John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the father of 18th Century Liberalism, which has become more like modern libertarianism.
“John Locke’s greatness as a philosopher is based on his theories on childhood, his work on religious toleration and his concept of the rights of citizens. He helped to make us who we are.”
This second video focuses on three key areas which he thought and wrote about, namely epistemology (theories of knowledge), political philosophy and religious toleration. This talk places Locke firmly within the period of the Enlightenment, and shows how he influenced other philosophers such as Kant, Hume and Rousseau, as well as documents like the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
A Man with Many Hats
John Locke was born in England in 1632. Locke considered becoming a
minister, started his career as a doctor, but ended up as a philosopher
and political scientist. He had many interests and produced a number of
writings that influenced future leaders. One of those leaders was
Thomas Jefferson, who helped America gain independence from Britain
nearly 150 years after Locke was born. Jefferson studied Locke’s
writings, and Locke’s ideas show up in our own Constitution.
Locke imagined a set of natural rights that human beings share.
These are the right to life, liberty, and property. Life refers to the fact
that people want to live and will fight to survive. Liberty means that
people want to be as free as possible to make their own decisions.
Property represents the fact that people want to own things that
help them survive, such as land, food, and tools. Locke believed these
rights aren’t given to people—people are born with them.
The Blank Slate
One of Locke’s books, called An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, took over 18 years to write! In it, he says that
people are born with a mind like a tabula rasa, which means a
blank slate or page. During life, that blank slate gets filled up with
the things a person experiences with the five senses. He said
people learn and develop differently because they are exposed to
different things. The one thing people have in common is that
they are human and share a human nature that is the same for all
Why do we need a government?
Locke also wondered what life would be like if people didn’t have a
government. In this state of nature there would be no rules, no
one in charge, and no way for people to protect their natural
rights. He believed the purpose of government is to end the state
of nature and give people certain protections. Most importantly,
Locke believed governments should protect people’s natural rights.
Locke believed a government can only be legitimate, or valid, if it is
based on a social contract with citizens. A contract is an agreement
between people in which both sides agree to something in order to
reach a shared goal. A social contract happens between a
government and its people. The people agree to give up some
freedoms if the government agrees to protect everyone’s rights. If
the government fails to deliver, the people revolt—like the colonists
did during the American Revolution.
The handout includes a puzzle and a thought bubble: “What would life be like in a state of nature? What is one thing government can prevent? How?