[John Locke, biography]

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John Locke
biography & philosophy

  John Locke was born in the small Somerset village of Wrington on August 29th 1632. His mother died while he was an infant and his father, a country lawyer, died a few years thereafter.

  He was educated at the famous Westminster school from 1646 and the University of Oxford from 1652 where his early training was in the classics (Greek, Rhetoric, moral philosophy etc.) and part of his later training was in medicine and experimental science. In 1659 he was elected to a senior studentship (i.e. fellowship) at Christ Church, Oxford.

  In 1665 he spent some time on the European mainland during a period of employment as secretary to the English ambassador to the Elector of Brandenburg.

  In 1666 he practiced medicine on the politician Anthony "Ashley" Cooper aka Lord Ashley. In the event this treatment was followed by the beginnings of a deep friendship between the two men.

  Locke was elected a fellow of the recently established Royal Society (for Improving Natural Knowledge) in 1668.

  Lord Ashley began to put governmental appointments Locke's way and was in a very powerful position to do so when he was himself created 1st Earl of Shaftesbury and appointed Lord Chancellor of the Realm in 1672.

  It happened that the Earl of Shaftesbury was deprived of his high office in 1675. Locke suffered from athsma and this together with a heavy work load contributed to his return to Oxford from London in 1675. Later that year he decided to relocate to France where he was variously based in Montpellier and Paris until his return to England in 1679. At this time his former employer the Earl of Shaftesbury, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, was back in favour with King Charles II. Shaftesbury's star fell once more before many years had passed, this time dramatically in association with an enduring power struggle over the Royal succession. Locke as a known some-time friend of the fallen Earl now again found it advisable to live abroad, basing himself in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, between 1683-1688.

  During these years in the United Provinces Locke found time to finalise his "Essay concerning Human Understanding". This essay being a wide-ranging theory of knowledge that constitutes, in terms of academic philosophy, the greater part of his legacy.

  European geo-politics at this time were greatly distressed by the Glorie seeking expansionary policies of King Louis XIV of France. Several, mainly Germanic, opponents of the Roi Soleil - Sun King became involved in a League of Augsburg.

  This League had William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, as its most prominent statesman and soldier. The League was also supported by the Papacy as the Pope was alienated by King Louis' insisting in 1682 that the Catholic Church in France should enjoy "Gallican Liberties" where Papal authority would be subject to the assent of the Catholic Church in France. This French assent being fairly open to manipulation by King Louis XIV.

  As events played out James II, the "Stuart dynastic" King of England and an ally of Louis XIV, persued several policies that were deeply unwelcome to many powerful English interests. Representatives of these interests approached William of Orange, who was married to a daughter of James II by a previous marriage, and who also personally had a hefty dose of the "Stuart" blood royal coursing through his veins. William of Orange and Mary his wife were in fact cousins in the first degree and were jointly offered the British thrones by domestic opponents of James II.

  In the so-called Glorious Revolution (1688-9) William and Mary replaced James II as monarchs. The change of monarchy led to an alteration of the political climate in England. John Locke was very much in favour with the new order, he even returned to England in February 1689 amongst the party attached to soon to be crowned Mary II. Locke was offered a continental ambassadorship but preferred to take up a more modest domestic post in the Commission of Appeals for health reasons.

  Whilst Locke had more or less prepared a number of works during his various periods of exile it was only after his return to a more sympathetic England in 1689 that his works began to be published on a significant scale. In February 1690 his Two Treatises of Government appeared and his Essay concerning Human Understanding was published in March of the same year. Several Letters on Toleration (i.e. Religious Toleration) followed shortly thereafter. There were a number of subsequent works, (including his influential Thoughts on Education - 1693), but Locke's reputation as a philosopher today is chiefly based on his Essay concerning Human Understanding. His Two Treatises of Government being perhaps of more interest for their seeming direct impact on practical affairs.

  Locke was appointed Commissioner of Trade and Plantations in 1696 and held this position until he himself resigned because of ill health in 1700.

  John Locke died at Oates, the country house of Lady and Lord Masham, in Essex on October 28th, 1704. John Locke had been a long-term house guest at Oates since 1691. Whilst Locke was a friend of the Masham's, he had had particular cause to seek a domicile in the country as the tainted air of London had not suited his asthmatic condition. The Masham's, and more particularly Locke himself, exercised a fair amount of influence of the somewhat radically inclined "Whig" party that sought, in competition with the somewhat conservative "Tory" party, to influence affairs of state.

  After 1688 Whig influence helped to ensure that the England and wider Britain would be enabled to function as a constitutional monarchy controlled by parliament. There was an enhancement in the way in which persons could enjoy liberty under law including liberty of speech and expression. A limited degree of official religious toleration, in a generally confessionally intolerant Europe, was put in place.

John Locke
major works

Introductory quotations
John Locke
Rights of Man
Spirituality & the wider world


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John Locke
biography & philosophy