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Western Philosophers
17th-century philosophy
(Modern Philosophy)
John Locke
John Locke
Name: John Locke
Birth: August 29, 1632 (Wrington, Somerset, England)
Death: October 28, 1704 (Essex, England)
School/tradition: British Empiricism
Main interests
Metaphysics, Epistemology, Political philosophy, philosophy of mind, Education
Notable ideas
"government with the consent of the governed"; state of nature; rights of life, liberty and property
Influences Influenced
Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes |
Many political philosophers after him, especially the American Founding Fathers

John Locke (August 29, 1632October 28, 1704) was a 17th-century English philosopher. He developed the Lockean social contract, which included the ideas of a state of nature, "government with the consent of the governed," and the natural rights of life, liberty, and estate. Locke was also the first to fully develop the idea of tabula rasa.

Locke's ideas had an enormous influence on the development of political philosophy, and he is often seen as one of the most influential contributors to liberal theory as well as Enlightenment thinkers. Locke's writings formed the basis for many ideas of American revolutionaries as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Locke has often been classified, along with David Hume and George Berkeley, as a British Empiricist. He is perhaps most often contrasted with the contemporary Thomas Hobbes.


Locke's father, also named John Locke, was a country lawyer who had served as a captain of cavalry for the Parliamentarian forces during the early part of the English Civil War, and his mother Agnes Keene was a tanner's daughter who was reputed to be very beautiful. Both parents were Puritans.

Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in a small thatched cottage by the church in Wrington, Somerset, 11.42 miles (18.38 km) from Bristol. He was baptized the same day. Soon after Locke's birth, the family moved to the market town of Pensford, about seven miles south of Bristol, where Locke grew up in a rural Tudor house in Belluton.

In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London under the sponsorship of Alexander Popham, a member of Parliament and Locke's father's former commander. After completing his studies there, he was admitted to the college of Christ Church at Oxford University. The dean of the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university. Although a capable student, Locke was irritated by the undergraduate curriculum of the time. He found reading modern philosophers, such as René Descartes, more interesting than the classical material taught at the university. Through his friend Richard Lower whom he knew from the Westminster School, Locke was introduced to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued at other universities and in the English Royal Society, of which he eventually became a member.

Locke was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. Locke obtained a bachelor of medicine in 1674. He studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford, working with such noted virtuosi as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke and Richard Lower. In 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford seeking treatment for a liver infection. Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue.

Locke had been looking for a career and in 1667 moved into Shaftesbury's home at Exeter House in London, to serve as Lord Ashley's personal physician. In London Locke resumed his medical studies, under the tutelage of Thomas Sydenham. Sydenham had a major impact on Locke's natural philosophical thinking - an impact that resonated deeply in Locke's writing of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke's medical knowledge was soon put to the test, since Shaftesbury's liver infection became life-threatening. Locke coordinated the advice of several physicians and was probably instrumental in persuading Shaftesbury to undergo an operation (then life-threatening itself) to remove the cyst. Shaftesbury survived and prospered, crediting Locke with saving his life.

It was in Shaftesbury's household, during 1671, that the meeting took place, described in the Epistle to the reader of the Essay, which was the genesis of what would later become Essay. Two extant Drafts still survive from this period. It was also during this time that Locke served as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords and Proprietors of the Carolinas, helping to shape his ideas on international trade and economics. Shaftesbury, as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas. Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672. Following Shaftesbury's fall from favor in 1675, Locke spent some time travelling across France. He returned to England in 1679 when Shaftesbury's political fortunes took a brief positive turn. It was around this time, most likely at Shaftesbury's prompting, that Locke composed the bulk of the Two Treatises of Government.

However, Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, under strong suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot (though there is little evidence to suggest that he was directly involved in the scheme). In the Netherlands Locke had time to return to his writing, spending a great deal of time re-working the Essay and composing the Letter on Toleration. Locke did not return home until after the Glorious Revolution. The bulk of Locke's publishing took place after his arrival back in England - the Essay, the Two Treatises and the Letter on Toleration all appearing in quick succession upon his return from exile.

He died in 1704 after a prolonged decline in health, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of High Laver, east of Harlow in Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. Locke never married or had any children.

Events that happened during Locke's lifetime include the English Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. He did not quite see the Act of Union of 1707, though the thrones of England and Scotland were held by the same monarch throughout his lifetime. Constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy were in their infancy during Locke's time.


Locke exercised a profound influence on subsequent philosophy and politics. His remarks concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. In particular, the Declaration of Independence drew upon many 18th century political ideas, derived from the works of Locke.

Appraisals of Locke have therefore been tied to appraisals of the United States and of liberalism in general. Detractors note that he was a major investor in the English slave-trade through the Royal Africa Company, as well as through his participation in drafting the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas while Shaftesbury's secretary, which established a feudal aristocracy and gave a master absolute power over his slaves. Some see his statements on unenclosed property as having justified the displacement of the Native Americans. Because of his opposition to aristocracy and slavery in his major writings, he is accused of hypocrisy, or of caring only for the liberty of English capitalists. Most American liberal scholars reject these criticisms, however, questioning the extent of his impact upon the Fundamental Constitution and his detractors' interpretations of his work in general.


Locke proposed a labour theory of property that built on the idea of natural law (see Thomas Aquinas). By mixing an object with his labour, man then owns that object. However, labour also set the bounds of private property because, under the labour idea, a person could only own that which could be enjoyed and used. By these bounds, the economy should run efficiently because property will not be wasted, spoiled, or hoarded. Locke uses the word property in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations; more narrowly, it refers to material goods. He argues property is natural rights and it is derived from labor. Scholars believe that Karl Marx later adapted Locke's theory on property in his philosophies. He also had a major influence on the US Constitution in the Preamble. John Locke had the thought that all men had the natural rights of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and estate. He also developed the Lockeian social contract which included the state of nature, government with the consent of the governed and all the natural rights.

Political Theory

Contradicting Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. In that state all people were equal and independent, and none had a right to harm another’s “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” The state was formed by social contract because in the state of nature each was his own judge, and there was no protection against those who lived outside the law of nature. The state should be guided by natural law.

Rights of property are very important, because each person has a right to the product of his or her labor. Locke forecast the labor theory of value. The policy of governmental checks and balances, as delineated in the Constitution of the United States, was set down by Locke, as was the doctrine that revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation. At Shaftesbury’s behest, he contributed to the Fundamental Constitutions for the Carolinas; the colony’s proprietors, however, never implemented the document.

The Labor theory of value

• By applying labor to the products of nature, man appropriates them and makes them his property. • Labor not only is the origin of property but also “puts the difference of value on everything.” • He considers labor important enough to account for nine-tenths, perhaps even ninety-nine hundredths, of the value of goods, the rest being contributed by nature. • Locke’s idea is that property precedes government and that government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily” was one of the great formative forces of the modern age.

Limits to accumulation

• Labor creates property, but it also contains limits to its accumulation: man’s capacity to produce and man’s capacity to consume. These limits are considered to prevent goods from being spoiled, or waste. • Goods of greater durability are introduced, those exposed to quick spoilage can be exchanged for something that lasts longer, for example: plums for nuts, nuts for a piece of metal… • The introduction of money marks the culmination of this process. Money makes possible the unlimited accumulation of property without causing waste through spoilage. He also includes gold or silver as money because they may be “hoarded up without injury to anyone,” since they do not spoil or decay in the hands of the possessor. • The introduction of money vanish the limits of accumulation and inequality. He stress that inequality has come about by tacit agreement on the use of money, not by the social contract establishing civil society or the law of land regulate property. • He is aware of a problem posed by unlimited accumulation but does not consider it his task. He just implies that government would function to moderate the conflict between the unlimited accumulation of property and a more nearly equal distribution of wealth and does not say which principles that government should apply to solve this problem. • However, not all elements of his thought form a consistent whole. For example, labor theory of value of the Treaties of Government stands side by side with the demand-and-supply theory developed in the Considerations. Moreover, Locke anchors property in labor but in the end upholds the unlimited accumulation of wealth.

Locke on value and price theory

• Locke’s general theory of value and price is a demand-and-supply theory. • Supply is quantity and demand is vent. • “The price of any commodity rises or falls by the proportion of the number of buyer and sellers.” and “that which regulates the price …[of good] is nothing else but their quantity in proportion to their vent.” • The quantity theory of money forms a special case of this general theory. His idea is based on “money answers all things” (Ecclesiastes) or “vent of money is always sufficient, or more than enough,” and “varies very little…” • Regardless of whether the demand for money is unlimited or constant, Locke concludes that as far as money is concerned, the demand is exclusively regulated by its quantity. • He also investigates the determinants of demand and supply. For supply, goods in general are considered valuable because they can be exchanged, consumed and they must be scarce. For demand, goods are in demand because they yield a flow of income. • He develops an early theory of capitalization, such as land, which has value because “by its constant production of saleable commodities it brings in a certain yearly income.” • Demand for money is almost the same as demand for goods or land; it depends on whether money is wanted as medium of exchange or as loanable funds. For medium of exchange “money is capable by exchange to procure us the necessaries or conveniences of life.” For loanable funds, “it comes to be of the same nature with land by yielding a certain yearly income … or interest.”

Monetary thoughts

• Locke distinguishes 2 functions of money: “counter” serves as measure of value and “pledge” as claim to goods. • Paper money is used in domestic transactions, but for international transactions, gold and silver are dispensable because a domestic law may make paper money acceptable in domestic use but it can not give “the intrinsic value which the universal consent of mankind has annexed to silver and gold.” • Locke states that the ratio of a country’s money stock to its “trade” must not be “far less” than it is in other countries, if it happens the country will suffer a loss in its trade. • His arguments serve a mercantilist idea of a favorable balance of trade. A country must seek a favorable balance of trade, minimizing its money stock fall behind that of other countries. • He argues the world money stock is continuously growing, if a country that stands still will fall behind as other countries’ money stock rises, a country can not afford merely to maintain its own but must seek to enlarge it. • He does not consider low prices a welcome stimulus to exports. If M is rising, P could only remain stable if T is to increase. • Locke develops his theory of the foreign exchanges, in addition to commodity movements, there are also movements in country stock of money and movements of capital determine exchange rate. The latter is less significant and less volatile than commodity movements. • As for country’s money stock, if it is large relative to that of other countries, it will cause the country’s exchange to rise above par, as an export balance would do. • He also prepares estimates of the cash requirements for different economic groups (landholders, laborers and brokers). In each group the cash requirements are closely related to the length of the pay period. He argues the brokers – middlemen – whose activities enlarge the monetary circuit and whose profits eat into the earnings of laborers and landholders.

List of major works

  • (1689) A Letter Concerning Toleration
    • (1690) A Second Letter Concerning Toleration
    • (1692) A Third Letter for Toleration
  • (1689) Two Treatises of Government
  • (1689) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • (1693) Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  • (1695) The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures
    • (1695) A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity

Major unpublished or posthumous manuscripts

  • (1660) First Tract on Government (or the English Tract)
  • (c.1662) Second Tract on Government (or the Latin Tract)
  • (1664) Essays on the Law of Nature
  • (1667) Essay Concerning Toleration
  • (1706) Of the Conduct of the Understanding
  • (1707) A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul

Locke's epitaph

(translated from Latin) "Stop Traveller! Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspect praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere."

Secondary literature

  • Bernard Bailyn, Bernard, 1992 (1967). The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard Uni. Press. Discusses the influence of Locke and other thinkers upon the American Revolution and on subsequent American political thought.
  • Chappell, Vere, ed., 19nn. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Dunn, John, 1984. Locke. Oxford Uni. Press. A succinct introduction.
  • ------, 1969. The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the "Two Treatises of Government". Cambridge Uni. Press. Introduced the interpretation which emphasizes the theological element in Locke's political thought.
  • Tully, James, 1980. "A Discourse on Property : John Locke and his Adversaries" Cambridge Uni. Press
  • Yolton, J. W., ed., 1969. John Locke: Problems and Perspectives. Cambridge Uni. Press. Reassesses Locke's political philosophy from different points of view.

Locke Studies, appearing annually, publishes scholarly work on John Locke. Obtainable from the editor for £12.

See also


  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.

External links

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