5 Quotes by Locke Explained

Locke's teachings highlight the importance of experience, individual rights, and freedom, shaping our understanding of knowledge and governance.

Jun 28, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

quotes locke explained


The 17th century marked the first inklings of freedom in England. Theology and Aristotle’s conclusions were being taught at universities. Medieval philosophy gave way to natural science. It was also a century of civil war in England as monarchy made way for a constitutional form of government. This was when John Locke was born. Later, his work would provide the foundations for philosophical practice worldwide. Locke is regarded by many as Britain’s greatest-ever thinker; some of his ideas continue to resonate with humanity today. What did he say that was so special?


1. “No Man’s Knowledge Here Can Go Beyond His Experience”

Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, 1924, Source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Renowned epistemologist John Locke subscribed to the belief that personal experience is the sole basis for our knowledge. In his statement, “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience,” Locke underscores how crucial experience is in shaping our understanding of things.


To Locke, human minds are born tabula rasa, or empty slates devoid of any inherent content. Knowledge comes exclusively from sensing and reflecting on it–making sense of our perceptions through observation.


Consider someone who has never seen a rainbow or heard about one. They have no prior awareness or concept of rainbows at all. Then, one day, they see an amazing multicolored arc stretching across the sky after a downpour.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


This direct sensory encounter gives them their first inkling and mental image: their subsequent concepts relating to rainbows arise entirely from their immediate senses.


The idea applies also to other aspects of life. Imagine someone who had never tasted ice cream before; they may have been told a lot about its taste and texture. But until they experienced the sensation themselves–feeling it melting on their tongue, say–then whatever knowledge of ice cream that person held would be limited. Only by physically experiencing ice cream could they truly understand what it is like.


Locke’s quote emphasizes this tethering between knowledge and experience: our comprehension of anything depends heavily upon information gained through observation (and subsequent reflection). It sums up what might be called a fundamental principle: we cannot possess knowledge beyond what we have directly encountered ourselves.


2. “Government Has No Other End but the Preservation of Property”

The Basics (Declaration of Independence), John Trumbull, 1826, Source: the Architect of the Capitol


The purpose of government is to protect people’s inalienable rights, including the right to own property. John Locke believed that labor gives people a natural right to claim ownership over things they have mixed their labor with and changed in the process. This could include anything from land or goods to intellectual property.


For example, if you buy a piece of vacant land and spend time, money, and effort turning it into a working farm–making it more valuable and productive in the process–Locke would say you now own that farmland through your labor. The government’s job then becomes protecting this property against any threats or encroachments.


Locke believed establishing a system of government was necessary because people needed it to protect their individual properties. The power vested in such a state should be limited and based on consent by the citizenry.


Such governments’ main job would be keeping society stable by maintaining individuals’ ability to own what they’ve acquired. Thus, they are underpinning economic prosperity by incentivizing them to work hard, innovate, and accumulate wealth without fear that someone might confiscate it unfairly or interfere with its use.


This quote clarifies that governments are not all about power for power’s sake but exist primarily to ensure individuals can lawfully acquire and defend their assets. It underscores his belief that secure property rights are essential for society to function properly and fairly.


3. “All Mankind…Being All Equal and Independent, No One Ought to Harm Another in His Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Source: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía


Next, this quote is relevant to the previous one in that John Locke places great importance on equality and individual rights. This can be seen in his emphasis on all human beings’ natural and inherent rights.


What Locke is arguing here is, once again, that all individuals are equal and independent. No matter how rich or poor you are, your social position, or whether you have any special privileges, everyone has an equal right to certain basic things.


These include life (the ability to live), health (being safe from harm), liberty (being free from unreasonable constraints), and property (owning something).


To understand this better, think of a society where education opportunities or work prospects depend upon your gender. Perhaps if you are female, for instance, fewer jobs might be available to you than for men.


Locke would say that kind of discrimination breaks the rule of treating everyone equally. It wouldn’t matter why society worked like that–he’d argue everybody has a natural entitlement to equal treatment under the law, and being held back because of arbitrary differences was wrong.


The other part of this idea is about keeping order among people. If anyone’s life or health or liberty or stuff can be taken away without good reason–the government stepping in when someone starts threatening one of these things becomes more important too.


So, if someone harmed another person’s life, health, freedom, or things without good reason or permission, then according to Locke’s ideas about how countries should be run–they were breaking the basic rules that make us human.


Thus, governments had a duty to stop this by making rules and setting up ways of keeping us safe from harm so that our lives could stay on track properly–as long as there was a good reason why we needed protection.


4. “What Worries You, Masters You”

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The above quote depicts John Locke’s feelings about our being slaves to fears and concerns. It substantiates that he knew well that if a person gets suppressed under these anxieties, they are no longer ruling over them, but they are their master.


Locke valued man’s private liberty and self-command in high esteem. According to him, real freedom consists of possessing command over one’s mind and body. When cares and worries start dominating a person’s thoughts and deeds, they become their “boss,” ruling over and making them behave in ways they don’t desire.


Think of the person constantly preoccupied with how others perceive them, seeking repeated approval, or relying on external validation for self-worth. If this concern dominates, it begins to affect every decision or action they take.


In the example above, fear of being judged or rejected has taken over–you are no longer acting on your own authentic desires or values but reacting based upon fears.


According to Locke, the way back into control is through self-awareness and rational reflection. By acknowledging our worries for what they are–by recognizing them–we can begin regaining mastery over them. Instead of allowing fears to dictate our actions, we assess whether those concerns are grounded in reality or just products of unfounded anxiety.


Locke’s philosophy also emphasizes building inner strength and resilience. By concentrating on personal growth, building confidence, and developing coping mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty, people can better navigate life’s challenges without worrying excessively.


In essence, the idea is that worries only have power over you if you give it to them. Recognize those feelings all you like; just don’t become consumed by them. Through mindfulness techniques such as meditation or cognitive reframing–consciously challenging negative assumptions–individuals can regain mastery over themselves, freeing their minds from worry’s grip.


5. “The End of Law Is Not to Abolish or Restrain, but to Preserve and Enlarge Freedom”

Man at the Crossroads, Diego Riviera, 1933, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In this quote, once again, Locke sums up his outlook regarding the purpose of laws. What is striking here is how he underlines freedom and that the function of laws should be to preserve rather than diminish it.


He says laws shouldn’t take away or abridge people’s freedoms, but they should serve as means by which those freedoms are safeguarded and enhanced. He argues that the main ground for just laws existing in a society is primarily to uphold and conserve its citizens’ natural rights and liberties.


To understand this more fully, take a country where freedom of speech is protected constitutionally. According to Locke’s philosophy, the very purpose of laws around free speech wouldn’t be for silencing dissenting voices or expression; it would be creating a legal framework within which people could express their opinions without fear of censorship or persecution.


In addition–and this will seem odd at first but is actually critical to understanding the point of these laws–Locke argued that laws should increase our freedoms rather than decrease them. They must create conditions under which we can fully exercise our rights, pursue our own interests free from unjust interference by others or the government, secure equal opportunity, protect civil liberties, and promote social justice.


Locke acknowledged there are limits to absolute freedom. Hence comes his concept of “the social contract,” whereby citizens voluntarily give up certain freedoms for the sake of order and protection. Enacting such agreements means having an infrastructure through which we all agree communally acceptable rules are worth following.


So, this quote welcomes Locke’s belief that law is not about restraining or abolishing freedom but producing a legal environment protecting individual liberty while expanding it in society. Law provides essential instruments for obtaining elementary rights and bringing social harmony through accountable rule founded on agreed rules.


So, What Does Locke Teach Us?

John Locke, Godfrey Kneller, 1697, Source: ART.UK


John Locke, an influential philosopher in his day, offered several ideas that still resonate. His theories centered on knowledge, government, individual rights, and freedom.


Locke’s theory of knowledge tells us that our understanding comes from what we experience. He said observation and reflection serve as the foundation for getting to know the world around us.


Locke argued that the primary function of government is protecting individual rights and preserving property. Government exists to keep these things safe because humans have a right to them by nature; they get them through labor.


Locke also believed people should be treated equally. Under the law, everyone should get fair treatment, and nobody has a right to hurt others in their life, health, liberty, or possessions. This principle emphasizes respect for autonomy as well as other people’s well-being.


Freedom is central, too, because laws shouldn’t restrict anyone more than necessary. Instead, their aim should be safeguarding or enlarging our freedoms wherever possible without interfering with each other.


In summary, Locke’s teachings illustrate how we gain knowledge from personal experience: governments ought to safeguard individuals’ entitlements, everyone should be considered equal, and retaining or increasing freedom must be front of mind within society.

Author Image

By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.