Page images
[blocks in formation]

The subject of this notice was born at Wrington in Somersetshire, in the year 1632. He was the son of a country gentleman of moderate fortune, who served as an officer in the army of the Parliament, and was in consequence obliged at the Restoration to purchase immunity from prosecution by a fine which somewhat reduced his estate. After receiving the first part of his education at Westminster School, John Locke became a resident member of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1651. He did not, however, enter very heartily into the course of study then in vogue at Oxford. That time-honoured seat of learning still retained too much of the spirit and methods of the scholastic philosophy. Much time was consumed in unprofitable speculations, in nice and subtle disquisitions, and in empty disputation. Against all such “oppositions of science falsely so called,” the sound, sober, and practical mind of Locke revolted. He took refuge in the private and independent study of the Greek and Latin classics; and, like some other eminent men, whatever he may have gained from the associations of the University, he owed very little to its tutors or its system.

Though he never seems to have contemplated adopting any regular profession, yet he devoted a great deal of time to the study of physic, and made such proficiency in it as to win from Sydenham, the most eminent physician of the day, an express recognition of his high attainments in that science. His health, indeed, was delicate and precarious; and, as his circumstances secured for him all that he needed to satisfy his moderate wants, he was able to devote himself to the repose and seclusion of a literary life. He was, however, induced, in the year 1665, to accompany Sir Walter Vane, envoy to the Elector of Brandenburgh, to Cleves in the capacity of secretary. His residence there was not of long duration, for the envoy was recalled in the course of the same year; but several of his letters written to his friends during his sojourn are still extant, and give a very interesting and lively account of the character and manners of the place. Shortly afterwards he had the offer of being sent to Spain as envoy, but he declined it; and, at a later period, after the accession of William of Orange, when it was proposed to him to go as ambassador to Vienna or Berlin, he refused the appointment, partly on the ground that his inability to drink freely disqualified him for the duties of it; amongst which the finding out of what others were doing and thinking he regarded as at least one half of his business, and he considered “a well-managed bottle" the best “ rack in the world to draw out men's thoughts."

For some years after his return from Cleves he resided at Oxford, and during his sojourn there he accidentally made the acquaintance of Lord Ashley, afterwards Earl of Shaftesbury. The result was an intimacy which continued till the death of that nobleman. In 1672, when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor, he made Locke Secretary of Benefices; but the latter resigned the appointment when in the following year his patron ceased to hold the Chancellorship. Eleven years afterwards, Lord Shaftesbury, after narrowly escaping the fate of Russell and Sidney for supposed complicity in the Rye House Plot, withdrew to Holland; and Locke, who had himself taken an active part in politics, and was regarded with suspicion by the Government, retired to the same country, and remained there till the Revolution. The later years of his life were passed at Oates, near Ongar in Essex, the residence of Sir F. Masham, whose wife was the daughter of the celebrated Cudworth. Here he continued for some years to reside, in the enjoyment of the society of his friends and in the cultivation of his literary tastes; and here in 1704 he died the peaceful death of the Christian philosopher, blessing God for a happy life in this world, and looking forward with sure and certain hope to a brighter and happier in that which is to come.


Locke's great work is his Essay concerning Human Understanding. Its composition occupied him for eighteen years, and it was published in 1690, with a dedication to the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. It is divided into four books. The first, which is merely introductory to the main subject of the Essay, discusses the question of innate ideas, and decides that no such ideas exist. In the second book the author proceeds with the inquiry into the true source of our ideas. The conclusion to which he comes is, that all our ideas are derived from sensation and reflection. In the course of this inquiry be examines the different sorts of ideas, refers them to their origin, and, besides, introduces many topics that have only an indirect bearing on the main subject which he is discussing. Having had occasion to refer to' language in his consideration of the origin of ideas, he is led, by the close connection subsisting between the phenomena of language and the modes of ideas, to devote a considerable part of his work to the subject of language. He examines what words are, how they are used, and how general terms have originated; and he discusses the imperfection and abuse of words. These points amongst others form the subject matter of his third book.

[ocr errors]

The fourth and last book is devoted to an examination of the extent and reality of human knowledge, of the conditions of certainty and probability, the distinct provinces of reason and faith, &c.

The great merit of Locke's Essay lies in its sober and practical character. His conclusions are drawn simply from observation and experience; and though there are many defects in the work, yet its author has throughout avoided the ambiguities of the scholastic system and followed that method of philosophical inquiry of which Bacon is the great representative and expositor. "Few books," says Sir J. Macintosh, "have contributed more than Mr. Locke's Essay to rectify prejudice, to undermine established errors, to diffuse a just mode of thinking, to excite a fearless spirit of inquiry and yet contain it within the boundaries which nature has prescribed to the human understanding."

Another of Locke's works is his Treatise on Civil Government. This work is divided into two parts. “In the former, the false principles and foundations of Sir Robert Filmer and his followers are detected and overthrown; the latter is an essay concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government."

Sir R. Filmer maintained the comfortable doctrine and position that men hare no natural freedom. He insisted that the first man had an absolute “right of fatherhood," and that this right was derived in regular succession to modern kings and rulers. Absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings were, according to Sir Robert, the necessary consequences of this principle. To expose and overthrow such notions was the object of Locke in the first part of his treatise; and it is not saying much to assert that he has effectually done so. As the notions of Filmer are now all but universally exploded, so the work in which they are refuted is not of much present interest or importance. The second part of the treatise discusses in a more philosophical way the origin of government. Its author had in view the vindication of the Revolution of 1688; and he lays down and maintains the principle, recognised in the Act of Parliament which established William of Orange on the throne, that the right of the magistrate to obedience is founded in an original delegation of power by the people.

Besides the works already described, Locke wrote two letters on Toleration, characterized by a very generous and enlightened spirit, much in advance of his age; a treatise on the Reasonableness of Christianity; another on the Conduct of the Understanding; a short work on Education, and several letters, controversial articles, and treatises on theological, ethical, and philosophical subjects.

The style of Locke cannot be described as polished or elegant. It is, indeed, somewhat heavy and cumbrous. The sentences have not much rhythm or melody in their flow, and the language is destitute of colour or ornament. The writer seems only to have aimed at expressing his thoughts in clear and intelligible English; and there certainly is in his style a plain downright force and a manly simplicity, which harmonize well with his sober and practical intellect.



OF RETENTION, Contemplation. The next faculty of the mind, whereby it makes a further progress towards knowledge, is that which I call retention, or the keeping of those simple ideas which from sensation or reflection it hath received. This is done two ways. First, by keeping the idea which is brought into it for some time actually in view, which is called contemplation.

Memory.-The other way of retention is the power to revive again in our minds those ideas which after imprinting have disappeared, or have been, as it were, laid aside out of sight; and thus we do, when we conceive heat or light, yellow or sweet, the object being removed. This is memory, which is, as it were, the storehouse of our ideas. For the narrow mind of man, not being capable of having many ideas under view and consideration at once, it was necessary to have a repository to lay up those ideas, which at another time it might have use of. But our ideas being nothing but actual perceptions in the mind, which cease to be anything when there is no perception of them, this laying up of our ideas in the repository of the memory signifies 'no more but this,—that the mind has a power, in many cases, to revive perceptions which it has once had; with this additional perception annexed to them,--that it has had them before. And in this sense it is that our ideas are said to be in our memories, when indeed they are actually nowhere, but only there is an ability in the mind when it will to revive them again, and, as it were, paint them anew on itself, though some with more, some with less difficulty; some more lively, and others more obscurely. And thus it is by the assistance of this faculty that we are said to have all those ideas in our understandings, which though we do not actually contemplate, yet we can bring in sight, and make appear again and be the objects of our thoughts, without the help of those sensible qualities which first imprinted them there.

Attention, repetition, pleasure, and pain fix ideas. Attention and repetition help much to the fixing any ideas in the memory; but those which naturally at first make the deepest and most lasting impression, are those which are 3 accompanied with pleasure or pain. The great business of the senses being to make us take notice of what hurts or advantages the body, it is wisely ordered by nature (as has been shown) that pain should accompany the reception of several ideas; which, supplying the place of consideration and reasoning in children, and acting quicker than 4 consideration in grown men, makes 5 both the young and old avoid painful objects with that haste which is necessary for their preservation, and in both settles in the memory a caution for the future.

Ideas fade in the memory.Concerning the several degrees of lasting wherewith ideas are imprinted on the memory, we may observe, that some of them have been produced in the understanding by an object affecting the senses once only, and no more than once: others, that have more than once offered themselves to the senses, have yet been little taken notice of; the mind, either heedless as in children, or otherwise employed as in men, intent only on one thing, not setting the stamp deep into itself; and in some, where they are set on with care and repeated impressions, either through the temper of the body or some other default, the memory is very weak. In all these cases ideas in the mind quickly fade, and often vanish quite out of the understanding, leaving no more footsteps or remaining characters of themselves than shadows do flying over fields of corn, and the mind is as void of them as if they never had been there.

Thus many of those ideas which were produced in the minds of children in the beginning of their sensation (some of which, perhaps, as of some pleasures and pains, were before they were born, and others in their infancy), if in the future course of their lives they are not repeated again, are quite lost, without the least glimpse remaining of them. This may be observed in those who by some mischance have lost their sight when they were very young, in whom the ideas of colours, having been but slightly taken notice of, and ceasing to be repeated, do quite wear out; so that some years after there is no more notion nor memory of colours left in their minds than in those

« PreviousContinue »