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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4027

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 cautious man in an unsettled political atmosphere. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke distinguished between those actions and opinions which concerned politics and society, and those which did not. He argued that toleration of the latter was necessary. Locke concluded that all Christian religions except Catholicism must be tolerated. Catholic allegiance to the papacy and the threat to social peace posed by all non-Christians disqualified both groups from toleration. For his day, that was a liberal position and, as a result of Locke’s later fame, influential in the evolution of full toleration in England. Locke’s personal religious convictions were few. He rejected nearly all dogma except a belief in God, and he argued for a rational interpretation of Christianity in all other matters.

Also as a result of Cooper’s interest, Locke had become concerned about economics and matters of trade. Through Cooper’s influence, Locke received appointments to public offices related to trade and commerce and invested in various commercial enterprises. Locke was meticulously careful with money and was very knowledgeable about finance. He always made a profit from his investments. He wrote several essays to protest government policies that he thought unwise or unfair.

In 1671, as a result of ill health, Locke went to France for an extended visit. While in France, he met Samuel von Pufendorf, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and a number of others connected to the French Royal Society. Locke traveled extensively in France and later in England because of his continuing respiratory problems, which were aggravated by the London smog. While traveling, he maintained an extensive correspondence with his friends.

By 1681, Cooper was out of government and involved in a plot to overthrow Charles II in order to put the king’s bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth, on the throne. The purpose was to prevent the king’s legitimate heir, his brother James, from succeeding him and giving England a Catholic monarch. After the plot was discovered in 1682, it became dangerous for anyone to be associated with Cooper. This included Locke, who slipped out of England secretly and by February of 1683 was in Rotterdam. He lived in various cities in the Netherlands, part of the time in hiding to avoid extradition, and did not return to England until 1690. It was, however, a productive period for Locke. He spent the winter of 1684-1685 in Utrecht beginning work on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, finishing it by late 1686. Before publishing it he released several short, descriptive summaries to promote sales of the essay. The essay itself was not printed until 1690.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke was addressing three questions: How do we gain knowledge? How trustworthy is that knowledge? and What is the scope or extent of what can be known? Although Locke claimed to be approaching these questions empirically, an empiricist would not attempt to answer the third question, or even perhaps the second, before all knowledge was known. Locke was more indebted to the rationalism of Descartes than he admitted. Empiricism, however, was the method he tried to use to demonstrate his conclusions, and, in the process, he presented a radically new view and definition of human nature. Locke was certain that people were born with minds empty of any knowledge and that the mind’s only links with the external world were through the senses. The mind had the capability of forming abstract ideas after reflecting on sensory perceptions it received and of constructing from those ideas even more complex abstractions. Locke made a clear distinction between knowledge by reason, which can be empirically demonstrated, and faith or opinion, which he thought was ungrounded fantasy. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding also contains an extensive discussion of language and the use of words. A major achievement of the essay was in separating faith from reason in types of philosophical inquiry and in demonstrating which would lead to trustworthy knowledge. Locke’s was a view of human nature radically different from what Christian theologians had proposed. There was no place in Locke’s scheme for original sin or predestination to evil; human behavior came from thought which was learned and subject to the influence of reason and observation.

While in the Netherlands, Locke was involved in some other minor writing projects and in editing his Letter on Toleration. He also spent time visiting friends including Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, and Prince William of Orange and his wife, Mary, the next monarchs of England. Charles II had died in 1685 and was succeeded by James II, but by 1688 the English were so offended by their new king that they invited William and Mary to intervene and take the throne. Locke was delighted by their acceptance and the flight of James II. He made ready to return home immediately, having been offered space aboard Princess Mary’s ship, and arrived in England February 20, 1689.

King William offered Locke several diplomatic posts, but Locke refused to leave England and accepted only a part-time position as commissioner of appeals. Locke’s Oxford position had been lost while he was in the Netherlands. He asked to have it restored but withdrew the request upon learning that someone else would be dispossessed. Locke was soon involved in finishing his great work of political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, publishing it anonymously in 1690.

Locke had written the first drafts of the Two Treatises of Government back in 1681 when Cooper was planning to overthrow Charles II. Although Cooper’s activities may have been part of Locke’s inspiration, the issues raised were ones that had been under discussion among Europe’s intellectuals for some time, and Locke was already familiar with them. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 made the Two Treatises of Government apposite again. There is no evidence to support Locke’s statement that there were originally three treatises and that the longer middle one had been lost. Scholars are at a loss to explain Locke’s claim. The first treatise was written as a detailed refutation of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), an undistinguished work in defense of autocracy that had become popular in Royalist circles. Although Locke cited Hobbes as his antagonist, Hobbes was unpopular and Locke’s arguments were more clearly in opposition to Filmer’s than to Hobbes’s. The reason for the subterfuge is unknown. The second treatise proposed an alternative theory for the origins and purpose of government based on natural law. Locke maintained that because God had given each person his or her life, it was part of God’s natural law that the individual was the only rightful owner of his life, that each had this right equally, and that the right was therefore inalienable. Besides life, there were the other primary rights of liberty and property, which were necessary to preserve life, and without which an inalienable right to life could have little value. From these three, all other rights were derived. Locke argued that before government existed (which he called a state of nature), each person had sole responsibility for the defense of his or her own rights. For convenience and the better protection of their rights, especially property, people established societies with governments by consenting to a social contract. For Locke, if followed that the only legitimate reason a government had for existing was to preserve and protect rights. If the government then violated individual rights, it destroyed the social contract. This violation released the individual from any obligation and justified rebellion in order to establish a new social contract.

Between 1688 and 1690, the three most important of Locke’s works were published. In the years following 1690, he published a number of lesser items, including a special edition of Aesop’s Fables in 1691, printed in English and Latin to help children learn Latin; his first economics essay, written in 1672, Some Considerations of the Consequences of Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money (1692); a Third Letter for Toleration (1692), in answer to a critic; History of Air in 1692, edited for his old friend Boyle, who had died and left the manuscript in rough form; Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693); second, third, and fourth editions of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he expanded his arguments; The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (1695); and vindications of several works that had been attacked by other writers.

Locke was also interested in current affairs. He was the dominant commissioner on the Board of Trade from 1695 to 1700 and undertook several projects to influence his friends in Parliament on economic issues. Specifically, he wanted Parliament to allow the censorship law to lapse in 1695, and to issue new coins with milled edges to prevent clipping. They did both.

Locke kept up the habit formed during the years he was a member of Cooper’s household of creating discussion clubs. These usually met weekly in a tavern and discussed science, politics, or philosophy, or all three. Members of the clubs had included Cooper, John Somers, Lord Pembroke, and other important educated people. He also found time to visit his many friends, including Sir Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren. By 1695, his asthma was so bad during the London winters that he moved permanently to the home of Lady Masham, his closest female friend, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He had become a famous man of letters in England and throughout Europe. A steady stream of friends, disciples, and dignitaries came to visit and pay their respects. Because of failing health, he refused, in 1697, the personal request of King William III to take the post of embassy secretary in Paris at a critical time in the negotiation of the Partition Treaties with King Louis XIV. He chose his young cousin, Peter King, as his heir and gave him help and advice to further his career as a lawyer and statesman. King became Lord High Chancellor of England for a time after Locke’s death. In 1700, Locke began having trouble with swelling in his legs, which kept him in bed for extended periods. Locke continually prepared himself for death, which, periodically, he thought was imminent. Nothing, however, ever interfered with his mental powers. Locke kept up a voluminous correspondence and read the latest important books and papers. His physical condition grew steadily weaker throughout 1703 and 1704, and on Saturday, October 28, 1704, he was unable to rise without help and died peacefully sitting in a chair shortly after 3:00 P.M. with Lady Masham by his side. Locke was buried quickly and privately in the nearby village churchyard of High Lever, as he had requested. He was seventy-two years old.


John Locke left an extraordinary intellectual legacy. His essays on toleration were a major contribution on the subject and deserve some of the credit for the development of a more liberal government policy toward religious beliefs. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding created a new image of human nature substantiated by empirical observation. Locke objected to medieval rationalism because the premises of any disputation were determined by theology. Earlier philosophers had attempted to separate theology from rationalism but failed to provide an alternative means of substantiating their conclusions, resulting in some bizarre concepts in philosophy. Locke’s insistence on empirical evidence gave the study of human nature a scientific basis, doing for the social sciences what Newton did for the natural sciences.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government were a synthesis of a long-standing debate among Europe’s intellectuals. In his work, the combination of natural law theory and the concept of vested rights were clearly stated for the first time, transforming the latter into the principle of inalienable rights. These rights became a matter of universal principle and a specific manifestation of a new individualistic definition of liberty. Later, Enlightenment philosophes expanded Locke’s ideas to create new visions of how a society should be structured and the ways in which progress could be achieved.


Berlin, Isaiah, ed. The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth Century Philosophers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1956. Selections from original sources of nine representative Enlightenment writers, one of whom is Locke. The introduction to each author and commentary on selections are useful for readers interested in sampling the variety of Enlightenment thought.

Cranston, Maurice William. John Locke: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1957. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1979. This is the best scholarly biography of Locke and the only one to make full use of the Lovelace collection of Locke manuscripts. In spite of irritatingly long and frequent quotations and sometimes poor organization, it is a readable and informative work.

Dewhurst, Kenneth. John Locke (1632-1704), Physician and Philosopher: A Medical Biography. London: Thames and Hudson, 1963. Dewhurst concentrates on Locke’s lifelong interest in medicine but offers interesting details on Locke’s life and ideas in general.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966, reprint 1969. A brilliant and elegant interpretation of the Enlightenment. The first volume examines the revolt against the intellectually stifling dogma of religion and the second describes the interaction of culture, economics, and politics to shape the programs of reform proposed. Locke is mentioned briefly but frequently as a touchstone of the era.

Gough, John W. John Locke’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950. A scholarly analysis of Locke’s political philosophy. Gough pays attention to Locke’s personal life.

Jones, James Rees. Country and Court: England, 1658-1714. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. An excellent and scholarly general history of England during Locke’s adult life. Narrative and interpretive, well organized, and interestingly written. Locke is mentioned only in passing.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: E. Holt, 1690. Reprint. Edited by Alexander Campbell-Fraser. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894. The definitive edition of Locke’s most original work with a helpful introduction and explanatory notes. For those who want to read and interpret Locke for themselves.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London: A. Churchill, 1690. Rev. ed. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. This is the definitive edition and is accompanied with many informative footnotes and a long introduction that not only summarizes Locke’s life but also discusses the publication history and significance of Locke’s essay.

Smith, Alan G. R. Science and Society in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972. One of the best histories of the scientific revolution for the general reader in print. Discusses not only the specific discoveries but also the broad social context in which these discoveries were made and their impact on society.

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