John 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 Concerning Human Understanding 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 Concerning Human Understanding gave one of the decisive blows to the already ailing Scholastic movement.

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