John Locke, 1632-1704

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John Locke, painted by Godfrey Kneller

Biographical note

Philosopher, son of a landsteward, was born at Wrington, near Bristol, and educated at Westminster School and Oxford In 1660 he became lecturer on Greek, in 1662 on Rhetoric, and in 1664 he went as secretary to an Embassy to Brandenburg. While a student he had turned from the subtleties of Aristotle and the schoolmen, had studied Descartes and Bacon, and becoming attracted to experimental science, studied medicine, and practised a little in Oxford At the same time his mind had been much exercised by questions of morals and government, and in 1667 he wrote his Essay on Toleration. In the same year he became known to Lord Ashley (afterwards 1st Earl of Shaftesbury), in whose house he went to reside. Here he made the acquaintance of Buckingham, Halifax, and other leading men of the time, and was entrusted by Ashley with the education of his son, and afterwards of his grandson, the famous 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. He was also employed by him to draw up a constitution for the new colony of Carolina, the provisions of which in regard to religion were regarded as too liberal and were, at the instance of the Established Church, departed from. In 1672 when Ashley became Chancellor he bestowed upon Locke the office of Sec. of Presentations, and afterwards a post at the Board of Trade. In 1675 Locke graduated M.B., and in the same year went for the benefit of his health, which had always been delicate, to Montpelier, where there was then a celebrated medical school, and subsequently to Paris, where he became acquainted with most of the eminent Frenchmen of the day. Recalled by Shaftesbury in 1679 he returned to England but, his patron having in 1682 been obliged to take refuge in Holland from a prosecution for high treason, he followed him there. In consequence of this he became obnoxious to the Government, and was in 1684 deprived of his studentship at Christ Church. Shaftesbury having died in Holland, Locke remained there until the Revolution, when he returned to England in the fleet which carried the Princess of Orange. He was now in favour with Government, and had the offer of diplomatic employment which, on account of his health, he declined, but was appointed a Commissioner of Appeals. In 1698 he was an adviser of the Government on the question of the coinage, and was made a member of the newly instituted Council on Trade, which position he resigned in 1700. During his last years he lived with Sir Francis and Lady Masham at Gates in Essex, where Lady M., who was a daughter of Ralph Cudworth, and an old friend, assiduously tended his last years. The services of Locke to his country in civil and religious matters were various and great; but it is upon his philosophical writings, and chiefly on his Essay on the Human Understanding [1690] that his fame rests. It is divided into four books, of which the first treats of innate ideas (the existence of which he denies), the second traces the origin of ideas, the third deals with language, and the fourth lays down the limits of the understanding. Other works of his are Thoughts concerning Education [1693], On the Conduct of the Understanding (published posthumously), The Reasonableness of Christianity [1695], Treatise on Government, and Letters on Toleration.

If not a very profound or original philosopher Locke was a calm, sensible, and reasonable writer, and his books were very influential on the English thought of his day, as well as on the French philosophy of the next century. His style is plain and clear, but lacking in brightness and variety.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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