John Locke Ep. 001: Flashes of Liberty Series14 min read
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In 1683, John Locke arrived in the Netherlands with his friend and patron, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. The two had fled England due to suspicions that he and Cooper were involved in the Rye House Plot; a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and his brother (and heir to the English throne) James. ” Though he didn’t know it at the time, Locke’s influential writings would make him known for being the father of classical liberalism, and lay the groundwork for the American experiment and the US Constitution.
Locke was born in England, near Bristol, in 1632 to Puritan parents. About a year after the English Civil War ended, he entered the college of Christ Church, at the University of Oxford; and by the age of 26, received his master’s degree. He began studying medicine, and in 1666, struck up a friendship with Lord Cooper (who would become 1st Earl of Shaftesbury). Cooper offered Locke a patronage and he became Cooper’s personal physician in London.
Those were politically volatile times in England. Following the execution of King Charles I, and the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector of the new Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. After only about 10 years, the monarchy was restored with Charles II, and it was Charles II who was the target for assassination by several of Locke’s political colleagues, including Lord Cooper who worried that Charles’ brother James was secretly a Roman Catholic sympathizer.
During this same time, Locke also developed a romance with one of the earliest female English philosophers, Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham; he was enamored with her knowledge of theology and philosophy and viewed her as his equal. But the romance was quenched when he left for the Netherlands, where he continued to write his major works; An Essay on Human Understanding, A Letter Concerning Toleration, and Two Treatises of Government.
Sometime after Locke wrote the Two Treatises, the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 was fought to overthrow James II –who was indeed a Roman Catholic who supported the divine right of kings– and to install the Protestant William and Mary.
After Locke’s exile, Mashem married someone else, but she maintained her friendship with Locke. Having later returned to England, in the last years of his life, Locke resided with Mashem and her husband; and she remained at Locke’s side, reading to him from the Psalms when he died in 1704.
Following the Revolution, Locke had published the Two Treatises of Government, in which he refuted the patriarchalism of Sir Robert Filmer in the first, and in the second, laid out his ideas for a civil society based on individual natural rights.
Here are some excerpts from Locke’s second treatise (sections 6 and 23). According to Locke, no individual has the right to initiate harm against life, liberty, and property, and as a result no government has the right to do so either.
” … the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; … [man] is bound to preserve himself… so by the like reason… ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.
… [a man] cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. ”
John Locke’s contribution to liberty was in striking a death blow to the longstanding ideology known as the Divine Right of Kings; the idea that the right to rule rests in special providence from God to the rich and powerful of the world. Instead, the right to rule rests in the individual and that no person, whether chosen to act in a governing capacity or not, could assume rights not inherent in even the lowliest of persons.
But without the state, won’t we fall into lawless chaos? In this episode, I discuss the concept of polycentric legal order with legal scholar, Gary Chartier
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