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John Locke

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John Locke

Do you believe that everyone has certain rights that the government must respect and protect? Do you believe that when government doesn't protect those rights, people should have the right to change that government? If so, you agree with John Locke.

John Locke was one of the most important Enlightenment philosophers. John Locke's beliefs in natural rights, his ideas of the social contract, and his ideas on the role of government remain very influential today, serving as a foundation for modern democracy.

John Locke Biography

John Locke's biography begins when he was born in Wrington, England in 1632. Locke was able to attend both Westminster School in London and Christ Church at Oxford, studying medicine.

At this time, Locke was exposed to new experimental ideas being practiced at Oxford. They applied the ideas of the Scientific Revolution and sought to learn by observing nature. This type of learning and attempt to explain things by nature would have a profound impact on John Locke's philosophy.

John Locke Philosophy Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of John Locke. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

John Locke and Lord Shaftesbury

In 1666, a chance encounter with Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury, led to Locke becoming his personal doctor. Shaftesbury was a prominent political figure and was involved in the establishment of the colony of the Carolinas. Besides being his doctor, Locke worked as Shaftesbury's assistant and secretary, becoming involved in politics himself and even playing a role in the writing of the constitution of the new colony.

John Locke as Political Philosopher

It was for his political philosophy that John Locke became well known. He had shown an interest in philosophy from a young age, and he was living through a time of great change in England. In the 1640s, the English Civil War was fought between supporters of the monarchy and supporters of Parliament. John Locke's father had fought on the Parliamentarian side.

The war resulted first in the removal of the monarchy, then a restoration. However, debates over Parliament's role and power compared to that of the king continued. Shaftesbury was very involved in these debates and plotted against the king. He was arrested and eventually went into exile in Holland.

John Locke would himself go into exile in Holland in 1683. While there, Locke would remain involved in opposition politics as well as publishing some of his greatest political philosophical works. Ultimately, the opposition was successful in having William of Orange, from Holland, installed as the English King in the bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Glorious Revolution

The English Civil War in the 1640s had led to the execution of King Charles I then rule by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, the monarchy was restored under Charles II. By the 1680s, further conflict between Parliament and Charles II ensued with Charles increasingly ruling as an absolute monarch.

In 1685, King Charles II died, and his Catholic son James II became king. When he had a son, many Protestants feared a Catholic dynasty would be established. Opponents to James invited the Dutch King William of Orange, married to James's Protestant sister Mary to take the English throne.

William and Mary took power as joint monarchs and accepted increased powers of Parliament in a bloodless revolution known as the Glorious Revolution. It established an important shift in the power between the monarchy and Parliament, with the Parliament now having more power. The English Bill of Rights was signed, which for the first-time placed limits on the power of the king and paved the way for England to become a constitutional monarchy. John Locke had been a supporter of overthrowing King James and supported the Glorious Revolution.

John Locke and the Social Contract Glorious Revolution StudySmarterPainting of William arriving to lead the Glorious Revolution. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Locke returned to England in this period and continued to publish political philosophical works and remained involved in politics until close to his death in 1704. Locke's ideas would be influential in consolidating the parliamentary monarchy in England as well as the founding of the United States.

John Locke's Beliefs

John Locke's beliefs rested on a firm belief in the power of reason and anti-authoritarianism. He was an outspoken supporter of religious toleration and critic of hypocrisy from the institutionalized church. He also argued explicitly for the separation of church and state.

However, John Locke's beliefs were still rooted in Christianity. In fact, while Locke supported religious toleration and equality, he did not support freedom of worship for atheists. Locke believed strongly in a creator God and that all men were created equal by God, beliefs which were also the foundations of his political philosophies.

John Locke believed that men were given certain natural rights by God. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes's view of the state of nature before government being one of violence and danger, Locke believed the state of nature was harmonious and consisted of humans living following the laws of nature established by God.

State of Nature

A hypothetical time in the past before the creation of government. The idea of the state of nature was used as an analytical device by political philosophers such as Locke to help consider what government's role was in society.

John Locke's Philosophy

John Locke's philosophy on politics was based on his belief in all men being created equal by God. John Locke's philosophy held that government's main duty was to follow God's laws of nature and protect those natural rights.

John Locke's Natural Rights

John Locke's natural rights theory is the foundation of his political philosophy. For Locke, man in the state of nature was naturally governed by a set of natural laws. These natural laws guided man in their quest for survival and, according to Locke, were the logical and rational means to achieve that goal of survival.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions."1

John Locke's natural rights can be summarized as the following:

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • Health
  • Property

John Locke's political philosophy held that government's duty was to uphold these natural rights. In fact, in Locke's view the reason man created government was to ensure the protection of John Locke's natural rights.

John Locke and the Social Contract

The creation of that government was through the means of the social contract.

Social Contract

An unwritten agreement that everyone in society has implicitly entered into so that they can cooperate for the greater good. The social contract requires people to give up some freedoms in exchange for protection of their rights by the government.

While Locke saw the state of nature as mostly harmonious and guided by natural laws, he also understood that some people may violate those natural laws. With no system in place to enforce those natural laws, man would have to rely on vigilante justice and risked entering into a state of conflict or war.

It is to prevent this that people created government through the social contract. The ideas of John Locke and the social contract therefore meant that government's ultimate purpose was to protect and uphold those natural rights.

John Locke and the Social Contract and Replacing Government

For John Locke's social contract theory, legitimate government could only be established with the consent of the governed. Governments established by force were illegitimate in Locke's eyes.

Governments can also become illegitimate if they do not uphold citizens' natural rights, if they violate those rights, if they make policies against the public good, or if they lose the continued consent of the governed.

In these cases, Locke believes rebellion and replacing the government is justified. In an age of mostly absolutist monarchies, this was a radical idea. This belief in the justified replacement of revolution was connected to his support for the Glorious Revolution.

Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins."2

John Locke's Greatest Works

Below is a list of some of John Locke's most famous writings:

  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689): In this work, Locke argued that people were not born with innate knowledge but acquired it through experience. It is one of the most important works in Western philosophy.
  • Two Treatises of Government (1689): This work laid out the majority of John Locke's philosophy concerning politics, including his ideas of natural rights, the social contract, and what made legitimate government. It was written in part to justify the Glorious Revolution and is his most influential work on politics.
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689): In this letter, Locke argued for religious toleration.
  • Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693): Here Locke expressed ideas on the importance of well-rounded study, a foundation of the liberal arts.
  • The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695): This work is the most important expressing John Locke's beliefs on religion. In it he argued that each individual could reach salvation.

John Locke Significance

It's difficult to overstate the impact of John Locke's philosophy on politics. Locke's writings helped justify the Glorious Revolution and establish Parliament's ability to limit the power of the king, making England a constitutional monarchy. Locke saw monarchy as an acceptable form of government, but his ideas inspired the creation of modern democracy as well.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence took great inspiration from John Locke's philosophy when it argued the Thirteen Colonies were justified in rebelling and forming a new independent government.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"3

Exam Tip

Look at the quote from Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Think about how you might construct a historical argument about John Locke's impact on revolutions using it.

John Locke's belief that a government who lost the consent of the governed could be replaced also helped inspire independence movements in Latin America and the French Revolution.

The idea that government's main purpose was to protect the rights of its citizens remains a fundamental part of our idea of democracy today. John Locke's belief in the separation of church and state are also basic components of democracy. In fact, many political historians debated Locke's ability to separate his political ideology from his religious beliefs. Some scholars believe that Locke was so bogged down in his religion that he was not able to fully focus on the elements of government and politics. With that being said, Locke's ideas of equal natural rights form the basis of the human rights doctrine.

John Locke - Key takeaways

  • John Locke's philosophy on politics argued that man in the state of nature lived according to certain natural laws.
  • Each person had natural rights that included life, liberty, health, and property, according to Locke.
  • John Locke's idea of the social contract was that government was created to protect and ensure these natural rights.
  • When governments failed to uphold John Locke's natural rights, he believed citizens were justified in replacing them, by rebellion if necessary.
  • John Locke's philosophy formed the basis of democratic government and helped to inspire revolutions.

  1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1689.
  2. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1689.
  3. Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Frequently Asked Questions about John Locke

John Locke is known for his political philosophies concerning natural rights and the social contract, foundations for democracy today.

John Locke's natural rights are rights that he believed were given by the creator God and include life, liberty, health, and property. Government's job was to protect these rights according to Locke.

Three ideas of John Locke are that people are equal and have natural rights, government should protect those natural rights, and that there should be separation of church and state and religious toleration.

John Locke's philosophy was that people were equal and had certain natural rights that should be protected by government. When government does not protect those rights, citizens have the right to change that government.

John Locke's short biography was that he was born in England, studied at Oxford, and became an important political philosopher, including playing a role in supporting the Glorious Revolution and establishment of constitutional monarchy in England.

Final John Locke Quiz

Question

What did John Locke study at Oxford?

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Answer

Locke studied medicine.

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Question

What revolution did Locke write in support of?

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Answer

The Glorious Revolution

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Question

What were Locke's religious beliefs?

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Answer

He was a Christian but believed in religious toleration.

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Question

What characterized the state of nature according to Locke?

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Answer

Locked believed the state of nature was mostly harmonious with people following certain natural laws.

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Question

What were natural rights according to Locke?

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Answer

Natural rights were certain rights all people had an equal right to based on God's natural laws in the state of nature.

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Question

Identify the 4 natural rights Locke argued for.

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Answer

Life, Liberty, Health, and Property

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Question

What was the purpose of the social contract according to Locke?

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Answer

Locke believed the social contract created government that would ensure the protection of man's natural rights.

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Question

When government's failed to uphold the social contract what did Locke believe people should do?

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Answer

They should replace it with rebellion if necessary.

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Question

Which country's declaration of independence was inspired by Locke?

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Answer

The United States

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Question

What philosopher did Locke's views on the state of nature and role of government contrast?

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Answer

Thomas Hobbes, who believed the state of nature was violent and dangerous and believed government's main job was to ensure order.

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