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John Locke the Philosopher (1632-1704)

Updated on March 19, 2016
Portrait of John Locke
Portrait of John Locke | Source

Something about him

He has been described as one of the most fortunate of all the philosophers. This is because his views were widely understood and warmly welcomed by his contemporaries. Locke belonged to a group of philosophers known as empiricists. In 1690 Locke ushered in a new era known as the age of enlightenment in history. This is because he authored a book called “An essay concerning human understanding.”

His life

He was born in England in 16632 in a place known as Somerset. His father was an attorney and he was among the group of parliamentarians in England who fought against the government of King Charles I of England. Locke was educated in Westminster school and later he acquired his bachelor of arts in Christ church (Oxford 1656). Later on he got his masters degree in 1664. Besides his studies in history and arts he also pursued medicine but never practiced it.

His political thought

Locke’s philosophy can be understood against the background of the political events that took place in England towards the end of the 17th century. For example in 1688 King James II of England tried to enforce Catholicism. This provoked the bloodless revolution (a revolution where there was no blood spilled).

John Locke benefited a lot from the political theories of some of the earlier thinkers and in particular ideas of Thomas Aquinas. Some of these ideas include:

  • The ideas of the importance of moral restraint of power
  • The ideas concerning the responsibility of rulers to their subjects.
  • The ideas concerning the subordination of the government to the law.

Unlike other philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes who argued that human nature is motivated by the negative elements such as fear and self-interests, Locke held that human are socially minded, orderly and quite capable of taking responsibilities for their lives.

He was also on the view that the society is a social reality. In other words, human beings lived in a community not for the benefit of the individual members, but because human beings are responsible and socially minded.

Given that Locke was also living during the period of the civil wars in England just like philosophers like Hobbes, it is curious why the two came with different philosophies.

Two factors influenced the political philosophy of Locke. One of this was the influence of his father. Though his father was overly strict with him when he was a boy, later on in life they related as great friends. Secondly, Locke had a likable personality and for that reason he had a wide circle of friends.

These two factors therefore contributed to the sympathetic view of the human nature to the extent that he came to believe that man is a moral and social animal. His theory therefore can be described as humanistic.

Locke's conception of human nature

In the second treatise/essay (1690), John Locke says “All men are born equal.” This statement has a lot of important implications. These include;

  1. That every individual in the society is morally equal to any other member of the society.
  2. Everyone has rights which belong to them not because of factors such as strength, wealth, sex and gender but because they are human.

His conception of the evolution of the state

John Locke views the state as having evolved from the state of nature to the modern state.

Locke’s state of nature

By a state of nature, Locke describes how human beings used to behave in the absence of political authority. In his view, a state of nature was not a license for people to behave as they wanted. This is because in his view, the state of nature was governed by the law of nature and also by reason.

Locke argued that the law of nature wills peace and preservation of all human kind. The execution of the law of nature is put in everyone’s hands. This implies that in Locke’s state of nature, everyone had a right to punish the transgressors of the law. Those who violated the law had to be punished because of the following reasons:

a) By violating the law, they demonstrated that they were living by another law but not that of common reason and equity.

b) By violating the law, they injured another member of the community and therefore those who were offended had a right for pay back.

He goes ahead to state that in the state of nature, any other person could assist the offended party to recover from the offence. For example every man in the state of nature had power to kill a murderer for the sake of securing people from criminals.

Finally he says that in the state of nature, human beings were familiar only in the natural laws but knew nothing about government or manmade legal standards.

The modern state

Locke was of the view that God has appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men. For this reason he agrees that men leaved the state of nature and entered a state through a social contract.

His arguments have got several complications:

  • Men must relinquish the powers granted to them by nature to the state.
  • It implies that the state should always be founded on the concept of those who are governed but not through the use of force.
  • All those who have given consent put themselves under the obligation to submit to the government.

It is important to note that Locke discusses some arguments that have relevance to the democratic systems of governance.

Locke argued that majority always win over the minority. Even more importantly, the minority must abide by the decisions of the majority even when they are personally opposed to a particular decision. Locke is very significant because he introduced the concept of fundamental human rights. This means that all human beings enjoy these rights because they are simply humans. He argued that a society can only be regarded as civilized only if it respects human rights. Therefore Locke was of the view that of these human rights, one of the most important is the enjoyment of property. Property is the fruit of our labor.

For John Locke, the state is justified and men give consent to it, only if it does the following;

i. It maintains and preserves their lives.

ii. The state preserves their estates/properties.

iii. The state is justified by the fact that it sustains and supports the system of human rights which include our liberties including the right to religion, assembly and expression.

Locke was also concerned with the idea of limited government. For instance, he argued for the separation of powers in government and he advocated for the principle of checks and balances in government. However the two main branches in the government are the executive and legislature.

Locke’s view on the relationship between religion and state

According to him, the dangerous and seditious character of some religious sects is caused by too much supervision. Therefore he advocated for complete toleration of all sects.

John Locke
John Locke | Source


Locke was a utilitarian and believed that happiness is the greatest good and that obedience to the moral law results to happiness. His political theory defends the doctrine of human liberty and human rights against absolutism. He also made an important contribution in the terms of harmonizing libertarian ideals with the necessity for civil law and order. Locke conceals both individuals and institutions as doing socially valuable work, regulated by government for the good of all and within the frame work of law.

Critics of his theory

I. His philosophy tends to favor capitalism.

II. He had also been accused of having overlooked the importance of judicial organs in the state and investing too much power in the executive.

Portrait of John Locke
Portrait of John Locke | Source

My thought

In my view, Locke overlooks the fact that human beings change according to the circumstance. He views human beings as naturally good. I wouldn't really agree with him on that because sometimes human beings can be bad. In fact there are human beings whose badness is dominant. Locke says that human beings are responsible and socially minded. Now come on, we have had of people who are antisocial. Maybe some are even our relatives, yet because of the good relationship Locke had with his friends and father, he concludes that everybody is social and responsible. Didn't Locke know that there are 40 year old people who behave like 11 year old kids?

Any way, my point is that it is not possible to determine whether people are good or bad because saints change and criminals change too.

Here is a short video on John Locke's political theory

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