August 29 marked the birthday of John Locke (1632-1704). In many ways, this towering thinker needs no introduction. Yet a brief review of three areas of Locke’s influence will help refresh us on why everyone needs to have at least some basic knowledge of this philosopher.
To begin with, John Locke stands as the greatest of the British empiricists—preeminent among such notables as Thomas Hobbes, George Berkeley, and David Hume, each of whom has established a lasting legacy in the annals of Western thought.
British empiricism arose as a reaction to the rationalism of the French philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a founding father of the Enlightenment movement. For Descartes, the mind is the starting point—Cogito ergo sum, or “I think therefore I am.” For the empiricists, however, the foundation of knowledge is physical experience. In Locke’s words,
"Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas [that is, a tabula rasa]: How comes it to be furnished? . . . Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience: in that, all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself." (1)
Empiricism as the basis of knowledge is widely accepted today as the way to approach epistemology, the study of knowledge.
Secondly, Locke has left an indelible mark on political theory as expressed, for example, in the Declaration of Independence of the United States and as it continues to be studied. Having lived through England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, Locke argued:
"The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure." (2)
In this, Locke follows the concept of natural law as set forth by Thomas Aquinas and found in Scripture, as St. Paul writes, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the [written] law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom 2:14-15). A difference here, of course, is that Locke would argue we learn this through reason applied to experience, not that it is written on our hearts as Paul tells us.
This is the segue to our third theme, namely, that John Locke is very much representative of the Age of Reason—perhaps better known as the Enlightenment—in its reliance on reason in contrast to revelation. Born into a devout Puritan family, Locke grew up with a healthy respect for the Bible. Yet, as an empiricist, he also had a healthy respect for what is referred to as natural religion, that which we can discover through reason and experience. The challenge for the philosopher was to reconcile revealed truth with empirical knowledge. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he expressed a preference for the latter:
"The volumes of interpreters, and commentators on the Old and New Testament, are but too manifest proofs of this [the imperfection of words]. Though everything said in the text be infallibly true, yet the reader may be, nay cannot choose but be very fallible in the understanding of it . . . Since then the precepts of natural religion are plain, and very intelligible to all mankind, and seldom come to be controverted; and other revealed truths, which are conveyed to us by books and languages, are liable to the common and natural obscurities and difficulties incident to words, methinks it would become us to be more careful and diligent in observing the former, and less magisterial, positive, and imperious, in imposing our own sense and interpretations of the latter." (3)
The history of ideas since Locke’s time—indeed, already evident back then—has shown that “the precepts of natural religion” are not necessarily “plain and intelligible to all” nor the source of uncontroverted agreement.
Despite his trust in empiricism, throughout his life, Locke never entirely let go of the inspired Scriptures—or perhaps more accurately, the Scriptures never let go of him. In his final major work, The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures, Locke set out to reconcile reason and revelation. Living in a society still saturated with biblical knowledge and faith, Locke managed to come to an uneasy balance between the two. Living in a materialistic/secular age, twenty-first century empiricists find it more problematic; one contemporary introduction to Locke sums it up, “This [The Reasonableness of Christianity] is not an inspiring conclusion to a philosophical quest that had covered three and a half decades.” (4)
Rather than building upon the shifting sands of reason—whether in the guise of rationalism or of empiricism—we have a surer foundation: the inspired, inerrant Word of God. That Word alone is our certain guide through life and guarantee of heaven though our Savior Jesus Christ. “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:24-25, quoting from Isa 40:6-8).
(1) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed., Roger Woolhouse (New York: Penguin, 1997), 109.
(2) John Locke, Of Civil Government (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1924), Book II, Chapter II, Section 6, 119-20.
(3) Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 436.
(4) John Dunn, Locke: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 91.