On the opposite side of the spectrum from the pessimistic Hobbes was John Locke (16321704), the other major English political philosopher of the seventeenth century. Locke received a prestigious education throughout his youth and remained involved in academics long after graduation. It was while dabbling in medicine with a mentor that he was introduced to political thought, which then captured his interest.

Locke’s early writings focus on the religious intolerance and bickering that was blighting England at the time. Though important, these earlier works did not have nearly the influence or prominence of later works such as Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which Locke puts forth his optimistic idea that man’s mind is a blank slate and that man can subsequently learn and improve through conscious effort. Locke followed with the work for which he is even better known, Two Treatises of Government(also 1690). This political work was massively influential, particularly the second treatise, and is still considered the foundation for modern political thought.

Not surprisingly, Locke’s more optimistic work was more warmly received and more influential than Hobbes’s in the long run. In particular, Locke’s second treatise on government—which details Locke’s belief that every man is inherently good but that the necessity of government requires that people compromise on some issues for the betterment of the whole—has endured. The work sets forth Locke’s ideas for an ideal representative government and makes suggestions that would eventually be elaborated into ideas such as separation of powers—the system that the founding fathers of the United States used when writing the U.S. Constitution.

Popular pages: The Enlightenment (1650–1800)