English philosopher and political theorist John Locke (1632-1704) laid much of the groundwork for the Enlightenment and made central contributions to the development of liberalism. Trained in medicine, he was a key advocate of the empirical approaches of the Scientific Revolution. In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” he advanced a theory of the self as a blank page, with knowledge and identity arising only from accumulated experience. His political theory of government by the consent of the governed as a means to protect “life, liberty and estate” deeply influenced the United States’ founding documents. His essays on religious tolerance provided an early model for the separation of church and state.
John Locke was among the most famous philosophers and political theorists of the 17th century. He is often regarded as the founder of a school of thought known as British Empiricism, and he made foundational contributions to modern theories of limited, liberal government. He was also influential in the areas of theology, religious toleration, and educational theory.
John Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, a small village in southwestern England
Locke was successful at Westminster and earned a place at Christ Church, Oxford. He was to remain in Oxford from 1652 until 1667.
Locke left Oxford for London in 1667.
Locke travelled in France for several years starting in 1675.
It was around this time that Locke composed his most famous political work, the Two Treatises Concerning Government.
Locke fled to the Netherlands to escape political persecution. While there Locke travelled a great deal (sometimes for his own safety) and worked on two projects. First, he continued work on the Essay. Second, he wrote a work entitled Epistola de Tolerantia, which was published anonymously in 1689. Locke’s experiences in England, France, and the Netherlands convinced him that governments should be much more tolerant of religious diversity than was common at the time.
Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 Locke was able to return to England. He published both the Essay and the Two Treatises
Essay Concerning Human Understanding(1690)
Locke’s insight was that before we can analyze the world and our access to it we have to know something about ourselves. We need to know how we acquire knowledge. We also need to know which areas of inquiry we are well suited to and which are epistemically closed to us, that is, which areas are such that we could not know them even in principle. We further need to know what knowledge consists in.
According to Locke, ideas are the fundamental units of mental content and so play an integral role in his explanation of the human mind and his account of our knowledge. Locke was not the first philosopher to give ideas a central role; Descartes, for example, had relied heavily on them in explaining the human mind. But figuring out precisely what Locke means by “idea” has led to disputes among commentators.
Locke’s Two Treatises on Government
Locke’s two treatises on government were published in October 1689 with a 1690 date on the title page. While later philosophers have belittled it because Locke based his thinking on archaic notions about a “state of nature,” his bedrock principles endure. He defended the natural law tradition whose glorious lineage goes back to the ancient Jews: the tradition that rulers cannot legitimately do anything they want, because there are moral laws applying to everyone.
“Reason, which is that Law,” Locke declared, “teaches all Mankind, who would but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” Locke envisoned a rule of law: “have a standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; A Liberty to follow my own Will in all things, where the Rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, Arbitrary Will of another Man.”
Locke established that private property is absolutely essential for liberty: “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” He continues: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”
Locke believed people legitimately turned common property into private property by mixing their labor with it, improving it. Marxists liked to claim this meant Locke embraced the labor theory of value, but he was talking about the basis of ownership rather than value.
He insisted that people, not rulers, are sovereign. Government, Locke wrote, “can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent. For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all.” He makes his point even more explicit: rulers “must not raise Taxes on the Property of the People, without the Consent of the People, given by themselves, or their Deputies.”
Locke had enormous foresight to see beyond the struggles of his own day, which were directed against monarchy: “’Tis a Mistake to think this Fault [tyranny] is proper only to Monarchies; other Forms of Government are liable to it, as well as that. For where-ever the Power that is put in any hands for the Government of the People, and the Preservation of their Properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the Arbitrary and Irregular Commands of those that have it: There it presently becomes Tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many.”
Then Locke affirmed an explicit right to revolution: “whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.”
To help assure his anonymity, he dealt with the printer through his friend Edward Clarke. Locke denied rumors that he was the author, and he begged his friends to keep their speculations to themselves. He cut off those like James Tyrrell who persisted in talking about Locke’s authorship. Locke destroyed the original manuscripts and all references to the work in his writings. His only written acknowledgment of authorship was in an addition to his will, signed shortly before he died. Ironically, the two treatises caused hardly a stir during his life.
In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke examines the nature of the human mind and the process by which it knows the world. Repudiating the traditional doctrine of innate ideas, Locke believed that the mind is born blank, a tabula rasa upon which the world describes itself through the experience of the five senses. Knowledge arising from sensation is perfected by reflection, thus enabling humans to arrive at such ideas as space, time, and infinity.
Locke distinguished the primary qualities of things (e.g., solidity, extension, number) from their secondary qualities (e.g., color, sound). These latter qualities he held to be produced by the impact of the world on the sense organs. Behind this curtain of sensation the world itself is colorless and silent. Science is possible, Locke maintained, because the primary world affects the sense organs mechanically, thus producing ideas that faithfully represent reality. The clear, common-sense style of the Essay concealed many unexplored assumptions that the later empiricists George Berkeley and David Hume would contest, but the problems that Locke set forth have occupied philosophy in one way or another ever since.
Our knowledge does not extend beyond the scope of human ideas. ideas are limited by experience, and we cannot possibly experience everything that exists in the world, our knowledge is further compromised. However, Locke asserts that though our knowledge is necessarily limited in these ways, we can still be certain of some things. For example, we have an intuitive and immediate knowledge of our own existence, even if we are ignorant of the metaphysical essence of our souls. We also have a demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence, though our understanding cannot fully comprehend who or what he is. We know other things through sensation. We know that our ideas correspond to external realities because the mind cannot invent such things without experience. A blind man, for example, would not be able to form a concept of color. Therefore, those of us who have sight can reason that since we do perceive colors, they must exist.
A Natural Foundation of Reason
Locke argues that God gave us our capacity for reason to aid us in the search for truth. As God’s creations, we know that we must preserve ourselves. To help us, God created in us a natural aversion to misery and a desire for happiness, so we avoid things that cause us pain and seek out pleasure instead. We can reason that since we are all equally God’s children, God must want everyone to be happy. If one person makes another unhappy by causing him pain, that person has rejected God’s will. Therefore, each person has a duty to preserve other people as well as himself. Recognizing the responsibility to preserve the rights of all humankind naturally leads to tolerance, the notion that forms the basis for Locke’s belief in the separation of church and state. If we all must come to discover the truth through reason, then no one man is naturally better able to discover truth than any other man. For this reason, political leaders do not have the right to impose beliefs on the people. Because everything we understand comes through experience and is translated by reason, no outside force can make us understand something in conflict with our own ideas. Locke insists that if men were to follow the government blindly, they would be surrendering their own reason and thus violating God’s law, or natural law.
Locke is most renowned for his 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.
In his works "A Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689) and "The Second Treatise On Civil Government" (1690), philosopher John Locke created what would become the philosophical source for the founding principles of the United States.
Although not strictly a political work, "A Letter Concerning Toleration" presents a view of the means of understanding moral truths that has strong political implications. For although its specific focus is the separation of church and state, in essence it deals with a much wider issue, which is that it is impossible for the state to compel moral behavior. Thus, when more broadly applied, it provides a philosophic foundation for free speech and for the freedom of action that follows from free thought.
In the letter, Locke maintains that there must be an absolute separation between the church and the state,
Further, since this relationship only exists between an individual mind and reality, political leaders are in no superior position to grasp the truth than any other men are, and therefore have no right to even attempt to force their opinions on others.
Finally, Locke maintains that there must be a separation between church and state since the state exists not to enforce public morality, but to protect man's rights from being violated by other men.
A year after publishing "A Letter Concerning Toleration," Locke published "The Second Treatise On Civil Government
There is no way to prove that one has a right to hold political power by reference to one's ancestry. Since forming a government on such a basis leads to rule by brute force, and consequently, to civil disorder, another way must be found to choose political leaders, one derived from an understanding of men's relationships to each other before the existence of government, i.e., of men's relationships to each other in a state of nature.
In a state of nature, each man, as the possessor of reason and free will, is cognitively independent and equal, and so, by implication, politically independent and equal.
Thus, according to Locke, the basis of the equality, independence, and ultimately, the freedom that exists between all individual men is their mutual possession of reason. As an example of this principle, he notes that children do not possess the freedoms possessed by adults until they have reached the age whereby their reason has developed.
In Locke's conception, a proper government exercises three distinct and separate powers, the "legislative, executive, and federative power of the commonwealth."
The first power of government to be established is "the legislative power," which "is that which has a right to direct how the force of the commonwealth shall be employed for preserving the community and the members of it
Once the legislative force creates laws, there arises the need of an executive power "which should see to the execution of the laws
The third power of government, the federative, arises from the fact that, although in relation to one another the members of the commonwealth "are governed by the laws the society, yet… the whole community is one body in the state of Nature in respect of all other states or persons out of its community
The last major topic treated by Locke in the Second Treatise is the right of the citizens to revolt against tyrannies, i.e., governments wherein "the governor… makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion." Such a ruler "ceases in that to be a magistrate, and acting without authority may be opposed, as any other man who by force invades the right of another.
State of Nature
The State of Nature is a useful philosophical model which allows social contract theorists to present their understanding of human nature and offer a justification for the erection of government.
Locke begins his second chapter with the explanation that all men exist in a state of perfect freedom and equality. Their actions and choices are unfettered and cannot be limited by other men. All men are born in the exact same state, with no one individual having privileges or advantages over another. Only God is able to bestow some advantage in power upon one man over another.
Locke uses the state of nature as the starting point for his second, and most salient, Treatise. This is a condition where there is for men “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.” From this very first sentence, it is evident that Locke follows in the Natural Law tradition which states that men inherently have a moral sense which restricts them from engaging in certain acts.
By virtue of being children of God, we know what is right and wrong and by extension what is lawful, and we can therefore resolve conflicts fairly consistently. As a result, for Locke, the state of nature is not a state of License because man “has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it.
Reason teaches us that we ought not to harm one another in life, health, liberty or possessions, and that in fact we have an active obligation to others, much as Cicero had earlier contended. At the same time, we all have “a right to punish the transgressors of [the Law of Nature]” and as such we are all executioners of natural law. However, man is disposed to be partial in his own case and therefore act as a biased judge. This is indeed one of the great shortcomings in Locke’s state of nature. The other two failings are the absence of protection of property rights and the inclusion of irrationals. Nevertheless, it is crucial that man has united even in the absence of government. In all, such a state is inconvenient for man, but not altogether corrupt, and it is characterized by tolerance, reason and equality.
In Chapter 2, Locke explains the state of nature as a state of equality in which no one has power over another, and all are free to do as they please. He notes, however, that this liberty does not equal license to abuse others, and that natural law exists even in the state of nature. Each individual in the state of nature has the power to execute natural laws, which are universal. Locke then posits that proof of this natural law lies in the fact that, even though a person cannot reasonably be under the power of a foreign king, if a person commits a crime in a foreign country they can still be punished. Locke states that natural law simply demands that punishment fit the crime--a person in the state of nature can redress any crime to discourage the offender from repeating it. Locke concludes by noting that all people are in a state of nature until a special compact or agreement between them (which he promises to describe later) makes them members of a political society.
Perhaps the most central concept in Locke's political philosophy is his theory of natural law and natural rights. The natural law concept existed long before Locke as a way of expressing the idea that there were certain moral truths that applied to all people, regardless of the particular place where they lived or the agreements they had made.
One of the intellectual traditions which stands behind modern classical liberalism is that of natural law and natural rights. This tradition emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries and argues that the world is governed by natural laws which are discoverable by human reason. Human beings, because of their particular natures have a number of natural rights, or what Tom Paine described as “imprescriptible rights”. According to the founding fathers of the American constitution these rights are the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. A key aspect of this intellectual tradition is the notion that natural rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it and that governments are in fact created to “secure these rights.” During the 19th century the natural law/rights traditions was overtaken by English utlitarianism which argued that the government should pursue policies which would do “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
He professed the idea that man has a natural right to life, to liberty, and to property, and he justified his beliefs on the foundation of natural law. Locke’s view of natural law was simple: there are certain laws whose content is set in nature by God and that have validity everywhere.
Locke believed in the natural rights of man, but he also believed in the sin nature of man, which is why he saw the need for government. He said that we should have government because due to the “corruption and viciousness of degenerate men” they would not be able to defend their rights. Without government, man’s sin nature would overcome their sense of natural law, and their rights would be exploited for evil. “The great chief end” for men to have government “is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of nature there are many things wanting,” he wrote. It was his strong opinion that men should give up as much power as is needed to defend themselves in exercising their natural rights, an idea called the “social contract theory.”
John Locke made a major advance to our understanding of natural law, by emphasizing the nature of man as a maker of things, and a property owning animal. This leads to a more extensive concept of natural rights than the previous discussions of natural law. From the right to self defense comes the right to the rule of law, but from the right to property comes a multitude of like rights, such as the right to privacy “An Englishman's home is his castle." Further, Locke repeatedly, in ringing words, reminded us that a ruler is legitimate so far as he upholds the law.
A ruler that violates natural law is illegitimate. He has no right to be obeyed, his commands are mere force and coercion. Rulers who act lawlessly, whose laws are unlawful, are mere criminals, and should be dealt with in accordance with natural law, as applied in a state of nature, in other words they and their servants should be killed as the opportunity presents, like the dangerous animals that they are, the common enemies of all mankind.
John Locke's writings were a call to arms, an assertion of the right and duty to forcibly and violently remove illegitimate rulers and their servants.
This provided the moral and legal basis for many great revolutions, and many governments. After the American revolution the North Americans were governed more or less in accordance with natural law for one hundred and thirty years.
John Locke was writing for an audience that mostly understood what natural law was, even those who disputed the existence and force of natural law knew what he was talking about, and they made valid and relevant criticisms. In the nineteenth century people started to forget what natural law was, and today he is often criticized on grounds that are irrelevant, foolish, and absurd.
According to Locke, the State of Nature, the natural condition of mankind, is a state of perfect and complete liberty to conduct one's life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of others. This does not mean, however, that it is a state of license: one is not free to do anything at all one pleases, or even anything that one judges to be in one’s interest. The State of Nature, although a state wherein there is no civil authority or government to punish people for transgressions against laws, is not a state without morality. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral. Persons are assumed to be equal to one another in such a state, and therefore equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature. The Law of Nature, which is on Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their "life, health, liberty, or possessions" (par. 6). Because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful.
The State of Nature therefore, is not the same as the state of war, as it is according to Hobbes. It can, however devolve into a state of war, in particular, a state of war over property disputes. Whereas the State of Nature is the state of liberty where persons recognize the Law of Nature and therefore do not harm one another, the state of war begins between two or more men once one man declares war on another, by stealing from him, or by trying to make him his slave. Since in the State of Nature there is no civil power to whom men can appeal, and since the Law of Nature allows them to defend their own lives, they may then kill those who would bring force against them. Since the State of Nature lacks civil authority, once war begins it is likely to continue. And this is one of the strongest reasons that men have to abandon the State of Nature by contracting together to form civil government.
Property plays an essential role in Locke's argument for civil government and the contract that establishes it. According to Locke, private property is created when a person mixes his labor with the raw materials of nature. So, for example, when one tills a piece of land in nature, and makes it into a piece of farmland, which produces food, then one has a claim to own that piece of land and the food produced upon it. (This led Locke to conclude that America didn’t really belong to the natives who lived there, because they were, on his view, failing to utilize the basic material of nature. In other words, they didn’t farm it, so they had no legitimate claim to it, and others could therefore justifiably appropriate it.) Given the implications of the Law of Nature, there are limits as to how much property one can own: one is not allowed to take more from nature than one can use, thereby leaving others without enough for themselves. Because nature is given to all of mankind by God for its common subsistence, one cannot take more than his own fair share. Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the social contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their property in their own bodies, that men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature.
According to Locke, the State of Nature is not a condition of individuals, as it is for Hobbes. Rather, it is populated by mothers and fathers with their children, or families - what he calls "conjugal society" (par. 78). These societies are based on the voluntary agreements to care for children together, and they are moral but not political. Political society comes into being when individual men, representing their families, come together in the State of Nature and agree to each give up the executive power to punish those who transgress the Law of Nature, and hand over that power to the public power of a government. Having done this, they then become subject to the will of the majority. In other words, by making a compact to leave the State of Nature and form society, they make “one body politic under one government” (par. 97) and submit themselves to the will of that body. One joins such a body, either from its beginnings, or after it has already been established by others, only by explicit consent. Having created a political society and government through their consent, men then gain three things which they lacked in the State of Nature: laws, judges to adjudicate laws, and the executive power necessary to enforce these laws. Each man therefore gives over the power to protect himself and punish transgressors of the Law of Nature to the government that he has created through the compact.
Given that the end of "men's uniting into common-wealths"( par. 124) is the preservation of their wealth, and preserving their lives, liberty, and well-being in general, Locke can easily imagine the conditions under which the compact with government is destroyed, and men are justified in resisting the authority of a civil government, such as a King. When the executive power of a government devolves into tyranny, such as by dissolving the legislature and therefore denying the people the ability to make laws for their own preservation, then the resulting tyrant puts himself into a State of Nature, and specifically into a state of war with the people, and they then have the same right to self-defense as they had before making a compact to establish society in the first place. In other words, the justification of the authority of the executive component of government is the protection of the people’s property and well-being, so when such protection is no longer present, or when the king becomes a tyrant and acts against the interests of the people, they have a right, if not an outright obligation, to resist his authority. The social compact can be dissolved and the process to create political society begun anew.
Because Locke did not envision the State of Nature as grimly as did Hobbes, he can imagine conditions under which one would be better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the State of Nature, with the aim of constructing a better civil government in its place. It is therefore both the view of human nature, and the nature of morality itself, which account for the differences between Hobbes' and Locke’s views of the social contract.