John Locke on Conversation with Friends and Strangers

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In 1702, shortly before his death, the English philosopher and physician, John Locke (1632-1704), suffered severe loss of hearing. He told Edward Clarke that 'I have been little better than out of the world these last twelve months by a deafness that in great measure shut me out of conversation.' (1) In a letter of 12 January 1705, Damans Masham replied to Jean Le Clerc's request for her memories of 'our dead Friend', (2) reporting that Locke had once said that he would prefer 'to be Blind than Deaf'. (3) We can accept, then, that Locke truly feared that deafness would exclude him from conversation, which he believed to be one of the great channels and benefits of friendship. In this essay I add a complication by stressing that Locke viewed conversation not only as the principal medium of friendship, but as a vital instrument in the pursuit of truth; it therefore figured in his life-long concern about the proper grounds of assent and belief. (4) One implication was that conversation need not always be coupled with friendship; talk with strangers might be just as important if it assisted the search for knowledge and truth.

It is important to note that the word 'conversation' was used in two main senses in the early modern period. In its wider, and older, sense it meant the act of living with and sharing the company of others. An English translation of Don Quixote in 1620 has it that 'You may know the man, by the conversation he keepes', referring to the company in which that person lived. (5) In this sense, one did not have 'conversation' with strangers. The second, more specific, meaning is the one now familiar to us: namely, the act of speaking and discussing with others. By the end of the seventeenth century this was becoming the dominant sense, and it is evident in Masham's letter to Le Clerc. Even so, we can hear the wider referents: for example, in her remark that Locke 'convers'd with books', and in her need to specify his 'personal Conversation' and 'ordinarie Conversation'. We can also appreciate how friendship was regarded as a special case of the wider sense of sharing company--in this case, with an equal rather than with kinsfolk, who were also seen as 'friends'. Thus Masham reported that among the 'contentments' Locke enjoyed in London after his return from Holland in 1689 was 'that of spending one day every week with my lord Pembroke in a Conversation undisturb'd by such as could not beare a part in the best entertainment of Rational Minds, Free Discourse concerning usefull Truths'. (6) As we shall see, Locke had high expectations about this kind of friendship, but he also believed that truths about useful matters could be obtained through conversation with strangers. (7)

The Stoic revival in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe provided an influential framework that linked conversation with a special kind of friendship. Justus Lipsius' Constantia (1584), written as a dialogue with his friend (Langius), gave new life to Lucius Annaeus Seneca's avowal of close friendship as a safe haven from the chaos of politics. Lipsius advocated patience, self-control, and strength of mind against the backdrop of the wars of religion in France and the civil wars in the Netherlands. In Book Two, the two friends meet in a garden to 'refresh ... [their] wearied and wandering minds', and they celebrate the quiet space in which philosophers have meditated and discussed 'constancy, life, and death'. (8) Neo-Stoicism was consolidated by new editions and translations of Seneca's De Beneficiis, his Epistulae Morale, and his Works (1606), edited by Lipsius, and Marcus Tullius Cicero's De Amicitia and De Officiis. The influence of these authors is apparent in contemporary works such as Stefano Guazzo's De civile conversatione (1574) and Michel de Montaigne's Essais (1580-88). (9)

Locke encountered these works of Seneca and Cicero at Westminster school in London. From 1658, while at Christ Church, Oxford he made entries and extracts in his notebooks. …