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John Locke

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

PEN PORTRAIT No 17

Illustration of John Locke by Jim GodfreyLocke is perhaps the most distinguished former member of Christ Church. Known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’ he is commonly regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment

 

John Locke was born in the quiet Somerset village of Wrington on 29 August 1632. Both his parents were puritans but they remained within the Church of England. He was ten years old when the English Civil War broke out, and his father became a captain in the parliamentary army, and he was sixteen years old when Charles I was publicly executed in 1649, close to Westminster School where he was a pupil. The dreadful groan that rose from the crowd that day, heard from the school library, was to mark him deeply for the rest of his life.

 

Locke and Cooper

Locke entered Christ Church in the autumn of 1652 and went on to study medicine, planning to be a doctor. He worked with such noted scientists as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis and Robert Hooke. However, his life changed radically when, by chance, he became acquainted with the dashing and highly ambitious Whig politician, Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, who had come to Oxford in search of a cure for a liver complaint.

Cooper suggested that Locke should move to London to become part of his household. The offer was hard to resist, and once part of Cooper’s entourage, Locke began to participate in the great scientific, educational, religious, and political debates of the day, contributing to three important areas of thought.

 

Contributions to Philosophy

The first question that fascinated Locke was how best to deal with those who disagreed with one’s religious point of view. The Protestant Reformation had started a process of questioning religion that could not easily be stopped. However, rather than supress dissent, Locke advocated freedom of belief, an idea expressed in his beautiful essay ‘A letter concerning toleration’ in 1667. Religion, he argued, was a personal choice, and that churches were voluntary organisations, which could set their own rules and be left to run themselves.

In 1689 Locke published ‘The two Treatises of Government’, in which he tried to answer the question of who should rule and on what legitimate basis. Challenging the idea that authority derives directly from God, he argued that people possess a range of inalienable rights that no ruler may remove. Thus if a ruler acted like a tyrant then their subjects were entirely within their rights to overthrow them and set up their own government. Locke’s work was enormously influential on both French and American revolutionary thinkers.

Locke’s third major contribution appeared in a book entitled ‘Some thoughts concerning education’ published in 1693. He argued that we begin life with minds like a blank slate (Tabula Rasa), an idea that ran contrary to the prevailing view that we are all filled from birth with ready-made ideas about religion, ethics and government. He held that all we know derives from direct experience and that therefore education is crucial to the way people develop. This insight made him a forerunner of modern educational practice.

 

Locke as political figure

In August 1683 Locke fled to the Netherlands under suspicion of involvement in the Rye House Plot (a plan to assassinate Charles II and his brother, James). Two years later Dean John Fell temporarily expelled Locke from Christ Church, under pressure exerted by James II. On his return from exile Locke made his home in the household of Sir Francis Masham at High Laver in Essex where he lived for the last decade of his life. His presence there attracted many guests and correspondents, including Isaac Newton. Long afflicted with delicate health, Locke died on 28 October 1704, and is buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church, High Laver.

 

At Christ Church, Locke is commemorated by a modern plaque in the floor of the ante chapel in the Cathedral, which refers to him as Censor of Moral Philosophy, a post he held in 1663, and which meant that he was responsible for discipline and academic progress in the college. The text ‘I know there is truth opposite to falsehood that it may be found if people will & is worth the seeking’ is taken from a letter written to a friend in 1697. A portrait of him in the old age hangs in the Great Hall, and a full-length statue of him stands at the entrance to the Upper Library.