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John Locke was never the type of philosopher content to sit in an ivory tower or think from the comfort of his armchair. He constantly forced himself into the fray of politics, religion, and science, and the late 17th century was an important time on all these fronts. In politics and religion, it was the time of the Restoration, with bloody skirmishes between crown and parliament, Pope and Anglican Church. In science it was a time of upheaval as well, as a few forward-looking men enthusiastically replaced a vague and slightly spooky Aristotelian picture of the world with a purely mechanical one, in which all of nature could be explained through the motion of matter. Locke's writings proved influential in all of these areas, furthering the cause of religious toleration, contractual rule, and the new mechanistic science.
John Locke was born in 1638 to a family of minor Somerset gentry. His father supplemented the income from his land by working as an attorney and a minor government official. Based on his family's good connections, Locke was able to secure entry to the Westminster School and, from there, to Oxford University. At Oxford he was subjected to Scholasticism, the Aristotelian-influenced course of study that had dominated scholarship since the Middle Ages. He quickly discovered that he had little taste for the dialectical method and the preoccupation with logical and metaphysical subtleties. Completing only the coursework he needed to get by, he turned his intellectual energies to extracurricular endeavors, specifically to politics and medicine.
While still at college Locke published three political essays, two on the topic of religious toleration (at that time he was against it, but he would soon drastically change his position) and the other on natural law theory (again, adopting a position he would later repudiate). These interests (if not the views he held in reference to those interests) would stay with him throughout his life and ultimately be the source of two of his most important works: The Two Treatises on Government and the Essay Concerning Toleration.
Locke's medical studies eventually led him to an interest in chemistry, a fascination that was soon reinforced by an acquaintance with the scientist Robert Boyle. Boyle was one of the new mechanistic scientists, developing a view called the Corpuscularian Hypothesis. According to his theory, all of nature was composed of tiny indivisible bits of matter called "corpuscles," and it was the arrangement and motion of these corpuscles that gave rise to the observable world. In Boyle's home, Locke met many of the leading figures of the new science and became a strong proponent of their views. Compared to the obscure Scholastic picture of the world he was being forced to study in his classes, the simple, intelligible model of nature that Boyle and his friends were propounding was extremely appealing to the young university student.
In 1666 Locke met Lord Ashley, soon to be Earl of Shaftesbury, and became his secretary, his physician, and his son's tutor. Locke moved from Oxford to Ashley's home in London, where he would remain for many years. While living with Ashley, Locke's many intellectual interests transformed from purely academic fascinations to practical endeavors. Ashley himself was a key advisor to King Charles II, and so Locke was afforded an insider view of the political situation, a view that left him with much to say. During this time he published the Essay Concerning Toleration, as well as several treatises on economics. His friendship with a physician named Thomas Sydeham allowed him to explore his medical interest through clinical experience. Finally, his interest in science went from the purely theoretical to the experimental, since Ashley happened to have a chemistry lab in the house. (Chemistry, believe it or not, was a fashionable hobby at the time.)
Around the year 1671 Locke began to write the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It was his first and only attempt at epistemology. Locke spent 18 years writing the first edition of the book, and he would revise it until his death, publishing a final fifth edition posthumously. Crucial to the development of the Essay was a three year visit to France, which Locke began in 1675. While there, he read much of the work of Rene Descartes and was impressed with his anti-Scholastic, pro-new science philosophy. (Descartes himself had developed a particular version of the mechanistic science.)
When Locke finally returned to England, he found the country in a state of crisis, and his own position in it especially uncertain. Ashley had led a revolt against Charles II and, faced with charged of treason, had fled to Holland. For the next four years Locke concerned himself primarily with politics. Then, when some associates of his were discovered to be plotting the assassination of King Charles and his brother James, he too was forced to flee. It is not clear to what extent Locke himself was involved in this plot, but he must have known enough to consider himself in real personal danger. In 1683 he left for Holland. Soon after, the King asked the Dutch government to extradite Locke back to England, and the philosopher was forced to go underground.
While in exile in Holland, Locke focused his energies primarily on the Essay. In 1688 William of Orange led the Glorious Revolution, and Locke was able to return to England. In 1689 he published the Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises on Government. Locke lived out the rest of his days quietly, pursuing his varied interests. When he died, in October of 1704, he had just completed the notes for the fifth edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and was still at work on three books concerning religion and politics.