• Haaris

John Locke, an English philosopher

John Locke is seen to be one of the most influential philosophers in the modern world, so much so that he is recognised as the ‘Father of Liberalism’[1]. His work is still very much drawn upon today and is often used as an inspiration and foundation for other philosophical work. It is possible to apply his theories within the modern climate and reach justified conclusions.


Early life

Locke turned ten once the English Civil War had begun. This was a war between Royalists and Parliamentarians that eventually led to the downfall of the monarchy and a brief formation of a republic[2]. Locke’s father was a renowned lawyer who happened to also be an avid supporter of the Parliamentarians; he was appointed captain of a cavalry force to fight against the Royalists. This meant that Locke grew up with the idea that the monarchy should not be the ruling class of England and further that the monarchy was not divine. Locke was also a Protestant and often implemented his religious ideas into his work. These ideas laid down the bedrock towards Locke’s ideas and even towards our modern society.


School life

Locke attended an all-boys boarding school in Westminster and studied many languages, ranging from Greek to Latin. Locke was a large fan of the ancient texts and often referred to them in his writings. He was able to do so with his Kings Scholar award, which awarded him money to buy those specific books. His extended language skills also assisted him in understanding those texts. Locke then attended Christ Church College in Oxford. However, he quickly grew discomforted within this college as the college’s focus remained on medieval texts (e.g., Aristotelian work). Locke much preferred to ask questions on our origin; how we came about to form our current civilisation, and then how that transforms itself into our current society (the society during his time). Francis Bacon and René Descartes were often asking the same questions, and it became visible that Locke took inspiration from them[3].


His work

Locke’s famous work comprises of many pieces of work but arguably his two most influential works were: Two Tracts of Government (1689) which covered political stability, legitimacy, and reform; and Two Treatises of Government (1698) which focused upon the origin of society and why we are living life the way in which we are. All of his works shared the values of constitutional monarchy and toleration of religion and civil liberty[4].


His philosophy

Prominently at the start of Two Treatises, Locke starts the story in a hypothetical ‘State of Nature’. The ‘State of Nature’ is a land in which there is no state, no political authority and no state protection. This is supposedly the state in which the world was in before the modern state came into effect. There is often a misconception that there was no organised civilisation during these times, but that is not the case. Locke describes this state as stateless, without the authority of certain individuals, but not as a time in which there was constant savagery.


Within this ‘State of Nature’ people are governed by the ‘Laws of Nature’. These laws tend to the survival of all humanity and ensure that there is no chaos in the land. The ‘Laws of Nature’ often hold three main premises. The first being ‘normative equality’, where everyone is equal to everyone else; no one holding power against another; no subjugation. All people are entitled to equal treatment, and no one can claim sovereignty. Locke’s Christian faith plays a part here, as the idea of equality comes from the idea of God protecting all mankind. The second premise is that people are ‘naturally moral’, as people hold ‘Natural Rights’, often for self-preservation and preservation of all mankind. This often means that people will look out for each other and treat each other as equals. The core concept of humans being creatures that are moral is also from his Christian faith, as the belief consists of God giving us reasoning to understand each other’s rights[5]. The final premise is ‘relative abundance’, the belief that there is enough to go around, and people will not argue over land claims (if there ever was to be any). We must bear in mind that Locke is writing at the time in which America has just been discovered and so the abundance of land was clearly visible[6].


Locke mentions an inevitable ‘State of War’, where two people contest on something, and that contesting phase is ‘war’. There are only two ways to resolve the ‘State of War’ and that is either by appealing to the heavens or resolving the conflict via a third party. The first idea is embedded in Locke’s Christian faith but the second is key in the formation of society. Locke believes that we should invest authority into a third person so they can resolve the disputes (‘war’). The people of the land must give away some of their liberties to this third person so they can exercise authority. That is how the idea of the state is created. Many people question why a third party is required to resolve the dispute; Locke tackles this question by claiming that if the victim was to punish the perpetrator, then the victim could use ‘too’ much force of power. In which case, the victim becomes an aggressor. This leads to the initial perpetrator punishing the initial victim for excessive use of power, further leading to a never-ending circle, where punishment remains excessive and people never receive justified justice. Therefore, a third party is required to make this judgement.


This creation of authority leads to a political society via a ‘Social Contract’. Said contract is the one in which we live under the protection of the third person (the conflict resolver). Locke is strict on the authority the third party can exercise. It often involves civil protection and conflict resolutions. Locke does not give the third party any control over any other aspect of our lives. The question of consent does arise here, as new born citizens do not consent to giving away their liberties to this one/group of people(s); however, Locke calls the consent tacit, as we end up accepting and using the third party’s power the second we are born. We are born into the protection of this third party, and therefore have already consented on it[7].

How does this link to liberalism?

The so-called third party is our government, as they have the right to protect us and ensure we are safe. They also have the right to ensure the citizens’ lives are preserved. The liberal ideology is formulated when Locke mentions that the third party’s (government’s) only power is to ensure the citizens safety and not control the citizens; to let the citizens trade and do as they wish. Modern Liberals have the same idea as they believe in free trade and minimal government intervention in the lives of its citizens (who give tacit consent), almost identical to Locke’s theories[8].



Haaris Ahmad

Junior Editor at Ethica



References

[1] “John Locke”, The Royal Society, Accessed February 22, 2022, https://makingscience.royalsociety.org/s/rs/people/fst00040818#:~:text=John%20Locke%20FRS%20(29%20August,the%20%22Father%20of%20Liberalism%22.&text=This%20is%20now%20known%20as%20empiricism.

[2] “English Civil War, English history”, Britannica, Accessed February 22, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/English-Civil-Wars.

[3] “John Locke, English Philosopher”, Britannica, Accessed February 22, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Locke#ref59084.

[4] “John Locke, Two Treaties of Government, Britannica”, Accessed on February 22, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Locke/Two-Treatises-of-Government.

[5] “God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke's Political Thought”, Philosophical Reviews, Accessed on February 22, 2022, https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/god-locke-and-equality-christian-foundations-of-locke-s-political-thought/.

[6] J Wolff, “The State of Nature” in An Introduction To Political Philosophy, J Wolff, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ed, 6-33.

[7] Colin Bird, “The Social Contract”, in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Colin Bird, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 67-98

[8] “John Locke”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed on February 22, 2022, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/.


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