Locke, the son of a country lawyer, born in 1632, grew up in "one of the most extraordinary centuries of English political and intellectual history." He lived to see battles between the Crown and Parliament overlapping with conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics, which all swirled into civil war in the 1640s. Once the reigning king Charles I was defeated (and beheaded), England tried a great experiment in government by abolishing the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Anglican church while it established a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. When the Protectorate collapsed after the death of Cromwell, Charles II was restored to the throne and the House of Lords and the Anglican Church were reinstituted. This return to the past (which lasted from 1660-1685) was far from peaceful though and was "marked by continued conflicts between King and Parliament, and debates over religious toleration for Protestant dissenters and Catholics." Finally, after three years under the reign of the Scottish Catholic King James II, England had its Glorious Revolution in 1688 when James II was driven from England and replaced by William of Orange and his wife Mary. This was a major turning point in English history as it marked the time when the balance of power in the English government passed from the King to the Parliament.
Tumultuous times indeed. And Locke was not just a witness to the history of these events. He was on board the royal yacht from Holland accompanying Princess Mary in 1688 to reunite with her conquering husband. Locke's thoughts were a major influence on the Bill of Rights of 1689—a formal parliamentary restatement of the invitation that had been extended to William and Mary to become joint sovereigns of England. This Bill of Rights was one of the most important documents in the political history of Britain, and was an influential predecessor of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the United States Bill of Rights (1791), the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953). The Bill laid out certain basic rights for all Englishmen and quickly became popular nationwide. The Act stated that there should be:
- no royal interference with the law.
- no taxation by Royal Prerogative.
- freedom to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.
- no standing army during a time of peace without the consent of parliament.
- no royal interference in the freedom of the people to have arms for their own defence as suitable to their class and as allowed by law.
- no royal interference in the election of members of Parliament.
- the freedom of speech and debates.
- no excessive bail or "cruel and unusual" punishments.
Never again was the monarchy to establish primacy in the United Kingdom (a name looking more and more anachronistic all the time). As a philosopher who loves to see good thoughts put into action by the people of a nation, I wondered how it was that Locke first put his thoughts together and then achieved such sway with them. I suppose it was inevitable that centuries of off-and-on fighting among monarchs over religion would eventually lead to the thought that we might be better off without either of those factions in control. And Locke was lucky enough (and brave enough and diligent enough) to be there with those thoughts when the right forces came together to change history without him having to lose his head over the matter.
Educated at Oxford, Locke had a long and fortuitous career there. He received his B.A. in 1656 and his Master of Arts in 1658. He was elected as a Lecturer in Greek in 1660, and a Lecturer in Rhetoric in 1663. Shortly after this, Locke needed to make a decision about what to study if he wanted to remain ensconced in this scholarly community. Fifty-five positions were available for future clergymen, two for law, two for medicine, and one for moral philosophy. The easy way forward would have been to study religion, but Locke chose to be a doctor. This somewhat random and difficult choice (as so many we make in our own formative years are) would turn out to be very fortunate. The new leader of the Oxford scientific group was Robert Boyle (he of Boyle's Law about the relationship between pressure and volume in gases, as well as one of the founding members of the English Royal Society when it was established in 1660). Boyle became Locke's scientific mentor and taught him about atomism, a perspective which made him critical of elements in Descartes' philosophy. Through his studies in medicine, Locke continued his involvement with the earth-shattering scientific movement that was going on at the time. He would later read a paper by his fellow Royal Society member Isaac Newton titled Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, and even consult with Christiaan Huygens as to the soundness of its mathematics.
Keeping at the forefront of science and philosophy was an important precursor to Locke's success, but it was a chance meeting that thrust his expertise into the heart of the action that was taking place. In 1666, Locke was running a laboratory / pharmacy with a friend, when Lord Ashley of Shaftesbury, one of the richest men in England, came to Oxford to drink the medicinal waters there. Lord Ashley had asked Locke's partner to provide these waters, but as he had to be out of town, the friend asked Locke to deliver the waters instead. Locke and Ashley met, liked one another, and "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." Among Ashley's commercial projects was an effort to found colonies in the Carolinas, and so Locke was involved in the writing of the fundamental constitution of the Carolinas—surely a formative piece of practice as well as a chance to burnish his credentials and reputation. Shaftesbury, as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas and when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672, Locke became further immersed in the politics of the realm. As we know though, the politics of that day were filled with intrigue and massive, swift, reversals of fortune. Shaftesbury came in and out of favour. Locke had to go in and out of exile to both France and Holland (where there were alternating periods of religious wars and toleration as well). Over two decades, one of the brightest minds of his time was kept on the run learning about different forms of government and encountering scientific advancements that overturned the cosmology of both of the Churches that were at war with one another. While in exile, Locke finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and became closely associated with other English revolutionaries in exile. English intelligence services infiltrated the rebel group in Holland and thwarted their efforts for a while, but ultimately, the rebels were successful in their Glorious Revolution when King James II alienated most of his supporters and William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England. The Dutch Republic had been founded as a secular state to allow for religious differences, and this was obviously what England needed more of. What heady times it must have been for Locke to return to his birth nation with the chance to take part in rewriting its government. What a string of lucky breaks it was to put him in that position, when any number of them could have gone horribly wrong.
After his return from exile, Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and it was a truly revolutionary piece of work. The First Treatise aimed at refuting the Divine Right of Kings. The Second Treatise provided Locke's positive theory of government—an account that involved several ideas common at the time including natural rights theory and the social contract. Europeans had long had encounters with the natives of North America by this time, which set them thinking often and hard about the "state of nature" and the reason societies progressed or not. Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that "political society existed for the sake of protecting property, which he defined as a person's life, liberty, and estate." He argued that people have such rights independent of the laws of any particular society. Coming from where he did, losing his own possessions time and time again, and seeing nations of men around him losing the same and more, it's no wonder Locke came up with these ideas and found them gladly accepted. Before we evaluate them in the light of today's understanding though, let's hear some more direct words from Locke himself.
Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.
New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.
It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.
Those who have not thoroughly examined to the bottom all their own tenets, must confess they are unfit to prescribe to others; and are unreasonable in imposing that as truth on other men's belief, which they themselves have not searched into, nor weighed the arguments of probability, on which they should receive or reject it.
Religion, which should most distinguish us from the beasts, and ought most particularly elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts.
He that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not, will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it.
One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.
John Locke (1632-1704 CE) was an English physician and philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered the first of the British empiricists, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work had a great impact upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the American Declaration of Independence.
Needs to Adapt
Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self. He was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. Locke defines the self as "that conscious thinking thing, (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” He does not, however, ignore "substance," writing that "the body too goes to the making of the man.” The Lockean self is therefore a self-aware and self-reflective consciousness that is fixed in a body. Destruction of the body in the form of Alzheimer’s, amnesia, or stroke, leads one to lose that continuity of consciousness by the self. That doesn’t change the identity of the individual. Identity is therefore independent from consciousness. Identity lies at the Mind x Body intersection. One helpful analogy is to say identity is like a river. Not the water that flows through it, but the channel that actually forms the river. When storms occur and water is high, the river is deepened. When drought occurs, the river slows and silts up. When earthquakes or glaciers reshape the landscape, the riverbed may hold no water at all. If we know the events that carved the river, we can recognize its identity no matter what state it is in. Likewise, we can recognize identity when we know the events that shaped it. If you know the river and are told the volume of water that will flow its way, you know what the river will look like. If you know a person and are told the events that will occur to them, you will recognize how they handle it. This is how we know people after long absences, and this is how changes during brief separations can surprise us.
Locke's political theory was founded on social contract theory. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. In a natural state all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions.” This was the basis for the phrase in America, "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are no rights in the natural state - nature is harsh and takes what it can. It is competition within evolutionary systems that causes everyone to defend their life, health, liberty, and possessions. If they did not, they would not survive. Rights only come from the state, which are granted in return for recognizing the benefits of social cooperation. In a natural state, humans were hierarchical and fought to establish dominance and subservience, but we have learned that it is more efficient to cooperate and not to fight to maintain hierarchies.
Locke argued that property is a natural right and it is derived from labor. Labor creates property, but it also does contain limits to its accumulation: man’s capacity to produce and man’s capacity to consume. According to Locke, unused property is waste and an offense against nature, although money makes possible the unlimited accumulation of property without causing waste through spoilage. Again, only the state can grant rights. Nature grants no right to property no matter how much labor has been put into it. Ask bees or beavers. Notice that humans also feel the “right” to property even when they have not worked at all for it - as in inheritance. Waste and inefficiency are missed opportunities to live better and stave off extinction. Money has made possible the creation of inequality exponentially greater than in the natural state. These levels of inequality are grave threats to the ethics of social cooperation.
Locke postulated that the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to pre-existing Cartesian philosophy, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception. Recent experiments with infants have revealed that they come “pre-wired” with some emotional and learning capabilities. This is more evidence that it is not nature or nurture, but nature x nurture. It is more evidence for the middle way.
Not bad for creating a political philosophy without the benefit of hundreds of years of democracy that we now have. Seeing the difficulties that America has run into after all this time, one can't help but wonder if it will adapt and survive, or suffer some overthrow and be replaced by newer, better ideas. I'd like to think we can change things smoothly and without unnecessary upheaval, but part of me would love to be around, like Locke, for a more revolutionary change.