Locke: A Biography

Article excerpt

* Locke: A Biography By Roger Woolhouse Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xxx, 528. $39.99

It is common, even among philosophers, to joke about how little influence philosophers have on the world. But that isn't true. The independence of the United States of America and Soviet communism alike were arguably the ultimate practical results of a radical argument advanced by a philosopher. John Locke (1632-1704) was perhaps the most significant and direct influence on the American founders in large part because of his having been such a significant influence on the Glorious Revolution in England some eighty years earlier. Locke's philosophical discourses on the nature of rights, the nature and justification of authority, religious toleration, and forms of government had a profound practical effect on world events, not merely on a school of thought. His arguments remain a cornerstone of classical liberalism. It is therefore useful for anyone interested in a comprehensive understanding of these arguments to learn about the man who produced them. Roger Woolhouse had delivered an aid to this understanding with his new biography of Locke. Although Locke's philosophical arguments must stand or fall on their own merits, our knowledge of his life and times nevertheless enhances our understanding of those arguments. Fortunately, Locke was a regular correspondent and journal keeper, so scholars such as Woolhouse can reconstruct both major and minor episodes in his life and convey something of his character. Woolhouse does an excellent job of weaving all of these strands together to produce a comprehensive account that, perhaps surprisingly, is highly readable.

Different sorts of readers look for different qualities in biographies. Woolhouse's book will appeal to many. Readers of a historical bent will be most interested in the exciting and dramatic events of the 167Os and 168Os that unfolded around Lockethe Whig/Tory conflict, the religious struggles, the Glorious Revolution, and the advent of William of Orange. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these events in British, Dutch, and French history for the later development of Europe and for how the North American colonies would evolve, and it is interesting to see them from Locke's perspective, sometimes as an observer and other times as a participant. Readers of a more philosophical bent will be interested in the development of Locke's thinking in its historical context-for example, how he reacted against Cartesian rationalism and came to develop his empiricist theory of knowledge, or how he came to incorporate the older natural-law tradition into a comprehensive theory of natural (that is, prepolitical) rights to life, liberty, and property.

It is important to remember how radical Lockean political theory was at the time, and Woolhouse convincingly demonstrates the personal courage Locke showed by writing his Two Treatises of Government. The prevailing notion of "rights" was permissions from the king, who was still generally regarded as the true owner of most, if not all, property and entitled to the service of his subjects. …