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John Locke - the Father of Modern Liberalism

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| John Locke | The father of modern liberalism | | Cole Davis | 5/20/2012 |


Liberalism, a political ideology based on the belief that constant progress is achievable, the human race is composed of intrinsically good beings, and that these intrinsically good beings are and should be autonomous in nature, is an idea that made an incredible resurgence during the English enlightenment. As the belief of Liberalism gained popularity with the public it also developed an enormous following among European philosophers. John Locke, the individual responsible for the idea of natural rights as well as the social compact, helped mold this idea of Liberalism into its own unique philosophical tradition. Because of these great contributions, John Locke is considered as father of modern liberalism.
Born August 29, 1632 at Wrington in Somerset, John Locke was the son of a lawyer and the oldest child of his Puritan household (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). While Locke was a child, his father closely monitored and guided his education. An incredibly educated individual, Locke first received a formal education at Westminster School eventually graduating to Christ Church, Oxford (Collinson). After receiving his bachelors of arts in 1656, Locke stayed at Oxford to earn his master’s degree. Locke became the censor of moral philosophy in 1664 and in 1675 when the Earl of Shaftesbury fell from power; Locke exiled himself to France to restore his health (Locke, Berkeley, Hume). After four years away, Locke returned to England and less than four years later he would once again seek refuge in a foreign country. In 1683 Locke fled England this time for Holland. Once in Holland, Locke, under an assumed name, worked feverishly on his Essay. In 1689 Locke finally returned to his native country of England and a year later published not only the Essay but also his Two Treatises on Civil Government where the bulk of his lasting thoughts on liberalism are found (Locke, Berkeley, Hume).
Liberalism, which can be traced all the way to ancient Greece, was around long before John Locke, or the European enlightenment. Even so, the initial English philosopher to address liberalism emerged in the 17th century, this philosopher was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, an Englishman who lived from 1588 to 1679, pioneered many of the basic principles on which classical liberalism was based. Hobbes developed the first social contract, which Locke later devoted a substantial amount of time to revising. In addition to his social contract Hobbes believed that human were born with innate thoughts such as selfishness.
Many of John Locke’s most famous contributions to the field of philosophy were derivations of the work of Thomas Hobbes. Though Hobbes founded the idea of the social contract, Locke’s revised edition of the contract made it an official declaration of the rights of living beings. Locke’s social contract, known as the social compact, contained within it the idea that any human, in virtue of being alive, was provided the right to “life, liberty and estate” (Locke 87). These rights were undeniable and resolute.
Though Locke modeled many of his great accomplishments after Thomas Hobbes there were exceptions. Whereas Hobbes believed in innate thoughts such as selfishness, Locke believed the mind to be a blank slate. The rights to “life, liberty and estate” outlined in his Two Treatises of Government are all he believes human are born with. As Locke believed the mind to be “void of all characters, without any ideas” (Collinson 65) his view clearly places him at odds with Hobbes. Locke, in development of his theory often wondered “how comes [the mind] to be furnished” (Collinson 65), the answer he, along with many other philosophers have developed is that the mind is “filled by sensations and experiences, and by the reflections rising from those sensations and experiences” (Himmelfarb 26). Locke’s personal take on the idea of the tabula rasa lends itself to being a great support for liberalism. If an individual is born without hatred, without prejudice, void of a thought in his or her mind, this individual cannot be classified as anything but good. This idea of an intrinsically good being is a central point of interest to liberals and their idea of the essential goodness of the human race
Much like the social contract, Locke’s idea of the ultimate government was loosely based upon Hobbes’s view on government. Locke’s liberal views of government stemmed from his beliefs of constant progress. Though he believed the monarchy to be an acceptable starting point for a government, his ideas did not stop with the absolute monarchy. Locke’s believed that if a ruler were to become tyrannical he or she would be violating the rights set forth in his social compact. Locke also believed that if a peoples’ or a nation’s rights were being oppressed by a tyrannical government that the people reserved the right to overthrow the government. Locke’s views on government were such that in his mind revolution paralleled progress.
On July 4, 1776 the United States Declaration of Independence was signed. This document, declaring the thirteen former colonies of Great Britain as sovereign states was influenced by John Locke. As the thirteen American colonies believed themselves to be under the control of a tyrannical government, the citizens looked to the liberalist ideals of Locke to decide their course of action. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence contains a modified version of Locke’s natural rights of life, liberty and estate as well as Locke’s idea of a necessary revolution due to a tyrannical government.
“all men […] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights […] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”
Locke has been credited with being a major influence in the philosophical field of liberalism and has earned the right to stand as the father of this philosophical tradition. As Locke’s writings are widely understood, easily accessible, and still in use after three–hundred years, his lasting impression speaks for itself. Whether it’s his idea of a social contract, natural rights, sensory perception, the general good of the human race, the abolishment of a government of tyranny, or the “blank white sheet of paper” (Becker 65) known as the human mind, the effect Locke had on Liberalism in the 17th century is just as apparent in the 21st century; that is the magnitude of influence one expects from the father of modern liberalism.

Word Count - 1066

Works Cited
Becker, Carl L. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.
Collinson, Diané. Fifty Major Philosophers: A Reference Guide. London: Routledge, 1995.
Great Books of the Western World: Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Chicago: Encyclopӕdia Britannica, 1990.
Great Books of the Western World: Machiavelli, Hobbes. Chicago: Encyclopӕdia Britannica, 1990.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government: Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund Inc., 2004.
Scruton, Roger. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. New York: Allen Lane Penguin, 1996.

Works Referenced
Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
Bronowski, Jacob, and Bruce Mazlish. The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Harré, Rom. One Thousand Years of Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Hobbes, Thomas. Human Nature and De Corpore Politico. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund Inc., 2004.

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