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About John Locke
By Neil Lock, Project Manager

Discover a Revolutionary Thinker!

John Locke was one of the most important thinkers of the 17th century. His influence has lasted far beyond his own times. He helped to start the philosophical movement, which became the Enlightenment of the 18th century. He was an inspiration to the American founding fathers. And we can still see the effects of his thinking in systems of government today.

Yet John Locke was far more than just a political theorist. He had among his friends some of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the day. He wrote about education, psychology and religious toleration. He was also a doctor of medicine.

For five years before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he was an exile in Holland, considered a dangerous revolutionary by the English government. After the Revolution, though, he came into favour, and even became a commissioner of the Board of Trade.

There is a lot to discover about this great and fascinating man!

About His Life

John Locke was born at Wrington, Somerset, England on 29th August 1632, and spent his early years near Bristol. His father was a "country lawyer", and fought on the Parliamentarian side in the Civil War.

He was educated at Westminster from 1647, then entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1652. He took his undergraduate degree in 1656, and his MA in 1658. He was, it is said, not much interested in the rather backward-looking curriculum of a university of the time. He found more appeal in subjects such as medicine, experimental science and contemporary philosophy.

Despite this, he was successful enough in his studies to be elected a student (what we would now call a Fellow) of Christ Church in 1658. In this, his first career, he taught Greek, rhetoric and moral philosophy. But he still found time to study and to write on other subjects, including natural science and government.

Locke did not want to continue as an academic for his whole life. Partly this was because to do so, he would have had to take holy orders. So he cast around for a second career. He tried the diplomatic service, travelling as secretary to an embassy to Brandenburg in 1665. But in 1666, his life was changed by his meeting with Antony Cooper, Lord Ashley. Locke was able to use his medical knowledge to cure Ashley. And the two quickly became friends.

In 1667, he joined Ashley's household in London as physician and medical adviser. The next year, he became a fellow of the Royal Society, an institution then only five years old. In the next ten years, he held various secretaryships, including the Council of Trade and Plantations established by Ashley (by then Earl of Shaftesbury and Lord Chancellor of England) in 1673.

By 1675, Shaftesbury was out of power again, and Locke (who suffered from asthma) decided to leave London. He at first went back to Oxford, but soon left for four years of travel in France, in which he made contacts with French thinkers of the day.

Locke came back to England in 1679. Shaftesbury was again in power - but not for long; in 1681, Shaftesbury was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Though acquitted, it was unsafe for him to stay in England, and he went to Holland in 1682. Locke, who as a friend of Shaftesbury, and by now author of the Two Treatises of Government, was threatened too, followed in 1683. His fellowship at Christ Church was very soon terminated by the king's personal order.

Even in Holland, Locke was not entirely safe. In 1685, his name was on a list of "traitors" wanted by the English government. He had to go into hiding.

But, in England, events moved towards their climax - the invitation to the Dutch king, William, to take the English throne, and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

By early 1689, it was safe for Locke to return to England. He was made Commissioner of Excise Appeals in the new government. But his major task in this period was to prepare his earlier writings for publication.

From 1691, he retired for much of his time to the estate of his friends, the Mashams, in Essex. Though he continued to hold some public offices, being a Commissioner of the Board of Trade from 1696. And he was still a potent intellectual force, being frequently consulted by the Whig leaders of the government.

He died on 28th October, 1704, and was buried in the churchyard at High Laver.

About His Times

John Locke lived, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. The 17th century in England was a time of war, taxes, religious intolerance and political shenanigans. Events like the Popish Plot caused mass hysteria. Yet, at the same time, there was enormous progress being made in scientific knowledge by men like Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton. There are great parallels between his times and our own.

Locke was a boy when the Civil War broke out, and 16 and at school at Westminster when Charles I was executed. His early time at Oxford took place under the Commonwealth. He is reported to have welcomed enthusiastically the Restoration of 1660, even though his father had fought in the Civil War on the other side.

Locke was at Oxford through the middle of the 1660s - the period of the Great Plague and the Fire of London. His eight years in London must have been something of a roller-coaster ride. As with all politicians of the time, his patron, Shaftesbury, could one day be one of the most powerful men in England, and the next in severe danger of imprisonment in the Tower of London.

He was in France in 1678, when the panic of the Popish Plot broke out. A panic from which his friend Shaftesbury gained no small amount of political power. When Locke returned in 1679, the situation in England was highly volatile. Shaftesbury did, indeed, get taken to the Tower in 1681. It was against this background that Locke wrote his most famous works, the Two Treatises of Government.

His five-year exile in Holland cannot have been easy, particularly when he had to go into hiding. Yet, ultimately, everything that he and his friend Shaftesbury had worked for came to fruition. After the chaos of the latter part of Charles II's reign and the reign of James II, there came a new way of doing things. It was a Whig way, a progressive way, a way more tolerant of religious differences than before (though still not tolerant by modern standards).

It was also a way in which the rights of the individual were respected more than before. Symptoms of this were the Bill of Rights of 1689, and the abolition of pre-publication censorship in 1695 (in which Locke himself played a part in drafting the parliamentary arguments).

John Locke was a central - probably the central - figure in one of the greatest transformations for the better that has taken place in the history of political societies. Despite the many tribulations in his life, he must have died a happy man.

Neil Lock
Discover John Locke, Project Manager



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