John Locke (1632-1704)

"Though the familiar use of the Things about us, takes off our Wonder; yet it cures not our Ignorance."
---An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (III. vi. 9)

"...he that will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it...must of necessity find another rise of government, another original of political power..."
---from The Second Treatise of Civil Government


John Locke was an Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, political operative, economist and idealogue for a revolutionary movement, as well as being one of the great philosophers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. His monumental Essay Concerning Human Understanding aims to determine the limits of human understanding. Earlier writers such as Chillingworth had argued that human understanding was limited, Locke tries to determine what those limits are. We can, he thinks, know with certainty that God exists. We can also know about morality with the same precision we know about mathematics, because we are the creators of moral and political ideas. In regard to natural substances we can know only the appearances and not the underlying realities which produce those appearances. Still, the atomic hypothesis with its attendant distinction between primary and secondary qualities is the most plausible available hypothesis.

Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government were published after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, but they were written in the throes of the Whig revolutionary plots against Charles II in the early 1680s. In this work Locke gives us a theory of natural law and natural rights which he uses to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate civil governments, and to argue for the legitimacy of revolt against tyrannical governments.

Locke wrote on a variety of other topics Among the most important of these is toleration. Henry VIII had created a Church of England when he broke with Rome. This Church was the official religion of England. Catholics and dissenting Protestants, e.g Quakers, Unitarians and so forth, were subject to legal prosecution. During much of the Restoration period there was debate, negotiation and manuevering to include dissenting Protestants within the Church of England. In a "Letter Concerning Toleration" and several defenses of that letter Locke argues for a separation between church and state.


On Line Biographies

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Locke Time Line

1632 29 August Locke is born.

1642 The English Civil War begins

1646? Locke is admitted to Westminster School

1649 January 30. King Charles I is executed, the House of Lords abolished; England is declared a Commonwealth

1652 Locke goes to Christ Church College, Oxford. From this time until 1667 Oxford was Locke's usual place of residence.

1656 Locke graduates B.A.

1658 Locke graduates M.A.

1660 Locke meets Robert Boyle, the chemist, who was to be his friend and correspondent for thirty years. Locke writes his first treatise on the Civil Magistrate.

1660 Charles II returns to England and is restored to the throne.

1661 Locke's father dies.

1664 Locke is "Censor of Moral Philosophy" at Christ Church. He writes the Essays on the Law of Nature

1665 November-February 1666 Locke visits Cleves as part of a diplomatic mission accompanying Sir Henry Vane to the Elector of Brandenburg.

1665 Locke reads Descartes and finds in him the first viable alternative to Scholasticism he had encountered.

1666 Locke meets Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the first earl of Shaftsbury). Locke is granted a dispensation to keep his studentship without taking holy orders.

1667 Locke began collaborating with Thomas Sydenham in medical research.

1667 Locke joins Ashly's household in London as Lord Ashley's personal physician. From this time until 1675 Locke resided usually in London. He writes an Essay concerning Toleration

1668 Locke supervises an operation to remove a cyst from Lord Ashley's liver. Astonishingly, the operation is successful and the patient lives another 15 years! Locke is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1670 Locke (under the supervision of Shaftsbury) writes the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina

1671 Locke writes the first draft of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding From this year until 1675 Locke appears to have been the secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina

1671 Locke, along with Lord Shaftsbury and many others, buys shares in the Royal Africa Company - the company chartered by the crown to carry out the slave trade for Great Britain; he sells the shares at a profit in 1675

1672 October-November. Locke visits Paris

1675 Locke graduates M.B. On 12 November he goes to France and remains there until 1678

1678 Titus Oates charges that there was a Popish plot to kill King Charles II and put his Catholic brother James on the throne.

1679 Shaftsbury becomes Lord President of the King's Council. Locke returns to England. A bill to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the Throne is passed by the House of Commons but fails in the House of Lords 15 October Parliament prorogued and Shaftsbury dismissed from office.

1681 Lord Shaftsbury tried for treason but acquitted.

1682 Locke meets Damaris Cudworth, daughter of Ralph Cudworth (a Cambridge Platonist).

1682 November 28. Shaftsbury flees to Holland where he dies on 21 January 1683

1683 September. The Rye House Plot to kill Charles II exposed; Locke flees to Holland; Essex, Russell and Algernon Sydney (leaders of the Whig party) arrested.

1684 Locke expelled from his studentship at Christ Church College, Oxford, by Royal command.

1685 Charles II dies; the Catholic Duke of York ascends the throne as James II.

1685 Lord Monmouth's (one of Charles II's illegitimate sons) rebellion. Monmouth invades England from Holland, Argyle raises a rebellion in Scotland. Both are suppressed.

1688 The Bibliotheque Universelle publishes a fifty page abstract of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding

1688 William of Orange invades England and accomplishes the "Glorious Revolution of 1688." James II flees to France.

1689 February. Locke returns to England escorting the princess of Orange, who later became Queen Mary. He meets Sir Isaac Newton and they become friends.

1689 The Epistolia de Tolerentia was published, and translated by William Popple as A Letter Concerning Toleration.

1689 December. The Essay Concerning Human Understanding is published.

1690 The Two Treatises of Civil Government are published.

1690 Jonas Proast publishes The Argument of the 'Letter of Toleration' Briefly Considered and Answered

1691 Locke makes Oates, the residence of Sir Francis and Lady Masham, his permanent home.

1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education published.

1694 The second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding published.

1695 The Reasonableness of Christianity published anonymously.

1695 Locke answered criticisms of the Reasonableness in A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity.

1696 A Board of Trade established and Locke appointed to it. The Board had a variety of duties including overseeing colonial governments. Though ill of health, Locke remained on the Board until 1700. He was its most influential member.

1697 A second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity.

1697-99 Locke engaged in an extensive controversy with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester.

1700 Locke remained at Oates until his death in 1704.


Time LineSources


Locke's Principal Works

Locke was a prolific writer. The 1823 edition of Locke's works is 10 volummes. Oxford University Press is currently producing a new edition of the works of Locke which will be even more extensive than the 1823 edition. These Oxford texts are the best available edition of Locke's work. As the publication is not complete, however, in some cases either the 1823 edition or other editions need to be consulted. The following are perhaps the most famous and influential of his works.

  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Essay, first published in December of 1689 went through four editions in Locke's lifetime. The Oxford edition, edited by Peter Nidditch is now the standard edition.
  • The Two Treatises of Civil Government of which we have and electronic text of The Second Treatise of Civil Government There are many fine editions of this book.
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration. A good edition of this with critical essays is John Locke A Letter Concerning Toleration in focus edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus, Routledge, 1991.
  • The Reaonableness of Christianity.
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

Even some of Locke's less important works are starting to become available on line. For example, one can now get a fine e-text version of Locke's Of the Conduct of the Understanding


Captain's Choice of Secondary Materials

There is a vast literature on various aspects of Locke's philosophy. The following are simply a small selection of those works which especially deserve mention.

  • John Mackie, Problems from Locke, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976. This book covers a range of issues which are closely connected with Locke's philosophy - primary and secondary qualities, representative theories of perception, substance and essence, abstract ideas and universals, identity and personal identity and innate ideas.
  • Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government This book relates Locke's Second Treatise to the political and revolutionary movement to exclude the Catholic Duke of York from the throne. Aschraft argues (against the traditional biographies) that Locke was a radical Whig up to the time the Second Treatise was published.
  • Nathan Tarcov, Locke's Education for Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1984. The book gives an interesting analysis of Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
  • James Tully, A Discourse on Property, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • John Yolton, ed. John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, 1969. This book contains a number of excellent essays on a variety of topics including Locke's views on race, politics, religion and science.

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