Early Modern Times – taking Locke down

Early Modern Times - taking Locke down

Dear readers,

My colleague and fellow early modernist Dr. Stephen Snobelen alerted me to this recent Guardian piece describing a rediscovered memoir about John Locke (1632-1704), one of the celebrated fathers of liberalism. An article written by Dr. Felix Waldmann and published in the Journal for Modern History attracted the Guardian’s attention for the memoir’s unflattering portrait of Locke. Waldmann focuses on what the memoir–written by Pierre Des Maizeaux (1672/3-1745)–reveals about Locke as a close reader of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), relying on an anonymous source (referred to as ‘Mr…’ and ‘Mr. T…’) who makes disparaging remarks about Locke. Such comments were a take-down of Locke, or what we might abbreviate as a Locke-down.

Waldmann argues that the criticisms conform with those of James Tyrrell (1642-1719). Tyrrell was a close acquaintance of Locke, first meeting him in 1658 when Locke was a star student at Oxford. Locke’s friend appears to have participated in group discussions in the 1670s which led to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), a key text in British empirical philosophy. Tyrrell published Patriarcha non Monarcha, a critique of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (1680)–which justified absolute monarchy on its supposed inheritance from Adam–in the year following the appearance of Filmer’s tract. Friendly correspondence between Tyrrell and Locke indicates the influence of Tyrrell’s criticisms on Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690)–including similar passages between their books. Thus, in terms of Locke’s major works, he and Tyrrell appear to have been in Locke-step, sharing anti-Patriarchal and even anti-Hollywood and anti-plastic wrap stances–since they were both against a Filmer.

The late 1680s saw a decline in their friendship. Locke complained that Tyrrell had not repaid a loan promptly, and had mishandled oversight over Locke’s possessions during his Dutch exile in 1683-89 (Locke was patronised by the Whig Shaftesbury, a chief opponent of the Catholic king James II). Tyrrell responded in unkind, reporting criticisms of Locke’s Essay at Oxford: that it approached Hobbes’s relativistic ethics in the state of nature (a point echoed in the 1690s by Locke’s erstwhile friend Isaac Newton’s accusation that Locke was a Hobbist). In 1690, Tyrrell complained about the lack of clarity in Locke’s account of divine law. Furthermore, he related that Locke always kept a copy of Hobbes’s Leviathan at his writing table, despite Locke’s steadfast denial that Hobbes influenced his thought in any way. Tyrrell, then, charged that Locke’s work was derivative of Hobbes’s famous treatise named after the Biblical sea monster in the Book of Job. That is to say, Lockean liberalism, which tries to moderate the radicalism of Hobbes’s Leviathan, was a form of whale-tempered plagiarism.

Tyrrell’s remarks on Locke’s character were equally venomous. He described Locke as ‘lazy and nonchalant’ at Oxford, and in general ‘avaricious, vain, envious, and reserved to excess’. Readers may ask themselves whether Tyrrell is to be credited as impartial and objective–i.e., is the account Tyrrell or fake?–or rather Locked in a bitter personal conflict out of jealousy, such that this is no better than philosophical Locker room talk. Is Tyrrell’s claim that Locke was an unoriginal thinker merely his Hobbist-horse as he Locked horns with his former buddy? Perhaps the moral of the story is, to borrow from The Godfather Part II, that philosophers should keep their enemies close, but Locke out their supposed friends.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Locke-and-key Studies Program

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