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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Locke (1632–1704)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
JOHN LOCKE, one of the greatest philosophers of English race, was born at Wrington, Somersetshire, England, on August 29th, 1632. His father was a lawyer, and a captain in the Parliamentary army. John studied at Westminster School in London, and in 1651 became a member of Christ’s College, Oxford, whence he was graduated in 1656. He remained at Oxford until 1664 as a lecturer. It was during a student metaphysical discussion in his rooms that the idea occurred to him that the only possible basis for sound judgment lay in an analysis of the ultimate possibilities of the human mind. This was the seed thought of the ‘Essay on the Human Understanding,’ which he worked over for more than twenty years and did not finish until 1687. It was these early Oxford years and his readings in Descartes which gave Locke his philosophical bent. In 1664 he entered the diplomatic service as secretary of legation at Berlin; afterwards he studied medicine at Berlin, but took no degree. This training, however, stood him in good stead when he entered the household of the Earl of Shaftesbury as physician and confidential agent, overseeing the education of the earl’s son and grandson. This connection brought him into the society of Buckingham, Halifax, and other leaders; and when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor, Locke held office under him. Upon the former’s downfall the philosopher was forced to leave the country, spending the years between 1675 and 1679 in France; mostly with Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to whom his chief work was dedicated. For the same reason, during the years 1683–9 be resided in Holland. The revolution of 1688 brought him back to England; and he held the office of Commissioner of Appeals, declining other posts because of age and failing health. Locke devoted much time in his last years to the study of the Scriptures. He died, a professing Christian, October 28th, 1704.  1
  He wrote a treatise on ‘Civil Government,’ and other books in which he plead for the rights of the folk against the captious power of rulers. He wrote a ‘Treatise on Education,’ worth pondering yet. He also drew up, for a commission of which Shaftesbury was one, the most grotesque curiosity in modern political history,—the Constitution of Carolina. It was framed in the trough of the reaction which followed the downfall of Cromwell’s military dictatorship, and whose leaders held popular liberties to be pregnant with revolutions, and was designed for a model State which should be free from such dangers by keeping the populace forever in subjection. The inhabitants were to be divided into four hereditary castes, the common people being serfs of the soil: and among other provisions, any one over seventeen not a member of some church body was made an outlaw,—which would have startled the Inquisition itself. The constitution was a dead letter from the start, as freemen did not emigrate to a savage country to turn into predial serfs,—though a House of Magnates was of course easily got together; but it gave the infant province thirty years of anarchy and overflowing jails before it was withdrawn, and deeply injured the future development of North Carolina in particular.  2
  Locke’s supreme work in philosophy was the ‘Essay on the Human Understanding,’ which was published in 1690, four subsequent editions appearing during his life. This work, which gives him a place in the development of English metaphysics, and made his ideas influential in European thought,—so that the eighteenth-century philosophers, French and English, based their arguments upon his sensualistic conclusions,—is the searching inductive investigation of the human intellect. He found the genesis of all thought in sensation; vigorously rejecting the notion of ‘innate ideas,’ so popular with all idealistic thinkers, before or since, whose theories are swayed by religious considerations. Using his famous figure, Locke likened the mind to a blank piece of paper, on which experience writes characters which stand for the material of all thinking done by man. Sensations are received, and then reflected on: from sensation objectively, and reflection subjectively, come all the data of knowledge. “I see no reason to believe that the soul thinks before the senses have furnished it with ideas to think on,” he declared. Locke, in a wonderful way, foreran the modern psychological school which is prominent to-day. From him Hume and Kant built up their systems. He is only now seen in his true greatness. What makes him especially interesting to the student of literature is the fact that his prose is among the best of his time; remarkable for its lucidity, easy elegance, dignity, and modernness. Considering their subjects, his writings are conspicuously untechnical: they can be read with pleasure still.  3
  Locke’s personal character was high and most amiable, and his materialistic teachings—as they may be popularly described—were in no wise indicative of looseness of life or lack of character. Nor was his mind at all of that cast of pragmatic heaviness usually associated with our idea of a metaphysician—and rarely found in one: he was of excellent social talents, and his letters are full of a light and gay buoyancy which shows that he enjoyed writing them. A man of much social importance in his day, he is of permanent importance as an independent thinker, an original force in English philosophy, and a writer able to put before the world in an agreeable manner the results of a student’s lifetime of intellectual labor.  4

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