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Early Years (1632 - 1667)

John Locke was born at Wrington, Somerset, on the 29th August 1632, of good Dorset and Somerset stock. The house in which he was born no longer stands, but the house to which he was shortly removed and where he spent his boyhood, namely, Beluton, near the village of Pensford, about six miles south-east of Bristol, can still be seen, a small but pleasant country residence.

Locke’s parents, John Locke and Agnes Keene, were married in 1630 and John was their first son. The mother was thirty-five years of age when Locke was born and ten years senior to her husband. We are told that she was a pious woman and Locke speaks of her with affection. But the greater influence seems to have been that of the father.

John Locke, senior, was a man of some ability. A county attorney, he had become Clerk to the Justices of Peace, but in 1642, though the west was mainly Royalist, he sided with the Parliamentarians and seems to have suffered in fortune as a consequence of the Civil War. He educated his two sons – the second was Thomas, who was born in 1637, and died early – with extreme care, and Locke himself in later life approved of his father’s attitude towards him in his youth. ‘His father’, Lady Masham tells us, ‘used a conduct towards him when young that he often spoke of afterwards with great approbation. It was the being severe to him by keeping him in much awe and at a distance when he was a boy, but relaxing still by degrees of that severity as he grew up to be a man, till, he being become capable of it, he lived perfectly with him as a friend.’ There can be no doubt of the later friendship between them. There is sufficient testimony to it in letters from Locke to his father written many years later when his father’s health was broken. These are full of tenderness and affection. But in his boyhood Locke knew the severe discipline of a Puritan home. He was trained to sobriety, industry, and endeavor; he was made to love simplicity and to hate excessive ornament and display. Early in his life he learnt the meaning of political liberty. He would hear his father expound the doctrine of the rightful sovereignty of the people through its elected Parliament – a doctrine for which the father was prepared to suffer. Locke’s later experiences broadened and changed his outlook, but his fundamental attitude to life was determined for him once and for all in that simple home at Beluton. In 1646 Locke entered Westminster School, then Parliamentarian under its headmaster, Dr. Richard Busby. The struggle between King and Parliament still continued and the boy, were he interested, could now view it from a point of vantage. He might even have been present at the execution of Charles I in Whitehall Palace Yard, in close proximity to his school, in 1649.But this is not thought likely. The likelihood is that Locke had little time during these schooldays for reflection upon the turbulent happenings in the world outside. The training he received was thorough, but, to modern ideas at least, somewhat limited in scope. It was confined almost wholly to the study of the Classics. In the upper forms there would be, in addition, Hebrew and Arabic and some elementary geography, but the staple fare of the school was endless Greek and Latin exercises. Locke thus became thoroughly acquainted with the Classics, an acquaintance which stood him in good stead later. But he himself in his Thoughts Concerning Education criticized unfavorably the methods adopted at Westminster. Too much time was wasted on languages. A knowledge of Latin was essential in his day, but Greek, he felt, could safely be left to the ‘professed scholar’, not to mention Hebrew and the Oriental tongues. The abiding impression left upon Locke’s mind was that of the severity of the discipline at Westminster, as witness his letter to Edward Clarke, in which he describes the life at that ‘very severe school’, and suggests that a little time spent there might do good to Clarke’s own son, making him ‘more pliant and willing to learn at home’. Locke must have been a fairly promising pupil, for he was elected King’s scholar in 1647 with an annual allowance of ’13/4 for livery’ and ’60/10 for commons’.

In 1652 Locke was elected to a Studentship at Christ Church, and henceforth for over thirty years he made Oxford his home. Here John Owen was just beginning to re-create order out of the chaos which followed the Civil War. Oxford had been Royalist. Its losses had been very heavy and its prestige had sunk considerably. John Owen, who was appointed Dean of Christ Church a year before Locke took up residence and who became shortly afterwards Vice-Chancellor of the University, set himself energetically to the work of restoration. He was an Independent divine, a close follower of Cromwell. Like Cromwell he was tolerant (in spite of one or two intolerant acts), and to his credit it can be said that he never sought to force the University into Independent channels. He retained teachers who were Anglican and Royalist in sympathy. Locke must have welcomed this spirit of toleration, so much in accord with his own deep love of religious liberty.

It is somewhat remarkable, however, that the change from Royalist control to Puritan in the University produced no corresponding change in curriculum. The Puritans persisted in the same traditional subjects, Aristotelian in origin but scholastic in exposition. Locke would probably devote a year to rhetoric and grammar, another to logic and moral philosophy, the third and fourth being given to logic, moral philosophy, geometry, and Greek. As might be expected, he found this course both insipid and dreary. He later complained to Leclerc that ‘he 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’. After four years at the University he took his initial degree and two years later the Masrer’s. In the years immediately followitg initial graduation he would still pursue his college course, continuing with Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics, whilst also widening his field of study so as to include history, astronomy, natural philosophy, Hebrew, and Arabic. His studies in these Eastern tongues brought him into contact with Edward Pococke, the teacher who seems to have influenced him most in these early years at Oxford. Writing of him later Locke remarks: ‘I do not remember I ever saw in him any one action that I did, or could in my own mind, blame or think amiss in him.’ It is significant that Locke should have found a teacher whom he so much admired amongst the Royalist section of the University, for Pococke was staunchly Royalist. The old Puritan ties were already beginning to loosen, and we are not surprised to find Locke welcoming the Restoration when it came.

By this time Locke had already spent eight years within the shelter of the University, and he had still to decide upon a career. There were various alternatives. He might continue the life of the Christ Church don. He already lectured in Greek and rhetoric and was appointed Censor of Moral Philosophy for 1664. But the life of the tutor did not content him, nor was it sufficiently remunerative. His father died in 1661 and the fortune which he bequeathed to his son, small though it was, helped him to make his position more comfortable. His Studentship, however, was uncertain and he seems to have wished for a more lucrative occupation, especially as he appears to have been contemplating marriage at the time. Some of his friends desired to see him in Holy Orders. But Locke hesitated. Writing to one such friend he remarks: ‘l cannot now be forward to disgrace you, or any one else, by being lifted into a place which perhaps I cannot fill and from whence there is no descending without tumbling.’ The vocation which attracted him most was that of medicine. He was drawn towards the new experimental inquiries in the natural sciences and to the application of these to human disease. But though he trained himself assiduously for this vocation, so much so that the thoroughness of his knowledge was acknowledged in later life even by such an expert as Sydenham, yet he never became a professional physician, preferring to practice in an amateurish and occasional fashion.

Still a further alternative presented itself to him, the profession of diplomacy, for which he was well fitted. In November 1665 he accompanied Sir Walter Vane on a diplomatic mission to the Elector of Brandenburg, then at Cleves, returning to London in February of the next year. No sooner was he home than another diplomatic post of greater importance was offered to him, namely, a secretaryship under the new ambassador to Spain, the Earl of Sandwich. This offer he finally rejected, though after much hesitation. He returned to Oxford to continue his studies there. Dimly Locke had already realized his true vocation. It was not the Church, nor medicine, nor again diplomacy, but philosophy. And yet it was not speculation as such that appealed to him. He was always a man of affairs, practical to his fingertips. But he also believed that one great need of his generation was a philosophical understanding of the fundamental issues which faced it, and he found his true vocation in a diligent quest for such an understanding.

Already in these early years (that is to say up to 1667, when an event occurred which opened a new period in his life) Locke had collected much material and reflected considerably on the problems of his day, as his private papers show. It was about this period, as he himself informs us in his New Method af a Commonplace Book, that he began to prepare those commonplace books which, together with the journals, make so substantial and important a part of the Lovelace Collection, and which are really small encyclopaedias (before the days of printed encyclopaedias) composed by Locke himself for his own instruction and for purposes of reference. In the Lovelace Collection also and again amongst the Shaftesbury Papers for these years there are many writings on constitutional, political, religious, and moral problems. He discusses the Roman constitution, the new Restoration settlement, the place of the civil magistrate in ecclesiastical affairs, and the problem of toleration. But never in these early papers, it is interesting to note, is he concerned with metaphysical matters; nor do those problems of epistemology to which he was later driven here disturb him. It is the practical affairs of state and society which were uppermost in his mind at the time.

Locke’s main concern, then, up to 1667 was with the practical and social. None the less, he was already familiarizing himself with the views of leading thinkers both of the past and of his own day. The chief influences upon him in this early period must now be traced.

It might at first appear that Locke was little influenced by other writers. His references to others were few. Occasionally, to confirm his general position, he would quote an authority, such as Hooker; but this happened rarely. The naive method of impressing the reader by piling quotation upon quotation, a method very common in the seventeenth century, he wisely rejected. Instead he attempted to demonstrate each point rationally, and to consider each argument on its own merits in complete independence of what had been said in the past. But he was not ignorant of the past and he was not uninfluenced by other writers. His commonplace books and journals show how widely he had read, and those who are familiar with the background will perceive at once how greatly he was indebted to other writers.

I do not propose in this book to give any exhaustive account of the influences that worked upon him. There is indeed no end to the tracing of influences, especially in the case of one whose interests were so wide and catholic. It would doubtless be possible to find sources in Greek thought for much that he says, although there is little evidence in his works of any close and detailed study of a Greek author. It is clear that he had studied Cicero with much care. Cicero was an important influence on his thought, particularly as the critic of a materialist philosophy of life. But his immediate debt to the Middle Ages, as one might expect, is greater than any to Greece and Rome. The first philosophy which he had learnt was the scholastic; and it was only gradually, with infinite pains that he found it possible to free himself even partially from its leading-strings. His terms and his central conceptions were derived from scholasticism. He took over bodily its logical framework, its substance and accidents, its modes, its essences, its genus and species, its universals and particulars. His metaphysic also is scholastic in origin, his conception of God and of His relations to the rest of the universe, his conception of man, and of the place which is his in the hierarchy of being. It would be wrong, of course, to say that there was no advance – or, at least, modification – in Locke. He broke away from scholasticism, But it is equally wrong to suppose that he was uninfluenced by his early training. Locke did not start wholly afresh. He built on the traditional foundation bequeathed to him by the schools.

But the problem of Locke’s indebtedness to scholasticism is one for the medievalist, and much work remains to be done in this field. In the present section, however, I propose to consider the influence upon him of two contemporary writers, whom Locke himself would have regarded as of far greater importance than any scholastic writers, namely, Descartes and Sir Robert Boyle. Of the two the greater influence was Sir Robert Boyle, and indeed Descartes’s role was primarily that of liberator rather than teacher. Locke was not a Cartesian. I hope to show in this article that if he is to be grouped with any European group we must follow Leibniz in grouping him with the Gassendists. It is as a good Gassendist that Locke criticized Descartes. Most often his criticisms, it is not too much to say, re-echoed those already mad by Gassendi and his followers. But though he was not a disciple of Descartes, he himself was very ready to admit his great debt to the French thinker. When, as the result of his Oxford training, he had lost faith in philosophy, his reading of Descartes restored it.

He probably began to study Descartes soon after graduation, and it did not take him long to realize that the new philosophy was far more important and more real than the arid hair-splitting of his Oxford logical exercises. In his first Letter to Stillingfleet he acknowledges ‘to that justly admired gentleman (Descartes) the great obligation of my first deliverance from the unintelligible way of talking’ of the schools. And Lady Masham informs us: ‘The first books, as Mr. Locke himself has told me, which gave him a relish of philosophical things were those of Descartes. He was rejoiced in reading these, because, though he very often differed in opinion from this writer, he yet found that what he said was very intelligible.’ Thus, it was Descartes who first taught Locke how to develop a philosophical inquiry intelligibly. His Oxford education had left him with a sense of despair as to the possibility of advance by way of reason. Descartes was his deliverer from this despair and

But Locke does not follow his deliverer blindly. He criticized him, primarily on empirical grounds. And the sequel in the history of philosophy is interesting for, when the long and fruitful reign of Cartesianism came to an end in intellectual Europe, writers (for instance, Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists) acknowledged Locke as its critic, though the truth is that he was only one of many critics. They hailed him as the founder of the empirical school. Confining their attention largely to the first two books of the Essay and neglecting shamefully the third and fourth, they created there and then the erroneous view that the two schools had nothing in common. This view prevailed until the middle of the nineteenth century, when people like Tagart and T. E. Webb in England, Hartenstein, Geil, and von Hertling in Germany discovered once again the rationalist elements in Locke’s thought, in a word, rediscovered the third and fourth books of the Essay. In our own day the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far in the other direction, for Locke is talked of as if he were a mere rationalist, owing everything to Descartes. This view is equally untrue and needs to be corrected. Locke accepted much that Descartes taught. Nevertheless, he was his constant critic, criticizing him in the light of empiricism, that of Bacon and of Boyle on the one hand, and of the Gassendists on the other.

Apart from the general inspiration which he derived from Descartes Locke was chiefly indebted to him for the details of his account of knowing. If IV ii of the Essay be compared with the opening sections of Descartes’s Regulae the measure of his indebtedness will be appreciated. And yet the Regulae was not published until 1701, eleven years after the publication of the Essay. Many manuscript copies of it were in circulation, however, and it is not at all improbable that Locke had seen the work. One is tempted to the view that he actually had the Regulae (or a note of it) beside him in writing IV. ii, the likeness between the two is so close. Following Descartes he shows how knowledge is essentially intuitive, but demonstration involves memory, and this makes it not quite so certain as intuitive knowledge.

Yet while Locke was clearly in Descartes’s debt for this important theory, it is well to remember that his mind would have been prepared for the views set forward in the Regulae by other influences. The doctrine of the intuitus was not original to Descartes. It was sound medieval doctrine, and can be traced back no doubt to Aristotle’s De Anima, and to Plato’s Theaetetus. Moreover, it was as much part of the English as of the European tradition. Roger Bacon expounded it in thirteenth century Oxford and ascribed to it a divine origin, so also did the Cambridge Platonists three centuries later. It was by appealing to it that Cudworth overcame materialism. Locke talked of it frequently in the metaphor beloved of the Cambridge Platonists, as a ‘candle’. Thus, while he had Descartes chiefly in mind in writing IV. ii, the theory he put forward was in no way alien to his own English traditions.

Further points in which Locke was indebted to Descartes might have been considered. Locke accepted Descartes’s account of clear and distinct ideas, he used his argument of the cagito ergo sum, and joined with him in emphasizing the importance of mathematics. More important still, the language of Locke’s ‘new way of ideas’ is borrowed directly from Descartes. But these and other matters are details which it is best to examine as we expound Locke’s own teachings. What we must now do is to emphasize another point, namely, that in spite of this debt Locke felt himself in open opposition to Descartes. He always regarded the Cartesians with a certain amount of suspicion. Such doctrines as those of innate ideas, that animals are automata, that the essence of body is extension and of mind thinking, and that there is no vacuum, were most distasteful to Locke. Moreover, in a general sense, Locke disliked the whole tone of Cartesianism. It was too speculative, its method was the ‘high priori’ one which he was resolved not to adopt. In his Some Thoughts Concerning Education he held that a young man might like to read the speculations of Descartes on natural science, ‘as that which is most in fashion’, since he could thus ‘fit himself for conversation’, but he should not expect to find truth in them. The ‘high priori’ method gives ‘hypotheses’ only. If the young man wants something more substantial he must turn to ‘such writers as have employed themselves [rather] in making rational experiments and observations than in starting barely speculative systems’. He instanced the works of Royle and Newton. Again, in his second reply to Stillingfleet, the Bishop of Worcester, who had argued ‘that Descartes, a mathematical man, had been guilty of mistakes in his system’, Locke remarked: ‘When mathematical men will build systems upon fancy and not upon demonstration, they are liable to mistakes as others.’ This was the real ground of Locke’s dissatisfaction with Descartes. He ‘built systems upon fancy’, instead of contenting himself with what could be proved demonstratively or at least made probable by ‘rational experiments and observations’.

Locke’s reference here, clearly, is to the practice and method of the English scientists of his own age, and we now turn to consider their influence upon him in these early years. The greatest name is that of Isaac Newton, but he could hardly be described as an early influence on Locke. Locke admired him immensely. In the Education he praised him for showing ‘how far mathematics, applied to some parts of nature, may, upon principles that matter of fact justifies, carry us in knowledge of some, as I may so call them, particular provinces of the incomprehensible universe’. And in this he contrasted him to Descartes. But his acquaintance with Newton and with Newton’s work came late. Newton was Locke’s junior by ten years, and it is not probable that they met each other before 1680 or so. Nor again does Bacon of Verulam appear to have been a deep influence. Locke no doubt read his works. And when Bacon remarked that of the natural world man knows ‘as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to things or the mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more, he was expressing a doctrine which became central in Locke’s philosophy. (At the same time Bacon was inclined to hold that man was capable of greater knowledge of the natural order than Locke found it possible to admit.) But there is no evidence to show that Bacon was an influence on Locke’s philosophical development.

The really important influence on Locke from the empiricist side was the group that gathered around sir Robert Boyle, and which ultimately founded the Royal Society. Indeed, the most important influence of all was Boyle himself. Boyle, the son of an Irish earl, was Locke’s senior by five years. He was a member of the ‘Invisible College’ which held its meetings at Gresham College, London, and which devoted itself to the ‘new philosophy’, meaning in particular the new natural philosophy that stressed observation and the application of mathematics to the study of natural phenomena. This ‘College’ had a branch at Oxford, and when Boyle went to reside there in 1654 he soon became one of its most prominent members. In 1663 the ‘Invisible College’ became the Royal Society and Boyle, who moved back to London in 1668, had much to do with its growth in its earliest years. He died in 1691.

From 1654 to 1668, then, Boyle was at Oxford and Locke must have known him for most of this period. When Locke visited Cleves in 1665 he sent letters to Boyle as to a close and much respected friend. At Oxford Locke helped Boyle in his experiments, when away from him he sent him scientific information; writing from Lord Shaftesbury’s residence his one regret is that he has no time for laboratory work, ‘though I find my fingers still itch to be at it’. Lastly, Boyle submitted his General History of the Air to Locke’s judgement before publishing it.

This will be enough to show that the connection between the two was an intimate one. It certainly left its mark on the younger man. The physics of the Essay is the corpuscular physics of Boyle, and if the reader has any doubts in his mind as to what Locke means he may turn to Boyle’s works for a fuller exposition of the same views. Of course, some of these doctrines might themselves have been suggested to Boyle by Locke, but Boyle seems to have been the leader. He is the master who taught Locke how to approach nature empirically and yet scientifically. We shall refer later to the particular points in which Boyle’s influence is most clearly seen, for instance, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Suffice it now to point out the general agreement between them. In his preface to The Origins of Forms and Qualities, according to Corpuscular Philosophy, published in 1666, when the co-operation between the two men was at its closest, Boyle truly summed up the central thesis of the Essay itself with regard to the natural sciences when he remarked: ‘For the knowledge we have of the bodies without us being for the most part fetched from the information the mind receives by the senses, we scarce know anything else in bodies, upon whose account they can work upon our senses, save their qualities: for as to the substantial forms, which some imagine to be in all natural bodies, it is not so evident that there are such as it is that the wisest of those that do admit them confess that they do not well know them.’ Locke’s views about human knowledge and its extent were also foreshadowed in Boyle. For Boyle taught that the extent of our certain knowledge is not great. Without revelation the human intellect could discover very little indeed. None the less, our faculties are sufficient for our needs.


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