Published in 1669, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the foundational text for modern philosophical empiricism. This essay set the standard for empirically-based arguments against the traditions of rationalism. Locke puts...
John Locke is considered one of the most important philosophers and political theorists. He is known as the “Father of Liberalism” and was one of the first British empiricists. His work on the theory of the state, the theory of knowledge, religious toleration, and medicine has secured him a place in the pantheon of revered intellectuals.
Locke was born on August 29, 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, England, to John Locke, a country lawyer and clerk, and Agnes Keene. Both of his parents were Puritans. He lived in a small market town in his youth and was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in 1647. Following his time there, he entered Christ Church, Oxford. The curriculum at Oxford was extremely traditional; the students studied logic, metaphysics, and the classical languages. Locke, along with other young men who would eventually form the English Royal Society, preferred to leave Aristotle behind in favor of contemporary philosophers. Locke received his B.A. in 1656 and his M.A. two years later, and instead of following the seemingly logical path and become a clergyman, Locke decided to enter medicine. Locke read and studied with the eminent physicians Robert Boyle and Thomas Sydenham. Sydenham, the major physician of his age, helped bring Locke to prominence and secured him his election to Fellow of the Royal Society in 1668.
In 1666, Locke had a fateful meeting with Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury, as history knows him, was in Oxford to pick up some medicinal waters from a physician named David Thomas, one of Locke’s friends and tutors. Dr. Thomas was unavailable and he sent Locke in his place. Shaftesbury and Locke immediately warmed to each other intellectually, and Locke performed the great service of saving Shaftesbury’s life by performing a crucial operation on an affection of the liver and resultant abscess. Locke lived in Shaftesbury’s house as his personal physician as well as secretary, researcher, political advisor, and friend. This placed him at the heart of 17th century English politics, and molded and expanded his nascent political and epistemological thoughts.
While living with Shaftesbury at Exeter House, Locke was made secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. He conducted research and held fruitful discussions with Shaftesbury on current political matters like a coinage crisis. In 1674 when Shaftesbury left the government in disfavor, Locke returned to Oxford and earned his B.A. in medicine. He then traveled to France; his ruminations there formed the basis of one of his most important works, Essay on Human Understanding. While in France Shaftesbury was imprisoned, returned to favor, and worked with others in Parliament to pass the Exclusion Bill, which would prohibit Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York, from taking the throne. When this failed to come to fruition, Shaftesbury was seized and tried for treason (he was acquitted).
When Shaftesbury and others were suspected of the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and James, Duke of York, Locke fled to Holland in 1683 for his suspected role in the conspiracy. No concrete evidence suggests Locke had any part to play, but he was in exile nonetheless. It was in exile that he completed (but did not yet publish) his Letter Concerning Toleration and worked to finish the Essay. In Holland, he associated with the English revolutionaries also in exile. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution occurred: William III of Orange invaded from Normandy and King James II (who was crowned three years earlier) fled, allowing William and his wife to rule the kingdom jointly. It was now safe for Locke to return from exile, which he did by accompanying William’s wife Mary on the royal yacht back to England.
When he returned to England, he published the Letter (1689) anonymously in Latin, and the Essay (1689) and the Two Treatises of Government (1690), also anonymously. He resided at the Essex home of his friend Lady Masham and her husband, Francis Masham. The Essay brought him widespread fame as a philosopher. He was a major intellectual influence on the Whigs and enjoyed friendships with Sir Isaac Newton and John Dryden. Ensconced at Essex House, he wrote letters, involved himself in politics, and served on the revived Board of Trade until 1700.
John Locke died on October 28, 1704, and is buried in the graveyard at High Laver, Essex. He never married or had children.
Study Guides on Works by John Locke
The Second Treatise of Government was published amidst the turmoil and upheaval of late-17th century English politics. In 1690 when it anonymously entered the canon of great works of political theory, the absolute monarch King James II had been...