Locke, John the most notable of modern English philosophers, who has exercised the greatest influence on all subsequent speculation, in both psychology and politics, and whose doctrines, under various modifications or exaggerations, still contribute largely to mold the opinions of the civilized world. He has in great measure determined the complexion of British psychology. As the most strenuous antagonist of Cartesianism; as the precursor and teacher alike of the French encyclopedists and of the Scotch school; as the oracle of the freethinkers, the target of Leibnitz, and the stimulator of Hartley, Berkeley, and Hume, Locke must always attract the earnest consideration of the student of metaphysics. For nearly two centuries his name has been a battlecry, and his dogmas have been fought over by the shadowy hosts of warring ideologues with the zeal and the fury with which the Greeks and the Trojans contended over the body of Patroclus. His labors in the department of mental philosophy constitute only a part of his claims to enduring regard. His inquiries have been scarcely less fruitful in political philosophy and political economy. In the former he is the avant-courier of Rousseau; in the latter science, of Adam Smith; and in each he has laid the foundations on which later theorists and later statesmen have been content to build.
Life. — John Locke was born August 29, 1632, at Wrington, Somersetshire, and was educated first at Westminster School, and later at Christ Church College, Oxford. Here he prosecuted the prescribed studies with diligence and success, but deviated from the beaten path by devoting himself to the discountenanced writings of Des Cartes, who had died a few years before. He obtained the baccalaureate in 1655, and the master's degree in 1658, and then applied himself to the study of medicine, rather for the sake of knowledge and of his sickly frame than with the purpose of practicing his profession.
In 1664 Locke accompanied the embassy to the elector of Brandenburg as secretary of legation, but he returned to Oxford within the year, and applied himself to experimental philosophy, then rising into favor. An accident now decided his course of life, and occasioned his acquaintance with lord Ashley — the celebrated earl of Shaftesbury — with whom he was persuaded to take up his abode the next year. By his skill and good luck he relieved his patron of an abcess which endangered his life, and was induced to confine his medical practice to a small circle of the lord's friends, and to give his chief attention to political speculation and questions of state. He thus became a man of the world before he became a philosopher. In 1668 Locke accompanied the earl and countess of Northumberland to France. The earl proceeded towards Rome, and died on the way. Locke returned with the countess to England, and again found a home with Ashley-chancellor of the exchequer after Clarendon's fall. The future sage was employed to superintend the education of Ashley's heir, a feeble boy of sixteen. He was afterwards commissioned to select a wife for him, and did so satisfactorily. In due course of time he took charge of the education of the eldest son of this marriage, the author of "the Characteristics." "To such strange uses may we come at last!" Though residing with lord Ashley, Locke retained his connection with Oxford, which he frequently visited. On one of these visits, in 1670, the conversation of Dr. Thomas and other friends turned his thoughts to the difficult, still unsettled, and perhaps insoluble question of the nature and limits of human knowledge. This supplied the germ of the Essay on the Human Understanding, though nearly twenty years elapsed before the completion and publication of the work. In 1672, Ashley, the master-spirit in Charles II's "Cabal," was created earl of Shaftesbury, and soon after he was made lord high chancellor. Locke was appointed secretary of Plantations. Next summer Shaftesbury surrendered the great seal, and became president of the Board of Trade and Plantations. Locke was named secretary of the board. It was at this time that he produced for his noble friend and the other proprietors the Constitution of the Carolinas. In another year the Commission of Trade was dissolved, Locke lost his post, and he dreamt of making a livelihood by his profession. But his health was feeble, and he traveled in France, acquiring at Montpellier the intimacy of the earl of Pembroke, to whom he afterwards dedicated his "Essay."
On Shaftesbury's restoration to office as lord president of the council, 1679, he sent for Locke, but the minister was dismissed in October of the same year. In two years more he was brought to trial for treason, but the grand jury ignored the indictment. Shaftesbury, however, was compelled to escape secretly to Holland, where he died, June 21, 1683. Locke had followed him, and wrote an affectionate tribute to his memory.
The hostile testimony of bishop Fell proves that Locke had held himself aloof from the intrigues in which Shaftesbury was involved. He did not avoid the malice which such an intimacy invited. He was deprived of his studentship at Christ Church, and vainly attempted to regain it at the Revolution. On the accession of James II his surrender was demanded from the states' general on the charge of complicity in Monmouth's insurrection. He was concealed by his Dutch friends. William Penn offered to procure his pardon, but the office was nobly declined. During this exile Locke composed his first Letter on Toleration, and produced his plan of "A Commonplace Book" — if it be his — a cumbrous and inadequate device, which admits of easy improvement. During this period towards the close of 1687 — he finished the Essay concerning the Human Understanding. The mode of its composition has left painful traces on the completed work, as was apprehended and acknowledged by its author.
The Revolution of 1688 restored Locke to his native land. He signalized his return by the publication of his great philosophical work. An attempt was made to prohibit its introduction into the University of Oxford. In 1690 he issued his two treatises On Government. They controverted the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and referred the origin of government to a social compact, which is equally disproved by theory and by history. They rendered a greater service by recognizing labor as the foundation of property, though the tenet was pressed too far.
Locke continued to decline diplomatic honors, but accepted the place of Commissioner of Appeals, with the modest salary of £200. He directed his regards in these years to the coinage of the realm, which was much debased; and published in 1691 his Considerations on the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money, which was followed in 1695 by Further Considerations one Raising the Value of Money. He was in frequent consultation with the earl of Pembroke on the subject of that restoration of the British coinage which was brought about by the concurrent action of lord Somers and Sir Isaac Newton.
In 1693 Locke withdrew from the dull, heavy atmosphere of London, and accepted a pleasant retreat for his increasing asthma and advancing age at Oates. in Essex, the seat of Sir Francis Masham, who had married the accomplished daughter of Dr. Cudworth. It had been the fortune of Locke through life to live "quadris alienis." His last quarters were at Oates. This was his home till he found a quieter home in the grave, where he waited in cold abstraction's apathy for a miracle to reanimate his spirit, according to the dogma of The Reasonableness of Christianity (produced in 1695). This work sought the union of all Christian believers by advancing the doctrine that the only necessary article of Christian belief is comprised in the acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, making all the requirements beyond this to consist of practical duties, of repentance for sin, and obedience to the moral precepts of the Gospel. It will be remembered that king William III, of England, entertained the design of uniting Conformists and Dissenters on some common ground, and to further this scheme Locke wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (comp. Quarterly Review, Lond. 1864, July). About the time of his retirement from the city Locke published his third Letter on Toleration, and in the first year of his seclusion wrote his little tract on the Education of Children. The same year which brought out his exceedingly heterodox essay on Christianity was marked by his philosophical controversy with Dr. Stillingfleet, bishop of Worcester.
Locke's circumstances were now rendered perfectly easy by his appointment as commissioner of Trade and Plantations, with emoluments amounting to £1000 per annum. Locke, however, had an aptitude for losing or dropping the gifts of the fairies. Increasing debility made him resign his comfortable sinecure in 1700, and, four years later, he died calmly at Oates, October 28, 1704. He was buried at the neighboring church of High Laver. Queen Caroline, one of those femmes precieuses who, like Christina of Sweden or Euler's princess, followed with her sympathies the studies she could not understand, placed Locke's bust with those of Bacon, Newton, and Clarke, in the mausoleum erected by her at Richmond Park to commemorate the glories of English philosophy.
Locke's health was always exceedingly feeble, and his existence was prolonged only by constant vigilance and care. This doubtless contributed to his abstinence from any energetic vocation, and probably influenced his theories as well as his character and conduct. It rendered his existence a career of tranquil and learned leisure, except so far as it was interrupted by the suspicions and malice which civil discord directs against every man of note. The self-regarding habits of a valetudinarian may have impelled the thoughts of the philosopher to that continual introspection and that exaggeration of personal impressions which so strongly mark his philosophy. His love of ease and security showed itself in his general demeanor. He was cautious and retiring, affable and genial in his intercourse, kindly and affectionate in his nature, free from personal animosities, notwithstanding his transitory difference with Newton and his controversy with bishop Stillingfleet. He avoided the incumbrances of matrimony; and the deficient experiences of an old bachelor — the want of that most suggestive knowledge, the dawn of intelligence in infancy — may be noted in his whole psychology. His life was, however, worthy of his eminence, and was such as to make him a suitable compeer of those fortunate nimium — those happy philosophic dispositions which are represented by Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Berkeley, and Hume.
Philosophy. — The philosophy of Locke is very simple, if not very coherent, and very unsystematic in its treatment by himself. It consists rather of one prolific principle and its explanations than of any complete and orderly scheme. That principle furnishes a foundation for a distinctive method, which was only imperfectly and inconsistently developed by him. That method is psychological, and Locke has been too hastily regarded as its inventor, whereas he only applied it too exclusively and within too narrow limits. Locke's controversial works are naturally directed to the removal of the numerous objections and misapprehensions to which his fundamental tenet and its applications are obnoxious: but even the Essay itself is mainly employed in the discussion of topics which illustrate the dogma rather than establish a formal body of doctrine, and which belong to the preliminaries or prolegomena of philosophy much more than to philosophy proper.
An examination of the analysis usually prefixed to the "Essay" will show how small a portion of the work really belongs to the regular exposition of a metaphysical system; how much is occupied with the anticipation of objections, or the simplification of apprehended difficulties. The treatise is divided into four books. The first repudiates the Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas, and is therefore controversial and negative. It does not seem to have been very highly regarded by Locke himself. The second is an inquiry into the origin and limits of human knowledge, and is the characteristic portion of Locke's philosophy. The third is given to the consideration of words, and is in many respects the most valuable part of the book, affording useful suggestions for guarding against the multitudinous seductions of the Idola Fori. It is dialectical rather than philosophical, though it affords frequent opportunities of confirming or expounding his cardinal tenet, and many of exhibiting its inadequacy. The fourth book is on the nature of knowledge in general, and does little more than apply the conclusion already reached to the determination of the degree, extent, and quality of human knowledge, which is reduced by him not merely to relativity, but to a beggarly and unsatisfactory relativity.
The circumstances which provoked the composition of Locke's celebrated treatise account in a most instructive manner for the character of his doctrine. His addiction to the writings of Des Cartes in his college days — his rejection of his postulates and conclusions — his fondness for the physical and natural sciences — his utter defect of poetic sensibility — his association with the great and with the beau monde — his political and practical proclivities, confined his attention to observed phenomena, cramped and discouraged the criticism of those phenomena, and withdrew his thoughts from what lay beyond, and was required for the intelligent observation and interpretation of the phenomena supposed to be observed. Hence he was led to ignore the spirit of human thought — to exaggerate the importance of the words which served for the counters of metaphysical speculation — to make much of his philosophy turn upon the precision and determinateness of terms, and to consider that a scrupulous recognition of their import in their acceptance and employment constituted the main part of philosophy. Hence, when he undertook "to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with," the examination scarcely reached to that primary and essential problem of metaphysics, but revolved tediously and with needless prolixity around the limits of the meanings of words. He thus necessarily arrived at an excessive, though far from rigorous nominalism.
Locke's point of departure was that of all the philosophers of the latter part of the 17th and the first quarter of the 18th century — Cartesianism. The influence of the suspected doctrine was manifested at the outset of his labors by his proposition to substitute the phrase determinate ideas for clear and distinct ideas — though a mere change of name, and such a change, could effect little in producing a complete reform of system. It is a startling commentary on the insufficiency of this substitution that no writer has been more capricious and vacillating in his employment of terms than Locke himself, and that the very term idea, which he elaborately defines, is used by him without determinate meaning, and in almost every possible sense except its true one. He, however, furnished neither the first nor the solitary example of the abuse of this fine Platonic invention. Locke's popularity may be due to the ease, and vigor, the vivacity, and homeliness of his style; but the style is rugged, ambiguous, conversational, and as far removed from philosophical propriety as it is from literary elegance.
The influence of Des Cartes, educing antagonism, tempted Locke to commence his investigations by an assault on the hypothesis of innate ideas, which unquestionably formed the latent substratum of the Cartesian delusions. Certainly the clear and distinct ideas of Des Cartes had no title to be accepted as innate. Locke had thus an easy task in refuting the Cartesian positions. He failed to recognize that the incriminated doctrine was not thereby refuted. The "tabula rasa" of Locke was just as much an assumption and as much a fallacy as the innate truths of his opponent — unless by the tabula rasa is understood, what Locke would not have understood, the sensitive and sympathetic tablet ready to restore in the sunlight of life all images presented to it. It is perfectly true that distinct conceptions and formulated maxims are not innate, or anterior to all excitation. This admission does not disprove the reality of congenital and constitutional preadaptations of the intellectual faculties for the acceptance of such conceptions and propositions when suitably presented to the mind and apprehended by it. Locke's doctrine on this point has consequently been surrendered, and the doctrine opposed by him has been accepted, under juster limitations, by many who continue to entertain the profoundest reverence for his general procedure. The Cartesian postulate compelled the assertion of a divine influx to explain the operations of the mind, and suggested Malebranche's celebrated thesis of "seeing all things in God." Locke, who had assailed the heresiarch, felt the necessity of controverting the hazardous modification proposed by the fervent acolyte. But the tenet to which Locke was himself driven by the compulsion of his own erroneous principles was equally hazardous and still more fallacious — that our idea of God is obtained by sensation and reflection.
Having got rid of innate ideas — tenues sine corpore vitae — the English philosopher proceeded to investigate the origin of human knowledge — the avowed object of his main inquiry. There was an inversion of logical order, as Morell has observed, in seeking the ratio essendi of the phenomena before ascertaining the phenomena themselves; but the accidental connection between the first and second pairs of the Essay is very intimate. If knowledge be not deduced ab infra, it might naturally appear to be derived ab extra. Hence Locke concluded that all knowledge is obtained from sensation and reflection. This is his principle, and his principle is his philosophy — the curtain is the picture. The distinction between the sensation and its intellectual appreciation was unsuspected by him; nor did he observe that if sensation and reflection upon sensation are the exclusive sources of knowledge, the knowledge of reflection is derivative from and dependent upon sensation, and all knowledge springs from sensation alone. This oversight occasioned his very inadequate explanations of space, time, power, cause, good and evil, and God; it furnished Hume with his cardinal positions in regard to impressions and ideas; it rendered Locke a suitable patron for the French encyclopaedists and the materialists, and created the belief that he espoused the tenet "Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu." This tenet was held by neither Aristotle nor Locke, but Locke's development of his own principle often seems to assert and to rest upon that tenet, and both provoked and justified the celebrated response and refutation offered by Leibnitz in the proposed addition to the maxim of the words "nisi infellectus ipse." Locke might have accepted that addition, but it was not declared by his language, nor clearly indicated by his teachings; and its frank acceptance would have been fatal to his philosophical expositions; for, if reflection be considered as a source of knowledge distinct from sensation, it must be different from sensation, and must be a contribution of the mind itself to the intellectual product. Locke's original attitude was that of a polemic engaged in the refutation of Des Cartes; this attitude he never altogether abandoned; it determined his habits of speculation, and continually misled him. Locke was still further misled by the looseness, awkwardness, obscurity, and prolixity of his style, by its colloquial negligence of phrase, by that wavering of expression and impalpability of figurative illustration which have been noted by Sir William Hamilton, Maurice, and nearly every other student of his works. The equivocation of the terms employed by him escaped his recognition, while it perplexes his readers, and produced much the same effect upon his reasoning as was produced upon Hume's by a similar agency. With Locke there might be delusion; there was no sophistry; there was an open, manly spirit, a candor and honesty of investigation which often slighted or ignored consistency in the determined apprehension of what was felt instinctively to be right. His book accordingly exercises a most wholesome influence even when the developments of his doctrine are most aberrant, and its perversions most perilous. The practical character of his own disposition, the predilection for the studies of observation, and the innocence and simplicity of his own nature, guarded him from the effects as well as from the perception of his errors, but at the same time rendered those errors less apparent and more seductive to others. They preserved his own piety, while his system became a templum impietatis.
This practical appetency of Locke's mind was so engrossing as to leave him utterly without imagination or poetic sensibility. Poetry he discountenanced from want of taste, but professedly for the more ignoble reason that "no gold was found at the roots of Parnassus." The absence of imagination was a very serious defect. It was not true in his case that omne ignotum pro mirabili. On the contrary, the wondrous domain of the unknown and the unapprehended was "undreamt of in his philosophy." These intellectual peculiarities became very manifest in his religious and political treatises sometimes inducing point, perspicuity, and popularity; sometimes generating prosaic assumptions for want of penetrating vision. Thus were probably occasioned the denial of the immortality of the soul in the Reasonableness of Christianity — the ascription of all value to labor originally expended in his economical speculations the allegation of a social contract and of a state of nature pure and untenable hypotheses — in his treatises On Government, and other less prominent vagaries. These points merit careful consideration, but they can be only noted here. We should not, however, omit to mention that Locke's amiable and tolerant disposition, the associations of his life, the tenor of his philosophy, his love of justice and freedom, rendered efficient service towards the extension of civil, political, and religious liberty at home and abroad, and entitle him to reverential regard as one of the chief benefactors of humanity.
Literature. — The literature illustrative of Locke's philosophy is endless. It includes the greater part of the metaphysical treatises written since the close of the 17th century. It must suffice, therefore, to mention here only the works of most direct importance, and most readily accessible. Of such is the following list composed. Locke, Works (London, 1824, 9 volumes, 8vo) ; Locke, Philosophical Works, by J.A. St. John (London, 1854, 2 volumes, 12mo); Leibnitz, Nouveaux Esssais sur l'Entendement Humain; Joannes Clericus, Lockii Vita; "Life of John Locke," in the Biographica Britannica; Lord King, The Life of John Locke, etc. (Lond. 1830, 2 volumes, 8vo); Forster, Original Letters of John Locke, etc. (London, 1847); Browne, "Life of John Locke," in the Encyclop. Britannica; Dugald Stewart, Supplement to the Encyclop. Britannica; Sir James Mackintosh,
On the philosophical Genius of Bacon and Locke; Henry Rogers, Miscellanies (Lond. 1855, 3 vols. 8vo); Ritter, Gesch. d. Christl. Philos. 7:449 sq.; V. Cousin, Hist. de la Philosophie; Lewes, Biogrsaph. Hist. of Philosophy (Lond. 1857, 2 volumes, 8vo), 2:237 sq.; Farrar, Critical Hist. of Free Thought, page 124 sq.; Blakey, Hist. Philosophy of Mind (London, 1850, 4 volumes, 8vo); Morell, Crit. History of Modern Philosophly (Lond. 1847, 2 volumes, 8vo); Brit. Quar. Rev. 1847 (May); North Brit. Rev. 1864 (July), page 37 sq.; Edincb. Rev. 1864 (April), 1854; Lond. Quar. Review, 1864 (July), page 41 sq. (G.F.H.)