Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
John Locke (1632–1704)
 
[John Locke, the son of a Somersetshire attorney, was born in 1632. He was educated at Westminster School, under Dr. Busby, and passed to Christ Church in 1652, where after taking his degree he became Greek Lecturer. Being relieved of the condition of taking orders, which was attached to his studentship, he devoted himself chiefly to the study of medicine, and continued this study in later life, in the intervals allowed him by public employment and by philosophical pursuits. It was in his medical capacity that he formed the close friendship with Lord Shaftesbury (the Achitophel of Dryden’s Satire) which greatly influenced his life, and which subsequently involved him in a suspicion of complicity with Shaftesbury’s revolutionary designs, and led to his expulsion from Christ Church. Weak health enforced, and a sufficient competence made possible, a life of considerable leisure, which he spent largely in travel and in discursive scientific and philosophical researches. In these he reflected the spirit of the Royal Society (of which he was a leading member) and of the Latitudinarian party of the day. An ardent supporter of the Revolution, he returned to England with the Prince of Orange: and published the Essay on Human Understanding (his most important work) in 1690. His Two Treatises of Government, written in opposition to Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, appeared in the same year. His first Letter on Toleration had been published in 1686; and three other letters on the same subject followed—the last appearing after his death. In 1693 he published his Thoughts on Education. He filled some important public offices, especially in connection with the scheme for the colonisation of Carolina (in the reign of Charles II.), and the Commission on Trade (under William III.) He died in 1704.]  1
 
SO far as subject is concerned, Locke’s writings deal with matters of perennial interest, and his treatment of these matters is such as to secure for him the undivided support of one large section of mankind. His aim in philosophy is to establish a system which satisfies a certain sort of reasoning, which shuts the door against metaphysical speculation, and which, within certain circumscribed limits, furnishes a logical and consistent explanation of intellectual processes. It was in no sense fruitful of great results, and almost inevitably provoked, first, a materialism which Locke himself would have disowned, and next a critical reaction, under the influence of which his system, except as a specious exposition of commonplace thought, inevitably crumbled into decay. In education his chief object was to combat existing methods, which he believed to be connected with creeds and systems to which he was opposed, and to propound a theory which was easier of acceptance, simpler in practice, and less severe in its demands upon natural instinct than these were. In politics he had to demolish theories of divine right and authority, which had been strained and exaggerated in their application, and to find a rational basis for an accident of politics—the Revolution of 1688—with which he, in common with the mass of his fellow-countrymen, happened, upon good and sufficient grounds, to find themselves in agreement. In each sphere Locke was certain to find supporters, and although a larger and more extended view may find in his theories much that is inadequate and unsatisfactory, he was certain of wide authority in his own day, and of much respect amongst a large section at least of posterity. All that we can object to his views—and the objection is a large one—is that they have the essential vice of compromise, that they represent a passing phase as a permanent solution of historical problems, that they attain to no logical completeness, and that they satisfy only those doubts which can be persuaded to forego a large and fruitful domain of speculation. In philosophy he was more popular in his own day than Berkeley, and his works have continued to be accepted as educational manuals, while Berkeley’s remain unread. He never carried his theories to the logical conclusion of Hume’s materialism, and never roused against himself a body of orthodox partisanship, so strong as that roused by Hume. The insufficiency of his system was proved by the reaction typified by Kant; but Kant is read by the specialist, and Locke is accepted, if not read, by the adherents of popular rationalism. In education he represented a school which has never ceased to have its votaries, and which has that speciousness that comes from basing its dictates on a natural development, which minimised difficulties, and paid a complimentary homage to the tendencies of human nature. But in his theories, and in his practical direction, Locke shows a knowledge of life and of character which has not always been vouchsafed to those who have made a business of pedagogy. In politics Locke sought to find a rational basis for what was the arbitrary result of the circumstances of his own day. He propounded a theory of society, which was admirably reasoned on an a priori method, but which was, historically, altogether untrue. It was to his advantage that its rationalising was at the moment acceptable, and that its lack of historical basis was undetected in his own day, and even when detected, did not destroy its sufficiency as a defence of the Revolution, which was the greatest event of his time.  2
  But it is not our business here to present in detail, or to criticise, the theories of Locke, whether in philosophy, education, or politics. We have only to examine his style. And here he is entitled to the praise of entirely subordinating style to subject. This is no small sign of literary art: and such literary art we cannot deny to Locke. He was a man to whom the niceties of language were of little moment; but he was of calm and equable temper, impressed with a sense of what was dignified and becoming, adequately acquainted with the masterpieces of literary genius, and always scrupulous, in his language, to observe rules and to obey the dictates of what in literature is analogous to courtesy in social intercourse. It would be absurd to say that Locke’s style is nervous, or original, or instinct with any impulse of feeling, or stimulated by any current of imagination. But it is almost always correct; it flows evenly and smoothly, and has dignity and even grace, if it lacks variety and force. It is seen at its worst, perhaps, in his philosophical work, where his very limitations of thought made him prone to argue in a circle, and give to his style a character of dull and heavy monotony. It is much more easy in his Treatise on Education, where he is made more direct and practical by contact with the facts of life, and where he often inculcates his precepts in homely and racy English. In his political writing he endeavours, not always successfully, to be popular, and to gain the ear of a wider audience. In the opening chapters of his Two Treatises on Government the effort to attain this popularity in phraseology is clearly seen, and the effort is not unsuccessful. But it quickly dies away. The student and the literary recluse assert themselves over the pamphleteer: and the style presently falls into the orderly and correct prose of the literary theorist, and deserts the more lively outbursts of the partisan politician. But if Locke is never original in his style, and never shows the force and vigour of one who speaks straight to the deeper instincts of human nature, we must still accord to him the praise of regularity, of dignity, of scrupulous accuracy in diction, up to the measure of logical accuracy to which his thought attained.  3
 
 
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