his faith, and uses his faith to support his reason, then he becomes a “reasonable Christian,” which is the highest aim. The Age of Enlightenment opened the door for countless opportunities in even every aspect of daily life in Western Civilization.

Its devotion to reason and to the human mind’s power of deductive reasoning spawned hundreds of advancements in technology, including a more advanced printing press, which increased literacy rates, due to the accessibility of reading material, and allowed ideas to circulate and spread farther than anyone had imagined. The sudden urbanization, due to the fledgling Industrial Revolution, also brought people closer together and ideas from all over the world began coming together and mixing, until they themselves became new ideas, and expanded.

Every change during the Age of Enlightenment—the new sense of individual identity that the people suddenly gained, the new principles of government, and what the relationship of the government to the people should be like, the release of power from the King and the Church to the people—all of these ideas, which would become the foundation of the American Revolution, were founded on the single principle of devotion to individual’s power to reason.

The leader of this liberation and revolution of the mind, as described in detail above, was John Locke. John Locke’s ideas impressed the leaders of England so much, that at a very early age, he became swept into the world of politics, and almost overnight began to change the way people thought.

Even when his powerful friends fell out of favor, and Locke was forced into exile, he only grew more influential, and his ideas of man’s power of deductive reasoning and consciousness as the defining attribute of the thing called “self,” the principles of self-governance of the people, which led to the Glorious Revolution and the placement of William and Mary on the throne of England, and the shift of power from the King to Parliament, and finally, the importance of religious tolerance, based on reason, are the prime examples of John Locke’s tremendous influence on the Age of Enlightenment.

John Locke’s convictions led to some of the most sweeping changes in the collective mind of humanity, and led to the independence of the United States. All of these changes, however, belong to a tiny little word called “reason,” which can only be found in the individual. Essentially, John Locke’s commitment to reason, was really a commitment to the self—and look at what such commitment wrought from the Age of Enlightenment! Annotated Bibliography “About the John Locke Foundation. ” John Locke Foundation. 2009. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://www. johnlocke. org/about/>.

This website presents the effects that the philophies and works of John Locke are having on contemporary society. “Age of Englightenment. ” Wikipedia. 29 Apr. 2009. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/ Age_of_Enlightenment>. This website offers a generalized overview of the Age of Enlightenment, of which Locke is considered one of the greatest contributors. While Wikipedia is not considered an infallible source, the information contained therein is consistent with the information in other sources. Brians, Paul. “The Enlightenment. ” Washington State University. 18 May 2000. 29 Apr. 2009

<http://wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment. html>. This website provides a very concise overview of the Enlightenment period, for the sake of perspective. Dowling, Mike. “The Enlightenment. ” The Enlightenment. 1 May 2002. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://www. mrdowling. com/705french. html>. This website offers a very concise overview of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as the effects that it had in all European countries. “John Locke. ” Wikipedia. 29 Apr. 2009. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/John_Locke>. This website was used for a generalized overview of the life and works of John Locke, to give a sense of perspective.

While Wikipedia is not a guaranteed source, the information contained on this website is consistent with the information from other “more reliable” sources. “John Locke (1632-1704). ” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://www. iep. utm. edu/l/locke. htm#source>. This website provides a very generalized overview of John Locke’s life and philosphies, as well as his works. Landry, Peter. “John Locke: The Philosopher of Freedom. ” Biographies. 2006. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://www. blupete. com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Locke. htm>. This website

provides an extremely concise and brief description of Locke’s life, philosophies and works. Locke, John. Conduct of the Understanding. The Works of John Locke. Vol. 3. London: Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1963. 203-289. This work of John Locke’s details the ways in which a man is expected, in the author’s mind, to pursue knowledge and understanding with integrity. Locke, John. The Reasonableness of Christianity. Ed. I. T. Ramsey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958. In this work, John Locke argues for Christianity and the belief in God, who gave man reason. Locke, John.

The Second Treatise on Civil Government. On Politics and Education. Ed. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, Inc. , 1947. 71-202. This work by John Locke describes the author’s views on how government should function in society. “Locke Time Line. ” John Locke (1632-1704). Oregon State University. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://oregonstate. edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/locke. html>. This website provided a concise timeline of John Locke’s life and the emergence of his works to be compared against the era in which he was living. Rempel, Gerhard, PhD. “The Age of Enlightenment.

” Lectures. WNEC. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://mars. wnec. edu/~grempel/courses/wc2/lectures/enlightenment. html>. This website offers a detailed description of the Age of Enlightenment, organized in a fashion consistent with a class lecture, so it is very easy to understand. Uzgalis, William. “John Locke. ” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/locke/>. This website was used to provide a somewhat detailed overview of John Locke’s life and works. Its reliability is guaranteed by the Metaphysics Research Lab of Stanford University.

Woolhouse, Roger. Locke, A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. This is a comprehensive biography of John Locke, giving greater understanding of Locke’s personal life and its effects on the more public spheres in which he existed. Zinaich, Samuel, Jr. John Locke’s Moral Revolution. Boulder, CO: University Press of America, Inc. , 2006. This book argues that John Locke’s philosophies move from “laws of nature” to “moral relativism. ” While this is a work of literary criticism, it still offers valid and unbiased points about the works of John Locke.

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