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Locke’s Importance

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This essay first appeared as an editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1.

John Locke (1632–1704) was identified by Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis) as among the “Protestant Scholastics” of whom his forerunners were Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and Samuel Pufendorf. This natural law tradition (Cf. Literature of Liberty, I, 4) was paralleled by René Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637). Descartes’s emphasis on the principle of the uniformity of natural law had awakened Locke’s interest in philosophy. Succeeding Descartes as the leading philosopher of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, “le sage Locke” remained a critical heir of Cartesian thought, and his philosophical growth drew inspiration from a wide range of other sources. The Scholastic Aristotelianism of Puritan Oxford, including Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, stimulated Locke’s interest in scientific investigation, and in addition he sought to synthesize the best elements of the leading thinkers of seventeenth century philosophy.

The impact of the Arminianism of Holland was central to his tolerant religious thought as it had been for Grotius. Arminian interest in the foundations for a universal Christian church influenced Locke’s Two Treatises on Civil Government. Locke’s empiricism owed much to his contact with Robert Boyle, founder of the Royal Society, and to the school of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). Leibnitz considered Locke a leading Gassendist, and R. I. Aaron (1937) notes that Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding becomes “more intelligible if read alongside Gassendi’s works.” Locke’s scholarship suggests that a rational science of morals was possible within the limits set by Gassendists such as Francois Bernier’s Christian epicureanism as contrasted with Hobbes’s materialist hedonism.

Bernier, a fellow physician of Locke’s, travelled to North Africa, the Near East, and India, and wrote travel literature. Locke’s own extensive knowledge of travel literature suggests that he may have edited a major series of voyage literature. On this topic, see William G. Batz, “The Historical Anthropology of John Locke,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35(Oct.-Dec. 1947). This literature influenced Locke’s concepts of the state of nature and of the historical origins of property which leads through Pufendorf and Locke to Adam Smith and Lord Kames in the Scottish Enlightenment.

On property Locke believed, with his fellow philosophers, that men had been given the earth, air, sunlight and rainfall to be used beneficially. But, the use of these common gifts required their possession in absolute property (Second Treatise 34). Locke’s theory of property begins with the absolute ownership which each man has in his own person. By mixing his labor with natural resources man makes these products his property (Second Treatise 27).

In contrast to Whig political philosophers, Locke did not appeal to English history in the form of the ancient constitution or a concrete original contract. From his extensive readings in cosmopolitan human history, Locke looked to sources which were human in a universal sense and found them in human reason and a rational law of nature. Human action and human freedom were determined by rational natural law. From natural law, Locke deduced that all men were created free and equal, that no man was made for another man’s benefit, and all men had the natural rights to life, liberty, and property. If civil governments interfered or abused these rights, men had the right of political resistance to vindicate their rights. Locke’s movement of political philosophy away from national historical precedents to man as man created the basis for eighteenth century Enlightenment political thought, especially influencing the Scottish Enlightenment (cf. Louis Schneider, ed., The Scottish Moralists on Human Nature and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

The influence of Locke’s writings, especially the Two Treatises, has been enormous. Shortly after the original edition appeared, a French edition was published containing only the Second Treatise, less the first chapter. In that form it was reprinted a dozen times in France in the eighteenth century. Although American readers were nourished on the many reprints of the original editions until the American Revolution, the first American edition in 1773 followed the form of the French editions. In recent years a controversy among historians has debated the importance of Locke’s political philosophy in the eighteenth century Atlantic revolutions. Until recently, his ideas were seen as a dominant influence on the American and French revolutions and the radical liberals in England. But some critics have claimed that Locke’s ideas were either influential only through intermediaries or were eclipsed by the ideas of rival authors. These critics are, in turn, being challenged by historians whose scholarship has been restoring Locke’s political philosophy to center stage in eighteenth century radical political thought. This debate stresses the need of a clearer understanding of Locke’s ideas. On this see Ronald Hamowy, “Jefferson and the Scottish Englightenment” William and Mary Quarterly 36(October 1979), as well as Hamowy’s forthcoming comments in the July, 1980 issue of the same journal.

Last modified April 13, 2016