On August 29 we celebrate the birthday of the “Father of Liberalism”, John Locke (1632-1704). Most notable for his theories of property, natural rights, and government by consent of the people, his ideas are still widely read in classrooms throughout the world.
Born and raised in England, Locke studied medicine and natural philosophy at Oxford University. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in medicine, he formed a friendship with Lord Ashley, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who had gone to Oxford to find a treatment for a liver ailment. Impressed by Locke, Lord Ashley offered him the position of personal physician. Locke’s skills in medicine would later be tested when Lord Ashley’s liver condition became life-threatening, requiring a risky operation. Ashley would later credit Locke with saving his life and eventually gave Locke his full patronage.
Ashley’s patronage exposed Locke to the world of politics and allowed him to hold a variety of governmental posts, primarily dealing with England’s colonies in America and the Caribbean. During this time, Locke began to work on one of his most notable works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he would finish nearly 20 years later, in 1689. While Locke’s ties to Lord Ashley were initially beneficial, they soon became dangerous. Lord Ashley, in an attempt to prevent the future King James II from succession, plotted an armed resistance, and both he and Locke were forced to flee to France. Locke would return to England only after the Glorious Revolution had placed King William on the throne.
During his travels across Europe, Locke wrote extensively about topics ranging from religious tolerance to the proper role of education. Arguably Locke’s most influential work was the Two Treatises of Government (1689), which was originally published anonymously due to its radical propositions. In it, Locke rejected the divine right of kings and argued that government should be built on mutual agreement, an idea that would come to be known as contract theory. When the consent of the governed is lost, or when the natural rights to life, liberty, and property are violated, Locke argued, the governed had the right to replace the existing government.
Locke’s views of civil society and government represented a significant break from traditional British governance. His ideas of natural rights, personal liberty, and consent of the governed sought to enhance freedom, and significantly influenced the philosophical reasoning behind the American Revolution. Reflecting on the paternal power of monarchies, Locke summarizes that, “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.”
In the Charles Koch Institute’s offices, the classrooms and conference rooms are named in honor of 28 men and women who spent their lives defending and promoting the ideas of a free and open society. Their names remind us of the fact that our work is only made possible by the men and women who came before us. John Locke is one such man, and his conference room displays an etching of this quote: “One unerring mark of not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.”
Our educational programs provide opportunities for students and professionals to apply their passions for free societies and engage with ideas that help people improve their lives. As part of the curricula, participants read a variety of philosophical texts to supplement their experience and learn about the origins of the principles of free societies. Locke is crucial to understanding how culture, toleration, and individual rights work to create a foundation for free societies. Program participants study selections from both “Two Treatises of Government” and “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” In reading Locke’s works, participants are able to gain a better understanding of how toleration and the consent of the governed allows societies to flourish.