Ever since Plato and Aristotle, Western thought has had a tendency to work in double acts. In the second half of the 17th Century, two Englishmen developed philosophies that would define the modern world. One was Thomas Hobbes; the other was John Locke.
Locke was born into a south-western Puritan family in 1632 and later studied at Westminster School and the University of Oxford. Originally a doctor by profession, his adult life in London saw him mix in scientific, business and political circles. He retained close relations with the Earl of Shaftesbury, founder of the proto-Liberal Whig Party, and was acquainted at points with John Dryden, Isaac Newton and Benedict de Spinoza. Forced to the Netherlands under the rule of the Catholic James II in 1683, he returned to England at the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, which reinstalled a Protestant monarchy and instigated important progressive constitutional reforms. He died on 28th October 1704.
Hobbes’ major work, the Leviathan, is deeply pessimistic and often read as a defence of absolute monarchy, born out of England’s only full Civil War in the 1640s. By contrast, Locke’s oeuvre – which appears later in the century – defined the Enlightenment project with its liberal humanism. Such is the influence of his work, primarily contained in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government (both 1689), that it cuts across our now familiar categories. For Locke, humans are inherently innocent rational agents, and come into the world as tabula rasa or ‘blank slates’ on which their social conditions are inscribed – we can see here the genesis of both Kantian liberalism and Marxism. Moreover, this rationality entails that the only just form of government under which we should live is one we have chosen: an accountable democracy.
Locke also contributed largely to the development of modern definitions of self and identity; a theme that resounds within an EU mindset as citizens conceptualize what it means to not on have a national identity, but also a European identity.
Locke’s ideas remained either the basis or point of opposition for later thinkers as diverse as Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Mill and the American Founding Fathers, and continue to do so today. The neuroscientist Steven Pinker has effectively disproved the blank state theory of the mind with modern evidence, whilst post-Enlightenment philosophers such as John Gray have challenged the premisses and outworkings of his political thought. Nevertheless, Lockean ideas continue to hold great sway on both sides of the political divide: it was on Locke’s account of private property that Robert Nozick built his libertarianism, whilst the influence of the tabula rasa is very much visible in the work of critical theorists such as Judith Butler. Regardless of one’s positioning, Locke’s central place in the history of European and world thought cannot be disputed.
Image: “John Locke, philosopher” courtesy of Lisby kommun via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons 2.0