John Locke was never the type of philosopher content to think from the comfort of his armchair. He was constantly forcing himself into the fray of battle in politics, religion, and science. The late 17th century was an important time for battles on all these fronts. In politics and religion, it was the period of the Restoration, of bloody skirmishes between crown and parliament. In science, it was a time of upheaval as well, as a few forward-looking people 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 conflicts, furthering the cause of religious toleration, of contractual rule, and of 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 disliked Scholasticism's dialectical method and its 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 soon repudiate). These interests would stay with him throughout his life, and ultimately be the source of two of his most important works: The Two Treatises of 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 himself became a strong proponent of their views. Because the Scholastic picture of the world Locke was studying was obscure and difficult, 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, who later became Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke worked as Ashley's secretary, his son's tutor, and his physician. Locke moved from Oxford to Ashley's home in London, where he remained for many years. It was while living with Ashley that Locke's many intellectual interests went from being purely academic fascinations to practical endeavors. Ashley himself was the right-hand man of 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 medical interest was rounded out with clinical experience when he befriended a physician named Thomas Sydeham. 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 last attempt at epistemology. Locke spent eighteen years writing the first edition of the book, and he revised it until his death. A fifth edition was published posthumously. Locke's three-year visit to France was crucial to the development of the Essay. 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 four years Locke concerned himself primarily with politics. Then, he was also forced to flee, when his associates were discovered to be plotting the assassination of King Charles and his brother James. It is not clear how involved Locke himself was in this plot, but he must have known enough to consider himself in acute personal danger. In 1683 he too left for Holland. Soon afterward the King asked for his extradition back to England and Locke was forced to go underground.
While in exile in Holland, Locke focused his energies primarily on the Essay, but he also found the time to write a series of letters to his newly fathered friend Edward Clarke. Clarke was unsure how best to raise his son and turned to Locke (a childless bachelor) for help. It was these letters (with some minor additions and changes) that Locke published as Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693.
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 of Government. Locke lived out the rest of his days quietly. When he died, in October of 1704, he had just completed the notes for the fifth edition of the Essay, and was still at work on three books concerning religion and politics.
Locke was very much a man of his times, partly because he did so much to shape them. He was born into an England that was teetering on the brink of enlightenment, and he helped to push the country over the edge. By the late 17th century, the beliefs in reasonable religion and secular values were overtaking a blind confidence in authority. Individual freedoms were taking central stage in political debates. Excitement over modern technologies and abilities were beginning to replace a worshipful focus on the ancient world. Locke embraced all of these trends and became their most influential spokesman.
The political scene during Locke's time was unstable. In the wake of civil war, Oliver Cromwell had brought temporary peace. With Cromwell gone by the mid-17th century, however, Parliament and Crown reentered an ardent struggle for power. Because Lord Ashley, Locke's employer, was first the right hand man of King Charles II and then the leader of his opposition in Parliament, Locke found himself at the center of political maneuverings and intrigue. He helped to frame the constitution for the colony of Carolina, and wrote the treatises that justified the Glorious Revolution in which William of Orange seized the throne from King James, brother of Charles. Locke's two Treatises of Government, published anonymously, argued that the only justified government was one that ruled contractually rather than by the ruler's whimsy, thus laying the foundation for a limited kingship, heavily tethered by Parliament and the will of the people. Years later, the colonists in America would use Locke's arguments as the basis for their own revolution, claiming that King George had failed to abide by his contract, thereby forfeiting his right to rule over them.
Locke was also extremely active in religious affairs. A heated Protestant/Catholic divide helped to make the stormy political scene of late 17th England that much more turbulent. Issues of religious intolerance and forced conversion were of paramount practical importance. Locke began his career on the side of authoritarian religious impositions, but quickly changed his mind. A 1675 visit to Cleves, which exposed him to a community where members of different churches lived together peacefully, might have helped sway his opinion toward religious toleration. Locke ended up writing several well-read and enormously controversial essays in favor of religious toleration. Locke's religious writings, as well his publication of the Essay landed him in a lengthy controversy with the Bishop of Worcester. Some material generated from their published debates, found its way into later editions of the Essay.
Locke's participation in modern scientific advances was largely the result of his close ties with Robert Boyle. Throughout Europe, education's focus on the ancient world was being challenged by thinkers who preferred to focus on new technology and modern ideas. Locke's Essay gave one of the decisive blows to the already ailing Scholastic movement.
It might seem strange that as great a thinker as John Locke took time out his valuable days to write a "how to" manual for parents, but, actually, Locke took out time to write on all sorts of random topics. Though he is best known for his thoughts on politics and on issues related to psychology and natural science, he also had a lot to say about economics, the bible, and even literature. Though these subjects might seem far-flung, they are bound by certain common themes, and can all be seen as part of a loose system of thought.
Locke did not set out to write a book on education. In 1684, he was approached by his friend Edward Clarke, who asked for Locke's advice on how to best raise his newborn son. Locke responded with a series of letters, which he continued to send all the way up until 1691. During the course of these letter-writing years other friends, such as William Molyneux, asked to see the letters, and soon Locke's ideas on education were circulating among a small group of parents. According to the preface of Some Thoughts, it was the members of this group of readers that ultimately persuaded Locke to publish his letters as a book.
Because it started as a series of letters, Some Thoughts does not present a systematic theory of education. As the title indicates, it merely presents some thoughts on the topic. Nonetheless it shows a great deal of insight into child psychology. When Locke speaks about "education", what he means is primarily moral education. The aim of education, in his view, is to give a man rational control over his passions and desires.
As Locke sees the world, there exist certain laws of nature, stemming from God, and we must only use our reason to discover these laws. The most basic law of nature states that we must defend all of God's creatures (both ourselves and others) because we are all children of God and beloved by him. Other laws state that we have a right to property and that we have a right to punish those who violate the laws of nature. By using our reason to discover these laws, and then by following the dictates of these laws, we not only create the ideal civil society (one governed by consensual contract) but we avoid almost all human evils. The ability for human society to function in this ideal way, however, depends on the capacity people have for subverting their own passing whimsies to the dictates of reason. If people do not have this capacity, then civil society cannot maintain itself because the laws of nature will not be heeded. Some Thoughts, then, can be seen as a training manual for the moral people Locke needs to populate his civil society.
Locke's work on education is clearly tied to his political work, and it also shares certain common themes with the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. For instance, in Some Thoughts, Locke shows his continued fascination with the origins and development of human knowledge, with the emergence of awareness, and of the difference between a human (the human being as animal) and a person (the human being as conscious creature, aware of an accountable for his actions).