Help with writing about the John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding

In the introduction of a piece of writing about a literary work, you should include the following information: -

In this particular piece of writing, you should say who John Locke was and why his work is still important enough to be studied.

You need to state which edition of the book (as well as the publisher) you are using so that readers can find the page numbers you have mentioned.

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John Locke (1632 – 1704) is one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a much-coveted position. He was a philosopher as well as a physician and is known as the father of liberalism. Another of his claims to fame is that he was an inspirer of the American Constitution. As far as his politics went, he believed in a social contract between people and understood the importance of tolerance.

Many of his beliefs were accepted after the Glorious, or Bloodless Revolution in England in 1688. This revolution caused King James II of England to be overthrown. He was succeeded by Mary, his daughter and her husband, King William III of the Netherlands. It was James II who insisted on his Divine Right to be King.

Locke was clearly intelligent, and his father sent him to be educated at Westminster School in London, far away from his home in Pensford, which is near Bristol. He learned the Classics, Latin and ancient Greek, Arabic, Hebrew as well as mathematics and geography.

In 1693 he published one of his most important works, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. He argued that private education for boys was very important, but he certainly had reservations about corporal punishment which he was probably subjected to at Westminster School.

In 1652, Locke went up to Oxford and studied at Christ Church college. Oliver Cromwell, was the vice-chancellor of that college, so the former Royalist bastion that had been Christ Church had changed its allegiances. At the time he was at university, teachings were based on the philosophy of the ancient Greek, Aristotle. However, Locke was clearly possessed of an enquiring mind, so although the works of Francis Bacon (1661–1626), and the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596–1650) were not part of the university’s syllabus, Locke studied them independently.

Locke believed in a natural, moral law called the law of nature. This is the law that dictates what is right and wrong. He believed that being able to distinguish between right and wrong is not innate but rather comes from experience.

John Locke and the influences of Shaftesbury

The man who was later to become Lord Shaftesbury (the first earl of Shaftesbury) was a great influence on Locke and his thinking. At the time the man who was to become the first earl of Shaftesbury held the title Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. This influential man was extremely so impressed by Locke that he invited Locke to join his household as an aide and his personal physician. However, at that time, John Locke did not have a qualification at degree level, in medicine.

Ashley believed in: -

  • a constitutional monarchy
  • civil liberty
  • the inheritance of property
  • religious tolerance
  • Parliamentary rule and
  • the economic expansion of the state (England)

Beginnings of the John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It was, perhaps in 1671 when Locke began to seriously consider writing is Essay Concerning Human Understanding. At that time, he was still living at Lord Cooper’s Exeter House in London. Prior to this in 1668 Locke was a fellow of the Royal Society and conducting research with Thomas Sydenham, an eminent physician, into the field of medicine. It was while conducting this research that he became committed to philosophical empiricism.

Lord Ashley was so impressed by Locke’s abilities that he appointed him to the position of secretary to the lords proprietors of Carolina, which is now an American state. He role was to endeavour to assist the lords proprietors of Carolina in their attempts to establish the colony in North America. In his pursuit of that goal he helped to write The Fundamental Constitutions for the Government of Carolina (1669) This document guaranteed religious freedom for all, although it excluded atheists.

Locke wrote a philosophical paper which was a precursor to what many consider to be his most important work, Concerning Human Understanding. He pointed out to a group of friends who had met to discuss morality and religion. that they should first consider what the human mind could and could not understand, especially as regards God. Locke prepared a paper for the group to discuss and presented it to them at their next meeting. It was this paper that marked the beginning of his seminal work.

Locke in France (1675–79)

Charles II bestowed a peerage on Ashley Cooper and gave him the title of 1st earl of Shaftesbury in 1672. He was, later in that year, appointed Lord Chancellor, although Ashley fell from the king’s favour and as Locke and Cooper were friends and collaborators on various projects, their lives were in danger. Locke travelled to France in 1675 to escape the king’s wrath and stayed there until 1679. His time was spent in Paris and Montpellier, which was home to a minority of Protestants as well as the medical school which was considered to be the most important one in the whole of Europe.

It was during this time that Locke encountered the writings of Catholic philosophers He was a protestant, of course.) He was dismayed by the wealth gap between the French King, Louis XIV and his subjects. At that time, Louis was spending lavishly to build his palace at Versailles. All the time he was in France, Locke was writing notes which would eventually be used in his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. His prolonged stay in France was extremely educational for Locke.

However, his friend, the Earl of Shaftesbury did not have a happy time. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but by the time Locke returned to England in 1679, Shaftesbury had been released and restored to the king’s favour. In 1679 Shaftesbury was appointed Lord President of the king’s Privy Council. However, it was not long before he again fell out of the king’s favour, and he was arrested and tried for treason in 1681. He was acquitted of the charge, but he realised that he would have to flee the country. In 1682 he escaped to the Netherlands. He died there in 1683, the year Locke also fled to Holland.

How Locke’s religious beliefs shaped his philosophy

It was during this time that Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government which was published in 1689. It is probable that this work was at least almost finished before he went to Holland. These treatises basically laid out his political philosophy. It was informed by his deep-seated religious beliefs. He believed that God had created people to act as his servants, and to live according to the laws laid down in The Bible so that they could eventually have eternal life and salvation. Locke firmly believed that God had endowed humans with various abilities, including intellectual ones so that they could achieve these ends.

These treatises were meant to be read together, almost as if they were one work. They were written to justify what was called The Glorious Revolution, which saw the flight of King James II. The King fled to France and William and Mary became King and Queen of England. Being of the Royal House of Orange and having lived in Holland, these two were protestants, so Locke was happy. he had a natural antipathy to Catholicism and he could not countenance the notion of papal infallibility. He also was afraid that the Catholic faith was areal threat to England’s autonomy. When Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Locke understood the threat posed to Protestantism. The edict had granted the French protestant Huguenots religious freedom.

It was Locke’s second treatise which demonstrates his abilities as a political philosopher. To understand Locke and his beliefs, students should read this thoroughly and understand how it relates to his work Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke believed in equality, so ultimately, he would probably have argued that the monarchy was largely irrelevant. He thought that everyone was free although they had a duty to uphold God’s laws, and the law of nature.

Locke’s thoughts regarding property are important to his political theory. He believed that a person’s body is his or her property, so if a person works for another, he or she must work willingly and reap the benefits of their work and labour. These ideas were taken up in the 19th century by the philosopher Karl Marx and the economist, David Ricardo. His philosophy had far-reaching effects which continued long after Locke was dead.

In his second treatise, Locke states that it is the majority’s will that should hold sway.

He believed that all people are capable of using their reasoning powers to understand God really does exist. He thought that having understood this, that people could comprehend their moral duties and obligations which would lead to happiness and success. It was Locke who inspired the clause in the American Constitution which stated that all men had the right to pursue happiness. His work also influenced the 1776 Declaration of Independence in what is now the USA.

The first president of America. George Washington acknowledged Locke as a great force for good. Clearly, he inspired the President and the system of government that America adopted. His principles also inspired other Europeans, as evidenced in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This was the one of the first official documents to lay down the principles of human rights along with the English Magna Carta (1215).

By now it should be much clearer to the reader precisely why John Locke was such a great influence during the age of Enlightenment and afterwards. Once that is understood it should be much easier to write an essay or paper on the man and his major work.

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