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John Locke, the Philosophical Father of the U.S. Constitution

Following Hobbes, an English philosopher, John Locke, advanced a political philosophy contrary to England's conservatism. Locke was the son of a Puritan who had fought in the army on the side of Cromwell and Parliament. He began his studies at Oxford in 1652, at the age of 20, and lectured there from 1661 to 1667. He shared Hobbes' dislike for scholasticism, and, unlike Plato, he held that words were mere convention agreed to for the sake of communication. He saw people as influenced by their environment, as born with minds analogous to a clean sheet of paper upon which their experiences were written. These experiences, according to Locke, were mostly external realities passing through the senses, with some of these experiences the product of reflection – the human mind aware of and acting upon itself. Locke believed in God, but he did not include God as a fundamental force within the human psyche, or God as having residence in the human heart. It was humanity's will and way that interested Locke, and Locke was to be described as one of the founders of modern psychology.

In 1675, Locke went to France, and there he met men of science and letters and discussed the world and philosophy. In 1683 he fled the turmoil and recriminations that were a part of the final years of the reign of Charles II. He went into hiding in the United Netherlands, joining other exiles – Germans, Scots, Scandinavians, Jews, Armenians, Turks and Englishmen – many of them seeking freedom from persecution.

Locke returned to England in February 1689, four months after William of Orange but on the same ship as England's returning queen: Mary. Locke by now had some fame. And he was now about to add to that fame with the publishing of two treatises on government, a work that was created before the Glorious Revolution, in response to the crisis around 1679-80 surrounding the Exclusion Act and in defense of Whig political theory.

Locke became an intellectual hero of the Whigs – a political party founded in 1678. The Whigs favored parliamentary power and toleration of those Protestant grouping that dissented from the Church of England: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers.

Similar to Hobbes, Locke believed that government should be a social contract, but unlike Hobbes he believed that people were social by nature. Locke had more confidence in humanity than did Hobbes. Locke feared the emotionalism of common people, but he believed that people in general had a capacity to grasp what was humanly decent and what was not and that people should get along better by leaving one another's property and person unmolested.

Locke favored toleration. The bigotry that had contributed to Europe's recent religious wars and atrocities annoyed him. For a modern society to function well, he believed, it had to be unified not by a single religion but by tolerance. While believing in tolerance he also held that churches should be voluntary societies rather than appendages of higher authority associated with the state, as was the Anglican Church. This was a part of his opposition to the authoritarianism embraced by Hobbes.

Locke favored dispassionate judgment and saw danger in fanaticism, including Bible thumping preachers who orated not to stimulate reason but to frighten.

Locke wrote in favor of a balance of powers. He claimed that an independent judiciary should be a part of government, making decisions based on the nation's constitution. He believed that parliament's duty was to legislate, and the king's duty was to act as chief executive.

There was an element of optimism in Locke's point of view that was rare among conservatives. Like other liberals of his time, Locke believed in education and in people lifting themselves above their circumstances. He and other liberals valued freedom to disseminate ideas and they rejected the authority of any church in matters of philosophy and science.

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