John Locke was one of the most important philosophers of the late 17th century. His writings influenced thought on human understanding, civil rights, childhood education, government structure, and separation of church and state. His theories on government greatly influenced the leaders of the American Revolution and America’s subsequent political structure. His proposed ideas of broadening the curriculum of study for children as well as better treatment in teaching methods influenced education theorists that followed.1
John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, England. He was raised by his Puritan parents and was afforded an outstanding education, because of his father’s connections and allegiance to the English government having served as a captain during the English civil war. In 1647 he studied at Westminster School in London, where he earned the distinction of a King’s Scholar, which paved the way for him to attend Christ Church, Oxford in 1652. His studies included logic, metaphysics, and classical languages graduating in 1656. He studied for a Masters of Arts and held various administrative and academic posts at the college through 1667.2
He also trained to be a physician and received a bachelor’s of medicine. He left Oxford for London in 1667, where he became personal physician to the family of Lord Ashley, who later became the Earl of Shaftesbury. Ashley was one of the most prominent English politicians at the time, and with his assistance Locke was able to hold a series of governmental positions. He became a member of the newly formed Royal Society in 1668. During this time he began writing his most famous work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which wasn’t published until twenty years later in 1688.
Locke traveled in France for several years beginning in 1675, and upon his return, he discovered that the political scene had greatly changed, and his benefactor, now known as Shaftesbury, was out of favor, and his association with him was a liability. During this time Locke wrote his most famous political work, the Two Treatises Concerning Government, which would not be published until 1689. To escape persecution, Locke fled to the Netherlands in 1683, where he continued to work on his writings. With his experiences in England, France, and the Netherlands, he became convinced that governments should be more tolerant of religious diversity and wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration, which was published in 1689, and followed by two more letters that further elaborated his thoughts.3
With the dramatic departure of King James II, who had fled the country in 1688 allowing the Whigs to rise to power, Locke returned to England. Known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the event forever changed English government, moving the balance of power from the throne to Parliament. Seen as a hero to the Whig party, Locke remained in governmental positions including the Board of Trade, which oversaw England’s new territories in North America.4
In his later years he devoted his writings to education with Some Thoughts Concerning Education published in 1693 and to theology with The Reasonableness of Christianity published in 1695. He spent his final 14 years in Essex, England, at the home of Sir Francis Masham and his wife, the philosopher Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham. He died there on October 24, 1704.5
In Locke’s work, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he purposed to offer an analysis of the human mind and the acquisition of knowledge. His theory stated that humans acquire ideas through their experiences of the world, which people are then able to examine, compare, and combine these ideas in numerous ways. The Essay is divided into four books: Book I argues that knowledge cannot be innate but is acquired; Book II shows arguments that all ideas come from experience; Book III explores the role that language plays in understanding; and Book IV discusses knowledge, belief, and opinion. Locke’s emphasis on the philosophical examination of the human mind as a preliminary to the philosophical investigation of the world and its contents was a new approach to philosophy and became widely accepted.6
In the Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch, and defended that men are by nature free and equal. Independent of the laws of any particular society, he argued that people have rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property. His thoughts on government were quite revolutionary at the time. He stated that government was a social contract where people conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better ensure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. Since governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect their rights and public good, governments that fail to do so can be resisted and replaced with new governments. He also defended the principle of majority rule and the separation of legislative and executive powers.7 These revolutionary concepts not only affected England, but also impacted the foundational thoughts that later formed the American and French revolutions.8
His Letter Concerning Toleration proposed the ideas of freedom of religion and the division of church and state to political structure that ensured against any government or church having coercive power over the people to conform to a particular religious system. He argued basically that true faith cannot be forced and that no one has the right to assert he is more correct in his religious beliefs than anyone else.
Some Thoughts Concerning Education was the result of a series of letters Locke wrote to his friend Edward Clarke, who had asked for advice about how to raise his son. His writings were well received and influenced Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau among others. His progressive ideas suggested that children should be taught with play and recreation rather than rote memorization. He suggested that teachers should recognize children’s individual differences and temperaments and use slow, gentle steps in teaching concepts that will be enjoyable and inspire a love for learning.9 Among his ideas he felt that children should never be forced to learn if they were not in the mood; that they should not be beaten or spoken to harshly; that they should be engaged in conversation rather than being lectured to; and that children’s ideas should be taken seriously as rational individuals. In his view, the goal of education was not to create a scholar, but to create a virtuous man.10
In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke systematically laid out the defense of the gospel found in the King James Bible using scripture to come to the conclusion that the basis of salvation is the belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Among his other writings on religious topics, he wrote a work on the Pauline Epistles as well as a short work on miracles.11
- 1. “John Locke – Facts & Summary.” History.com. < http://www.history.com/topics/john-locke > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 2. “John Locke – Philosopher.” Biography.com. < http://www.biography.com/people/john-locke-9384544 > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 3. Connolly, Patrick J. “John Locke (1632-1704).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosphy. < http://www.iep.utm.edu/locke/ > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 4. Op. cit., “John Locke – Philosopher.”
- 5. Op. cit., “John Locke – Facts & Summary.”
- 6. Op. cit., Connolly.
- 7. Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosphy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Spring 2016 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.) < http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/ > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 8. Op. cit., “John Locke – Philospher.”
- 9. Gibbon, Peter. “John Locke: An Education Progressive Ahead of His Time?” Education Week. 4 Aug. 2015. < http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/08/05/john-locke-an-education-progressive-ahead-of.html > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 10. “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” SparkNotes. < http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/lockethoughts/summary.html > 6 Sep. 2016.
- 11. Op. cit., Connolly.