John Locke: Philosopher of Anglo-American Enlightenment

John Locke (1632-1704) brings this series of blogs to a new place: there is now a direct link between a philosopher and the American Revolution. In fact, there is no single philosopher more important to the founding of the United States of America than Locke. Many of the founders read Locke, and his ideas were influential in shaping their thinking. His works were paraphrased  by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. [1]

John Locke was born into what we would call an upper middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and small landowner who served in Cromwell’s army. His son was educated first in London at Westminster School and then at Oxford. After graduation, Locke worked for a time as an administrator and teacher in Oxford. While at Oxford, Locke became interested in the natural sciences and became interested in medicine, a profession he followed during his lifetime. In 1667, Locke left Oxford for London, where he became associated with the family of Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later made the Earl of Shaftesbury).

The Earl of Shaftsbury was an important figure from the time of Cromwell through the reign of Charles II. He was a philosophically astute politician and played a role in the founding of South Carolina, among his many other accomplishments. Locke’s duties with the Cooper family were varied: he was a tutor, a physician (whom is patron felt saved his life in an operation), counselor, and friend. Locke also held governmental positions during this period. It was at this time that Locke began his most famous philosophical work, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” a founding work of what we today call “Empiricism.”

Around 1674, Shaftesbury left government for a time.  Locke then went back to Oxford, where he acquired the degree Bachelor of Medicine and was licensed to practice medicine.  After traveling for a time, Locke went back to London around 1675. Unfortunately, the political fortunes of his sponsor had changed dramatically. The Earl of Shaftsbury was a part of a group which attempted to prevent James II from succeeding to the throne of England. When that attempt failed and the Glorious Revolution occurred, Shaftsbury’s was forced to flee to the Continent to escape persecution and Locke soon followed. [2]  During this period of time, Locke wrote the original drafts of the that have made him famous, including the two works to be reviewed in these blogs: Letter Concerning Toleration and his Two Treatises on Government.” While in exile, Lock also finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1688, after the Glorious Revolution was complete and William and Mary replaced James II on the throne of England, Locke returned on the same vessel that carried Mary to her new home. Soon after his return, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and The Two Treatises of Government (1690) as well as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).  It is notable that the latter two books were not published under this name during his lifetime.

In addition to his philosophical and practical efforts in government, Locke was a doctor and had deep scientific interests. Locke knew Sir Isaac Newton and a member of the Royal Society, which is the most prestigious scientific society in England.

The State of Nature

There is no aspect of Locke’s work more complex and filled with difficulties than his treatment of “Natural Law” and his reliance on an original “State of Nature” preceding the formation of societies and a “Natural Law” giving order to that state. He begins his analysis of the formation of governments as follows:

“To understand Political Power rightly, and derive it from its Original, we must consider what State all men are naturally in, and that is 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. [3]

For Locke, political power involves the right to make laws and institute penalties for their violation, regulate the use of property, and employing necessary force to both protect the commonwealth and enforce its laws. [4] Such a right emerges out of an original state of perfect freedom. In this state, subject to natural law human beings can live and dispose of their possessions without restriction of others.

Locke is aware that there is a powerful objection to this posited State of Nature, which is the denial that any such state ever existed. His answer, echoing Hobbes, is that the rulers of the world, who can act without restriction, are and always have been in a state of nature. [5] To the author, this answer is not satisfactory. As will be seen, Locke, unlike Hobbes, understands human sociability and the way in which that sociability draws men into society. However, he fails to reflect upon and give theoretical primacy to the fact that all people in all times of human history have been in some kind of society, and no one has ever been able to do  exactly as they pleased with their persons or property.

This is an instance of Locke “clamping down” a theory on the facts despite a lack of sufficient evidence to justify the theory—or at least in the face of substantial contrary facts. [6] Human societies have existed as long as we humans can understand the past.  The primitive societies of the past emerged from families and extended families, together with others who came to rely upon the community for shelter and support. Human choice has always been limited by genetic, personal, familial, social, geographic, economic and other factors inherited by every individual who ever lived. Even emperors, kings and rulers have had restrictions under which they lived, restrictions placed on them by the factors mentioned as well as by their armies, nobles, wealthy families and others. [7]

Locke goes on to posit that, in this illusory State of Nature, human beings were equal. That is to say, in the State of Nature human persons were, in the beginning equal in property, equal in “the advantages of nature,” and equal in social status and social advantage. [8] It is even harder to believe that this state ever existed. First, human beings are and always have been born with differing levels of intelligence, strength, and position within their families and social network. It is certain that there was never a time when the strongest did not possess more, have more power, and enjoy a higher social status. Once again, Locke is allowing his commendable political and moral intentions to ignore the facts of human history and human society.

Natural Law

Locke then goes on to derive the beginnings of his theory of Natural Law from his notion of original equality, and in do doing shows both his reliance upon the social history of Christianity and its basic moral code. Quoting Richard Hooker, an earlier thinker and bishop in the Anglican Church, Locke supports the notion that because of our common human equality, we all not only wish to be treated with charity and justice, we are under a moral obligation to treat others in according to the Golden Rule, which constitutes the first principle of Natural Law: that one ought to treat others with the same fairness and concern as one wishes to be treated one’s self.

To anticipate a future position and argument, one does not have to posit an original state of nature in order to defend some version of natural law or the Golden Rule. All one needs to posit is that this rule or maxim of life, which appears in more than one religion in more than one place and time, represents the results of the experience of countless persons in countless societies of countless types, democracies, monarchies, and oligarchies. Instead of being an axiom derived from reason from an “original state,” it is principle that emerged from concrete human experience, just as all wisdom maxims do. [9]

The development of the notion of Natural Law in Locke is important. For Americans, it is important because the founders universally subscribed to some version of natural law and a version of Natural Law is fundamental to American Constitutionalism as it was originally concieved. This is true for other democracies which either patterned themselves after the American form of Government or the ideas of Locke as they influenced British and European democratic regimes. As such, it is worth some time and effort to understand Locke’s view of “Natural Law.”

Natural law is different from, and acts as a guide for, humanly created laws. Natural law is essentially moral in nature, it posits that our common human nature and experience provide certain fundamental principles that can and ought to guide every human being and human society. These principles are not simply human drives or human will made into principles. Instead these principles derive from human reason—from our human capacity to reflect upon experience and mold the future. For example, we all know that the Golden Rule does not come naturally. If it did, my mother would not have had to repeat it to me so often as a child with respect to my treatment of my brother and others. However, human experience, when rationally considered, leads one to conclude that the Golden Rule is a reliable guide to action. This reliable guide emerges from the way the world is constructed and operates. [10]

It is time to draw this blog to a close, but the discussion will need to be continued later. There is a tendency to think of Natural Law as non-existent unless its conclusions are logically or empirically necessary. In my view, this is a mistake. Natural law is not like a mathematical law nor is it like an empirical law of science. It is a theoretical moral guide to human action based upon past human experience. As such, we may be mistaken as to the nature of the natural law, and future experience and changes in human society may force changes in human intuitions of the best forms of behavior for humans and their societies. This does not mean that “Natural Law” is whatever we wish it to be, for there are continuities in human life and experience that are at least as important, perhaps more important, than contemporary changes. I doubt that there are legitimate future facts that will make, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” any less fundamental to a good society than it was for the earliest human societies.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Locke’s influence appears in many speeches and writings of the founders. His  political writings heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. Some of the language of the Declaration of Independence is directly derived from Locke’s works. See, Brennee Goforth, “How John Locke  influenced the Declariation of Independence” (July 4 2019), at (Downloaded January 27, 2021).

[2] The Glorious Revolution, “The Revolution of 1688” or “The Bloodless Revolution,” took place from 1688 to 1689. During this time, of the Catholic king James II was overthrown and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. In the process, the power of Parliament was greatly increased and the foundations for the modern English parliamentary democracy laid.

[3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 309. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Id, 308. This definition assumes that the ruler has the right and at this juncture Locke has not made known his views concerning how that right arises. To anticipate a future blog, it arises via the Social Compact that creates a political society.

[5] Id, at 317.

[6] Any theoretical enterprise involves creating a theoretical framework to explain the facts as nature and history disclose them to be. A sound theory emerges from those facts as an explanation of their coherence and meaning. When a theory is clamped down on facts, the theory takes precedence over the facts of nature and history, causing the theoretical to ignore important facts not explainable by the theory. For a very important exposition of this phenomena, see Thomas F. Torrance, “Chapter 2: The Integration of Form in Natural and Theological Science” in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984). A specific discussion of the results of “camping down” is found at page 80.

[7] One of the interesting factors concerning the Roman Empire is the extent to which Emperors were chosen by the Praetorian Guard and removed if ever the Roman Armies turned upon them. Their freedom was a bounded freedom at best. In my view, it is best to begin a defense of representative government with the facts of human history and its gradual movement towards forms of representative democracy as “emergent phenomena” that represent real progress.

[8] Id, at 309.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016). One does not have to be a Christian or even the follower of any religion to eventually conclude that life is better for all concerned if one treats others as one wishes to be treated.

[10] Once again, to anticipate a future argument, it is not necessary to be religious to grasp certain features of human experience.

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