Article abstract: One of the first modern philosophers, Locke combined the rational, deductive theory of René Descartes and the inductive, scientific experimentalism of Francis Bacon and the Royal Society. He gave the Western world the first modern theory of human nature and a new synthesis of the individualistic concept of liberty and the theory of government that was emerging out of the debates over natural law.
John Locke was born in the small English village of Wrington, in Somerset, on August 29, 1632. His father, John Locke, was a local attorney of modest means. His mother, née Agnes Kneene, was the daughter of a local tanner. Both parents were educated Puritans, and while the home atmosphere was austere, it was also intellectual. Locke’s father was a stern and taciturn man who seemed little interested in his son during his youth, but grew friendlier as Locke became an adult. Agnes Locke was ten years older than her husband and thirty-five when John, her first son, was born. She was a pious and affectionate mother. Locke had only one brother, Thomas, born August 9, 1637. Shortly after John Locke’s birth, the family moved to Belluton and a larger and more comfortable farmhouse.
Locke’s early education was at home. By 1647, at the age of fifteen, his father arranged an appointment to Westminster School, located next to Westminster Abbey in London. Headmaster Richard Busby was a remarkable teacher with definite conservative sympathies toward the Royalists and the Church of England. Even though Parliament had gained the upper hand in the Civil War with the king, Busby kept his post. Although he was not able to influence Locke toward either political or religious orthodoxy, Busby apparently cooled his pupil’s zeal for the Puritan faith. In 1650, Locke was elected a King’s Scholar. This meant that he boarded in the school instead of private quarters outside and, more important, would be eligible for a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge when he was graduated. Locke studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic in order to read the great books written in those languages. In 1651, Locke’s brother, Thomas, also came to Westminster. In later years, Locke criticized boarding schools severely for the cruelty and violence they encouraged, indicating that those were not happy years for him. Only four of his schoolmates remained his friends in later life.
Locke grew to be tall and slender, a handsome man with a long, sensitive, and patrician face, a high forehead, large, dark, expressive eyes, a full mouth, and a dimpled chin. In later years, he often wore a wig in the style of his times, but he never lost his own hair. Locke did not change much as he grew older, except that his hair turned white and his face grew thinner.
In May of 1652, when he was twenty, Locke was last on a list of six Westminster students elected for scholarships to Christ Church, Oxford, where he enrolled the next November. Although Oxford had suffered greatly during the Civil War, it had become a more settled place by the time Locke arrived. The curriculum was still medieval, and three and a half years’ study in logic, metaphysics, and classical languages were required for the bachelor’s degree. Latin was the spoken language, and all students attended religious services twice daily. While at Oxford, Locke acquired the lifelong idiosyncrasy of using ciphers, invisible ink, code names, and other devices to keep secrets. He seems to have cultivated an aura of romantic mystery for himself, an unexpected trait for someone renowned as the founder of the Age of Reason.
When Locke earned his B.A. in 1656, he decided to begin the three years of study required for the master of arts degree. What attracted him was not the regular curriculum with its methodology of disputation (he saw little chance of finding truth in that way) but rather the new learning, just making its appearance in the sciences, with its empirical methodology. He attended meetings to discuss the discoveries of Vesalius, William Harvey, William Gilbert, and Paracelsus, among others, whose work was based on observation. This was the beginning of a lifelong study of science, medicine, and experimental philosophy. Locke concluded that unquestioning adherence to tradition and trusting emotional convictions were the two principal causes of human error; Royalists and Puritans, respectively, were his prime examples. Locke practiced medicine throughout his adult life and seems to have had something of a gift for it, but he was never much of a scientist. As a philosopher of the empirical and rational method of the scientific search for knowledge, however, he had few peers.
For Oxford, these were hard years as the political fortunes of the Royalist and Parliamentarian factions shifted back and forth and were reflected in changes at the university. Since religion was still a matter of state at this time, each shift brought a different religious focus. Out of these struggles grew an interest in toleration among the students and scholars at Oxford. Within the context of this debate, Locke concluded that toleration was a nice idea but impractical. He thought religious zealots, such as most Puritans, had proved dangerous to society’s peace and security, while Catholics were always suspect because their allegiance to the pope could too easily make them traitors. Later in his life, Locke would take a more liberal stand, but the change grew out of experience, not principle. Interestingly, some of his arguments against toleration were cribbed from Thomas Hobbes’s great work Leviathan (1651), although he never acknowledged his debt to Hobbes, not unusual for Locke’s time.
Locke was also beginning to think seriously about the concept of natural law, especially the idea that it incorporated a moral code that was knowable to rational beings, and compelling once known. His ideas on the subject were as yet poorly formed. The theory was not new; it dated back to the Greek Stoics and had been adopted by medieval Christianity as the law of God. The idea of natural law was then reclaimed in the Renaissance by secular interests as the basis for a new theory of government and was a popular issue for scholarly debate in Locke’s time. It was the Greek and Renaissance forms that interested Locke. He rejected the medieval theory that man innately knew the law of nature as it applied to human conduct. He was already moving toward a theory that explained all knowledge as the result of experience.
Locke’s father died on February 13, 1661, and his one brother, Thomas, died in late 1663. That left him alone in the world, since his mother had died in 1654. Locke’s father left him some land and a few cottages, which provided him a small but adequate income the rest of his life. Locke had numerous female friends throughout his life and seems to have been close to marriage at least twice. For reasons on which he chose not to comment, however, he remained a bachelor.
Christ Church elected him lecturer in Greek the same year that his father died, and in 1663 he was appointed lecturer in rhetoric. During these early years as a teacher, Locke periodically considered becoming a clergyman to advance his career. Permanent faculty members customarily took holy orders. His dislike of theology and his interest in science, however, seem to have been the deciding factors, and he never did so. His great friend and scientific mentor, and the leading scientist of the day at Oxford, was Robert Boyle. He advised Locke to concentrate on scientific research and leave theology to those who loved disputation.
In 1665, while the Great Plague was ravaging London, King Charles II and his court came to Christ Church for an extended stay. Locke may have met the king at that time, because Locke was offered the post of secretary to the diplomatic mission in Brandenburg. What interested Locke most while on this assignment, was how easily Brandenburgers accepted religious differences. A change in his thoughts on toleration dates from this experience. Locke was offered several other posts with diplomatic missions but declined, preferring to stay at Oxford.
In the summer of 1666, Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper, then Baron Ashley and later Earl of Shaftesbury. There immediately developed between them a deep respect and admiration which evolved into a collaboration. Cooper invited Locke to Exeter House, his London home, first as a houseguest and then as his personal physician. Locke accepted because he liked Cooper and the city, and because many of his friends lived in London. Cooper knew most of the prominent intellectuals of his day and introduced Locke to them. In this environment, Locke, heretofore a minor Oxford scholar, amateur scientist, and unqualified medical practitioner, discovered his talent as a philosopher. While Locke did occasionally perform medical services for Cooper and his family, and in at least one instance may have saved Cooper’s life, Locke was chiefly a friend, confidant, and adviser to Cooper in his many political activities, especially during his tenure as one of the king’s leading ministers in 1672 and again in 1678.
Religion was a critical concern of English politics during the reign of Charles II. Although the king was personally willing to allow all Englishmen to worship as they pleased, Parliament was adamantly opposed to all but the Church of England. Complicating matters, Charles II’s heir was his brother James, Duke of York, who had publicly announced his conversion to Catholicism. Prompted by Cooper, who advocated toleration, Locke almost finished A Letter Concerning Toleration by 1667, although it was not published until 1689. In fact, none of his important works was published until late in his life. He was an overly...
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