It is said that the writings of John Locke, one of the earliest figures of the English Enlightenment, were “intended directly to counteract the enemies of reason and freedom.” His Two Treatises of Government (1690), potent discourses on the proper use of political authority, are the result of many years of Locke’s thought on the subject.
In the first treatise, Lock condemns Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680), an apology for the divine right of kings. Locke’s work appeared after the absolute power of the English monarchy had been curtailed; nevertheless, his treatise is a brilliant refutation based on the enduring principles of the natural liberty and equality of human beings.
In the second treatise, it is Locke’s contention that government is a result of the people themselves agreeing to be governed. The power of the ruler is conditional, based on the security of the common good. If government fails to ensure the welfare of society, it must forfeit its power. Locke concludes that the ultimate sovereignty rests with the people.
Another assertion found in the second treatise is that government must protect the property and person of the individual, as well as the individual’s freedom of thought, speech, and religion. Further, Locke favors a separation of powers, with the executive ruling alongside a duly elected legislature. It is evident that this philosophy had an enormous bearing on great political documents that are themselves standard-bearers of liberty, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Locke’s liberal thinking had developed early, when he was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, beginning in 1652. Discontent with the traditional curriculum, he supplemented his education with independent study in experimental science and medicine. His interest in those disciplines lasted his entire life.
Although he never received a formal degree in medicine, Locke became a physician in 1667 to Lord Ashley, later named the first earl of Shaftesbury. Lord Ashley, an important politician, had met Locke at Oxford, and the two discovered they shared common opinions on civil, religious, and philosophical liberties. Locke took up residence at Lord Ashley’s Exeter House, in London, and there came into contact with the most brilliant minds of the day. It was one of these meetings that formed the basis for his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).
Poor health forced Locke to leave London for France in 1675, but upon his return he found that the political climate in England had changed. Shaftesbury had fallen from power and eventually retired to Holland, where he died in 1683. Because of his association with Shaftesbury, Locke was unsafe in England and likewise went to Holland, in 1683. HE spent more than five happy years there, publishing his first articles and forging new friendships with other scholars. Meanwhile, back home, he had been declared a traitor.
After James II had been deposed by William of Orange in 1688, Locke was free to return to England, where in his final years he set to paper his thought on a variety of topics. When he died in October 1794, he was, in his own words, “in perfect charity with all men.” His prodigious influence in the centuries since has never abated.
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