Great ideas are often obvious. None more so than those of John Locke. Much of his thought we would now regard as common sense. This all makes Locke’s philosophy rather uninteresting. But there’s no reason why philosophy shouldn’t be dull. On the contrary, there are very good reasons why it should be dull. It was when works of philosophy became interesting, and people actually began reading them, that the trouble started. Many of the wisest philosophers have realised the pitfall of readers actually understanding what they were saying. Spinoza did his best to solve this problem by rendering his works unreadable. Socrates, on the other hand, decided that the best way was not to write down anything at all.
Locke’s solution was to write philosophy that was so obvious it soon appeared dull. But it wasn’t always so. Locke’s thought and ideas were revolutionary in their time and altered the course of philosophy.
Locke was the only major philosopher to become a government minister. And it shows. He was a man of many parts, but he remained for the most part consistent and practical. His philosophy is one that actually works – for both the individual and society at large.
John Locke attempted to live a life that was almost as dull as his philosophy. Fortunately for us, though not for him, he lived in exciting times – and couldn’t avoid getting involved. John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in a small, rather grubby thatched cottage by the church in the Somerset village of Wrington. His father was an unambitious country lawyer and his mother a tanner’s daughter, who was reputed to have been a great beauty. Soon after John’s birth his parents moved to a family property near the small market town of Pensford, just south of Bristol.
This rural idyll was shattered by the outbreak of the civil war in 1642, when John was ten. The war was the culmination of a long-standing dispute between King Charles I and Parliament. Charles believed in the divine right of kings, according to which the monarch received his authority direct from God, and was thus not answerable to institutions run by mere mortals, such as Parliament. The members of Parliament, who were responsible for voting the king his cash, thought otherwise. In fact, the civil war was basically a stand-up fight between the emerging merchantile class in the red corner, with the king and his landed aristocracy in the blue corner. It tore the country apart and was to bring about the first successful revolution in European history.
The Locke family supported the Parliamentarians. The local member of Parliament, Alexander Popham, became colonel of the regional Parliamentary militia and appointed Locke’s father as his captain. Locke’s father left home to join the campaign. After coming across a few unsuspecting Royalist columns, which they quickly put to flight, Colonel Popham’s militia joined up with the Parliamentary army at Devizes. But this time the Royalists were prepared, and in the ensuing rout Locke’s father and Popham were lucky to escape with their lives. After this they “decided to withdraw from the military life” and returned home.
By now the country was in turmoil, and Locke’s family found themselves without means of support. Colonel Popham did his best for his old captain but only managed to secure him a post as the country clerk for sewers (this may well reflect how both these ex-warriors were held in local esteem).
The finest school in the land
In 1646 Charles I (pictured) was captured, and three years later he was beheaded. The Commonwealth was established, with Oliver Cromwell soon emerging as its head. Meanwhile Colonel Popham was able to do a further favour for his friend Captain Locke. As a member of Parliament he was allowed to nominate pupils for entry to Westminster School in London, the finest in the land at the time. This favour, which he granted to the son of an obscure impecunious west-country lawyer, was to change John Locke’s life. Without such an education it is doubtful whether Locke would have had the opportunity to realise his exceptional talents.
Curiously, although Westminster was controlled by a Parliamentary committee, it retained a Royalist headmaster. This was a failed actor called Dr. Busby, renowned for his dramatic and sadistic floggings. According to the poet John Dryden, who was a contemporary of Locke’s at Westminster, “our Master Busby used to whip a boy so long, till he made him a confirmed blockhead.” But the essayist Richard Steele, who was also a pupil, was of the opinion that Busby had “a genius for education.” And, astonishingly, this is the view that has prevailed. Two centuries later the prime minister William Gladstone commended Dr. Busby as “the founder of the public school system.”
John Locke was a frail youngster, and the prospect of an encounter with Dr. Busby doubtless stimulated his dormant intellectual faculties to the full.