Philosopher John Locke, along with thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, is often blamed by Christian social ethicists for misappropriating the natural law tradition, articulating unbiblical views of human nature, and generally secularizing modern Western political reflection. Even in the face of these serious charges, Locke's influence on modern views of liberty is profound, and his place in the classical liberal tradition is secure. With such a controversial legacy, his life and thought merit close attention.
Born in Somerset, England, on August 29, 1632, Locke studied at Oxford, eventually receiving a degree in medicine. His medical practice led to his association with Lord Ashley, later the first Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke later retired to France, but when his patron fell into disrepute with the English government, Locke fled to Holland, living in secret and under assumed names. This clandestine life was fateful, for he became involved in the plans to place the silent Dutchman William of Orange on the English throne, in what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution. This watershed moment in English constitutional history generated Locke's most famous work, Two Treatises of Government, which provided a theoretical framework for the revolution's political events.
In addition to his contributions in Two Treatises to the ideas of the rule of law, separation of powers, and limited government, Locke's arguments in favor of religious toleration, expressed most clearly in his Letters Concerning Toleration, likewise have been foundational. As one commentator summarized Locke's view, “We have a right to religious freedom because the nature of faith itself is contradicted by compulsion.” Locke correctly observed that the mind “cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force,” but laws, ultimately, are upheld by force. However, such coercion is not reconcilable with authentic religious belief. As Locke concludes, “The magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind.” Letters Concerning Toleration would come to be, in the American colonies, the primary inspiration for the more wide-reaching religious freedoms (embracing Jews and Roman Catholics, which Locke's view denied) of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom.
Sources: John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration edited by James H. Tully (Hackett Publishing, 1983), and The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell (The Free Press, 2000).
Hero of Liberty image attribution: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons