John Locke (1632-1702) was a British philosopher. The American system of government is based on his political ideas. He founded the school of empiricism against that of Descartes’s rationalism. In his day he was seen as the philosopher of freedom.
Thomas Jefferson said he was one of the three greatest men who ever lived. He got his political ideas from Locke, from his First and Second Treatises of Government.
In the “First Treatise of Government” (1690) he argued against the divine right of kings. Kings in those days said that their right to rule comes from God. Locke shows why this is not true.
In the “Second Treatise of Government” (1690) he argues that the chief purpose of government is to uphold property rights.
Locke saw man as naturally good and rational. Men are created equal and are willing to live and let live. They know that to do well in this world they will need to work with others. Men are born with certain rights, among these the right to life, liberty, health and property. Government exists to uphold these rights and it is only given power for this reason.
Government therefore serves the people, not the other way round. They are created as the result of a social contract to uphold these rights. Therefore when government destroys these rights, the people have the right to overthrow it. “Government rules by the consent of the governed,” Locke said.
To keep government from growing too powerful, Locke said there should be a system of checks and balances: The power of government should not be all in one man’s hand, but divided so that no one part of government can grow too strong.
Property rights are important because they allow men to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Locke believed in freedom of religion and conscience for everyone – except for Catholics and atheists.
Locke’s political thought opposed that of Hobbes. It was later built on by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and put into practice by the American Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson.
In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690) Locke lays out his ideas about the nature of human knowledge. In doing this he founded a new school of philosophy called empiricism. It opposed the rationalism of Descartes.
According to Descartes knowledge is produced by reason and certain ideas that are built into our brains.
Locke, on the other hand, saw the human mind as a tabula rasa – a blank slate. No ideas are built in. All it starts out with are the five senses and the power of reason. The senses working on our brain, with some help from reason and thought, produces the ideas we have about the world: space, time, colour and all the rest. The ideas are almost stamped into our brain through the senses.
Empiricism was later developed by Berkeley and Hume, who found holes in Locke’s thinking.