Biography of John Locke

John Locke

John Locke was a seventeenth century philosopher and diplomat most famous for his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”

When and Where was he Born?

29th August 1632, Wrington, Somerset, England in a small thatched cottage by the parish church.

Family Background:

John Locke was the son of a Puritan country lawyer, landowner and clerk to the Justices of the Peace in Chew Magna, who was a captain of horse in the parliamentary army during the English Civil War. His mother, Agnes (nee Keene), was the daughter of a tanner. Both were Puritans.

Education:

Westminster School. Christ Church College, Oxford, where he became more interested in the modern Philosophy of Renee Descartes than the classicism of the curriculum.

Timeline of John Locke:

1632: The family move to Pensford near Bristol and lived in a tudor house in Belluton.

1646: Locke enters Westminster School with sponsorship from Alexander Popham an MP and one of his father’s military commanders.

1652: He goes up to Oxford University to study at Christ Church College.

1656: Locke is awarded a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Oxford where he studies medicine in his spare time. He acts as Secretary to Sir Walter Vane, Ambassador to the Elector of Brandenburg during the first Dutch war and travels on the continent.

1658: Locke is awarded a Master’s Degree.

1659: He is elected to a senior studentship at Oxford which meant he was involved in teaching.

1660: Locke meets Robert Boyle the chemist who is to become his friend for the next thirty years. King Charles the Second ascends the royal throne and the monarchy is restored.

1664: He is appointed Censor of Moral Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford.

1661: Death of his father.

1665: Locke reads works by Renee Descartes and is impressed by his alternative to scholasticism.

1666: He obtains a dispensation which enabled him to hold his studentship without taking clerical orders. He returns to Oxford from Spain where he has been on a diplomatic mission to Cleves with Henry Vane the Elector of Brandenburg. He meets Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, who had arrived at Oxford in ill health seeking treatment for his live. Cooper was so impressed with Locke’s medical skills that he asked him to become part of his household.

1667: Locke moves into The Earl of Shaftesbury’s home, Exeter House in London as his personal physician. He continues studying medicine with Thomas Sydenham and becomes a member of his household.

1668: He persuaded the Earl to have an operation to remove the cyst on his liver. At the time an operation was life threatening but he survived and recovered his health. Shaftesbury was later to become a founder of the Whig Movement and a political influence on Locke. Locke is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Statue of John Locke
Statue of John Locke on the rear facade of 
the Royal Academy in London (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1670: Locke assists Shaftesbury to write the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina.

1671: Locke acts as Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina until 1675. He buys shares in the Royal Africa Company, a slave trade organisation, which he later sells at a profit.

1672: Shaftesbury becomes Lord Chancellor and Locke his official secretary. He visits Paris.

1674: Locke is awarded a Bachelor Degree in Medicine.

1675: Locke graduates as a Bachelor of Medicine. Shaftesbury falls out of favour in Government circles and Locke travels across France as a tutor and physician to Caleb Banks. He settles in Montpellier for many months.

1679: He returns to England to help Shaftesbury once more and composed most of the “Two Treatises of Government”. This work is an argument against absolute monarchy particularly that proposed by Thomas Hobbes and for individual consent as the foundation of political power.

1682: Locke meets Damaris Cudworth, the daughter of the notable Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth. Shaftesbury flees to Holland where he dies during the following year.

1683: Locke leaves the country and goes to the Netherlands after being suspected in the Rye House plot to assassinate King Charles the Second. He moves around from house to house fearing arrest and lives under an assumed name. Here he has more time to devote to his writing.

1684: He is deprived of his studentship at Oxford by Royal Mandate.

1685: King Charles the Second dies and is succeeded by his brother James the Second. The Duke of Monmouth leads an invasion force from Holland as a pretender to the throne. He is defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor on the 6th of July. A rebellion in Scotland, led by Argyle, is also suppressed.

1688: William of Orange invades England from the Netherlands and King James flees to France. The event is described as the “Glorious Revolution”. Locke is offered the post of Ambassador at Berlin or Vienna but he declines both.

1689: Locke comes back to England with Mary the wife of William of Orange. He is appointed Commissioner of Appeals. He meets Isaac Newton for the first time and they become great friends. His major work “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” was published and is the start of the modern western idea of the self. He describes all objects of understanding as ideas, and ideas such as sensations are described as being in the mind.

1691: Locke lived as a guest of Lady Masham and Sir Francis Masham at Oates in Essex. During this period he was beset by ill health from asthma, etc but it was also the period when most of his major works were written. He became a hero of the Whigs and met and discussed the ideas of the day with such notables as John Dryden. He was referred to by Thomas Jefferson as one of the three greatest men who ever lived along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton and one passage from the “Second Treatise on Government” is quoted verbatim in the American Declaration of Independence. Locke believed that human nature is inherently reasonable and tolerant and that everyone had a natural right to defend his “Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”.

1694: The second edition of the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” is published.

1695: Locke answers criticisms to his own book in “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity”.

1696: The Board of Trade is established for the first time as an official body outside the Privy Council and Locke was appointed to it. One of its chief tasks was to oversee colonial governments as Commissioner of Trade and Plantations.

1697: Locke gets involved in a major printed debate on the Trinity with Edward Stillingfleet, the Bishop of Worcester.

Worcester Cathedral
Worcester Cathedral (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1700: Locke resigns from the Board of Trade due to ill health.

When and Where did he Die?

28th October 1704, Oates, Essex.

Age at Death:

72.

Written Works:

1664: “Essays on the Law of Nature”.
1667: “Essays Concerning Toleration”.
1689: “Epistola de Tolerantia” (published in Netherlands); “First Letter on Toleration”. (about religious toleration).
1690: “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”. “Second Letter on Toleration, The Argument of the Letter of Toleration briefly Considered and Answered”. “Two Treatises of Civil Government”.
1692: “Third Letter on Toleration”.
1693: “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”.
1695: “The Reasonableness of Christianity”. “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christ”.
1697: “A letter to the Right Reverend Edward, Lord Bishop of Worcester, Concerning some passages relating to Mr Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding. In a Late Discourse of his Lordship’s, in Vindication of the Trinity”.
1699: “Third Letter to the Bishop of Worcester”.

Marriage:

Never married.

Site of Grave:

Parish churchyard at High Laver, near Harlow, Essex, where he had lived in the household of Sir Francis Masham since 1691. Locke never married nor had children. Memorial in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

Places of Interest:

OXFORD:

Christ Church Cathedral.