Locke, John (1632-1704)

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John Locke (b. 1632, Wrington, Somerset, England; d. 1704, Oates, Essex) is considered one of the first philosophers of the Enlightenment and the father of liberalism. Although it would not be correct to say that Locke favored democracy, he did advocate limits on the power of the sovereign, confining that person's authority to the protection of the individual's natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

The majority of Locke's liberal positions can be found in his extensive essay entitled The Two Treatises of Government (1689). The first treatise refutes the arguments in favor of the divine rights of kings propounded by Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653) in his work, Patriarcha. It is the second treatise that contains the essentials of Locke's political theory. Here the philosopher put forward his famous ethical argument regarding the hypothetical state of nature in which humans enjoyed most of their natural rights without the state. From this fundamental assumption stem most of Locke's theories. The fact that property could be freely exchanged, sold, or accumulated in that natural condition led Locke to argue that governments ought not interfere with most aspects of the economy and society. Moreover, no people living in a natural state of freedom would consent to have all their liberty taken away. Therefore, government requires the consent of the people, and this makes all government conditional. The role of the state should be limited to protecting life, liberty, and property from those few predatory members of the human race whom Locke referred to as the "quarrelsome and the contentious."1  Since the role of government is limited, its power should also be limited.

The particular form government took did not greatly concern Locke, except to exclude absolute monarchy. The limitation of powers he propounded came primarily through a separation of executive and legislative roles derived ultimately from the sovereignty of the people. Locke referred to the decision to form a government as the original constitution, composing an authority no lesser power could alter. Moreover, the legislature was authorized by the constitution, and not vice versa. Therefore, a constitution is superior to ordinary laws created by any legislature. The liberal theory of government put forward by Locke had a tremendous influence on later thinkers and politicians. The American Founding Fathers were profoundly influenced by Locke's idea of a limited constitutional regime.

In addition to Locke's role as a political theorist, his system of metaphysics established the epistemological foundations for modern philosophic and scientific empiricism.


[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 291.

Works by Locke

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1948.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1950.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 2 vols. London: S. Birt, 1748.

Locke, John. Human Understanding. 2 vols. Glasgow: M'Vean, High Street, 1819.

Locke, John. Of Civil Government. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1943.

Locke, John. Treatise on Civil Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Edited by Charles L. Sherman. New York: D. Appleton Century Company, 1937.

Locke, John. On Politics and Education. Edited by Howard R. Penniman. New York: D. Van Nostrand and Company, 1947.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Thomas I. Cook. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1947.

Locke, John. The Works of John Locke. 9 vols. London: C. & Rivington, 1824.

Locke, John. Locke's Travels in France: 1675-9. Edited by John Lough. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1953.

Locke, John.  The Second Treatise of Government. Edited by Thomas P. Peardon. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1952.

Locke, John. Original Letters of Locke; Algernon Sidney; and Anthony, Lord Shaftesbury. London: J.B. Nichols & Sons, 1830.

Locke, John. The Works of John Locke. 10 vols. 11th Ed. London: 1812.

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