John Locke was one of the most influential thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment. While Voltaire is widely credited with Enlightened thinking within Europe, it was John Locke who had a significant influence on the French philosophe. But who is John Locke? The background and upbringing of the English thinker massively impacted his philosophy. In fact, the context in which Locke was born shaped not only his ideas, but also the ideas of the looming American Revolution that would occur in the late eighteenth century.
The Early Career of John Locke
John Locke was born at Wrington, Somerset, England on August 29, 1632. For the majority of his life, the English throne (as well as the Scottish and Irish – the predecessor throne to that of the United Kingdom) was occupied by King Charles II (r. 1649-1685). The political climate prior to, throughout, and in the wake of the reign of Charles would prove immensely formative and influential to Locke’s philosophy.
Locke was Puritan baptized and Oxford educated. At school, he was consistently fascinated by the fields of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and medicine, and would come to hold a bachelor’s degree as well as two master’s degrees. While studying at medical school, John Locke was hired as the personal physician of a prominent London politician in 1667.
The politician under whom John Locke was employed, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley, would become one of the founding members of the British Whig (Liberal) Party. The time Locke spent in the retinue of the politician was pivotal for his political and economic understanding. By 1679, John Locke had composed the majority of his famous work Two Treatises of Government, which upheld extremely radical ideas for his time.
The Historical Context and Locke’s Philosophy
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John Locke was born into a European political climate that was in the process of a radical transformation. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) ravaged central Europe; though the English kingdom was not directly involved, the conflict fuelled religious tension between Catholics and Protestants all over the continent.
Domestically, England was in the process of fighting a civil war. The English Civil War (1642-51) shaped Locke’s childhood, and ended with the public execution of the English potentate Charles I (r. 1625-49) after he refused to establish a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The king’s heir, Charles II, was subsequently exiled.
Between 1653 and 1658 England was under de facto control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was widely unpopular due to their unbridled absolutist power and their leniency towards Catholics in England. Fuelled by the religious tensions of the Thirty Years War, the stance of toleration of Catholics by the royal administration proved enough for their forceful removal.
John Locke, though a baptized Puritan, leaned towards Socinian Christology later in his life. The Puritans were staunch defenders of Protestantism – they advocated for a Protestant outlook and sought to purge the Church of England of its Catholic influences. By the 1640s, the Puritans had become a significant political force in England. In the wake of the tumultuous and deadly civil war, which restored the Catholic-sympathizing monarchy, many Puritans escaped England and fled to her Thirteen Colonies. Locke’s Puritan-inspired writing would play a tremendous influence on the descendants of the first Americans.
The Glorious Revolution
With the English monarchy re-established, King Charles II attempted to officially grant legal liberties to Protestant minorities and Roman Catholics in the English realm. Scholars blame the leniency and Catholic toleration of the King on his relation to the French Sun King, Louis XIV (r. 1643-1517): the two were first cousins.
Though popular, Charles II was famously hedonistic and fathered many illegitimate children, and none in legitimacy. As a result, he died in 1685 with no presumptive heir. He was therefore succeeded by his brother James: a devout Catholic who ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1685-1688.
The resulting popular frustration yielded mass emigration to the Thirteen Colonies, predominantly by Puritans and other Protestants. When King James fathered a son in 1688 there grew worry that this was the beginning of the establishment of a Catholic dynasty, excluding James’ Protestant daughter Mary from the line of succession.
In 1688 King James was deposed of; his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (the leader of the Dutch Republic) were invited to inherit the English throne. The couple acquiesced and ruled England as joint monarchs from 1688 until 1702.
King James is considered the last Catholic monarch of England. With him deposed, the English (and eventually “British” as of 1707 without Ireland, or 1801 with Ireland) state acted as a purely Protestant constitutional monarchy.
John Locke’s philosophy in his Later Life
This political landscape shaped the philosophical mind of John Locke. As an empiricist, one of the central components of Locke’s philosophy was that of the tabula rasa, or blank slate. Locke asserted that the human mind and condition did not possess any inherent traits: every part of an individual’s character, every facet of one’s being was observed, learned, and perceived externally. We are born with a blank slate mind fresh for the shaping. By his own logic, Locke’s thinking was heavily moulded by the political climate of England during his lifetime.
Coincidentally, John Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683 after being accused of conspiring in the Rye House Plot: a plan to assassinate King Charles II. Despite being a liberal thinker and an advocate of legal toleration (a subject on which he wrote extensively), Locke largely argued against the need for absolutist monarchical government – often equated with the thought of contemporary Thomas Hobbes.
It was this interpretation, coupled with the notions of liberty, freedom, and toleration that resonated so well with the American thinkers in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps a man ahead of his time, Locke’s philosophy was extremely influential on the progressive Whigs (both in England and the United States) and the Sons of Liberty.
John Locke died on October 28, 1704 at the age of 72, having never married or fathered children. Though he advocated for checks and balances on monarchical power, he never lived to see the rise of constitutional monarchy or parliamentary democracy.