Home » John Locke: An Historical Analysis of His Thought and Life

John Locke: An Historical Analysis of His Thought and Life

John Locke (1632-1704) is perhaps one of the most influential philosophers the world has ever seen. His writings became the basis of the eighteenth century enlightenment reason. Basil Willey describes Locke’s influence as such, “Locke stands at the end of the seventeenth century, and at the beginning of the eighteenth; his work is at once a summing-up of seventeenth century conclusions and the starting-point for eighteenth century enquiries. “[1] This man was consumed with his ideas of liberty, freedom, and natural or inalienable rights.

He has been said to be, the Father of the American Revolution, which is thoroughly Lockean in its ideas nd emphases. Locke heavily influenced Voltaire, the French philosopher, as well as Rousseau, Jefferson, and Franklin. He is the locus of every liberal[2] philosopher in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, we see that Locke’s influence is startling. An examination of his views on epistemology, religion, and church-state relations will be given, in their relation to the church and Christianity.

Locke lived through some of the most tumultuous times in England, filled with religious squabbling, revolutions, and was himself the locus of philosophical and theological controversies. He triumphed his thoughts on eason as the final arbiter of truth and instigated some of the first ideas of critical interpretation of the Bible. He pioneered a simplistic Christian faith, over and against the scholastic Calvinism and Reformation theology of his day. Locke, while being a part of his historical context, was one of those few individuals who seemed to be a revolutionary figure in himself.

The man himself was born August 29, 1632 in Wrington, a village of Somerset. He was born into a Puritan household. Locke’s mother died when he was only 22 years of age. The knowledge on her is very scant, but Locke often referred to her as a “very pious woman. [3] Locke was raised in a very strict home, with his father exacting much discipline and authority.

However, Locke seems to have quite respected his father. A friend, Lady Masham, recalls that Locke, “never mentioned him but with great respect and affection. [4] It was in this strict, Puritan home that Locke first became acquainted with ideas of religious liberty and man’s inherent freedom. His father continually reminded him of the people’s right to an elected parliament. His father even fought in the Parliamentary army in the war of 1641, fought over the King’s right to impose taxes by executive order. Squadrito writes, “Economic, religious, and political conflicts were primary topics of conversations in the Locke household.

The influence that this early education had upon Locke’s mature philosophical views was doubtless considerable. “[5] Locke’s thought definitely had its beginnings at home, but he transcended this arena as well, for he would depart his home’s conservative views on scripture and a typical theistic epistemology. Locke’s formal education began at Westminster. He sharply criticized the harsh school environment and its intense program of classical philosophy and language (Greek, Latin, and Arabic) studies. He disparaged the loss of time at the school because of its hyper-intellectualism.

He would later say that he had, “lost a great deal of time at the commencement of his studies because the only philosophy then known at Oxford was the peripatetic, perplexed with obscure terms and useless questions. “[6] Locke would develop his common sense philosophical systems out of this environment. His philosophy would seem to be in much contrast to the overly obscure philosophy of classical writers and contemporaries. In 1656, Locke graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, focusing on such subjects as anguage, Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, history, astronomy, and natural philosophy.

The seventeenth century is one of transition. As Kathleen Squadrito correctly notes, “The intellectual climate of the age was beginning to shift away from superstition and tradition toward the newly founded authority of reason and experimentation. “[7] Locke was one of the main instigators of this change. Locke’s philosophy developed out of a love for medicine and the natural sciences. In 1649, Locke joined an experimental philosophy club, whose purpose was to apply philosophy to the natural realm.

Francis Bacon had already critiqued philosophy and medicine as needing a new foundation-empiricism. 8] Locke then began to work with Robert Boyle, the “father of modern chemistry,” and attended numerous medical lectures, although he himself did not attain a medical degree until 1674. Out of this rudimentary scientific method, Locke began questioning the epistemology of his age. It would lead him to questions, whose answers would be found in his book, “An Essay concerning Human Understanding. ” It would begin to form his views of empiricism that would be so revolutionary. In 1667, John Locke would become an advisor for Ashley Cooper, later o become the Earl of Shaftesbury.

His main jobs were of a political, economic, philosophic, and medical nature. This would be one of the most influential and productive periods of Locke’s life. As Squadrito points out, “The atmosphere of the home, in fact, provided him with a unique opportunity for research and for the study of medicine, economics, politics, and philosophy. “[9] Because of the multifaceted work that Locke was engaged in, the questions that began in medical school, would again manifest, prompting him to write his famous “Essay concerning Human Understanding. “[10] The Essay was monumental in its task.

For, the questions that prompted Locke’s mind were of a monumental nature. Revelation, knowledge, and morality were all questions that Locke sought to investigate, critique, and find answers for. However, he correctly observed that we must first realize what man can know in order to understand what he ought to do. Locke reflects this when he stated: It came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course, and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. 11]

It is Locke’s theory of knowledge, while finding rudimentary expression in Hobbes and Bacon, that is given a systematic expression. This theory of knowledge is empiricism. The theory posits that all human knowledge is derived from what can be observed and deduced from the natural sensory perception of man, namely touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. These observations are integrated and formulated into thoughts and knowledge, in the human, material brain.

Willey comments on Locke’s idea of closed epistemological capacity of the brain as such, “all these kinds of knowledge are confined within the closed circle of the mind and relate olely to its contents. “[12] The epistemological theory that Locke started would ensue a revolution in philosophy across Europe and would be the dominant epistemology for at least one hundred years, until the rise of Existentialism. This theory met much opposition from churchmen across England. For, if all knowledge came from sensory perception, how do ideas such as revelation stand up against empiricism?

Indeed, Locke was accused by many of being a Socinianist. The church controversies of Socianism and Unitarians were just beginning in England at the time. The use of reason n critiquing Christianity and Christian “society” were causing great uproars. For Locke, “faith” was just not enough. As he says in the “Essay”: Religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us as rational creatures above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts themselves.

Credo quia impossible est: ‘I believe because it is impossible’, might, in a good man, pass for a sally of zeal, but would prove a very ill rule for men to choose their opinions or religion by. [13] Locke challenged the church of his day to bring their sacred doctrines to he bar of reason. However, Locke himself was a devout Christian man. He wanted to give Christianity a more reasonable foundation than the scholastic Calvinists and conservatives of his own day. Locke seems to live in a constant tension between his views of revelation and Biblical inerrancy.

Concerning scripture and revelation he states, “The Holy Scripture is to me, and always will be, the constant guide of my assent; and I shall always hearken to it, as containing infallible truth relating to things of the highest concernment. “[14] So while Locke seems to affirm the truth of the Bible he seems to move to some sort of criticism of it, hen he states, “no Proposition can be received for Divine Revelation, or obtain the Assent due to all such, if it be contradictory to our clear intuitive Knowledge.

Because this would be to subvert the Principles, and Foundations of all Knowledge, Evidence, and Assent whatsoever: And there would be left no difference between Truth and Falsehood… “[15] For Locke, revelation that is seen to supercede material reality or sensory perception is not truth, for it debases and destroys the very fact of existence. In effect, it makes truth, distinctions, and knowledge relative and meaningless. Reason thus takes up the mantle of authority over the Bible in many respects. Locke describes how to assess true revelation as such, “Whatever God hath revealed is certainly true; no doubt can be made of it.

This is the proper object of faith: but whether it be a divine revelation or no, reason must judge. “[16] Even the distinguishing between revelatory truth, is the task of reason for Locke. As an extension of his epistemology, is Locke’s famous “tabula rasa” or blank slate theory. Locke asserts that man is born with no innate thoughts or knowledge, including knowledge of God. Instead, all knowledge omes through sensory and material experience. Locke was to use this theory of beginnings to develop his political ideals of equality and liberty.

For if humanity is brought into the world at the same level, then it is only man and his reactions to the world that make him. He is in essence, a master of his own destiny, or should be. From this view, Locke reputed original sin. For if man is born with a blank slate, original sin is an illogical conclusion. In this way, Locke departed from traditional Calvinist and Augustinian theology that was the hallmark of the Western church for a millennium. After his writing of the “Essay,” Locke turned much of his resources to matters of religion and church-state relations.

It is highly appropriate for Locke to discuss these matters in light of two revolutions in England, which he witnessed and supported. In 1687, Locke moved to Rotterdam to consort with William of Orange and his supporters on the overthrow of James II. The plot succeeded in the “glorious revolution” of 1688, which placed William of Orange and Mary on the throne. Locke returned to England, from his exile in Holland, and immediately began works on religious toleration (Letter of Toleration) and eventually religion (The Reasonableness of Christianity).

Locke’s exile obviously influenced his own views on state toleration. Locke had an intimate knowledge of what tyrannical states can inflict upon their citizens. It is not surprising, since Locke himself was considered a liberal. However, much opposition came because of Locke’s view of religious toleration. Jonas Proast, an Oxford scholar and chaplain, charged that Locke was beginning a new era of moral and ethical relativism. Adam Wolfson describes Proast’s position as such, Proast charges-distinguishes, as Proast puts it, the many religions from the ‘true religion.

In his view, since the latter can be known by human beings and communicated to their fellows, he later identifies it with the national religion of England, it is to be enforced, and Locke’s principle of toleration, notwithstanding religious diversity, rejected. [17] Proast recognizes the potential problems in toleration dogmas, that they embrace relativity. However, Locke himself did not embrace complete liberalism in its contemporary manifestations. For instance, he argued against toleration for both Catholics and atheists, the former, for reasons that historically Catholics were revolutionaries who hoped to subjugate

England to Catholic princes and Papal authority, and the latter because their oaths would be suspect and could not be trusted. David McCabe describes Locke’s position of limited toleration as such, “But in cases where certain forms of worship threaten the civil order and tranquility of a society, the magistrate does have authority to intervene… since the reasons for his intervention relate to the extrinsic effects of worship, not intrinsic value. “[18] Locke’s views of church-state relations were quite revolutionary for his time.

He was one of the primary authorities of the subject, and influenced all subsequent enlightenment philosophers. Unlike current liberal thinkers who are quite antithetical towards the church, Locke respected and admired the church as an agent of good. His concepts of the church are quite Anabaptist in the political sense. Locke states, “A church then I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshiping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls. [19]

Locke’s view of the church must be set in a context where the state and church are the two main institutions of the natural realm. The former protects the rights of its citizens, namely property and life, the latter teaches the way of salvation for men’s souls. Each institution is proper to a civilized society and is essential to its well being. The issue of forcing citizens to a particular sect of Christianity was to Locke useless. For true religion is an inward conversion and belief, an outward conformity would do nothing to promote true religion.

Locke’s particular brand of Christianity was reductionist. He sought to eliminate much of the scholastic and confusing doctrines to a simplified form of religion based on belief in Christ as the messiah and living a ood, virtuous life. It is not hard to understand the appeal of reductionism in the face of continual religious wars in both England and abroad, and the constant bickering of partisan religious politics.

Referring to the seventeenth English Deism, of which Locke is equated with (fairly or unfairly), A. H. Newman writes, “It was a reaction against the religious mysticism and enthusiasm as these had been manifested among the religious sects of the seventeenth century in England. “[20] Conservative churchmen, who were steeped in Calvinist theological rigor, harshly criticized this simplified Christianity. For it made no mention of redestination, faith alone, grace alone, and numerous other theological nuances. Locke thought admirably and reverently of Jesus Christ. Locke thought of him as the second Adam who restored the lost things of the “fallen” man.

However, Locke was not a believer in present eschatology, he believed that the gifts of immortality and bliss were conferred on the believer after death and during the resurrection. Christ’s miracles were seen as proof of his message and messiahship. Locke emphasized Christianity’s moral component expressed in Christ and his message, as being truthful and in perfect agreement with reason. However, the church searching for its own legitimacy, criticized Locke. For if reason and natural revelation was all that was needed, then why Jesus Christ?

What reason could be given for the religion of Christianity, if all that is needed is reason and its conclusions? Willey comments: Locke’s reply, made in perfect good faith… was that although for the wise and the virtuous nature and reason ‘sufficiently evidence a deity’, natural religion ‘had never authority enough to prevail on the multitude’, and a special revelational sanction was therefore required, which should be ‘suited to vulgar capacities. [21] For Locke, Christianity was not a new revelation or set of ideas but was an act by God to allow for the ignorant amongst us to be saved.

While this may seem contemptuous, Locke himself was quite sincere, shown through his own pious life and admiration of religion, once attaining the position of “Censor of Moral Philosophy” at Christ Church in 1664. Indeed, he even thought about the priesthood (Anglican Church) as a career, but later rejected it because of his own controversial views. Christ’s act of salvation was seen as vastly merciful because God was providing a way for the less enlightened amongst man to be saved.

God essentially came down to a lower level, so that we may enjoy the blessings of enlightened reason-a virtuous life and salvation of souls. John Locke was a man who both a part of his age and a revolutionary. What was started with Hobbes and Bacon, found fruition in John Locke. His ideas were to later start a transformation of thought across Europe. His views of society, in the separation of church and state, garnered him great respect and adversity from many people. Locke’s contributions of reason in relation to Christianity are one of his greatest contributions (or downfalls depending).

Kathleen Squadrito comments, “Locke teaches us not to rely on authority in a blind way, to avoid superstition, to examine all issues in an impartial manner, to love truth and to seek it for its own sake, to admit our own weaknesses, and to employ our understanding for the advancement of knowledge in practical affairs. “[22] Locke’s spirit of a free, benevolent, and rational humanity is what he brings forever to the bar of history and Christianity. Hopefully, we will never forget his spirit of thought, which while challenging the church and theology of his day, challenged it for the better, for the good.

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