Key thinker: John Locke (1632–1704)

John Locke (1632–1704)


John Locke was born in Somerset, England, into a family that was sympathetic to Puritanism but remained in the Church of England ( His father, John, was a lawyer and had fought on the side of the parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell in the English civil war ( Family connections gave Locke access to a prestigious education at Westminster School and Christ Church College, Oxford ( The monarchy had yet to be restored and Oxford was still under the control of the Puritan followers of Cromwell.

At university, Locke was more interested in philosophy, science, and medicine than the classical literature which dominated the curriculum; instead of focusing on Aristotle’s logic (see Chapter 2 on Aristotle), he chose to study the writings of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), René Descartes (1586-1650) (see Key thinker: René Descartes in Chapter 6 on Baruch Spinoza), and the other natural philosophers ( He also befriended eminent figures in the sciences and philosophy like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Locke would remain at Oxford until 1667, holding various academic and administrative posts in the college (

After the Restoration of Charles II Locke made his way back to London to join the household of the Whig politician Anthony Ashley Cooper—the first Earl of Shaftesbury, then still Chancellor of the Exchequer—as a personal physician, researcher, secretary, and political advisor ( But Locke and Shaftesbury soon lost favour with Charles II: as strong opponents of absolute monarchy they frequently clashed with the king and Shaftesbury was eventually dismissed as lord chancellor ( Locke fled to France in 1674, where he remained for the next four years, dividing his time between Paris and Montpelier.

Back in England, Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London (Locke had also been held in the Tower a few years earlier). When an alleged Catholic plot to assassinate the king and place his brother, James II, on the throne was exposed, Shaftesbury hoped to use the public chaos and anti-Catholic sentiment to the advantage of his party ( But his plans failed and he was again arrested and charged with treason. When Shaftesbury was eventually acquitted, he decided to flee to Holland where he died in 1682. In 1683, Locke also fled to Holland where he continued to work on his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) ( and became involved with other Whig exiles.

Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (see Chapter 17 on Macaulay and Burke, Key Concept: Glorious Revolution), which deposed James II and saw Princess Mary and her husband William of Orange accede to the throne, Locke returned to England ( He spent the final years of his life living with his good friend and intellectual companion, Lady Masham, in Oates, Essex ( He continued to write and in 1696, when the Board of Trade was revived, Locke became its most influential member ( Locke died at Oates in October 1704. He was 72 years old.


Locke’s work has been enormously influential in the fields of philosophy and political theory. His first book, which argued that there are no innate ideas and that the mind begins as a blank slate that is formed by external stimuli remains a classic early statement of empirical philosophy. Locke’s greatest contribution to political theory, however, was his Two Treatises of Government (1689), a key statement of ‘social contract theory’ (see Introduction).

Locke followed Thomas Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Hobbes) in arguing that citizens’ political and moral obligations depend on a contract among them to establish the society in which they live. While Hobbes insisted that the ‘state of nature’ was marked by conflict and fear, Locke believed that it was relatively free, peaceful, and civilized (see In a Nutshell: Locke, Sovereignty and the State of Nature). For Locke, freedom in the state of nature is always restrained by the ‘law of nature’, i.e., religion, rationality, and self-rule, although some of these attributes first need to be cultivated through education, for example.

Even before the social contract is formed, then, some sort of functioning society exists. While formal government is absent in the state of nature people still have political and social obligations towards each other ( But what happens when someone violates these obligations or fails to act according to the law of nature? Locke argues that citizens come together in a social contract to form a government when an impartial judge is needed to settle disputes or when individuals need to protect their property. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (see Chapter 8 on Rousseau) would later turn the argument on its head by claiming that private property was a source of misery.

For Locke, state power needs to be limited so that it doesn’t constrain the freedoms that individuals enjoy in the state of nature. Locke has a dual understanding of the state as an entity which both protects and threatens our liberty - a key insight that would become a foundational principle for liberal political theory. The Two Treatise are considered the first comprehensive statement of modern liberalism (see In a Nutshell: Locke, Sovereignty and the State of Nature). Published only a year after the Glorious Revolution, the book responded to the reign of Charles II and James II by demarcating the limits of the monarchy and state power.

Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), written at a time of religious conflict and persecution in Europe, made a strong argument for the peaceful coexistence of religious beliefs in a society (see Key Concept: Toleration). Like his Treatise, the text sought to limit the extent to which the state can interfere in the lives of its citizens. While Locke himself was not a liberal in the way we understand it today, his theory underlies many of the principles—including the separation of church and state, government neutrality, freedom of belief, and a separation between the public and the private sphere—that would become central aspects of liberal political thought. There are, however, limits to whom a society can tolerate: for Locke, atheists and Catholics, for example, could not be trusted because the former did not believe in oaths and the latter was loyal to a foreign ruler and could therefore never be truly loyal to the political order that is established through mutual consent in the social contract liberalism (see In a Nutshell: Locke, Sovereignty and the State of Nature).

As C.B. Macpherson (see Key Thinker: C.B. Macpherson) has argued, pre-capitalist thinkers like Hobbes and Locke advocated theories of ‘possessive individualism’ which provided the justifications for the later development of capitalism. Locke’s emphasis on unlimited accumulation and the importance of private property sought to enshrine inequalities as the natural outcome of the social contract (see Class: Labour, Accumulation, and Locke’s ‘Individual’). Moreover, anyone thought to be ‘non-rational’ (see Key Concept: Rationality) is automatically excluded from Locke’s contract.

Carole Pateman (see Chapter 9 on Carole Pateman) has argued that Locke’s theory enshrines patriarchy through the contractual submission of women to the man, who is considered the ‘natural’ head of the household unit that joins together with others in the social contract (see Gender: The Question of Limited Rule and Forced Subjection). Charles Mills (see Chapter 9 on Charles Mills) builds on Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) to argue that social contract theory similarly relies on the exclusion of people of colour and the working class. The social contract only takes place when women, working class people, or non-white people have already been subjugated; it is therefore a contract of equal rights that only apply to white and propertied men.

There are also other illiberal and exclusionary aspects of Locke’s life and political thought (see Social and Sexual Identities and Hierarchies). While he was aware of how effective Indigenous agriculture in North America was, for example, he continued to portray them as hunter-gatherers whose lands were ‘free’ for European enclosure and appropriation (see Place: Colonization and the Establishment of European Access to the World’s Resources). Locke’s friend, the Earl of Shaftesbury, had investments in a sugar plantation in Barbados, a slaveholding British colony, and openly supported the trade in enslaved people. Locke, too, invested in two companies, the Bahamas Company and the Royal Africa Company, that specialized in trading enslaved people across the Atlantic (see Place: Colonization and the Establishment of European Access to the World’s Resources).

But how did Locke square his commitment to liberal philosophy with his investment in the institution of slavery? The contradiction between these two positions is never truly reconciled, and Locke’s systematic justifications for the project of colonization show that he did not believe his conception of freedom applied to the enslaved, colonized, or women (see Race, Slavery and the Question of Freedom). Locke’s political thought shows that liberalism’s claim to universality was just a pretence. By historicising Locke’s political thought, we begin to understand that liberalism cannot be separated from the histories of oppression and subjugation that accompanied its rise (Losurdo, 2005).

Further reading

Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. London/New York: Verso, 2005.

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Macpherson, C. B. (2011) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pateman, Carole (1988) The Sexual Contract. Cambridge: Polity.

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