Five Card Story: John Locke: Political Philosopher

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Influential philosopher and physician John Locke, whose writings had a significant impact on Western philosophy, was born on August 29, 1632, in Wrington, a village in the English county of Somerset. His father was a country lawyer and military man who had served as a captain during the English civil war.

Both his parents were Puritans and as such, Locke was raised that way. Because of his father's connections and allegiance to the English government, Locke received an outstanding education.

Famous for the SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT

He expressed the radical view that government is morally obliged to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property. He explained the principle of checks and balances to limit government power. He favored representative government and a rule of law. He denounce tyranny. He insisted that when government violates individual rights, people may legitimately rebel.

Early Years
Locke had many prominent friends who were nobles in government and also highly respected scholars of the times. He was good friends with the Earl of Shaftesbury and he was given government jobs which he served with Shaftesbury.
Locke lived in France for a while and returned to troubled times in England. In 1679 his friend the Earl was tried for treason. Although Shaftesbury was acquitted, the Earl decided to flee England anyway to escape further persecution. He fled to Holland where William and Mary ruled but had some claim to the English throne. Owing to his close association with the Earl, Locke also fled fled to Holland in 1683. He returned to England in about 1688 when William and Mary were invited to retake the reign of England in what historians call the Bloodless Revolution. Eventually Locke returned to Oates in Essex where he retired. He lived there until his death in 1704.
Natural Rights
Locke wrote and developed the philosophy that there was no legitimate government under the divine right of kings theory. The Divine Right of Kings theory, as it was called, asserted that God chose some people to rule on earth in his will. Therefore, whatever the monarch decided was the will of God. When you criticized the ruler, you were in effect challenging God. This was a very powerful philosophy for the existing ruler. But, Locke did not believe in that and wrote his theory to challenge it.
Perhaps the part of Locke's writing which most influenced the founding fathers of the United States Constitution was the idea that the power to govern was obtained from the permission of the people.
He thought that the purpose of government was to protect the natural rights of its citizens. He said that natural rights were life, liberty and property, and that all people automatically earned these simply by being born. When a government did not protect those rights, the citizen had the right and maybe even the obligation of overthrowing the government.
If these ideas seem familiar to you, it is because they were incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. Once they took root in North America, the philosophy was adopted in other places as justification for revolution.

The first treatise
The first treatise was aimed squarely at the work of another 17th-century political theorist, Sir Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha (1680, though probably written in the 1630s) defended the theory of divine right of kings: the authority of every king is divinely sanctioned by his descent from Adam—according to the Bible, the first king and the father of humanity. Locke claims that Filmer’s doctrine defies “common sense.” The right to rule by descent from Adam’s first grant could not be supported by any historical record or any other evidence, and any contract that God and Adam entered into would not be binding on remote descendants thousands of years later, even if a line of descent could be identified. His refutation was widely accepted as decisive, and in any event the theory of the divine right of kings ceased to be taken seriously in England after 1688.

The second treatise
Locke’s importance as a political philosopher lies in the argument of the second treatise. He begins by defining political power as a

right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such Laws and in defence of the Common-wealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Publick Good.

Much of the remainder of the Treatise is a commentary on this paragraph.

The state of nature and the social contract
Locke’s definition of political power has an immediate moral dimension. It is a “right” of making laws and enforcing them for “the public good.” Power for Locke never simply means “capacity” but always “morally sanctioned capacity.” Morality pervades the whole arrangement of society, and it is this fact, tautologically, that makes society legitimate.

Locke’s account of political society is based on a hypothetical consideration of the human condition before the beginning of communal life. In this “state of nature,” humans are entirely free. But this freedom is not a state of complete license, because it is set within the bounds of the law of nature. It is a state of equality, which is itself a central element of Locke’s account. In marked contrast to Filmer’s world, there is no natural hierarchy among humans. Each person is naturally free and equal under the law of nature, subject only to the will of “the infinitely wise Maker.” Each person, moreover, is required to enforce as well as to obey this law. It is this duty that gives to humans the right to punish offenders. But in such a state of nature, it is obvious that placing the right to punish in each person’s hands may lead to injustice and violence. This can be remedied if humans enter into a contract with each other to recognize by common consent a civil government with the power to enforce the law of nature among the citizens of that state. Although any contract is legitimate as long as it does not infringe upon the law of nature, it often happens that a contract can be enforced only if there is some higher human authority to require compliance with it. It is a primary function of society to set up the framework in which legitimate contracts, freely entered into, may be enforced, a state of affairs much more difficult to guarantee in the state of nature and outside civil society.
Last Years And Influence
Locke remained in Holland until James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution. Indeed, Locke himself in February 1689 crossed the English Channel in the party that accompanied the princess of Orange, who was soon crowned Queen Mary II of England. Upon his return he became actively involved in various political projects, including helping to draft the English Bill of Rights, though the version eventually adopted by Parliament did not go as far as he wanted in matters of religious toleration. He was offered a senior diplomatic post by William but declined. His health was rarely good, and he suffered especially in the smoky atmosphere of London. He was therefore very happy to accept the offer of his close friend Damaris Masham, herself a philosopher and the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, to make his home with her family at Oates in High Laver, Essex. There he spent his last years revising the Essay and other works, entertaining friends, including Newton, and responding at length to his critics. After a lengthy period of poor health, he died while Damaris read him the Bible. He was buried in High Laver church.

As a final comment on his achievement, it may be said that, in many ways, to read Locke’s works is the best available introduction to the intellectual environment of the modern Western world. His faith in the salutary, ennobling powers of knowledge justifies his reputation as the first philosopher of the Enlightenment. In a broader context, he founded a philosophical tradition, British empiricism, that would span three centuries. In developing the Whig ideology underlying the exclusion controversy and the Glorious Revolution, he formulated the classic expression of liberalism, which was instrumental in the great revolutions of 1776 and 1789. His influence remains strongly felt in the West, as the notions of mind, freedom, and authority continue to be challenged and explored.



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