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John Locke ~ major works

Essay concerning Human Understanding

It was statesman-philosopher Francis Bacon who, early in the seventeenth century, first strongly established the claims of Empiricism - the reliance on the experience of the senses - over those speculation or deduction in the pursuit of knowledge.

John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding restates the importance of the experience of the senses over speculation and sets out the case that the human mind at birth is a complete, but receptive, blank upon which experience imprints knowledge. Locke definitely did not believe in powers of intuition or that the human mind is invested with innate conceptions.

Two Treatises of Government

In these treatises Locke considers the origins of civil government.
As population increases in relation to the supply of land rules are needed beyond those which the moral law or law of nature supplies. Locke suggests that whilst the moral law is always valid it is not always kept this gives rise to problems of social order. In a state of nature all men equally take upon themselves the right to punish transgressors. What might be called civil societies originate where, for the better administration of the law in relation to the protection of life, liberty, and property, men agree to delegate this function to certain officers. Thus the government of civil societies is initiated by an implicit, but effective, "social contract".

Locke saw the origin of civil society by such agreement as inevitably involving the associated consent to be ruled, in many things, by the majority opinion within the society. Locke did however consider that certain "natural rights" were not prejudiced by the formation of the civil society and should remain inviolable.

To better avoid the emergence of tyranny through legislation Locke advocated a system of checks and balances in government. He saw governance as being comprised of three aspects, Legislative, Executive, and Federative.

Locke in his Two Treatises of Government sets out to dismantle the theory of divine right of kings. (The unpopular later Stuart monarchs had often rested their ambitious claims to supremacy largely upon their Divine Rights). In this work Locke argues that sovereignty is not vested by divine right in the royal state but rests with the people. States power can be supreme but only, in Locke's view, if it operates within the bounds of civil and "natural" law.

Locke saw the powers as such government as being limited, such powers also involve reciprocal obligations. Governments moreover can be modified or rescinded by the authority which conferred them. Locke maintained, in his Two Treatises of Government published just as it was just after an English revolution (for which Locke was to be something of an apologist), that revolution was not only a right but was often an effective obligation where states denied the operation of civil and natural law.

Locke's political ideas as set out in the Two Treatises of Government, such as those relating to civil, natural, and property rights, the duty of the government to protect these rights, were later embodied in the United States Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution. Locke's ideas about rights to life, liberty, and property, being altered and re-presented as rights to life, liberty, and happiness.

Locke's ideas of the separation of governmental powers into, legislative, executive, and federative, functions was more fully developed by the French political writer Montesquieu in his De l'Esprit de Lois (Spirit of the Laws) which was published in 1748.
In the form as developed by Montesquieu the notion of the separation of powers (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) was incorporated into the American Constitution framing process.

Thomas Jefferson, the principal draftsperson of the American Declaration of Independence (in the summer of 1776) considered Locke to have been one of the three "greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception". Locke's view's, as set out in his Two Treatises of Government, greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson's political outlook. Thomas Jefferson also maintained a particularly close study of Montesquieu's De l'Esprit de Lois between 1774-1776.

In several direct ways the American Revolution of circa 1776 paved the way for the French Revolution of circa 1789. For one thing the French kingdom, and many individual Frenchmen, supported the American movement for Independence. Opinion in France, and Europe, was stirred by seeing an aspirant people successfully gaining in independence from an unpopular government that served the interests of a King (George III). Perhaps more critical was the degree to which French involvements in the support of American Independence placed critical strains on the finances of the French Royal State . It was this strain that led to the convening of the first "Estates General" (French representational assembly) for more than one hundred and fifty years. Underlying tensions within French Society culminated in the dramatic abandonment of the Estates General framework and to the adoption of a novel, aspirational, "National Assembly" framework on 17th June 1789 by the representatives of France's commoner Third Estate. (The other two "Estates" being the Nobility and the Clerics).

At this time Thomas Jefferson was serving, in Paris, as the United States Ambassador to the French Kingdom. Before and after the emergence of the National Assembly Jefferson worked, by invitation, with the Marquis de Lafayette, (who had earlier been prominent as a major-general amongst the "French" involvements in the American War of Independence), on the preparation of various key documents including a "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" and also on a French Constitutional document. The Marquis de Lafayette had invited Jefferson to give advice because of the key role that he, Jefferson, had played in framing similar documents for the emergent United States of America.

The French revolution from 1789 proved to be a world wide watershed in human historical development. France, at that time, was very significantly the most populous state in western Europe and had a well established position of cultural predominance and military power. The Revolution in France of 1789 was followed by more than twenty years (1789-1815) of intermittent "Revolutionary" and "Napoleonic" conflict that changed European Society in very many ways.

Letters on Toleration

In his Letters on Toleration Locke advanced two main arguments:-

On an ethical basis no Church has the right to persecute anyone as alike with civil society the joining of a church does not prejudice other "natural" rights which remain inviolable. The direst sanction a church should have against those who strained its powers of acceptance should be expulsion.

On a rational basis Locke argued about the practical impossibility of any Church being absolutely certain that it was THE vehicle of truth. Human knowledge and brains are limited, faith is typically speculative and mysterious, certainty in matters of faith is thus perhaps impossible to achieve and hence persecutions are very much less acceptable than open-minded exchanges of ideas where all may hope to gain a more true grasp of faith related issues.

Locke recommended that "faithless" Atheism should not be tolerated, nor should faiths that involved allegiance to foreign powers be tolerated, nor should faiths that were themselves intolerant be tolerated.

The advocation of Toleration in Religion was a controversial matter and Locke's Letters on Toleration were published under his initials rather than his full name. Locke did, however, leave documentary evidence that provided for his authorship to be acknowledged after his death.

Labour Theory of Value

Locke in some ways laid the foundations for Adam Smith and David Ricardo's respective approaches toward a Labour Theory of Value. Locke held that each person's body was uniquely their own property. When a person worked they mixed something of themselves into the productive process and this involves some infusion of property right or interest.