John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Warington, a village in Somerset, England. In 1646 he went to Westminster school, and in 1652 to Christ Church in Oxford. In 1659 he was elected to a senior studentship, and tutored at the college for a number of years. Still, contrary to the curriculum, he complained that he would rather be studying Descartes than Aristotle. In 1666 he declined an offer of preferment, although he thought at one time of taking up clerical work. In 1668 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1674 he finally graduated as a bachelor of medicine.
In 1675 he was appointed to a medical studentship at the college. He owned a home in Oxford until 1684, until his studentship was taken from him by royal mandate. Locke’s mentor was Robert Boyle, the leader of the Oxford scientific group. Boyle’s mechanical philosophy saw the world as reducible to matter in motion. Locke learned about atomism and took the terms “primary and secondary qualities” from Boyle. Both Boyle and Locke, along with Newton, were members of the English Royal Society. Locke became friends with Newton in 1688 after he had studied Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis.
It was Locke’s work with the Oxford scientists that gave him a critical perspective when reading Descartes. Locke admired Descartes as an alternative to the Aristotelianism dominant at Oxford. Descartes’ “way of ideas” was a major influence on Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke studied medicine with Sydenham, one of the most notable English physicians of the 17th century. His skills in medicine led to an accidental encounter with Lord Ashley (later to become the Earl of Shaftesbury) in1666, which would mark a profound change in his career.
Locke became a member of Shaftesbury’s household and assisted him in business, political and domestic matters. Locke remained at Shaftesbury’s side when the Earl was made Lord Chancellor in 1672, making presentations to benefices, and eventually becoming his secretary to the board of trade until 1675, when Shaftesbury lost his title. Locke’s ideas on freedom of religion and the rights of citizens were considered a challenge to the King’s authority by the English government and in 1682 Locke went into exile in Holland. It was here that he completed An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and published Epistola de Tolerantia in Latin.
The English government tried to have Locke, along with a group of English revolutionaries with whom he was associated, extradited to England. Locke’s position at Oxford was taken from him in 1684. In 1685, while Locke was still in Holland, Charles II died and was succeeded by James II who was eventually overthrown by rebels (after more than one attempt). William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England, while James II went into exile in France. Known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, this event marks the change in the dominant power in English government from King to Parliament.
In 1688 Locke took the opportunity to return to England on the same ship that carried Princess Mary to join her husband William. Locke had written Two Treatises of Civil Government in the early 1680s while Whig revolutionary plots against Charles II were still in the works, and in 1690 he was finally able to publish them. This work is a theory of natural law and rights in which he makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate civil governments and argues for the legitimacy of revolution against tyrannical governments.
He saw that the reason government is established is to protect the life, liberty and property of a people, and if these goals are not respected, then rebellion is entirely permissible by the population who originally consented to the government’s power. The first treatise is an attack on Sir Robert Filmer and his text Patriarcha (1680), which he wrote in defense of divine monarchy. Locke uses this critique to launch his criticism of the work of Thomas Hobbes. In the Second Treatis Locke states his theory of natural law and natural right, revealing a rational purpose to government.
Locke felt that the public welfare made government necessary and was the test of good government, and he always defended the government as an institution. In 1690 Locke was also able to publish An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he had been working on since 1671. In this book he establishes the principles of modern Empiricism, and attacks the rationalist concept of innate ideas. Drawing on earlier writings by Chillingworth in which human understanding is said to be limited, Locke sets out to determine these limits.
He writes that we can be certain that God exists, and be as certain of mortality as we are of mathematics, because we create moral and political ideas. He states that we cannot, however, know the underlying realities of natural substances, as we can only know their appearance. He imagined that the human mind begins as a “tabula rasa,” and that we learn by our experience. The new government of England offered Locke the post of ambassador to Berlin or Vienna in recognition of his part in the revolution, however Locke declined the honorable position.
In 1689 he became commissioner of appeals, and from 1696 to 1700 acted as commissioner of trade and plantations. In 1691 Locke responded to financial difficulties in the government by publishing Some Considerations of the Consequences of Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money, and in 1695 Further Considerations on the topic of money. In 1693 he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and in 1695 The Reasonableness of Christianity. He was later inspired to write two Vindications of this last work in response to some criticism.
Locke invested a great deal of energy in theology in his later years, and among his work published post mortem are commentaries on the Pauline epistles, a Discourse on Miracles, a fragment of the Fourth Letter for Toleration, and An Examination of Father Malebranche’s Opinion of Seeing all things in God, Remarks on Some of Mr. Norris’s Books. After his death another chapter of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published under the title The Conduct of the Understanding. In his final years he lived in the country at Oates in Essex at the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham (Damaris Cudworth).
Locke had met Cudworth in 1682, a philosopher and daughter of the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth. They had an intellectual and amorous relationship, which was cut short by Locke’s exile in Holland. Cudworth had married Sir Francis Masham in Locke’s absence, yet she and Locke remained close friends. Before his death, Locke saw four more editions of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and entertained controversy and critiques regarding the work, engaging in a series of letters with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, which have since been published. He died at Oates in Essex on October 28, 1704.