Authors: John Locke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English philosopher

August 29, 1632

Wrington, Somerset, England

October 28, 1704

Oates, Essex, England


John Locke, English rationalist philosopher of the seventeenth century, is best known for his monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was to furnish basic premises, not only for the coming Age of Reason and the deistic theology upon which many of its ideas were based, but also for the incipient Industrial Revolution with its rising entrepreneur class, and for political revolution in America.

John Locke

(Library of Congress)

Locke was the son of a Puritan attorney of Somerset, also named John Locke, who had served as a captain in the Parliamentary army under Oliver Cromwell and who lost a considerable part of his fortune at the time of the Restoration in 1660. This financial setback was an important factor in the life of young Locke, for it meant that he was unable to lead the life of quiet contemplation he desired. Instead, he was forced to make a career of public office and to tie himself unwillingly to the changing circumstances of a patron. Because of this forced dependence on political patronage, his important works were not written until the final quarter of his life.

His first opportunity for a life of contemplation was denied because of his religious convictions. Although he had received his master’s degree from Oxford in 1658 and held minor positions at the university for a period of six years, permanent tenure was denied him because of his refusal to take holy orders; he had by then abandoned Puritanism and taken a stand against state religion, as he shows in A Letter Concerning Toleration. True to his principles, he left Oxford rather than submit to governmental policies of required conformity.

Having received an appointment as secretary to Sir Walter Vane, Locke traveled with him on a mission to Brandenburg in 1665. Finding public activity inimical to philosophical thought, he refused to accompany Vane on a second mission. Instead, he took his small patrimony and pursued the study of chemistry and medicine. Although political influence kept him from receiving a medical degree, his scientific genius soon won him both the respect of his colleagues and a fellowship in the Royal Society in 1668. He also gained the patronage of Anthony Ashley Cooper, soon to become the first earl of Shaftesbury, whose household physician he became. He also served as tutor and personal secretary and, following Shaftesbury’s rise to the chancellorship in 1672, was appointed government secretary of presentations at a salary of five hundred pounds. In 1673 he became president of the Board of Trade.

These lucrative posts were lost with Shaftesbury’s first fall from power, but a pension of one hundred pounds a year left Locke free to take up his scholarly activities in Holland. Still he was to be harassed by politics. Shaftesbury was now branded a traitor and Locke became a fugitive from extradition proceedings, unable to return to England until after the revolution of 1688 and the accession of William of Orange. Then Locke was restored to office with the position of commissioner of appeals. His famous An Essay Concerning Human Understanding appeared two years later. During the remaining fourteen years of his life, spent mostly in the household of Sir Francis Masham, he was free to continue the work that was to influence so strongly the whole course of Western thought.

Author Works Nonfiction: Two Tracts on Government, 1660 Essays on the Law of Nature, 1663 An Essay on Toleration, 1667 Epistola de Tolerantia, 1689 (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) A Second Letter Concerning Toleration, 1690 Two Treatises of Government, 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690 Some Considerations of the Consequences of Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money, 1692 A Third Letter for Toleration, 1692 Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693 The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures, 1695 Some Thoughts on the Conduct of the Understanding in the Search of Truth, 1706 A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, 1707 The Works of John Locke, 1823 (10 volumes) Bibliography Ayers, Michael. Locke. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography. Brantley, Richard E. Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. Brantley alleges that John Locke influenced John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, and that Wesley’s work influenced the eighteenth century Romantic poets. Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Collects important material for the study of Locke. Chappell, Vere, ed. John Locke: Theory of Knowledge. New York: Garland, 1992. Thirty critical essays about the philosopher and his ideas concerning knowledge, reprinted from their original locations. This book is volume 8 in a series; Locke’s philosophy of politics is contained in volume 9. Hanratty, J. F. Philosophers of the Enlightenment: Locke, Hume, and Berkeley Revisited. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 1995. Places Locke’s work in its historical context. Harris, Ian. The Mind of John Locke: A Study of Political Theory in Its Intellectual Setting. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Although the title emphasizes Locke’s politcal philosophy, this book attempts to integrate the writer’s entire spectrum of interests. Kramer, Matthew H. John Locke and the Origins of Private Property. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A detailed analysis of Locke’s theories about the rewards of labor and the relationships between labor and ownership. Lennon, Thomas M. The Battle of the Gods and Giants. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. This book is about René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, but a forty-page chapter and a few pages at the end of the book are devoted to Locke’s inheritance from both philosophers. Schouls, Peter A. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Compares Locke to Descartes, then invites comparison to other philosophers, such as Michael Oakeshott, by presenting Locke’s defense of reason and his explications of freedom, self-determination, and education. Walker, William. Locke, Literary Criticism, and Philosophy. New York: Cambrdige University Press, 1994. Walker uses literary critical techniques for a close reading of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Woolhouse, Roger. Locke: A Biography. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A biography of a political thinker that strives not to present its subject in a politically slanted light. Locke’s ideas, integral to the American system of government and its underlying ideologies, are fiercely embraced by Left and Right. Woolhouse reveals the witty and interesting man behind the ideas. Wolterstorff, Nicholas. John Locke and the Ethics of Belief. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Focuses on Locke’s religious philosophy. Zuckert, Michael P. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Locke (and many others) wrote about “natural rights.” This book about the thought of a number of philosophers features text about Locke and his influence on the Americans, on questions about natural law, on government, and on property.

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