Essay Concerning Human Knowledge (1689)

Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1689—at a time of intense political and philosophical unrest in Britain. Locke’s essay was the first systematic presentation of an empiricist philosophy of mind and cognition: a theory of knowledge and belief based wholly on the principle that everything in our mind gets there by way of experience. Locke’s meticulous, but rational empiricism offered an alternative and enticing view of the world and our access to it from the dominant warring philosophical camps of the time—the Aristotelian Scholastics and the upstart Cartesian rationalists.

Locke’s First Treatise of Government (1689)

Locke’s First Treatise of Government is a criticism of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, which argues in support of the divine right of kings. According to Locke, Filmer cannot be correct because his theory holds that every man is born a slave to the natural born kings. Locke refuses to accept such a theory because of his belief in reason and in the ability of every man to virtuously govern himself according to God’s law. The SparkNotes guide Selected Works of John Locke briefly discusses Locke’s First Treatise of Government within a section of Summary & Analysis covering Locke’s first and second treatises. 

Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha had argued for the divine right of kings, and the refutation of this position, which had the weight of centuries of tradition behind it, was one of Locke’s major tasks. Locke describes government as a human invention organized chiefly to further and protect the right of personal property. Human beings have an obligation in accordance with natural, divine, and moral law to care for each other and support the whole human race. Locke’s explanation for the responsibility of community essentially boils down to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Despite various forms and complicated expansions, no philosopher or political thinker has provided a simpler, more obvious standard than Locke.

Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690)

A cornerstone of Western political philosophy, Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government is an essay published in 1690. Subtitled An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, the essay was published in support of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The concept of the modern liberal-democratic state is rooted in the work. Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Governmentserves as a counterargument to Thomas Hobbes’s pro-absolutist government Leviathan (1651) and helped to inspire the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

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