THE CHARACTER OF Mr. LOCKE; BY Mr. PETER COSTE:
with A LETTER relating to that Character, and to the Author of it.
A LETTER to Mr. * * * * * *.
London, Feb. 4, 1720.
BEING informed, that you design to publish several new pieces of Mr. Locke, I here send you, at the request of some of his friends, the translation of a letter, attempting his character, and containing several passages of his life and conversation; which you are desired to prefix before that collection.
The author of that letter is Mr. Peter Coste, who has translated into French Mr. Locke’s Thoughts concerning Education, his Reasonableness of Christianity, and Vindications thereof; with his principal work, the Essay concerning Human Understanding.
Mr. Coste lived in the same family with Mr. Locke, during the seven last years of that great man’s life; whereby he had all possible opportunities to know him.
The letter was written some time after Mr. Locke’s death; and appears to be the production of a man in raptures, and struck with the highest admiration of Mr. Locke’s virtue, capacity, and of the excellency of his writings; and under the deepest affliction for the loss of a person, to whom in his life-time he had paid the most profound respect, and for whom he had constantly expressed the greatest esteem, and that even in writings, whereof Mr. Locke did not know him to be the author.
And therefore Mr. Locke’s friends judge its publication necessary, not only, as they think it contains a just character of Mr. Locke, as far as it goes; but as it is a proper vindication of him against the said Mr. Coste, who in several writings, and in his common conversation throughout France, Holland, and England, has aspersed and blackened the memory of Mr. Locke, in those very respects, wherein he was his panegyrist before.
For, they conceive, the eulogium contained in the following letter must stand good, till Mr. Coste thinks fit either to deny his own experience, or to confess, that the same things, which he then thought praise-worthy, have since changed their nature. I am,
Your most obedient humble servant,
* * *
The CHARACTER of Mr. LOCKE.
In a LETTER to the Author
of the Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. By Mr. P. Coste
London, Dec. 10, 1704.
YOU must have heard of the death of the illustrious Mr. Locke. It is a general loss. For that reason he is lamented by all good men, and all sincere lovers of truth, who were acquainted with his character. He was born for the good of mankind. Most of his actions were directed to that end; and I doubt whether, in his time, any man in Europe applied himself more earnestly to that noble design, or executed it with more success.
I will forbear to speak of the valuableness of his works. The general esteem they have attained, and will preserve, as long as good sense and virtue are left in the world; the service they have been of to England in particular, and universally to all that set themselves seriously to the search of truth, and the study of christianity; are their best eulogium. The love of truth is visible in every part of them. This is allowed by all that have read them. For even they, who have not relished some of Mr. Locke’s opinions, have done him the justice to confess, that the manner, in which he defends them, shows he advanced nothing that he was not sincerely convinced of himself. This his friends gave him an account of from several hands: “Let them after this, answered he, object whatever they please against my works; I shall never be disturbed at it: for since they grant I advance nothing in them but what I really believe, I shall always be glad to prefer truth to any of my opinions, whenever I discover it by myself, or am satisfied that they are not conformable to it.” Happy turn of mind! which, I am fully persuaded, contributed more even than the penetration of that noble genius, to his discovery of those great and useful truths which appear in his works.
But, without dwelling any longer upon considering Mr. Locke in the quality of an author, which often serves only to disguise the real character of the man, I haste to show him to you in particulars much more amiable, and which will give you a higher notion of his merit.
Mr. Locke had a great knowledge of the world, and of the business of it. Prudent without being cunning; he won people’s esteem by his probity, and was always safe from the attacks of a false friend, or a sordid flatterer. Averse to all mean complaisance; his wisdom, his experience, his gentle and obliging manners, gained him the respect of his inferiours, the esteem of his equals, the friendship and confidence of the greatest quality.
Without setting up for a teacher, he instructed others by his own conduct. He was at first pretty much disposed to give advice to such of his friends as he thought wanted it; but at length, finding that, “good counsels are very little effectual in making people more prudent,” he grew much more reserved in that particular. I have often heard him say, that the first time he heard that maxim, he thought it very strange; but that experience had fully convinced him of the truth of it. By counsels, we are here to understand those which are given to such as do not ask them. Yet, as much as he despaired of rectifying those whom he saw taking of false measures; his natural goodness, the aversion he had to disorder, and the interest he took in those about him, in a manner forced him sometimes to break the resolution he had made of leaving them to go their own way; and prevailed upon him to give them the advice, which he thought most likely to reclaim them; but this he always did in a modest way, and so as to convince the mind by fortifying his advice with solid arguments, which he never wanted upon a proper occasion.
But then Mr. Locke was very liberal of his counsels, when they were desired; and nobody ever consulted him in vain. An extreme vivacity of mind, one of his reigning qualities, in which perhaps he never had an equal; his great experience, and the sincere desire he had of being serviceable to all mankind; soon furnished him with the expedients, which were most just and least dangerous. I say, the least dangerous; for what he proposed to himself before all things was to lead those, who consulted him, into no trouble. This was one of his favourite maxims, and he never lost sight of it upon any occasion.
Though Mr. Locke chiefly loved truths that were useful, and with such fed his mind, and was generally very well pleased to make them the subject of his discourse; yet he used to say, that in order to employ one part of this life in serious and important occupations, it was necessary to spend another in mere amusements; and when an occasion naturally offered, he gave himself up with pleasure to the charms of a free and facetious conversation. He remembered a great many agreeable stories, which he always brought in properly; and generally made them yet more delightful, by his natural and agreeable way of telling them. He was no foe to raillery, provided it were delicate and perfectly innocent.
Nobody was ever a greater master of the art of accommodating himself to the reach of all capacities; which, in my opinion, is one of the surest marks of a great genius.
It was his peculiar art in conversation, to lead people to talk of what they understood best. With a gardener he discoursed of gardening; with a jeweller, of a diamond; with a chymist, of chymistry, &c. “By this, said he himself, I please all those men, who commonly can speak pertinently upon nothing else. As they believe I have an esteem for their profession, they are charmed with showing their abilities before me; and I, in the mean while, improve myself by their discourse.” And indeed, Mr. Locke had by this means acquired a very good insight into all the arts, of which he daily learnt more and more. He used to say too, that the knowledge of the arts contained more true philosophy, than all those fine learned hypotheses, which, having no relation to the nature of things, are fit for nothing at the bottom, but to make men lose their time in inventing, or comprehending them. A thousand times have I admired how, by the several questions he would put to artificers, he would find out the secret of their art, which they did not understand themselves; and oftentimes give them views entirely new, which sometimes they put in practice to their profit.
This easiness, with which Mr. Locke knew how to converse with all sorts of men, and the pleasure he took in doing it, at first surprised those, who had never talked with him before. They were charmed with this condescension, not very common among men of letters; and which they so little expected from a person, whose great qualities raised him so very much above all other men. Many who knew him only by his writings, or by the reputation he had gained of being one of the greatest philosophers of the age, having imagined to themselves before-hand, that he was one of those scholars, that, being always full of themselves, and their sublime speculations, are incapable of familiarizing themselves with the common sort of mankind, or of entering into their little concerns, or discoursing of the ordinary affairs of life; were perfectly amazed to find him nothing but affability, good humour, humanity, pleasantness, always ready to hear them, to talk with them of things which they best understood, much more desirous of informing himself in what they understood better than himself, than to make a show of his own science. I knew a very ingenious gentleman in England, that was for some time in the same prejudice. Before he saw Mr. Locke, he had formed a notion of him to himself under the idea of one of the ancient philosophers, with a long beard, speaking nothing but by sentences, negligent of his person, without any other politeness but what might proceed from the natural goodness of his temper, a sort of politeness often very coarse and very troublesome in civil society. But one hour’s conversation entirely cured him of his mistake, and obliged him to declare, that he looked upon Mr. Locke to be one of the politest men he ever saw: “He is not a philosopher always grave, always confined to that character, as I imagined; he is, said he, a perfect courtier, as agreeable for his obliging and civil behaviour, as admirable for the profoundness and delicacy of his genius.”
Mr. Locke was so far from assuming those airs of gravity, by which some folks, as well learned as unlearned, love to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world; that, on the contrary, he looked upon them, as an infallible mark of impertinence. Nay, sometimes he would divert himself with imitating that studied gravity, in order to turn it the better into ridicule; and upon this occasion he always remembered this maxim of the duke of la Rochefoucault, which he admired above all others, “that gravity is a mystery of the body, invented to conceal the defects of the mind.” He loved also to confirm his opinion on this subject, by that of the famous earl of Shaftsbury , to whom he took a delight to give the honour of all the things, which he thought he had learnt from his conversation.
Nothing ever gave him a more sensible pleasure than the esteem, which that earl conceived for him, almost the first moment he saw him, and which he afterwards preserved as long as he lived. And, indeed, nothing set Mr. Locke’s merit in a better light, than the constant esteem of my lord Shaftsbury, the greatest genius of his age, superiour to so many great men that shone at the same time at the court of Charles II; not only for his resolution and intrepidity in maintaining the true interests of his country, but also for his great abilities in the conduct of the most knotty affairs. When Mr. Locke studied at Oxford, he fell by accident into his company, and one single conversation with that great man won him his esteem and confidence to such a degree, that soon afterwards my lord Shaftsbury took him to be near his person, and kept him as long as Mr. Locke’s health or affairs would permit. That earl particularly excelled in the knowledge of men. It was impossible to catch his esteem by moderate qualities; this his enemies themselves could never deny. I wish I could, on the other hand, give you a full notion of the idea, which Mr. Locke had of that nobleman’s merit. He lost no opportunity of speaking of it; and that in a manner, which sufficiently showed he spoke from his heart. Though my lord Shaftsbury had not spent much time in reading; nothing, in Mr. Locke’s opinion, could be more just than the judgment he passed upon the books, which fell into his hands. He presently saw through the design of a work; and without much heeding the words, which he ran over with vast rapidity, he immediately found whether the author was master of his subject, and whether his reasonings were exact. But, above all, Mr. Locke admired in him that penetration, that presence of mind, which always prompted him with the best expedients, in the most desperate cases; that noble boldness, which appeared in all his public discourses, always guided by a solid judgment, which, never allowing him to say any thing but what was proper, regulated his least word, and left no hold to the vigilance of his enemies.
During the time Mr. Locke lived with that illustrious lord, he had the advantage of becoming acquainted with all the polite, the witty, and agreeable part of the court. It was then that he got the habit of those obliging and benevolent manners, which, supported by an easy and polite expression, a great knowledge of the world, and a vast extent of capacity, made his conversation so agreeable to all sorts of people. It was then too, without doubt, that he fitted himself for the great affairs, of which he afterwards appeared so capable.
I know not whether it was the ill state of his health, that obliged him, in the reign of king William, to refuse going ambassador to one of the most considerable courts in Europe. It is certain that great prince judged him worthy of that post, and nobody doubts but he would have filled it gloriously.
The same prince, after this, gave him a place among the lords commissioners, whom he established for advancing the interest of trade and the plantations. Mr. Locke executed that employment for several years; and it is said (absit invidia verbo) that he was in a manner the soul of that illustrious body. The most experienced merchants were surprised, that a man, who had spent his life in the study of physic, of polite literature, or of philosophy, should have more extensive and certain views than themselves, in a business which they had wholly applied themselves to from their youth. At length, when Mr. Locke could no longer pass the summer at London, without endangering his life, he went and resigned that office to the king himself, upon account that his health would permit him to stay no longer in town. This reason did not hinder the king from entreating Mr. Locke to continue in his post, telling him expressly, that, though he could stay at London but a few weeks, his services in that office would yet be very necessary to him; but at length he yielded to the representations of Mr. Locke, who could not prevail upon himself to hold an employment of that importance, without doing the duties of it more regularly. He formed and executed this design without mentioning a word of it to any body whatsoever; thus avoiding, with a generosity rarely to be found, what others would have earnestly laid out after; for by making it known that he was about to quit that employment, which brought him in a thousand pounds a year, he might easily have entered into a kind of composition with any pretender, who, having particular notice of this news, and being befriended with Mr. Locke’s interest, might have carried the post from any other person. This, we may be sure, he was told of, and that too by way of reproach. “I knew it very well, replied he; but this was the very reason why I communicated my design to nobody. I received this place from the king himself, and to him I resolved to restore it, to dispose of it as he thought proper.” “Heu prisca fides!” Where are such examples, at this day, to be met with?
One thing, which those who lived for any time with Mr. Locke could not help observing in him, was, that he took a delight in making use of his reason in every thing he did; and nothing, that is attended with any usefulness, seemed unworthy his care; so that we may say of him, what was said of queen Elizabeth, that he was no less capable of small things than of great. He used often to say himself, that there was an art in every thing; and it was easy to be convinced of it, to see the manner in which he went about the most trifling thing he did, and always with some good reason. I might here descend into particulars, which probably, to many, would not be unpleasant: but the bounds I have set myself, and the fear of taking up too many pages in your journal, will not give me leave to do it.
Mr. Locke, above all things, loved order; and he had got the way of observing it in every thing with wonderful exactness.
As he always kept the useful in his eye, in all his disquisitions, he esteemed the employments of men only in proportion to the good they were capable of producing; for which reason he had no great value for those critics, or mere grammarians, that waste their lives in comparing words and phrases, and in coming to a determination in the choice of a various reading, in a passage that has nothing important in it. He cared yet less for those professed disputants, who, being wholly taken up with the desire of coming off with the victory, fortify themselves behind the ambiguity of a word, to give their adversaries the more trouble. And whenever he had to deal with this sort of folks, if he did not beforehand take a strong resolution of keeping his temper, he quickly fell into a passion. And, in general, it must be owned, he was naturally somewhat choleric. But his anger never lasted long. If he retained any resentment, it was against himself for having given way to so ridiculous a passion; which, as he used to say, may do a great deal of harm, but never yet did the least good. He often would blame himself for this weakness. Upon which occasion, I remember, that two or three weeks before his death, as he was sitting in a garden taking the air in a bright sun-shine, whose warmth afforded him a great deal of pleasure, which he improved as much as possible, by causing his chair to be drawn more and more towards the sun, as it went down; we happened to speak of Horace, I know not on what occasion, and having repeated to him these verses, where that poet says, of himself, that he was
- Solibus aptum;
- Irasci celerem, tamen ut placabilis essem:
“That he loved the warmth of the sun, and that, though he was naturally choleric, his anger was easily appeased.” Mr. Locke replied, that, if he durst presume to compare himself with Horace in any thing, he thought he was perfectly like him in those two respects. But, that you may be the less surprised at his modesty, upon this occasion, I must, at the same time, inform you, that he looked upon Horace to be one of the wisest and happiest Romans that lived in the age of Augustus, by means of the care he took to preserve himself clear of ambition and avarice, to keep his desires within bounds, and to cultivate the friendship of the greatest men in those times, without living in their dependence.
Mr. Locke also disliked those authors that labour only to destroy, without establishing any thing themselves: “A building, said he, displeases them. They find great faults in it; let them demolish it, and welcome, provided they endeavour to raise another in its place, if it be possible.”
He advised, that, whenever we have meditated any thing new, we should throw it as soon as possible upon paper, in order to be the better able to judge of it by seeing it altogether; because the mind of man is not capable of retaining clearly a long chain of consequences, and of seeing, without confusion, the relation of a great number of different ideas. Besides, it often happens, that what we had most admired, when considered in the gross, and in a perplexed manner, appears to be utterly inconsistent and unsupportable, when we see every part of it distinctly.
Mr. Locke also thought it necessary always to communicate one’s thoughts to some friend, especially if one proposed to offer them to the public; and this was what he constantly observed himself. He could hardly conceive how a being of so limited a capacity as man, and so subject to errour, could have the confidence to neglect this precaution.
Never man employed his time better than Mr. Locke, as appears by the works he published himself; and perhaps, in time, we may see new proofs of it. He spent the last fourteen or fifteen years of his life at Oates, a country-seat of sir Francis Masham’s, about five and twenty miles from London, in the county of Essex. I cannot but take pleasure in imagining to myself, that this place, so well known to so many persons of merit, whom I have seen come thither from so many parts of England to visit Mr. Locke, will be famous to posterity, for the long abode that great man made there. Be that as it may, it was there that enjoying sometimes the conversation of his friends, and always the company of my lady Masham, for whom Mr. Locke had long conceived a very particular esteem and friendship, (in spite of all that lady’s merit, this is all the eulogium she shall have of me now,) he tasted sweets, which were interrupted by nothing but the ill state of a weakly and delicate constitution. During this agreeable retirement, he applied himself especially to the study of the Holy Scripture; and employed the last years of his life in hardly any thing else. He was never weary of admiring the great views of that sacred book, and the just relation of all its parts; he every day made discoveries in it, that gave him fresh cause of admiration. It is strongly reported, in England, that those discoveries will be communicated to the public. If so, the whole world, I am confident, will have a full proof of what was observed by all that were near Mr. Locke to the last part of his life; I mean, that his mind never suffered the least decay, though his body grew every day visibly weaker and weaker.
His strength began to fail him more remarkably than ever, at the entrance of the last summer; a season which, in former years, had always restored him some degrees of strength. Then he foresaw that his end was very near. He often spoke of it himself, but always with great composure, though he omitted none of the precautions, which his skill in physic taught him, to prolong his life. At length, his legs began to swell; and, that swelling increasing every day, his strength diminished very visibly. He then saw how short a time he had left to live, and prepared to quit this world, with a deep sense of all the blessings which God had granted him, which he took delight in numbering up to his friends, and full of a sincere resignation to his will, and of firm hopes in his promises, built upon the word of Jesus Christ, sent into the world to bring to light life and immortality, by his gospel.
At length, his strength failed him to such a degree, that, the 26th of October, 1704. two days before his death, going to see him in his closet, I found him on his knees, but unable to rise again without assistance.
The next day, though he was not worse, he would continue a-bed. All that day he had a greater difficulty of respiration than ever, and about five of the clock, in the evening, he fell into a sweat, accompanied with an extreme weakness, that made us fear for his life. He was of opinion himself, that he was not far from his last moment. Then he desired to be remembered at evening prayers; thereupon my lady Masham told him, that if he would, the whole family should come and pray by him in his chamber. He answered, he should be very glad to have it so, if it would not give too much trouble; there he was prayed for particularly. After this, he gave some orders with great serenity of mind; and, an occasion offering of speaking of the goodness of God, he especially exalted the love which God showed to man, in justifying him by faith in Jesus Christ. He returned him thanks, in particular, for having called him to the knowledge of that divine Saviour. He exhorted all about him to read the Holy Scripture attentively, and to apply themselves sincerely to the practice of all their duties; adding, expressly, that “by this means they would be more happy in this world, and secure to themselves the possession of eternal felicity in the other.” He past the whole night without sleep. The next day he caused himself to be carried into his closet, for he had not strength to walk by himself; and there in his chair, and in a kind of dozing, though in his full senses, as appeared by what he said from time to time, he gave up the ghost about three in the afternoon, the 28th of October.
I beg you, sir, not to take what I have said of Mr. Locke’s character for a finished portrait. It is only a slight sketch of some few of his excellent qualities. I am told we shall quickly have it done by the hand of a master. To that I refer you. Many features, I am sure, have escaped me; but I dare affirm, that those, which I have given you a draught of, are not set off with false colours, but drawn faithfully from the life.
I must not omit a particular in Mr. Locke’s will, which it is of no small importance to the commonwealth of learning to be acquainted with; namely, that therein he declares what were the works which he had published without setting his name to them. The occasion of it was this: some time before his death, Dr. Hudson, keeper of the Bodleian library at Oxford, had desired him to send him all the works with which he had favoured the public, as well those with his name as those without, that they might be all placed in that famous library. Mr. Locke sent him only the former; but in his will he declares he is resolved fully to satisfy Dr. Hudson; and to that intent he bequeaths to the Bodleian library a copy of the rest of his works, to which he had not prefixed his name, viz. a Latin “Letter concerning Toleration,” printed at Tergou, and translated some time afterwards into English, unknown to Mr. Locke; two other letters upon the same subject, in answer to the objections made against the first; “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” with two Vindications of that book; and “Two Treatises of Government.” These are all the anonymous works which Mr. Locke owns himself to be the author of.
For the rest, I shall not pretend to tell you at what age he died, because I do not certainly know it. I have often heard him say, he had forgot the year of his birth; but that he believed he had set it down somewhere. It has not yet been found among his papers; but it is computed that he was about sixty-six.
Though I have continued some time at London, a city very fruitful in literary news, I have nothing curious to tell you. Since Mr. Locke departed this life, I have hardly been able to think of any thing, but the loss of that great man, whose memory will always be dear to me; happy if, as I admired him for many years, that I was near him, I could but imitate him in any one respect! I am, with all sincerity, Sir, your, &c.