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John Locke: Biography, Beliefs & Facts

Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

John Locke had enduring friendships with other thinkers like Anthony Ashley Cooper and Damaris Masham. Learn about Locke's family and friendships, the political and religious turmoil that shaped his life, and the health problems that eventually killed him.

John Locke and his World

John Locke was an English philosopher who lived during the 17th century. He was born in 1632, ten years before the English Civil War broke out, and the turbulent politics of 17th century England affected him on a very personal level throughout his life. But despite living in a time of constant conflict over politics and religion, Locke made several close and influential friends, including Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury).

Childhood and Education

Locke's family were members of the Church of England, and Locke remained religious throughout his life. During the English Civil War, Locke's father served with Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary forces against King Charles I and the royalists. Luckily for Locke and his family, his father picked the winning side. Cromwell defeated the royalists in 1646, so for the time being, the Locke family was politically safe.

John Locke
John Locke

By the time the first English Civil War ended, Locke was 14. Locke's parents weren't rich, but they were comfortably well-off: his father worked as a legal clerk and had enough money to send his son to Westminster School in London, where he studied the ancient languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic), geography, and mathematics. Locke succeeded academically, even being elected as a King's Scholar when he was 18. But he didn't enjoy his time at school and later criticized Westminster for overusing physical punishment. In his later work Some Thoughts Concerning Education, he wrote:

The usual lazy and short way by chastisement and the rod, which is the only instrument of government that tutors generally know, or ever think of, is the most unfit of any to be us'd in education...This sort of correction naturally breeds an aversion to that which 'tis the tutor's business to create a liking to. How obvious is it to observe, that children come to hate things which were at first acceptable to them, when they find themselves whipp'd, and chid, and teas'd about them?... Beating them, and all other sorts of slavish and corporal punishments, are not the discipline fit to be used in the education of those we would have wise, good, and ingenuous men; and therefore very rarely to be apply'd.

At age 20, in 1652, Locke left Westminster and enrolled in Christ Church college, Oxford. Here, he largely ignored the official curriculum in favor of reading the newer works of scholars like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.

Friendships and Correspondence

At Oxford, Locke made a number of friends who shared his interests in natural philosophy, political science, and medicine. He got to know people like Robert Boyle, the famous chemist who is still known today as the author of Boyle's Law, and Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London.

After graduating, Locke became a teacher and continued to work on his own writing. He stayed at Oxford for a few years and then moved to London. This didn't do much for his health - Locke struggled with lung infections for most of his adult life, and the air pollution in the city only exacerbated his respiratory problems. But while living in London, Locke continued to make more connections in the intellectual circles of his day. For example, he became personally friendly with the famous doctor Thomas Sydenham and did a significant amount of collaborative work with him.

Anthony Ashley Cooper

In 1666, Locke met Anthony Ashley Cooper, an affluent politician who secured Locke several cushy government jobs and even hired Locke as his personal physician. The two men became good friends, sharing fundamental political beliefs about the importance of constitutional government and religious toleration. In 1672, Anthony Ashley Cooper became the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley Cooper

Political Turmoil

Unfortunately, Shaftesbury fell out of official favor shortly after being raised to the peerage, and since Locke was so closely associated with him, that put Locke in danger. To keep himself safe and continue writing, Locke moved to continental Europe, spending several years in France.

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