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
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
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
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
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
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
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.