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John Locke

INTRODUCTION: Our story has its being in the beginning of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, a time of our intellectual awakening. The Enlightenment began when the Dark Ages ended, a time when the minds of men were cowed by the great mystery of the universe and their minds, through ignorance, were ruled by fears. The Enlightenment was a time when man, stepping out of his shackles, began to use his rational facilities and pulled himself out of the medieval pits of mysticism and in the process shoved aside the state and church authorities of the day. It was a spontaneous and defused movement which fed upon itself and led to the great scientific discoveries from which we all benefit today. Beliefs in natural law and universal order sprung up, which not only promoted scientific findings and advancements of a material nature, but which also gave a scientific approach to political and social issues. Thinkers expressed their thoughts in writing and read the thoughts of others, these brilliant lights of the Enlightenment included the likes of: Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Montesquieu (1689-1755), Voltaire (1694- 1766), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-88), David Hume (1711-76), and Adam Smith (1723-1790). One, foremost among their ranks, was John Locke (1632-1704) the life and works of whom we now proceed to briefly examine.1

2. LOCKE'S LIFE: John Locke's mother died while he was still in infancy. His father was a "country lawyer" and a captain in the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War; he died while John was still young. John Locke was elected to a life of studentship at Christ Church, Oxford.2 As a young man Locke cast about somewhat for a position in life. He might have become a cleric except for the fact that the authorities did not appreciate his anti-Aristotelian views that matter and life was static, was not something to which Locke could subscribe.3

Having studied medicine (he did not receive a degree) Locke was willing to help out those who saw him with

a medical problem, indeed, he become known as "Dr Locke." In 1666, Anthony "Ashley" Cooper was

referred to Locke with a medical complaint. (Ashley was Locke's senior by eleven years.) "Dr Locke" successfully operated, much to Ashley's relief, and cleaned out "an abscess in the chest." This was to be a most fortunate turn of events for Locke, for Ashley was no ordinary man, he was the first Earl of Shaftesbury, a Lord of the realm. Thus, Locke was swept into the halls of power, perched confidently on the tails of Lord Shaftesbury (1621-83). In 1672, Shaftesbury became the lord chancellor and Locke, his friend, was appointed to be the secretary of a very powerful Board.4

These were interesting historic times; political fortunes would shift in and out (more than once was Shaftesbury sent to the Tower). Locke -- he did not subscribe to the "Divine Right Theory" -- found it, at times, best to put some distance between himself and the political foes of Lord Shaftesbury; indeed, Locke, during the years 1684-1689, was out of the country, in France and in Holland.5

Upon his return to England, in 1689, Locke adopted a life style that allowed him to compile his works and make them ready for the press.6 Thus, we see, in 1690, the publication of Locke's two principal works:

Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government7. On October 28th, 1704, Locke died; he was buried in the church yard of High Laver.8

I now pass on to Locke's works

study of his books we should turn. Briefly, the core of Locke's beliefs are to be found in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). It is with this book that there was established the principles of modern Empiricism (the human mind begins as a tabula rasa, and we learn through experience). It is in this book, Human Understanding, that we see Locke attacking the rationalist doctrine of innate ideas. His other work naturally follows: Two Treatises of Government (1690). Locke's Treatises were written in defense of the Glorious Revolution: that government rests on popular consent and rebellion is permissible when government subverts the ends - the protection of life, liberty, and property - for which it is established.

life, liberty, and property - for which it is established. ; for -- as much as

; for -- as much as the life of Locke may be of interest to us -- it is to the


3. LOCKE'S VIEWS ON HUMAN NATURE 3(a). Idealists, Materialists, and Dualists: The elementary question to be asked by all

philosophers is, "what is the nature and ultimate significance of the universe." As things developed in philosophy, three camps emerged: there were those who hold reality subsists only in thought -- these are idealists; those who hold reality to subsist in only matter -- these are materialists; and those who old that reality subsists both in thought and in matter -- these are dualists.

3(b). Tabula Rasa & Empiricism: Ultimately, in his acceptance of the existence of God, Locke was a dualist -- though only barely so; he did not consider man to be a divine creature fixed with ideas on coming into this world. Locke was an empiricist, viz., all knowledge comes to us through experience. "No man's knowledge here can go beyond his experience." There is no such thing as innate ideas; there is no such thing as moral precepts9; we are born with an empty mind, with a soft tablet (tabula rasa) ready to be writ upon by experimental impressions. Beginning blank, the human mind acquires knowledge through the use of the five senses and a process of reflection. Not only has Locke's empiricism been a dominant tradition in British philosophy, but it has been a doctrine which with its method, experimental science, has brought on scientific discoveries ever since, scientific discoveries on which our modern world now depends.

4. LOCKE'S VIEWS ON GOVERNMENT: Locke's views on government, as the title will tell, are expressed in his work Two Treatises of Government. In summary, with this work, Locke defended the proposition that government rests on popular consent and rebellion is permissible when government subverts the ends (the protection of life, liberty, and property) for which it is established.

Locke's First Treatise was a systematic and almost labored attack in detail on Sir Robert Filmer (1590- 1653), and especially on Patriarcha, a work published in 1680. Patriarcha was a sustained attack in defense of divine monarchy. It seems that Locke was not so much interested in Filmer but rather was using him as a stalking horse to attack the far more powerful political teachings of Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan (1651).

Locke's Second Treatise, by far, is the more influential work. In it, he set forth his theory of natural law and natural right; in it, he shows that there does exist a rational purpose to government and one need not rely on "myth, mysticism, and mystery." Against anarchy, Locke saw his job as one who must defend government as an institution. Locke's object was to insist not only that the public welfare was the test of good government and the basis for properly imposing obligations on the citizens of a country; but, also, that the public welfare made government necessary.

4(a). Hobbesian Pre-Social Man: In uncivilized times, in times before government, Hobbes asserted there existed continual war with "every man, against every man." A time of "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." On this point Locke and Hobbes were not in agreement. Locke, consistent with his philosophy, viewed man as naturally moral.10 The reason man would willingly contract into civil society is not to shake his brutish state, but rather that he may advance his ends (peace and security) in a more efficient manner. To achieve his ends man gives up, in favour of the state, a certain amount of his personal power and freedom.

4(b). Lockeian Pre-Social Man: Locke maintained that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. He further maintained that all human beings, in their natural state, were equal and free to pursue life, health, liberty, and possessions; and that these were inalienable rights.11 Pre-social man as a moral being, and as an individual, contracted out "into civil society by surrendering personal power to the ruler and magistrates," and did so as "a method of securing natural morality more efficiently." To Locke, natural justice exists and this is so whether the state exists, or not, it is just that the state might better guard natural justice.


4(c). Raison D'Etre of Government: And, so, we have the raison d'etre of government as developed by Locke. Professor W. H. Hutt explains:

"In Civil Government Locke expounds the Individualistic view of private property, and again lays down the quintessence of Individualism. 'The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.' He qualifies his theory of a Social Contract, Compact, or Covenant, by pointing out that 'men when

they enter into society give up

liberty of a kind; yet it being only with an intention in every one

the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property,' the power conferred 'can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone's property,' etc., etc. This artful qualification of the common good, serves as a complete defence of the 'Glorious Revolution,' which gave us effective parliamentary government."12 I should add that this role of government described by Locke remained pretty well unchallenged until the Fabian Essays of 1889.

4(d). The Extent of Government Power: Locke in his works dwelt with and expanded upon the concept of government power: it is not, nor can it possibly be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people. For it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to the legislative assembly, the power vested in the assembly can be no greater than that which the people had in a state of Nature before they entered into society, and gave it up to the community. For nobody can transfer, to another, more power than he possesses himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over any other, to destroy, or take away, the life or property of another. Thus, the power of our legislators13:

" is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation,

and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects To this end it is that men give up all their natural power to the society they enter into, and the community put the legislative power into such hands as they think fit, with this trust, that they shall be governed by declared laws, or else their peace, quiet, and property will still be at the same uncertainty as it was in the state of Nature." (Second Treatise, Ch. 11.)

4(e). Separation of Powers: The question of whether man would voluntarily put himself under government is but the first question: there then follows along the next, "What form of government is best." Hobbes, not surprisingly, given his view of the nature of man, preferred that there should be one supreme authority, a monarchy. While Hobbes could tolerate government by legislative assembly alone, as opposed to a monarch, he thought that power in the assembly should be absolute and not to be shared. Locke's view, more consistent with the social contract theory, was that there was no need for government to have great powers, which, in the final analysis, would only be needed to keep people down; at any rate, Locke recognized the real danger of leaving absolute power to any one individual, or group of individuals. Locke thought that government's power was best limited by dividing government up into branches, with each branch having only as much power as is needed for its proper function.14

4(f). The Ends of Government: For people to quit to government their natural rights and to give to government "absolute arbitrary power" is, indeed, a very dangerous step; but, take it they do, so that the ends of society might be met. The ends to be met are to better "secure their peace and quiet" and to see that the "lives, liberties, and fortunes" of all citizens, under stated rules (law), might be better protected.

"It cannot be supposed that they should intend, had they a power so to do, to give any one or more an absolute arbitrary power over their persons and estates, and put a force into the magistrate's hand to execute his unlimited will arbitrarily upon them; this were to put themselves into a worse condition than the state of Nature, wherein they had a liberty to defend their right against the injuries of others, and were upon equal terms of force to maintain it, whether invaded by a single man or many in combination. Whereas by supposing they have given up themselves to the absolute arbitrary power and will of a legislator, they have disarmed themselves, and armed him to make a "

prey of them when he pleases



4(g). The Taxing Power of Government: "It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent- i.e., the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them; for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government. For what property have I in that which another may by right take when he pleases to himself?" (Locke.)

4(h). Revolution: If a government subverts the ends for which it was created then it might be deposed; indeed, Locke asserts, revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation. Thus, Locke came to the conclusion that the "ruling body if it offends against natural law must be deposed." This was the philosophical stuff which sanctioned the rebellions of both the American colonialists in 1775, and the French in 1789.



§ "Good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided." (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693, sec. 54.)

§ "Virtue is harder to be got than knowledge of the world; and, if lost in a young man, is seldom

recovered." (Some Thoughts Concerning Education, sec. 64.)

§ "The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it." (Some Thoughts Concerning Education,

sec. 88.)


§ "All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation

to it." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. IV, ch. 20, sec. 17.)

§ "It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of truth." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. IV, ch. 7, sec. 11.)


§ "Government has no other end than the preservation of property."


§ " There seems to be a constant decay of all our Ideas, even of those which are struck deepest." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ii. x. 5.)


§ "Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins." (Second Treatise of Government, sec. 202.)

§ "Law, in its proper Notion, is the Direction of a free and intelligent Agent to his proper Interest." (Government, ii. vi. 57.)

§ "The Legislative cannot transfer the Power of making Laws to any other hands." (Government, ii. 141 xi. (1694) 276.)

§ "We must, wherever we suppose a Law, suppose also some Reward or Punishment annexed to that Rule." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ii. xxviii. (1695) 192.)


§ "New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, dedicatory epistle.)


§ "He is willing to join in Society with others for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property." (Government, ii. ix. 123.)


§ "He is certainly the most subjected, the most enslaved, who is so in his Understanding." (Essay

Concerning Human Understanding, iv. xix. 6.)

"'Tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing the Ground a little." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding.) "

we are utterly uncapable of universal and certain Knowledge." (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, iv. iii. 28.)





1 A fruitful study might be made of any, or all, of the lives and works of: Bacon (1605-30), Locke (1690), Montesquieu (1748), Hume (1748), Voltaire (1764), Smith (1776): the parenthetical dates are the publication dates of their major works. As a practical matter, it was with the publication of Adam Smith's work, in 1776, that a new age finally arrived -- an age when political economy, as a science, began to be actively studied.

2 The honour was withdrawn by the King in 1684, during his six year exile in Holland.

3 Aristotle's writings were "perplexed with obscure terms and useless questions"; or, as Jean Piaget (1896- 1980) expressed it, in more recent times, Aristotle had "a naive and childlike animistic view of the world."

4 As early as 1670, we see Locke exercising influence; the Board of Trade came into being in 1670 as a result of his ideas. Locke was to take a position on the board and continued on as a working member until 1700. Locke, during these years, came up against another untitled board member, William Blathwayt. They were two different men and they but tolerated one another. Blathwayt was of the old style, he took every advantage to treat himself and his friends, and saw nothing wrong with that kind of a modus operandi; Locke was from the new school, inform oneself, and, then, do the right thing. Both Locke and Blathwayt were able to carry on serving on the board by the one taking the winter off, the other (Blathwayt) taking the summer. (See Prof. I. K. Steele's work, Politics of Colonial Policy: The Board of Trade in Colonial Admonistration: 1696-1720; (Oxford University Press, 1968).

5 Locke was in France and in Holland during the years 1684-1689, during which time, it is likely, he would have been exposed to the writings by Descartes (a "dualist") and Spinoza (a "pantheist"). I should say, at this point, that Locke, like Descartes, was a believer in God; he accepted the cosmological argument, viz., God as a first cause. Our mere existence proved to Locke that there existed a God, nothing short of an eternal, all powerful, and all knowing Being could possible have been responsible for the existence of man, and the existence of man was an intuitive fact. (Darwin's shattering work, The Origin of the Species did not come out till 1859.)

6 The Battle of the Boyne was more than just a battle for the Crown of England, a battle: Between James, versus, his daughter and her Dutch protestant husband, William: it was a battle between fundamental beliefs, the old beliefs of "Divine Right of Kings" (Catholic James) and the "Right of the People" (Protestant William). Of course, Locke was the main spokesman for the theories, the adoption of which put William and Mary on the throne. Locke on his return to England could claim any job he wanted; he refused an ambassadorship, but did take on the duties of a "commissioner of appeals" which allowed him to live in an area of England we know as Essex. Apparently, Locke spent his last 14 years of his life, living upon the estate of great admirers of his: Sir Francis and Lady Masham (Lady Masham was the daughter of a famous Cambridge philosophy professor, Cudworth).

7 That in the one year, Locke should come out with these two monumental works, would indicate that the works were a long time in the making and the result of much study and experience (he was, in 1690, age 58). I note, too, that it would appear, at the same time, in 1690, Locke brought out the first of his Letters on Toleration, which Letters continued, it seems in series fashion from 1690 to just shortly after his death in 1704. In 1693, Locke published Thoughts on Education. The year 1695 saw his Reasonableness of Christianity in which he advocated the reunion of the churches, and, in the same work attacked the philosophers, particularly, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and his theories about the existing heirarchial forces in the world, "monads."

8 Chambers. High Laver, incidentally, is north, about half way to Cambridge; these days, a nice day trip from London.


9 What is moral is what advances our sense of well being. Our guide posts are the signals of pain on the one side, and pleasure on the other. We experience pain and we learn about that which is evil; we experience pleasure and we learn about that which is good. (See the theories of Moral Sentiment and Self Love as expressed by David Hume.)

10 It was to be the middle of the 19th century before the theories of evolution (theories supported by hard facts) were to be discussed and accepted; Locke's views are consistent with evolution. That which distinguishes man from the animals, is man's capacity to communicate and cooperate with one another, a capacity which evolved slowly over millions of years and which could not possibly evolve in the "solitary and brutish" world which existed in Hobbes' imagination.

11 The most important question for us all is: What is the nature of man? Ones view of this will completely colour his life. Shelley in "Queen Mob" painted two views:

"Man is of soul and body, formed for deeds Of high resolve; on fancy's boldest wing To sour unwearied, freelessly to turn The keenest pangs to peacefulness, and taste The joys which mingled sense and spirit yield; Or he is formed for objectiveness and woe, To gravel on the dunghill of his fears, "

To shrink at every sound,

Neither one of Shelley's poetic views are correct. Man in his natural state was, in this writer's opinion, proud and full of "high resolve." He had to be to survive. Life for "primitive man" was objective. He had to be to survive. The masses of "primitive man" could not long be carried away with mysticism, for him there was the reality of chasing down supper and hauling it back to his hard fought for, and defended, shelter. He hardly could afford "to gravel on the dunghill of his fears," or "to shrink at every sound." "Primitive man" was led, by his careful observations, to proper conclusions, or he died. This question, as to the nature of man, I treat elsewhere.

12 Professor W. H. Hutt's introductory and brilliant essay, "Individualism in Politics," as found in Henry Hazlitt's, The Free Man's Library, p. 25.

13 See my essay On Legislation.

14 It was the French philosopher and jurist, Montesquieu (1689-1755) who developed this theory of the separation of powers, this theory of checks and balances found its expression in the American Constitution (1787). Montesquieu, in addition to studying the political writings of Locke, spent two years (1729-31) in England. The theory, all with the view to protecting the people's liberty, calls for the separation of the three governmental functions: executive, legislative, and judicial.