Historical Background and Locke’s Life
John Locke (1632–1704) was one of the greatest philosophers in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century. Locke grew up and lived through one of the most extraordinary centuries of English political and intellectual history. It was a century in which conflicts between Crown and Parliament and the overlapping conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics swirled into civil war in the 1640s. With the defeat and death of Charles I, there began a great experiment in governmental institutions including the abolishment of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican church, and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate in the 1650s. The collapse of the Protectorate after the death of Cromwell was followed by the Restoration of Charles II—the return of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church. This period lasted from 1660 to 1688. It was marked by continued conflicts between King and Parliament and debates over religious toleration for Protestant dissenters and Catholics. This period ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which James II was driven from England and replaced by William of Orange and his wife Mary. The final period during which Locke lived involved the consolidation of power by William and Mary, and the beginning of William’s efforts to oppose the domination of Europe by the France of Louis XIV, which later culminated in the military victories of John Churchill—the Duke of Marlborough.
Locke was born in Wrington to Puritan parents of modest means. His father was a country lawyer who served in a cavalry company on the Puritan side in the early stages of the English Civil War. His father’s commander, Alexander Popham, became the local MP, and it was his patronage which allowed the young John Locke to gain an excellent education. In 1647 Locke went to Westminster School in London.
From Westminster school he went to Christ Church, Oxford, in the autumn of 1652 at the age of twenty. As Westminster school was the most important English school, so Christ Church was the most important Oxford college. Education at Oxford was medieval. Locke, like Hobbes before him, found the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of little use. There was, however, more at Oxford than Aristotle. The new experimental philosophy had arrived. John Wilkins, Cromwell’s brother in law, had become Warden of Wadham College. The group around Wilkins was the nucleus of what was to become the English Royal Society. The Society grew out of informal meetings and discussion groups and moved to London after the Restoration and became a formal institution in the 1660s with charters from Charles II. The Society saw its aims in contrast with the Scholastic/Aristotelian traditions that dominated the universities. The program was to study nature rather than books. Many of Wilkins associates were people interested in pursuing medicine by observation rather than the reading of classic texts. Bacon’s interest in careful experimentation and the systematic collection of facts from which generalizations could be made was characteristic of this group. One of Locke’s friends from Westminster school, Richard Lower, introduced Locke to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued by the virtuosi at Wadham.
Locke received his B.A. in February 1656. His career at Oxford, however, continued beyond his undergraduate days. In June of 1658, Locke qualified as a Master of Arts and was elected a Senior Student of Christ Church College. The rank was equivalent to a Fellow at any of the other colleges, but was not permanent. Locke had yet to determine what his career was to be. Locke was elected Lecturer in Greek at Christ Church in December of 1660 and he was elected Lecturer in Rhetoric in 1663. At this point, Locke needed to make a decision. The statutes of Christ Church laid it down that fifty five of the senior studentships should be reserved for men in orders or reading for orders. Only five could be held by others, two in medicine, two in law and one in moral philosophy. Thus, there was good reason for Locke to become a clergyman. Since his graduation Locke had been studying medicine. Locke decided to become a doctor.
John Wilkins had left Oxford with the Restoration of Charles II. The new leader of the Oxford scientific group was Robert Boyle. He was also Locke’s scientific mentor. Boyle (with the help of his astonishing assistant Robert Hooke) built an air pump which led to the formulation of Boyle’s law and devised a barometer as a weather indicator. The work on the air pump led to a controversy with Thomas Hobbes because Boyle’s explanations of the working of the air pump were incompatible with Hobbes’ micro-corpuscular theory. This controversy continued for ten years. Boyle was, however, most influential as a theorist. He was a mechanical philosopher who treated the world as reducible to matter in motion. But he had no micro-corpuscular account of the air.
Locke read Boyle before he read Descartes. When he did read Descartes, he saw the great French philosopher as providing a viable alternative to the sterile Aristotelianism he had been taught at Oxford. In writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke adopted Descartes’ ‘way of ideas’; though it is transformed so as to become an organic part of Locke’s philosophy. Still, while admiring Descartes, Locke’s involvement with the Oxford scientists gave him a perspective that made him critical of the rationalist elements in Descartes’ philosophy.
In the Epistle to the Reader at the beginning of the Essay Locke remarks: The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but everyone must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge .
Locke knew all of these men and their work. Locke, Boyle and Newton were all founding or early members of the English Royal Society. It is from Boyle that Locke learned about atomism (or the corpuscular hypothesis) and it is from Boyle’s book The Origin of Forms and Qualities that Locke took the language of primary and secondary qualities. Sydenham was an English physician and Locke did medical research with him. Sydenham championed careful observation of disease and rejected appeal to underlying causes. Both Boyle and Newton did work on colors that did not involve micro-corpuscular explanations. Locke read Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis while in exile in Holland, and consulted Huygens as to the soundness of its mathematics. Locke and Newton became friends after Locke’s return from Holland in 1688. It may be that in referring to himself as an ‘under-labourer’, Locke is not only displaying a certain literary modesty, he is contrasting the positive discoveries of these men, with his own attempt to show the inadequacies of the Aristotelian and Scholastic and to some degree the Cartesian philosophies. There are, however, many aspects of Locke’s project to which this image of an under-labourer does not do justice (see Jolley 1999: 15–17). While the corpuscular philosophy and Newton’s discoveries clearly influenced Locke, it is the Baconian program of producing natural histories that Locke makes reference to when he talks about the Essay in the Introduction.
He writes: It shall suffice to my present Purpose, to consider the discerning Faculties of a Man, as they are employ’d about the Objects, which they have to do with: and I shall imagine that I have not wholly misimploy’d my self in the Thoughts I shall have on this Occasion, if in this Historical, Plain Method, I can give any Account of the Ways, whereby our Understanding comes to attain those Notions of Things, and can set down any Measure of the Certainty of our Knowledge .
The ‘Historical, Plain Method’ is apparently to give a genetic account of how we come by our ideas. Presumably this will reveal the degree of certainty of the knowledge based on such ideas. Locke’s own active involvement with the scientific movement was largely through his informal studies of medicine. Dr. David Thomas was his friend and collaborator. Locke and Thomas had a laboratory in Oxford which was very likely, in effect, a pharmacy. In 1666 Lord Ashley, one of the richest men in England, came to Oxford in order to drink some medicinal waters there. He had asked Dr. Thomas to provide them. Thomas had to be out of town and asked Locke to see that the water was delivered. As a result of this encounter, Ashley invited Locke to come to London as his personal physician. In 1667 Locke did move to London becoming not only Lord Ashley’s personal physician, but secretary, researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself at the very heart of English politics in the 1670s and 1680s.
Locke and Lord Shaftesbury 1666 to 1688
Locke’s chief work while living at Lord Ashley’s residence, Exeter House, in 1668 was as Ashley’s physician. Locke used his medical training to organize a successful operation on Ashley. This was perhaps the most carefully documented operation in the 17th century. Locke consulted doctors across the country to determine what the best practices were for this operation and made cleanliness a priority. In doing so he saved his patron’s life and thus changed English history.
Locke had a number of other jobs. He worked as secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. Lord Ashley was one of the advocates of the view that England would prosper through trade and that colonies could play an important role in promoting trade. Ashley persuaded Charles II to create a Board of Trade and Plantations to collect information about trade and colonies, and Locke became its secretary. In his capacity as the secretary of the Board of Trade Locke was the collection point for information from around the globe about trade and colonies for the English government. Among Ashley’s commercial projects was an effort to found colonies in the Carolinas. In his capacity as the secretary to the Lords Proprietors, Locke was involved in the writing of the fundamental constitution of the Carolinas. There is some controversy about the extent of Locke’s role in writing the constitution. In addition to issues about trade and colonies, Locke was involved through Shaftesbury in other controversies about public policy. There was a monetary crisis in England involving the value of money, and the clipping of coins. Locke wrote papers for Lord Ashley on economic matters, including the coinage crisis.
While living in London at Exeter House, Locke continued to be involved in philosophical discussions. He tells us that: Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had awhile puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed that this should be our first inquiry. Some hasty and undigested thoughts, on a subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next meeting, gave the first entrance into this Discourse; which having been thus begun by chance, was continued by intreaty; written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted; and at last, in a retirement where an attendance on my health gave me leisure, it was brought into that order thou now seest it.
James Tyrrell, one of Locke’s friends was at that meeting. He recalls the discussion being about the principles of morality and revealed religion. Thus the Oxford scholar and medical researcher came to begin the work which was to occupy him off and on over the next twenty years. In 1674 after Shaftesbury had left the government, Locke went back to Oxford, where he acquired the degree Bachelor of medicine, and a license to practice medicine, and then went to France. In France Locke went from Calais to Paris, Lyons and on to Montpellier, where he spent the next fifteen months. Much of Locke’s time was spent learning about Protestantism in France. The Edict of Nantes (promulgated by Henry IV in 1598) was in force, and so there was a degree of religious toleration in France. Louis XIV was to revoke the edict in 1685 and French Protestants were then killed while some 400,000 went into exile.
The End of Locke’s Life 1689–1704
After his return from exile, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and The Two Treatises of Government. In addition, Popple’s translation of Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration was also published. It is worth noting that the Two Treatises and the Letter Concerning Toleration were published anonymously. Locke took up residence in the country at Oates in Essex, the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham (Damaris Cudworth). Locke had met Damaris Cudworth in 1682 and became involved intellectually and romantically with her. She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist, and a philosopher in her own right. After Locke went into exile in Holland in 1683, she married Sir Francis Masham. Locke and Lady Masham remained good friends and intellectual companions to the end of Locke’s life. During the remaining years of his life, Locke oversaw four more editions of the Essay and engaged in controversies over the Essay most notably in a series of published letters with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. In a similar way, Locke defended the Letter Concerning Toleration against a series of attacks. He wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts on Education during this period as well.
Nor was Locke finished with public affairs. In 1696 the Board of Trade was revived. Locke played an important part in its revival and served as the most influential member on it until 1700. The new Board of Trade had administrative powers and was, in fact, concerned with a wide range of issues, from the Irish wool trade and the suppression of piracy, to the treatment of the poor in England and the governance of the colonies. It was, in Peter Laslett’s phrase “the body which administered the United States before the American Revolution”. During these last eight years of his life, Locke was asthmatic, and he suffered so much from it that he could only bear the smoke of London during the four warmer months of the year. Locke plainly engaged in the activities of the Board out of a strong sense of patriotic duty. After his retirement from the Board of Trade in 1700, Locke remained in retirement at Oates until his death on Sunday 28 October 1704.
The Limits of Human Understanding
Locke is often classified as the first of the great English empiricists (ignoring the claims of Bacon and Hobbes). This reputation rests on Locke’s greatest work, the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke explains his project in several places. Perhaps the most important of his goals is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke writes: For I thought that the first Step towards satisfying the several Enquiries, the Mind of Man was apt to run into, was, to take a Survey of our own Understandings, examine our own Powers, and see to what Things they were adapted. Till that was done, I suspected that we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for Satisfaction in a quiet and secure Possession of Truths, that most concern’d us whilst we let loose our Thoughts into the vast Ocean of Being, as if all the boundless Extent, were the natural and undoubted Possessions of our Understandings, wherein there was nothing that escaped its Decisions, or that escaped its Comprehension. Thus Men, extending their Enquiries beyond their Capacities, and letting their Thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure Footing; ’tis no Wonder, that they raise Questions and multiply Disputes, which never coming to any clear Resolution, are proper to only continue and increase their Doubts, and to confirm them at last in a perfect Skepticism. Wheras were the Capacities of our Understanding well considered, the Extent of our Knowledge once discovered, and the Horizon found, which sets the boundary between the enlightened and the dark Parts of Things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, Men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avowed Ignorance of the one; and employ their Thoughts and Discourse, with more Advantage and Satisfaction in the other.
Some philosophers before Locke had suggested that it would be good to find the limits of the Understanding, but what Locke does is to carry out this project in detail. In the four books of the Essay Locke considers the sources and nature of human knowledge. Book I argues that we have no innate knowledge. (In this he resembles Berkeley and Hume, and differs from Descartes and Leibniz.) So, at birth, the human mind is a sort of blank slate on which experience writes. In Book II Locke claims that ideas are the materials of knowledge and all ideas come from experience. The term ‘idea’, Locke tells us “…stands for whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks”. Experience is of two kinds, sensation and reflection. One of these—sensation—tells us about things and processes in the external world. The other—reflection—tells us about the operations of our own minds. Reflection is a sort of internal sense that makes us conscious of the mental processes we are engaged in. Some ideas we get only from sensation, some only from reflection and some from both.
Locke has an atomic or perhaps more accurately a corpuscular theory of ideas. There is, that is to say, an analogy between the way atoms or corpuscles combine into complexes to form physical objects and the way ideas combine. Ideas are either simple or complex. We cannot create simple ideas; we can only get them from experience. In this respect the mind is passive. Once the mind has a store of simple ideas, it can combine them into complex ideas of a variety of kinds. In this respect the mind is active. Thus, Locke subscribes to a version of the empiricist axiom that there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses—where the senses are broadened to include reflection. Book III deals with the nature of language, its connections with ideas and its role in knowledge. Book IV, the culmination of the previous reflections, explains the nature and limits of knowledge, probability, and the relation of reason and faith. Let us now consider the Essay in some detail.
Knowledge and Probability
Knowledge involves the seeing of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas. What then is probability and how does it relate to knowledge? Locke writes: The Understanding Faculties being given to Man, not barely for Speculation, but also for the Conduct of his Life, Man would be at a great loss, if he had nothing to direct him, but what has the Certainty of true Knowledge… Therefore, as God has set some Things in broad day-light; as he has given us some certain Knowledge…So in the greater part of our Concernment, he has afforded us only the twilight, as I may say so, of Probability, suitable, I presume, to that State of Mediocrity and Probationership, he has been pleased to place us in here, wherein to check our over-confidence and presumption, we might by every day’s Experience be made sensible of our short sightedness and liableness to Error.
So, apart from the few important things that we can know for certain, e.g. the existence of ourselves and God, the nature of mathematics and morality broadly construed, for the most part we must lead our lives without knowledge. What then is probability? Locke writes: As Demonstration is the shewing of the agreement or disagreement of two Ideas, by the intervention of one or more Proofs, which have a constant, immutable, and visible connation one with another: so Probability is nothing but the appearance of such an Agreement or Disagreement, by the intervention of Proofs, whose connection is not constant and immutable, or at least is not perceived to be so, but is or appears, for the most part to be so, and is enough to induce the Mind to judge the Proposition to be true, or false, rather than the contrary.
Probable reasoning, on this account, is an argument, similar in certain ways to the demonstrative reasoning that produces knowledge but different also in certain crucial respects. It is an argument that provides evidence that leads the mind to judge a proposition true or false but without a guarantee that the judgment is correct. This kind of probable judgment comes in degrees, ranging from near demonstrations and certainty to unlikeliness and improbability in the vicinity of impossibility. It is correlated with degrees of assent ranging from full assurance down to conjecture, doubt and distrust.
The new science of mathematical probability had come into being on the continent just around the time that Locke was writing the Essay. His account of probability, however, shows little or no awareness of mathematical probability. Rather it reflects an older tradition that treated testimony as probable reasoning. Given that Locke’s aim, above all, is to discuss what degree of assent we should give to various religious propositions, the older conception of probability very likely serves his purposes best. Thus, when Locke comes to describe the grounds for probability he cites the conformity of the proposition to our knowledge, observation and experience, and the testimony of others who are reporting their observation and experience. Concerning the latter, we must consider the number of witnesses, their integrity, their skill in observation, counter testimony and so on. In judging rationally how much to assent to a probable proposition, these are the relevant considerations that the mind should review. We should, Locke also suggests, be tolerant of differing opinions as we have more reason to retain the opinions we have than to give them up to strangers or adversaries who may well have some interest in our doing so.
Locke distinguishes two sorts of probable propositions. The first of these have to do with particular existences or matters of fact, and the second that are beyond the testimony of the senses. Matters of fact are open to observation and experience, and so all of the tests noted above for determining rational assent to propositions about them are available to us. Things are quite otherwise with matters that are beyond the testimony of the senses. These include the knowledge of finite immaterial spirits such as angels or things such as atoms that are too small to be sensed, or the plants, animals or inhabitants of other planets that are beyond our range of sensation because of their distance from us. Concerning this latter category, Locke says we must depend on analogy as the only help for our reasoning. He writes: Thus the observing that the bare rubbing of two bodies violently one upon the other, produce heat, and very often fire itself, we have reason to think, that what we call Heat and Fire consist of the violent agitation of the imperceptible minute parts of the burning matter. We reason about angels by considering the Great Chain of Being; figuring that while we have no experience of angels, the ranks of species above us is likely as numerous as that below of which we do have experience. This reasoning is, however, only probable.
Reason, Faith and Enthusiasm
The relative merits of the senses, reason and faith for attaining truth and the guidance of life were a significant issue during this period. As noted above James Tyrrell recalled that the original impetus for the writing of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was a discussion about the principles of morality and revealed religion. In Book IV Chapters 17, 18, and 19 Locke deals with the nature of reason, the relation of reason to faith and the nature of enthusiasm. Locke remarks that all sects make use of reason as far as they can. It is only when this fails them that they have recourse to faith and claim that what is revealed is above reason. But he adds: And I do not see how they can argue with anyone or even convince a gainsayer who uses the same plea, without setting down strict boundaries between faith and reason.
Locke then defines reason as
the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas, as it has got by the use of its natural faculties; viz, by the use of sensation or reflection. Faith, on the other hand, is assent to any proposition “…upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication”. That is, we have faith in what is disclosed by revelation and which cannot be discovered by reason. Locke also distinguishes between the original revelation by God to some person, and traditional revelation which is the original revelation “…delivered over to others in Words, and the ordinary ways of our conveying our Conceptions one to another”.
Locke makes the point that some things could be discovered both by reason and by revelation—God could reveal the propositions of Euclid’s geometry, or they could be discovered by reason. In such cases there would be little use for faith. Traditional revelation can never produce as much certainty as the contemplation of the agreement or disagreement of our own ideas. Similarly revelations about matters of fact do not produce as much certainty as having the experience oneself. Revelation, then, cannot contradict what we know to be true. If it could, it would undermine the trustworthiness of all of our faculties. This would be a disastrous result. Where revelation comes into its own is where reason cannot reach. Where we have few or no ideas for reason to contradict or confirm, these are the proper matters for faith. That Part of the Angels rebelled against GOD, and thereby lost their first happy state: and that the dead shall rise, and live again: These and the like, being Beyond the Discovery of Reason, are purely matters of Faith; with which Reason has nothing to do.
Still, reason does have a crucial role to play in respect to revelation. Locke writes: Because the Mind, not being certain of the Truth of that it evidently does not know, but only yielding to the Probability that appears to it, is bound to give up its assent to such Testimony, which, it is satisfied, comes from one who cannot err, and will not deceive. But yet, it still belongs to Reason, to judge of the truth of its being a Revelation, and of the significance of the Words, wherein it is delivered. So, in respect to the crucial question of how we are to know whether a revelation is genuine, we are supposed to use reason and the canons of probability to judge. Locke claims that if the boundaries between faith and reason are not clearly marked, then there will be no place for reason in religion and one then gets all the “extravagant Opinions and Ceremonies, that are to be found in the religions of the world”.
Locke’s Major Works on Education
Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education and his Conduct of the Understanding form a nice bridge between An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his political works. Ruth Grant and Nathan Tarcov write in the introduction to their edition of these works: The idea of liberty, so crucial to all of Locke’s writings on politics and education, is traced in the Essay to reflection on the power of the mind over one’s own actions, especially the power to suspend actions in the pursuit of the satisfaction of one’s own desires until after a full consideration of their objects. The Essay thus shows how the independence of mind pursued in the Conduct is possible.
Some Thoughts Concerning Education was first published in 1693. This book collected together advice that Locke had been giving his friend Edward Clarke about the education of Clarke’s son (and also his daughters) since 1684. In preparing the revision for the fourth edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke began writing a chapter called “The Conduct of the Understanding”. This became quite long and was never added to the Essay or even finished. It was left to Locke’s literary executors to decide what to do with it. The Conduct was published by Peter King in his posthumous edition of some of Locke’s works in 1706. As Locke was composing these works, some of the material from the Conduct eventually made its way into the Thoughts. Grant and Tarcov write that the Thoughts and the Conduct “complement each other well: The Thoughts focuses on the education of children by their parents, whereas the Conduct addresses the self-education of adults”. Though they also note tensions between the two that illustrate paradoxes in liberal society. The Thoughts is addressed to the education of the sons and daughters of the English gentry in the late seventeenth century. It is in some ways thus significantly more limited to its time and place than the Conduct.
justice as respect for the rights of others, civility, liberality, humanity, self-denial, industry, thrift, courage, truthfulness, and a willingness to question prejudice, authority and the biases of one’s own self-interest. very likely represents the qualities needed for citizens in a liberal society. Locke’s Thoughts represents the culmination of a century of what has been called “the discovery of the child”.
only a simple plaything, as a simple animal, or a miniature adult who dressed, played and was supposed to act like his elders…Their ages were unimportant and therefore seldom known. Their education was undifferentiated, either by age, ability or intended occupation. Locke treated children as human beings in whom the gradual development of rationality needed to be fostered by parents. Locke urged parents to spend time with their children and tailor their education to their character and idiosyncrasies, to develop both a sound body and character, and to make play the chief strategy for learning rather than rote learning or punishment. Thus, he urged learning languages by learning to converse in them before learning rules of grammar. Locke also suggests that the child learn at least one manual trade.
In advocating a kind of education that made people who think for themselves, Locke was preparing people to effectively make decisions in their own lives—to engage in individual self-government—and to participate in the government of their country. The Conduct reveals the connections Locke sees between reason, freedom and morality. Reason is required for good self-government because reason insofar as it is free from partiality, intolerance and passion and able to question authority leads to fair judgment and action. We thus have a responsibility to cultivate reason in order to avoid the moral failings of passion, partiality and so forth. This is, in Tarcov’s phrase, Locke’s education for liberty.
The Two Treatises Of Government
Lord Shaftsbury had been dismissed from his post as Lord Chancellor in 1673 and had become one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Country Party. In 1679 the chief issue was the attempt by the Country Party leaders to exclude James, Duke of York from succeeding his brother Charles II to the throne. They wanted to do this because James was a Catholic, and England by this time was a firmly Protestant country. They had acquired a majority in the House of Commons through serious grass roots election campaigns, and passed an exclusion bill, but given the King’s unwillingness to see his brother excluded from the throne, the bill failed in the House of Lords. They tried a couple of more times without success. Having failed by parliamentary means, some of the Country Party leaders started plotting armed rebellion. The Two Treatises of Government were published in 1689, long after the rebellion plotted by the Country party leaders had failed to materialize and after Shaftsbury had fled the country for Holland and died. The introduction of the Two Treatises was written after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and gave the impression that the book was written to justify the Glorious Revolution. We now know that the Two Treatises of Government were written during the Exclusion crisis in 1681 and may have been intended in part to justify the general armed rising which the Country Party leaders were planning.
There were serious obstacles to a rebellion to force James’ exclusion from the throne. The English Anglican gentry needed to support such an action. But the Anglican church from childhood on taught that: “…men’s political duties were exhaustively determined by their terrestrial superiors, that under grave conscientious scruples they might rightly decline to carry out those decrees of authority which were in direct breach of divine law, they could under no circumstances have a right to resist such authority”. Since by 1679 it was abundantly clear that the King opposed excluding his brother from the throne, to favor exclusion implied “explicit and self-conscious resistance to the sovereign”. Passive resistance would simply not do. On the other hand, the royal policy “outraged their deepest religious prejudices and stimulated their most obscure emotional anxieties.” So, the gentry were deeply conflicted and neither of the choices available to them looked very palatable. John Dunn goes on to remark: “To exert influence upon their choice it was above all necessary to present a more coherent ordering of their values, to show that the political tradition within which the dissenters saw their conduct was not necessarily empirically absurd or socially subversive. The gentry had to be persuaded that there could be reason for rebellion which could make it neither blasphemous or suicidal.” To achieve this goal Locke picked the most relevant and extreme of the supporters of the divine right of Kings to attack. Sir Robert Filmer, a man of the generation of Charles I and the English Civil War, who had defended the crown in various works. His most famous work, however, Patriarcha, was published posthumously in 1680 and represented the most complete and coherent exposition of the view Locke wished to deny. Filmer held that men were born into helpless servitude to an authoritarian family, a social hierarchy and a sovereign whose only constraint was his relationship with God. Under these circumstances, anything other than passive obedience would be “vicious, blasphemous and intellectually absurd.” So, Locke needed to refute Filmer and in Dunn’s words: “rescue the contractarian account of political obligation from the criticism of impiety and absurdity. Only in this way could he restore to the Anglican gentry a coherent basis for moral autonomy or a practical initiative in the field of politics.”
Human Nature and God’s Purposes
According to Locke, God created man and we are, in effect, God’s property. The chief end set us by our creator as a species and as individuals is survival. A wise and omnipotent God, having made people and sent them into this world: …by his order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. It follows immediately that “he has no liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, yet when some nobler use than its bare possession calls for it”. So, murder and suicide violate the divine purpose. If one takes survival as the end, then we may ask what are the means necessary to that end. On Locke’s account, these turn out to be life, liberty, health and property. Since the end is set by God, on Locke’s view we have a right to the means to that end. So we have rights to life, liberty, health and property. These are natural rights, that is they are rights that we have in a state of nature before the introduction of civil government, and all people have these rights equally. There is also a law of nature. It is the Golden Rule, interpreted in terms of natural rights. Thus Locke writes: The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.
Locke tells us that the law of nature is revealed by reason. Locke makes the point about the law that it commands what is best for us. If it did not, he says, the law would vanish for it would not be obeyed. It is in this sense that Locke means that reason reveals the law. If you reflect on what is best for yourself and others, given the goal of survival and our natural equality, you will come to this conclusion.
Locke does not intend his account of the state of nature as a sort of utopia. Rather it serves as an analytical device that explains why it becomes necessary to introduce civil government and what the legitimate function of civil government is. Thus, as Locke conceives it, there are problems with life in the state of nature. The law of nature, like civil laws can be violated. There are no police, prosecutors or judges in the state of nature as these are all representatives of a government with full political power. The victims, then, must enforce the law of nature in the state of nature. In addition to our other rights in the state of nature, we have the rights to enforce the law and to judge on our own behalf. We may, Locke tells us, help one another. We may intervene in cases where our own interests are not directly under threat to help enforce the law of nature. This right eventually serves as the justification for legitimate rebellion. Still, in the state of nature, the person who is most likely to enforce the law under these circumstances is the person who has been wronged. The basic principle of justice is that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. But when the victims are judging the seriousness of the crime, they are more likely to judge it of greater severity than might an impartial judge. As a result, there will be regular miscarriages of justice. This is perhaps the most important problem with the state of nature.
Of War and Slavery
In chapters 3 and 4, Locke defines the states of war and slavery. The state of war is a state in which someone has a sedate and settled intention of violating someone’s right to life (and thus all their other rights). Such a person puts themselves into a state of war with the person whose life they intend to take. In such a war the person who intends to violate someone’s right to life is an unjust aggressor. This is not the normal relationship between people enjoined by the law of nature in the state of nature. Locke is distancing himself from Hobbes who had made the state of nature and the state of war equivalent terms. For Locke, the state of nature is ordinarily one in which we follow the Golden Rule interpreted in terms of natural rights, and thus love our fellow human creatures. The state of war only comes about when someone proposes to violate someone else’s rights. Thus, on Locke’s theory of war, there will always be an innocent victim on one side and an unjust aggressor on the other.
Slavery is the state of being in the absolute or arbitrary power of another. On Locke’s definition of slavery, there is only one rather remarkable way to become a legitimate slave. In order to do so, one must be an unjust aggressor defeated in war. The just victor then has the option to either kill the aggressor or enslave them. Locke tells us that the state of slavery is the continuation of the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive, in which the conqueror delays taking the life of the captive, and instead makes use of him. This is a continued war because if conqueror and captive make some compact for obedience on the one side and limited power on the other, the state of slavery ceases and becomes a relation between a master and a servant in which the master only has limited power over his servant. The reason that slavery ceases with the compact is that “no man, can, by agreement pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life”. Legitimate slavery is an important concept in Locke’s political philosophy largely because it tells us what the legitimate extent of despotic power is and defines and illuminates by contrast the nature of illegitimate slavery. Illegitimate slavery is that state in which someone possesses absolute or despotic power over someone else without just cause. Locke holds that it is this illegitimate state of slavery which absolute monarchs wish to impose upon their subjects. It is very likely for this reason that legitimate slavery is so narrowly defined.
Chapter 5 “Of Property” is one of the most famous, influential and important chapters in the Second Treatise of Government. Indeed, some of the most controversial issues about the Second Treatise come from varying interpretations of it. In this chapter Locke, in effect, describes the evolution of the state of nature to the point where it becomes expedient for those in it to found a civil government. So, it is not only an account of the nature and origin of private property but leads up to the explanation of why civil government replaces the state of nature. In discussing the origin of private property Locke begins by noting that God gave the earth to all men in common. Thus there is a question about how private property comes to be. Locke finds it a serious difficulty. He points out, however, that we are supposed to make use of the earth “for the best advantage of life and convenience”. What then is the means to appropriate property from the common store? Locke argues that private property does not come about by universal consent. If one had to go about and ask everyone if one could eat these berries, one would starve to death before getting everyone’s agreement. Locke holds that we have property in our own person. And the labor of our body and the work of our hands properly belong to us. So, when one picks up acorns or berries, they thereby belong to the person who picked them up. There has been some controversy about what Locke means by “labor”. Daniel Russell claims that for Locke, labor is a goal-directed activity that converts materials that might meet our needs into resources that actually do. This interpretation of what Locke means by “labor” connects nicely with his claim that we have a natural law obligation first to preserve ourselves and then to help in the preservation and flourishing of others.
The Social Contract Theory
Just as natural rights and natural law theory had a fluorescence in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, so did the social contract theory. Why is Locke a social contract theorist? Is it merely that this was one prevailing way of thinking about government at the time which Locke blindly adopted? The answer is that there is something about Locke’s project which pushes him strongly in the direction of the social contract. One might hold that governments were originally instituted by force, and that no agreement was involved. Were Locke to adopt this view, he would be forced to go back on many of the things which are at the heart of his project in the Second Treatise, though cases like the Norman conquest force him to admit that citizens may come to accept a government that was originally forced on them. Remember that the Second Treatise provides Locke’s positive theory of government, and that he explicitly says that he must provide an alternative to the view that all government in the world is merely the product of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules than that of the beasts, where the strongest carries it. So, while Locke might admit that some governments come about through force or violence, he would be destroying the most central and vital distinction, that between legitimate and illegitimate civil government, if he admitted that legitimate government can come about in this way. So, for Locke, legitimate government is instituted by the explicit consent of those governed. Those who make this agreement transfer to the government their right of executing the law of nature and judging their own case. These are the powers which they give to the central government, and this is what makes the justice system of governments a legitimate function of such governments.
Locke and Religious Toleration
The issue of religious toleration was of widespread interest in Europe in the seventeenth century, largely because religious intolerance with accompanying violence was so pervasive. The Reformation had split Europe into competing religious camps, and this provoked civil wars and massive religious persecutions. John Marshall, in his massive study John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture notes that the 1680s were the climactic decade for this kind of persecution. The Dutch Republic, where Locke spent years in exile, had been founded as a secular state which would allow religious differences. This was a reaction to the Catholic persecution of Protestants. However, once the Calvinist Church gained power, they began persecuting other sects, such as the Remonstrants, who disagreed with them. Nonetheless, The Dutch Republic remained the most tolerant country in Europe. In France, religious conflict had been temporarily quieted by the edict of Nantes. But in 1685, the year in which Locke wrote the First Letter concerning religious toleration, Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, and the Huguenots were being persecuted. Though prohibited from doing so, some 200,000 emigrated, while probably 700,000 were forced to convert to Catholicism. People in England were keenly aware of the events taking place in France.
In England itself, religious conflict dominated the seventeenth century, contributing in important respects to the coming of the English Civil War, and the abolishing of the Anglican Church during the Protectorate. After the Restoration of Charles II, Anglicans in parliament passed laws that repressed both Catholics and Protestant sects such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Unitarians who did not agree with the doctrines or practices of the state Church. Of these various dissenting sects, some were closer to the Anglicans, others more remote. One reason, among others, why King Charles may have found Shaftesbury useful was that they were both concerned about religious toleration. They parted when it became clear that the King was mainly interested in toleration for Catholics, and Shaftesbury for Protestant dissenters. One widely discussed strategy for reducing religious conflict in England was called comprehension. The idea was to reduce the doctrines and practices of the Anglican church to a minimum so that most, if not all, of the dissenting sects would be included in the state church. For those which even this measure would not serve, there was to be toleration. Toleration we may define as a lack of state persecution. Neither of these strategies made much progress during the course of the Restoration.
When Locke fled to Holland after the discovery of the Rye house plot, he became involved with a group of scholars advocating religious toleration. This group included Benjamin Furly, a quaker with whom Locke lived for a while, the noted philosopher Pierre Bayle, several Dutch theologians, and many others. This group read all the arguments for religious intolerance and discussed them in book and conversation clubs. Members of the group considered toleration not only for Protestants and Protestant dissenters but Jews, Moslems, and Catholics. A recent discovery of a page of Locke’s reflections on toleration of Catholics shows that Locke considered even the pros and cons of toleration for Catholics. Some members of the group also wrote tolerationist articles and books. They helped each other get jobs. Some of their members founded journals that reviewed books and articles on religious, scientific, and other topics. The group took the notion of free speech, civility, and politeness in discourse seriously. They called themselves the ‘the Republic of Letters’ or in Locke’s phrase ‘the commonwealth of learning”.
At Oxford, Locke avoided becoming an Anglican priest. Still, Locke himself claimed to be an Anglican until he died and Locke’s nineteenth-century biographer Fox Bourne thought that Locke was an Anglican. Others have identified him with the Latitudinarians—a movement among Anglicans to argue for a reasonable Christianity that dissenters ought to accept. Still, there are some reasons to think that Locke was neither an orthodox Anglican or a Latitudinarian. Locke got Isaac Newton to write Newton’s most powerful anti-Trinitarian tract. Locke arranged to have the work published anonymously in Holland though in the end, Newton decided not to publish (McLachlan 1941). This strongly suggests that Locke too was by this time an Arian or unitarian. asserted the primacy of the Father over the Son and thus rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Newton held that the Church had gone in the wrong direction in condemning Arius.) Given that one main theme of Locke’s Letter on Toleration is that there should be a separation between Church and State, this does not seem like the view of a man devoted to a state religion. It might appear that Locke’s writing The Reasonableness of Christianity in which he argues that the basic doctrines of Christianity are few and compatible with reason make him a Latitudinarian. Yet Richard Ashcraft has argued that comprehension for the Anglicans meant conforming to the existing practices of the Anglican Church; that is, the abandonment of religious dissent. Ashcraft also suggests that Latitudinarians were thus not a moderate middle ground between contending extremes but part of one of the extremes— “the acceptable face of the persecution of religious dissent”. Ashcraft holds that while the Latitudinarians may have represented the “rational theology” of the Anglican church, there was a competing dissenting “rational theology”. Thus, while it is true that Locke had Latitudinarian friends, given Ashcraft’s distinction between Anglican and dissenting “rational theologies”, it is entirely possible that The Reasonableness of Christianity is a work of dissenting “rational theology”.
Locke had been thinking, talking and writing about religious toleration since 1659. His views evolved. In the early 1660s he very likely was an orthodox Anglican. He and Shaftesbury had instituted religious toleration in the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas (1669). He wrote the Epistola de Tolerantia in Latin in 1685 while in exile in Holland. He very likely was seeing Protestant refugees pouring over the borders from France where Louis XIV had just revoked the Edict of Nantes. Holland itself was a Calvinist theocracy with significant problems with religious toleration. But Locke’s Letter does not confine itself to the issues of the time. Locke gives a principled account of religious toleration, though this is mixed in with arguments which apply only to Christians, and perhaps in some cases only to Protestants. He excluded both Catholics and atheists from religious toleration. In the case of Catholics it was because he regarded them as agents of a foreign power. Because they do not believe in God, atheists, on Locke’s account: “Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist”. He gives his general defense of religious toleration while continuing the anti-Papist rhetoric of the Country party which sought to exclude James II from the throne.