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John Locke (1634–1704)

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John Locke was born into a middle-class family on August 28, 1634, in Somerset, England. His father worked as an attorney and in local government, and he owned properties that produced a modest income. Locke received an extraordinarily diverse education from early childhood on. His formal schooling began in 1647 at the prestigious Westminster School for Boys. Later, he studied a wide variety of literature, physical science, medicine, politics, and natural philosophy at Christ Church in Oxford, where he took up residence under a scholarship in 1652. Locke developed a particular interest in medicine and also studied the works of Descartes and Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry. Locke dabbled in chemistry using Boyle’s rules and wrote short essays containing theological arguments against both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant reformers.

In 1665, Locke met and befriended Lord Ashley, a prominent statesman who had come to Oxford for medical treatment. The two became fast friends, and Ashley invited Locke to join him in London at Exeter House as his personal physician. Locke agreed and left for London in 1667, where he lived for the next eight years. Locke’s political interests had already begun to take precedence over his experiments in science and medicine, and they deepened while he lived with Ashley, one of England’s most skilled politicians. Under Ashley’s influence, Locke made financial investments that would secure his future and took a job working for the British government researching the relationship between trade opportunities and colonization. He worked closely with early colonists who left to found Carolina in the New World, assisting in the drafting and revision of the Fundamental Constitution (the original frame of government for the Carolinas, before they were split into North and South).

For the next several years, Locke worked in various government posts and received a hands-on education in public policy and politics while traveling extensively. When Locke returned to England in 1679, he found himself in the middle of political upheaval as Charles II struggled with Parliament for control. The threat of arrest spurred Locke to flee to Holland to join his friend Lord Ashley, now the Earl of Shaftesbury, and other political exiles. He returned to England when it became safe to do so in 1689. He lived with friends at Oates, held various government posts and civil service jobs, and published his philosophical works until his death on October 28, 1704.

Locke was born during the twenty-year English Civil War, which culminated in 1649 with the execution of Charles I and the dissolution of the House of Lords. England then reinvented itself as a commonwealth where both royalty and an elected parliament would work together to govern the country. In 1660, the Restoration period, which would last until the early 1700s, began. As a result of the Restoration, Charles II reclaimed the monarchy’s former grip on both church and state institutions. Locke’s early papers suggest that he welcomed these changes. These papers also reveal his sympathy with the concept of a state-appointed (“Anglican”) religion, indicating that he still identified with the orthodoxy of his youth. He would almost completely reverse these views in later years.

The seeds of Locke’s opinions on religion and government were planted during his childhood. His father’s career had taught him a respect for the law, and his Puritan upbringing imparted him with strong religious convictions. A crucial turning point in his philosophical development was a 1665 trip abroad to Cleves, where he observed a community of different religious sects living together in harmony. This experience may have challenged his ideas about the necessity of state-appointed religion and led to the later writing of his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689). Locke held on to his deep-seated Christianity throughout his life and was disappointed in the public response to his essay, The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). He did not view his critique of Christianity as a condemnation, but religious leaders disagreed and banned the book.

After a three-year visit to France, Locke returned in 1679 to an England in crisis. Rumors of a plot to assassinate Charles II and install his Catholic brother, James, on the throne had caused upheaval in the government. An insurrection, supposedly led by Lord Ashley (by now the Earl of Shaftesbury), mounted as it became clear that Charles II had no intention of reinstating Parliament. Correctly targeted by Charles II as an influential Whig, Shaftesbury luckily survived a trial for treason and afterward fled to Holland. It is unclear how active Locke was in the affair, but his close friendship with Shaftesbury made him appear dangerous to Charles II. Locke followed Shaftesbury to Holland in 1683. In 1685, Charles II died, and the Catholic James II ascended the throne. In 1688, William of Orange invaded England in what is known as the Glorious Revolution, chasing James II to France and welcoming back the exiles, including John Locke, from Holland.

Locke’s government work took him to France in 1675, where he learned the language well enough to read Descartes’ works in the original. His attention to Descartes in earlier years had been limited to scientific works. Now, Locke read more widely in Descartes’ philosophy, which influenced his thoughts on the human experience in general. He stayed in France for just over three years, during which time he began several drafts of what would become his most famous work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). During the unstable years before he too fled to Holland in 1683, Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). The Treatises are thought by some to be a direct reaction to the supposed Catholic plot and surrounding events. While in Holland, Locke wrote a series of letters to a close friend advising him on how to govern his son’s development. These were eventually published as Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693.

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