John Locke was an English philosopher and political theorist, who played a crucial role in shaping philosophical thought and political beliefs over the ages. He is justly considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and one of the most controversial. A study of his life and works will go a long way in understanding the role his ideas played in the growth and development of the constitution of the United States of America.
Locke was born at Wrington, in Somerset. He received a diverse education, first at the Westminster school for Boys and later at Christ Church in Oxford. His abiding interest in medicine led to his striking an acquaintance with the politician, Anthony Ashley Cooper, known to history as the Earl of Shaftesbury. This was the turning point in Locke's life, as from then on his destiny was irrevocably linked with Shaftesbury. Locke gave up his scientific inclinations and took a keen interest in affairs of the state. The year 1675, found him in France as a consequence of the liberal Shaftesbury having incurred the wrath of the royals. When Locke returned in 1679, he found a nation rife with political upheaval and a monarchy hostile towards Protestants and removed himself to Holland. Following the revolution of 1688, he returned to England, where he stayed till his death.
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Throughout his life, Locke wrote on a wide variety of subjects. His Treatises of Government and Essay Concerning Human Understanding are famed in the annals of political thought and philosophy as invaluable contributions. That aside, he distinguished himself with well written pieces in the fields of economics, science, theology and education
Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was his first and only foray into the realms of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge. Divided into four books, his essay is a detailed theory of knowledge and aims to discover what kind of things God has fitted us to know, and so how we should direct and use our intellect and understanding (Woolhouse 78). At the onset he emphasizes the importance of experience in the pursuit of knowledge and dismisses the notion that ideas are innate. According to Locke the mind is a blank slate on which ideas are inscribed by the hand of experience. He states that experience of the senses is the tool used in gleaning knowledge and rationale must be used before a thorough understanding of raw information is possible.
Finally Locke defines knowledge as perception of the connection and agreement, or disagreement of any of our ideas (qtd. in Woolhouse 80). From this definition it is clear that he believes acquisition of knowledge depends primarily on perception or on the ability to make pertinent connections between related ideas. This point of view brings out the limitations in acquiring knowledge. Locke's general conclusion concerning the extent of our knowledge is then, that "God has also put within the grasp of our rationality the way that leads to a better life" and "given us the means to acquire knowledge of whatever is necessary for the information of virtue"&Â (Woolhouse 83). Locke's doctrines influenced epistemology and served as the foundation on which later philosophers based their work.
Locke's Two Treatises of Government emerged from the Exclusion Crisis. During this period, the Earl of Shaftesbury was waging a struggle to prevent the ascension of the Catholic James, Duke of York, the brother of the reigning monarch, Charles II, to the throne of England. According to Dunn, was a struggle to win control of men's minds, an exercise in persuasion, and in consequence it was a struggle waged by necessity in books and pamphlets as much as it was waged within the normal institutions of English political life (curti, 55). And thus it came about that Locke began his work on the Two Treatises of Government.
Locke was an exceedingly devout man, and his philosophical and political doctrines stem from his unwavering faith in the relationship between Man and God. In the words of Hampsher- Monk, Political authority, like all moral claims for Locke, must rest ultimately on our religious obligations, which are for him, the source of all morality (82). Locke's First Treatise is a scathing attack on Robert Film's Patriarcha. Filmer was an advocate of absolute monarchy and the divine right of Kings. He believed that absolute power was granted to Kings by God, starting with Adam. Any attempt to usurp or question this authority was considered as a defiance of the divine will. Therefore Locke had his work cut out. In the words of Dunn, "To answer these charges Locke needed to rescue the contractarian account of political obligation from the criticisms of impiety and absurdity"(Curti,57).
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In Locke's Second Treatise, he expounds at length on the idea that man lives in a state of nature, where everyone is equal. And yet this state is far from perfect as man is a selfish being and tends to put personal interest ahead of others. Moreover some people are ill-equipped to protect their turf. Thereby it follows that people agree to unite, and to enter into society to make one people, one body politic, under one supreme governmentÂ (Woolhouse 78). But the authority of the ruling body is not absolute, and is subject to the consent of the masses. If this consent was forfeit then revolution was more than justified. As Dunn put it, "thoughtless servility brings down upon the individual such a crushing moral burden, there is a moral as well as psychological incentive to make explicit a dignified but total dissent"(Dunn, 61).
Locke's views on the preservation of individual property are an important component of Two Treatises and the cornerstone of his political doctrines. According to him, people consent to being governed, mainly on account of their worries over their ability to protect their property. The earth has been gifted to people by God, and if by dint of hard labor or personal resources, an individual manages to make a piece of land his own, it is the sacred duty of the state to preserve the land from marauders and other malign forces. In the words of Curti, "declaring that whatsoever a person hath mixed his labor with and joined it to something that is his own was a sacred right to be protected by government", Locke laid the foundations of the concept of economic laissez faire (Curti, 331).
For the government to function efficiently, Locke suggests formulating common laws, recognized by all, an impartial judge or body to try offenders and a centralized power, a power that the state of nature lacks (Haworth 106). Locke's Two Treatises of Government, with its own particular quality of flexibility, lends itself to liberal as well as conservative interpretation and this factor may well be the reason for its success and continuing influence.
His Influence on Politics
Locke's influence on political thought is tremendous. His political theories particularly the ones pertaining to equal rights, preservation of private property, a popular government endorsed by the majority and the right to rebel have been incorporated into the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution of the United States of America. According to Haworth both are imbued with the spirit of Locke (116). Locke's thought also prevailed during the American Revolution and fanned the flames of revolution. An examination of more than four hundred election sermons, academic addresses, and Fourth of July orations written during the three-quarters of a century after the American Revolution, indicates that various interests appealed to these doctrines of Locke to support their causes (Curti 324).
Locke was one of the earliest philosophers to address the issue of private ownership of property. His groundbreaking views had far-reaching implications. This issue is relevant to this very day. Locke's theories of property influenced the thoughts and actions of the framers of the Constitution and the advocates of the stake-in-society theory of economics during the Jacksonian period (Curti 331). Thus Locke's Two Treatises on Government played a crucial role in shaping the political framework of the nation.