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The Core Curriculum

Locke

1632 CE – 1704 CE

Portrait of John Locke, c. 1704 (Wikimedia Commons)Portrait of John Locke, c. 1704 (Wikimedia Commons) Born in 1632, John Locke attended the University of Oxford, where he studied medicine. Locke’s early interests were scientific, and he operated on the periphery of the Scientific Revolution: he eventually became friends with Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, two titans of modern science. It was this profession, strangely enough, that led him into politics. In 1667, he became the physician of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was one of the most important political actors in England. Locke saved Shaftesbury’s life, earning his undying gratitude—and entry into a new world of politics and intrigue. Particularly, he dedicated himself to legitimating the increasingly radical positions of his friend and employer.

This was an inauspicious time to become involved in politics. England had only recently recovered from a debilitating civil war, which had led to a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell until Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. The Restoration of the monarchy was not, however, the end of England’s political troubles: only twenty years later, another major crisis was brewing, which became known as the “Exclusion Crisis.” At root, this pitted figures like Shaftesbury, who believed that the Parliament should have control over the king, against royalists who, like Hobbes, believed in the king’s absolute power. The royalists had a powerful body of political theory and Scripture to back up their position: specifically, the royalists published a work by Robert Filmer, called Patriarcha, in 1680. Filmer had argued, using evidence from Scripture, that the monarch’s power was divine and absolute. This left no room for Parliament to oversee the King. Shaftesbury was in trouble, so he turned to Locke, his brilliant friend and physician, to justify his party’s position. Locke agreed to help his friend, and wrote most of the Two Treatises of Government in response to Filmer. Before it could be published, however, Shaftesbury’s political fortunes took a turn for the worse, and they both fled to the Netherlands, where they remained in exile.

They did not have to remain for long, of course. In 1688, in the Glorious Revolution, William of Orange, with the help of the English Parliament, sailed into England and took control. After 1688, the English state was generally understood to be based not on divine authority, but on the consent of the governed. The new king agreed that Parliament should be able to oversee him. Locke and Shaftesbury had won, and Locke was transformed from a rebellious doctor to a famous political theorist. He published his Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689, both celebrating and legitimating the Revolution that had taken place.

 

Written by James Chappel, Department of History, Columbia University

Works Consulted:

John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the 'Two Treatises of Government” (London, 1969)

Peter Laslett’s “Introduction” to John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (New York, 1988)

Roy Porter, The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York, 2000)

Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought (New York, 2002)