#4. John Locke

“In the world of thought, it was a political philosophy which made rights the foundation of the social order. . . . The first famous exponent of this philosophy was Locke, in whom the dominant conception is the indefeasibility of private rights.” –R. H. Tawney

This ranking’s “top six” captures the most important individual in each of Western history’s six most important eras. Martin Luther (#6) catalyzed the Reformation, and James Watt (#5) powered the Industrial Revolution. With four eras to go, representing them is what we can call my “Mount Rushmore” of Western history — the West’s four most influential people ever. Like the 26 names that came before them, each of these figures contributed essential components to some modernizing leap forward. Still, compared to the last 26, the top four played an even more consequential role as a part of their historical movement.

Today’s historical figure was a part of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that, among its many ideas, modernized our approach to government. During this “Age of Reason,” Western philosophers analyzed preconceived notions about government with such relentless rhetoric and logic that they inspired permanent political change. Of the many who did so, one man stands considerably taller and more impactful than the rest. His name was John Locke, and he’s now chiseled on our historical Mount Rushmore as the fourth most influential figure in Western history.


Our knowledge and beliefs are handed down by prior generations, often despite their inaccuracy or unreasonability; we believe things because we were told to believe them by someone who seemed to know what they were talking about. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, a new movement prided itself on challenging these preconceptions. For philosophers of this movement, nothing (not even Christianity) was off limits. The Enlightenment, embodied in France by its patriarch Voltaire (#22), challenged everything.

Nowhere was this furious attack on traditional knowledge more relevant than government. In order to codify the best approach to governing, Enlightened philosophers asked some of the most fundamental political questions one can ponder. Do we need government? Why do we have it? From where do governments derive their power? How powerful should governments be? To what extent should a government’s citizens have influence over it?

We know how these questions were answered for most of history. Indeed, these answers offer sobering reminders of our subjugated past. In almost every historical civilization, autocrats and oligarchs had total control over their people. That power was justified either because their fathers had total control before them, or because they had soldiers at their side and/or priests in their corner. With few exceptions, the people’s authority over the government was almost non-existent.

Heading into the Enlightenment, the West was still entrenched in an age of absolutism. The prevailing Western political premise — the “divine right of kings” — insisted that God, not wanting to be bothered with micromanaging every kingdom’s day-to-day governing, delegated authority to monarchs to do it for Him. This ideology was supported by the typically flawless logic of theocrats; if God, in His infinite wisdom, did not want a certain king in power, then God had the power to remove him. This widespread belief justified unchecked authority for most of Western Europe’s powerful sovereigns.

And then the Enlightenment happened. The result was history’s most important political pivot.


Before we get into the philosophical specifics, let’s first interrogate a common American claim, an interrogation that can serve as a gateway into the mind of some Enlightenment thinkers:

“It’s a free country.”

What does that mean? Usually, people say it as a flippant response to someone who asks to do something they’re clearly allowed to do. “It’s a free country,” we say. “You can do whatever you want.”

But that’s not true, is it. We’re not allowed to kill, assault, or steal, for example. We can’t drive while drunk, or at a hundred miles per hour on our way to work, or park wherever we want when we get there. There are hundreds of restrictions placed on us in this supposedly “free country.” You certainly cannot “do whatever you want.” Though none of the above actions break any natural laws — that is, the mechanical laws that govern the universe, like the ones outlined by Galileo (#12) and Einstein (#11) — they do break political ones.

Many of these restrictions are probably for the best. Consider some of those limits: don’t kill, don’t assault, don’t drive recklessly. While these laws do curtail our freedom of choice, they also mean our freedom of choice does not overrule others’ right to safety. I don’t have the right to kill you because you have the right to live without being killed. Those two rights cannot coexist, and we choose to prioritize the latter.

But who protects that right to live or not get assaulted? Therein lies the need for government. It creates and enforces laws. Despite our deep political differences today, we usually come together on wanting the government to protect us from being killed.[1] Where we’re not as united, however, is when we consider how far the government should go to provide or ensure things like safety, prosperity, health, and any number of other benefits. How one evaluates the extent to which government should intervene in its citizens’ lives goes a long way toward determining one’s political ideology.[2]


We’re now primed enough to examine the first notable attempt in modern history to answer the earlier basic questions about government.

Before Locke, many of those fundamental questions were well explored by Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).[3] The messy English Civil War of the 1640s deeply affected his political ideology. In one of political history’s greatest works, 1651’s “Leviathan,” Hobbes tackles the above questions and dilemmas with a series of premises that justify an extremely powerful government — though with one critical limitation.

He first determines the necessity of government by coining an important term in moral and political philosophy — our “state of nature.” In other words, what is man’s natural state? If there were no government to protect and civilize us from cradle to grave, what would mankind be like?

Hobbes believed we’d be chaotic. Without what he called a “common power,” we’d have “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death.” He theorized that without this strong government, “the life of man” would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

That’s our state of nature, says Hobbes. We’re innately greedy. We’d selfishly kill, harm, and steal from each other in order to improve our own lives. His work’s title revealed us as the Biblical “Leviathan” — an unruly monster.

Therefore, to control our basest instincts, Hobbes proposed that we need a strong government with broad power. Here’s where Hobbes introduces another fundamental phrase of political philosophy: the social contract.[4] Social contract theory suggests there’s a general, unwritten agreement between the state and its people — the government and the governed — that helps maintain the order craved by Hobbesian philosophy. In the agreement, the people cede rights to the state — for example, our natural abilities to kill, harm, and drive a hundred miles per hour — in exchange for the state protecting us from each other. And, since we are not to be trusted, the government should be empowered with considerable authority to best ensure this protection.

Though this concept predated Hobbes, he added a progressive idea. His model government, though extremely strong, was not, unlike most governments throughout history, all-powerful. Hobbes felt that the government, too, must have a limit. He said that part of the government’s social contract responsibility is protecting a certain “natural right” — a right with which we’re born.

There’s only one natural right, according to Hobbes, but it’s a big one: the right to life. Not only must the government protect our right to live from others that might want to infringe upon it, but the government itself must also respect that right. If it doesn’t, it has failed. It has broken the social contract. Short of that, Hobbes gives the state wide latitude to control its people so they do not return to their chaotic state of nature.

By modern standards, Hobbesian government sounds wildly conservative.[5] However, for the period, it was a rather liberal step. In an era when the “divine right of kings” propped up monarchs, Hobbes was the first to invert this power structure and elevate man’s “natural” right to live. Essentially, it wasn’t that God delegated his omnipotent authority to kings, it was that God gave us a natural right while the king was given the authority to protect that right. In other words, the state was subservient to our right to live. Though not nearly as liberal as the ideas of future philosophers, we can call this a critical moment in Western political theory.[6] More relevant to today’s Top 30 entry, Hobbes placed a cornerstone around which John Locke built a towering ideology.


When Hobbes published “Leviathan” in 1651, John Locke was a 19-year-old Puritan raised by an educated family just outside Bristol. He attended Oxford, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually earned a degree in medicine in 1675. Already aged 43, it seemed history’s most important political philosopher was instead going to be a doctor.

Then, one of Locke’s patients redirected his life. His name was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the prestigious Earl of Shaftesbury, a founder of England’s famous Whig Party, and one of the most influential members in Parliament. A liver infection convinced him to seek medical help at Oxford, and it’s there he met Locke. Cooper quickly appreciated Locke’s sharp mind — and his lifesaving surgery. A grateful Lord Cooper invited Locke to be his personal physician and soon after his personal secretary.

For Locke, this relationship was formative. Cooper’s Whig Party was a burgeoning liberal faction which had congealed around an anti-absolutist ideology. Locke’s philosophy became deeply colored by his experiences with Cooper and the Whigs. Their greatest victory came in 1688, when a pressure campaign against the unpopular King James II convinced him to step down in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.[7] This Glorious Revolution was dubbed the “bloodless revolution,” as it was a successful, nonviolent rebellion against a king who had lost the people’s mandate to lead. Unlike Hobbes, whose ideology was informed by England’s bloody civil war, it is the noble Glorious Revolution that primarily molded Locke’s worldview.

An inspired Locke, already 56, finally wrote his first major published work, a book now hailed among the most important in Western history: the “Two Treatises of Government.”[8] The “First Treatise” rebuts “Patriarcha Non Monarcha,” an earlier book from political philosopher Robert Filmer that defended absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. The “Second Treatise” outlines Locke’s ideal political system — a system under which the entire Western world operates today.


To understand Locke’s political ideas, we must first understand his positions on the aforementioned Hobbesian concepts. Regarding man’s “state of nature,” Locke disagreed with Hobbes’s pessimistic take on our natural, evil inclinations. Starting with a different premise, Locke believed we were born as a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate.[9] All our knowledge and beliefs develop not as a result of innate tendencies, but from experience. (In psychology’s popular “nature versus nurture” debate, Locke would have very much sided with nurture and Hobbes with nature.)

As a result, Locke has much more faith in humanity. His view of our state of nature appeals to the best of us. He thinks that under the right circumstances, we can be reasonable, fair, and decent. We can therefore be trusted to problem-solve — to come up with the best answers to fit certain situations. We can be good.

For that reason, Locke believes Hobbes’s nearly absolutist state is unnecessary. In fact, it can lead to more problems than it solves. Like the absence of government, the common man’s historical struggle against tyranny also leads to bloodshed.[10] That struggle may even embitter the common man and turn him cruel. It’s that cruelty which Hobbes says requires a strong state to control a people, but Locke implies that it can be the government itself that soured the people’s disposition in the first place.

Thinking Hobbes’s premise flawed and his conclusion self-fulfilling, Locke edited the social contract. Whereas Hobbes only granted to man a single natural right — the right to life — Locke believed all men were born with three rights: life, liberty, and property. These broad new rights were considerably more liberal. “Liberty” could entail any number of evolving freedoms and guarantees. Meanwhile, “property” included all possessions. Locke believed a person’s labor was infused with inherent value to a state, and a laborer worked in order to have property and possessions. If the government could violate one’s property, one’s motivation to work decreased, which then hurt the strength of a civilization.

Rarely had the masses been treated with such respect. Locke believed common people had a role to play in a successful civilization, and they should therefore be treated like valued citizens. The state’s reason for being was not merely to maintain order; it should also oversee its citizens’ welfare by safeguarding their natural rights. The best way to do that was not only by protecting the people through laws, but also not overreaching into its people’s lives. In other words, the power of the government should be limited.

Importantly, Locke also outlined what should occur if the government breached its end of the social contract, which would mean it did not protect citizens’ rights to life, liberty, or property. Such a violation triggers a fourth right: the right to rebel (or the right of revolution). In essence, if the government failed the people, the people should get a new government.

It’s perhaps the most important idea in the history of political science. Even Hobbes had fallen short of such a proposal. Though both men placed the divine right within us instead of within kings, Locke went further and rejected the hereditary, near-absolutist model altogether. The state doesn’t have inherent authority. Authority is loaned to it by the people. The social contract is revocable.

Locke’s other ideas in “Two Treatises” — and various works over the next 15 years — now come across as a veritable wellspring of modern political theory. His model government had branches with separated powers and checks and balances between them. Like a good Whig, he promoted a legislative branch comprised of the people’s representatives. He blasted hereditary rule. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” he pushes back against another Hobbesian belief — that government should promote religious uniformity to create an efficient society — by insisting on a separation of church and state. He wanted all faiths, even non-Christians, treated equally under the law.[11] All of his arguments supported his main thesis — that the best kind of government is a limited government.

In 1704, John Locke died at 72 having never had a wife or children. Yet, he soon became the grandfather of a revolution.


Locke’s political ideology is now called classical liberalism. It’s founded on the premise that government gets its legitimacy not from divine right, hereditary authority, or military strength but instead from the consent of the governed for the purposes of safeguarding our unalienable rights. That probably sounds familiar to you — not because you’ve read Locke, but because, at some point in your life, your most boring history teacher made you read the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The following italicized text comes from its second paragraph:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… Locke said of man that he is “by nature free, equal, and independent.” He believed we’re all born a “tabula rasa” and with the same natural rights.
  • …that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Though the founding fathers swapped in the last bit, this sentiment is clearly lifted from Locke, who noted that the reason man needed government was “to preserve himself, his liberty, and property.”
  • That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… Locke believed that the point of government is to protect our natural rights, a power made possible “by the will and determination of the majority.”
  • …that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. . . . Locke asserted “the people shall be the judge” of a government and its efficacy, and they have a right and obligation to rebel against a government that’s not doing its job and replace it with one that will.

Though it was not until 70 years after Locke’s death that the Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson (#24) with input from the rest of the Continental Congress, we could essentially call Locke its co-author. Many of the colonial complaints in the years leading up to their revolution — taxation without representation, security in one’s homes and possessions, due process of law — echoed the greatest philosopher of the country from which they would soon separate.

The revolutionary period at the end of the eighteenth century can be seen as the culmination of the Enlightenment, as it was the Enlightenment that offered justification for the revolution. The American founding fathers were well-read, and nothing more inspired their movement than the Enlightenment’s ideals. The colonial rebels were the first to put into action the sentiments of a movement that, to that point, was mostly just an intellectual exercise. America’s founding fathers received political ideas from other Enlightenment philosophers — Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Baron de Montesquieu, and Voltaire (#22), to name a few — but none of them rivaled Locke’s influence.

Importantly, the impact of Locke didn’t end when 1783’s Treaty of Paris ended hostilities between Britain and America. It was then time for the Americans to govern. By the end of the 1780s, they settled on a document that has guided the United States government ever since: the U.S. Constitution. Look closely enough at its parchment, and once again we find John Locke’s fingerprints.

As advocated by Locke’s social contract, the U.S. created a government to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The first three articles of the Constitution go on to create three branches of government, each with the ability to check the others. Moreover, the most powerful of the three, the legislative, contained elected representatives.[12] Shortly after the states ratified the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was added to it, protecting Americans’ freedom of life, liberty, property, and freedom of worship. Lockean ideas all.

Meanwhile, the Americans built into their government elections and ways to amend their governing document. If the people did not like their government, no longer would they have to rise up in a violent rebellion and slay the sovereign; they merely had to wait until the next election and vote out who they didn’t like or gain enough consensus to modify the government itself. Thus, built into the country’s governing document was a peaceful “right to rebel” if the government did not have the consent of the governed. The weapon of revolution used to be bullets, but it became ballots.

Locke’s impact, of course, was not limited to the United States. Locke and the American cause soon inspired others. The subsequent French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man mirrors the American ideals inspired by Locke.[13] These ideas slowly spread until the entire Western world followed Locke’s lead. Representative democracies and constitutionally limited monarchies are now the norm across the West and much of the world. Meanwhile, these more limited governments widened the individualistic track on which we began running during Martin Luther’s Reformation, which in turn made it more likely that someone like James Watt could set up the Industrial Revolution and our economic and innovative potential could be unleashed.

In a remarkable and consequential paradigm shift, Locke’s classical liberalism overturned the traditional power structure of Western government. Before him, most countries were governed by an almost omnipotent state controlling the people and doing whatever it wanted in the process. The implementation of Locke’s ideas meant that governments, imbued with limited authority, were subordinate to us. We aren’t the only ones who have rules we must follow; the government does as well. A radical idea at the time has become commonplace today.

The influence of such a reversal is profound. With a government that is expected to be responsive to the governed, we contribute to that governing. We influence and can even control the government’s agenda. We tell it what to prioritize. Through this process, we can affect our civilization’s politics, economy, culture, society, and science — every way the government can affect our lives.[14] In addition to all of the above, a society having these new, far-reaching abilities justifies Locke’s high ranking on this list. What a colossal change in the way we live and get things done compared to just a short time ago.

Therefore, feeling considerably more confident in our lives, liberty, and property, we can call John Locke the fourth most influential figure in Western history.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]Usually.

[2]The answers to these questions very much determine how a person or group would structure a government and its relationship with the governed, because how one answers these questions reveals their “first principles,” and these first principles justify one’s politics. That’s important to keep in mind when considering modern political discourse. For example, if someone thinks people’s behavior and decision-making can be trusted more than the government, or if they generally think life is fair, they’re more likely to bend libertarian and hold small-government positions like lower taxes, less economic regulation, minimal restrictions on gun ownership, and more. If someone thinks individuals don’t do what’s best for the group and government can be an agent of good, or that life isn’t fair and there should be efforts to equalize the playing field, they’ll likely develop opposite political positions. From the premise sprung logical conclusions. If you can’t identify and change someone’s premise, you have little chance to change their stance on a political issue. Change the premise, change the conclusion.

[3]Hobbes didn’t make the Top 30, but he did make a showing in the “Next 30.”

[4]Though the concept of a social contract predates Hobbes (all the way back to, of course, the ancient Greeks), Hobbes formalizes the term for the modern world.

[5]Someday I’m going to have a post that airs my grievances with the modern uses of “liberal” and “conservative.” Politicians and talking heads have mangled their meanings. For now, however, just keep in mind that for most of world history, “liberal” meant the promotion of rapid change and devolving more power to the people while “conservative” meant traditionalism and top-down politics.

[6]Wow, Hobbes was pretty important. Wait a minute… should he have been in the top 30 after all? WHAT HAVE I DONE?!

[7]There’s a lot to say here. You are advised to skip this footnote. *Inhale* After the Tudor monarch Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) started the Anglican Reformation in order to divorce his first wife, English Catholics and Anglicans developed an acrimonious relationship. For much of post-Reformation English history, an Anglican majority, including powerful state officials, did its best to marginalize English Catholics, who generally lacked full political rights and protections. Henry’s oldest daughter, the stubbornly half-Spanish and fully-Catholic Queen Mary (r. 1553-1558), exacted some “bloody” revenge during her reign, which deepened Anglican animosity toward their denominational archrivals. When Mary died without heirs and the throne passed to her younger sister, the Anglican Queen Elizabeth (#19), the hope was that Anglicans would forever rule England. Catholics were again ostracized, though the Stuart Dynasty, which followed the Tudors after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, had a soft spot for them. The second Stuart king, the Anglican Charles I (r. 1625-1649), married a French Catholic, Mary, though their two surviving sons and potential heirs to the throne, Charles and James, were raised Anglican. Parliament, however, didn’t care much for Charles, and it soon severed his body’s close relationship with his head. The terrified sons fled to the welcoming arms of cousin Louis XIV, King of France (r. 1643-1715). While there, younger brother James was wooed by Catholicism and converted to his mother’s sect at the age of 35. Eventually, the elder son, Charles, was invited back to England to become King Charles II (r. 1660-1685), and he remained so until his death in 1685. Unfortunately for his country’s Anglicans, he had no children, so the throne therefore passed to his younger brother, the converted Catholic James, who became King James II. Most English, including Parliament, bristled at the return of a Catholic monarch after all this time, but they remained patient. James was already in his 50s and his only two children, daughters Mary and Anne, were born before his conversion and had been raised Anglican. Parliament resolved to merely outlive James and wait for the Crown to pass to Mary. But then, James’s second wife — 25 years his junior and an Italian Catholic — became pregnant. Knowing the child would be raised Catholic by his or her Catholic parents, England waited with bated breath until the child was born and the sex revealed; since a boy would trump Mary in the line of succession, the Anglican majority hoped it would be a girl. The baby was, of course, a boy, and he was named, of course, James. Baby James was indeed baptized Catholic, and theoretically he could be the link to a centuries-long Catholic line of English Stuarts. That just wouldn’t do for Parliament and the English people. Plotting with James’s daughter Mary — whose marriage to her Dutch cousin William, the Prince of Orange, gave them command of thousands of soldiers in the Netherlands ready to support many of the English people — Parliament demanded James step down in favor of the pair. Seeing the writing on the wall and picturing his head in a basket, James abdicated. William and Mary became William III and Mary II, joint-sovereigns of England after whom the American College of William & Mary was soon named. Shortly after, Parliament rammed through a liberal agenda, including the English Bill of Rights, to limit the sovereign’s power. This is the moment Parliament permanently eclipsed the monarchy as the more politically potent force in England. *Exhale* Now you know why that was a footnote.

[8]Full title: “Two Treatises of Government: In the Former, The False Principles, and Foundation 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.” I assure you what he lacked in titling skills he made up with political insight.

[9]It’s actually in a concurrent work to the Two Treatises, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” where he laid out this epistemological philosophy. It blends well with the more major publication, and using its ideas here helps us understand Locke’s reasoning. 

[10]A position later taken by Karl Marx (#9)

[11]Exception: Catholics. Still, judged against his era, his toleration to everyone else was progressive. The persistent anti-Catholic sentiments of Anglo-American culture stem from the fear of Catholics being more dedicated to a foreign leader (the pope) than their local state. It’s not the faith itself that bothered Locke and other non-Catholics — it’s the split loyalties. In America, similar anti-Catholic bias has been around from the beginning. Early in colonial America, the colony of Maryland — named after the aforefootnoted Catholic queen consort of Charles I, Mary — was founded by Lord Baltimore as a safe-haven for Catholics who were frequently mistreated either in England or another British colony. In 1649, its colonial government passed the first religious toleration act in American history. Notably, it only protected Protestants and Catholics, not all faiths. In other words, one could be any religion they wanted, as long as it was Christian.

[12]Yes, the legislative branch is more powerful than the president. Imagine if the power of all 535 members of Congress were condensed into an individual. That person could pass any law they wanted and, if necessary, override the president’s veto. The Legislator could declare war on whomever he wanted, and he could deny any high-ranking executive appointee, including judges, and he would even have a chance to amend the Constitution itself if enough states were on board. The president cannot initiate or pass legislation, nor do the steps of amending the Constitution go through the executive branch. The legislative branch is immensely powerful, even if its cumbersome structure naturally cedes leadership to the chief executive.

[13]Of course, the French experiment eventually went berserk. Excessive revolutionary leaders soon stopped protecting life, liberty, and property in a paranoid counterrevolutionary purge. The French Revolution’s failure was a result of being inspired by Locke’s liberalism when rebelling but not when operating their new government. The Americans did a cleaner job of it.

[14]Though we sometimes are frustrated with how slowly government acts on an important issue, the cause of that slow reaction almost always stems from a considerable fraction of the population disagreeing with what we want to do. That’s the blessing and curse of democratically-based governments. Other people besides the majority get a say.

“In the world of thought, it was a political philosophy which made rights the foundation of the social order. . . . The first famous exponent of this philosophy was Locke, in whom the dominant conception is the indefeasibility of private rights.” –R. H. Tawney

This ranking’s “top six” captures the most important individual in each of Western history’s six most important eras. Martin Luther (#6) catalyzed the Reformation, and James Watt (#5) powered the Industrial Revolution. With four eras to go, representing them is what we can call my “Mount Rushmore” of Western history — the West’s four most influential people ever. Like the 26 names that came before them, each of these figures contributed essential components to some modernizing leap forward. Still, compared to the last 26, the top four played an even more consequential role as a part of their historical movement.

Today’s historical figure was a part of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that, among its many ideas, modernized our approach to government. During this “Age of Reason,” Western philosophers analyzed preconceived notions about government with such relentless rhetoric and logic that they inspired permanent political change. Of the many who did so, one man stands considerably taller and more impactful than the rest. His name was John Locke, and he’s now chiseled on our historical Mount Rushmore as the fourth most influential figure in Western history.


Our knowledge and beliefs are handed down by prior generations, often despite their inaccuracy or unreasonability; we believe things because we were told to believe them by someone who seemed to know what they were talking about. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, a new movement prided itself on challenging these preconceptions. For philosophers of this movement, nothing (not even Christianity) was off limits. The Enlightenment, embodied in France by its patriarch Voltaire (#22), challenged everything.

Nowhere was this furious attack on traditional knowledge more relevant than government. In order to codify the best approach to governing, Enlightened philosophers asked some of the most fundamental political questions one can ponder. Do we need government? Why do we have it? From where do governments derive their power? How powerful should governments be? To what extent should a government’s citizens have influence over it?

We know how these questions were answered for most of history. Indeed, these answers offer sobering reminders of our subjugated past. In almost every historical civilization, autocrats and oligarchs had total control over their people. That power was justified either because their fathers had total control before them, or because they had soldiers at their side and/or priests in their corner. With few exceptions, the people’s authority over the government was almost non-existent.

Heading into the Enlightenment, the West was still entrenched in an age of absolutism. The prevailing Western political premise — the “divine right of kings” — insisted that God, not wanting to be bothered with micromanaging every kingdom’s day-to-day governing, delegated authority to monarchs to do it for Him. This ideology was supported by the typically flawless logic of theocrats; if God, in His infinite wisdom, did not want a certain king in power, then God had the power to remove him. This widespread belief justified unchecked authority for most of Western Europe’s powerful sovereigns.

And then the Enlightenment happened. The result was history’s most important political pivot.


Before we get into the philosophical specifics, let’s first interrogate a common American claim, an interrogation that can serve as a gateway into the mind of some Enlightenment thinkers:

“It’s a free country.”

What does that mean? Usually, people say it as a flippant response to someone who asks to do something they’re clearly allowed to do. “It’s a free country,” we say. “You can do whatever you want.”

But that’s not true, is it. We’re not allowed to kill, assault, or steal, for example. We can’t drive while drunk, or at a hundred miles per hour on our way to work, or park wherever we want when we get there. There are hundreds of restrictions placed on us in this supposedly “free country.” You certainly cannot “do whatever you want.” Though none of the above actions break any natural laws — that is, the mechanical laws that govern the universe, like the ones outlined by Galileo (#12) and Einstein (#11) — they do break political ones.

Many of these restrictions are probably for the best. Consider some of those limits: don’t kill, don’t assault, don’t drive recklessly. While these laws do curtail our freedom of choice, they also mean our freedom of choice does not overrule others’ right to safety. I don’t have the right to kill you because you have the right to live without being killed. Those two rights cannot coexist, and we choose to prioritize the latter.

But who protects that right to live or not get assaulted? Therein lies the need for government. It creates and enforces laws. Despite our deep political differences today, we usually come together on wanting the government to protect us from being killed.[1] Where we’re not as united, however, is when we consider how far the government should go to provide or ensure things like safety, prosperity, health, and any number of other benefits. How one evaluates the extent to which government should intervene in its citizens’ lives goes a long way toward determining one’s political ideology.[2]


We’re now primed enough to examine the first notable attempt in modern history to answer the earlier basic questions about government.

Before Locke, many of those fundamental questions were well explored by Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).[3] The messy English Civil War of the 1640s deeply affected his political ideology. In one of political history’s greatest works, 1651’s “Leviathan,” Hobbes tackles the above questions and dilemmas with a series of premises that justify an extremely powerful government — though with one critical limitation.

He first determines the necessity of government by coining an important term in moral and political philosophy — our “state of nature.” In other words, what is man’s natural state? If there were no government to protect and civilize us from cradle to grave, what would mankind be like?

Hobbes believed we’d be chaotic. Without what he called a “common power,” we’d have “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death.” He theorized that without this strong government, “the life of man” would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

That’s our state of nature, says Hobbes. We’re innately greedy. We’d selfishly kill, harm, and steal from each other in order to improve our own lives. His work’s title revealed us as the Biblical “Leviathan” — an unruly monster.

Therefore, to control our basest instincts, Hobbes proposed that we need a strong government with broad power. Here’s where Hobbes introduces another fundamental phrase of political philosophy: the social contract.[4] Social contract theory suggests there’s a general, unwritten agreement between the state and its people — the government and the governed — that helps maintain the order craved by Hobbesian philosophy. In the agreement, the people cede rights to the state — for example, our natural abilities to kill, harm, and drive a hundred miles per hour — in exchange for the state protecting us from each other. And, since we are not to be trusted, the government should be empowered with considerable authority to best ensure this protection.

Though this concept predated Hobbes, he added a progressive idea. His model government, though extremely strong, was not, unlike most governments throughout history, all-powerful. Hobbes felt that the government, too, must have a limit. He said that part of the government’s social contract responsibility is protecting a certain “natural right” — a right with which we’re born.

There’s only one natural right, according to Hobbes, but it’s a big one: the right to life. Not only must the government protect our right to live from others that might want to infringe upon it, but the government itself must also respect that right. If it doesn’t, it has failed. It has broken the social contract. Short of that, Hobbes gives the state wide latitude to control its people so they do not return to their chaotic state of nature.

By modern standards, Hobbesian government sounds wildly conservative.[5] However, for the period, it was a rather liberal step. In an era when the “divine right of kings” propped up monarchs, Hobbes was the first to invert this power structure and elevate man’s “natural” right to live. Essentially, it wasn’t that God delegated his omnipotent authority to kings, it was that God gave us a natural right while the king was given the authority to protect that right. In other words, the state was subservient to our right to live. Though not nearly as liberal as the ideas of future philosophers, we can call this a critical moment in Western political theory.[6] More relevant to today’s Top 30 entry, Hobbes placed a cornerstone around which John Locke built a towering ideology.


When Hobbes published “Leviathan” in 1651, John Locke was a 19-year-old Puritan raised by an educated family just outside Bristol. He attended Oxford, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually earned a degree in medicine in 1675. Already aged 43, it seemed history’s most important political philosopher was instead going to be a doctor.

Then, one of Locke’s patients redirected his life. His name was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the prestigious Earl of Shaftesbury, a founder of England’s famous Whig Party, and one of the most influential members in Parliament. A liver infection convinced him to seek medical help at Oxford, and it’s there he met Locke. Cooper quickly appreciated Locke’s sharp mind — and his lifesaving surgery. A grateful Lord Cooper invited Locke to be his personal physician and soon after his personal secretary.

For Locke, this relationship was formative. Cooper’s Whig Party was a burgeoning liberal faction which had congealed around an anti-absolutist ideology. Locke’s philosophy became deeply colored by his experiences with Cooper and the Whigs. Their greatest victory came in 1688, when a pressure campaign against the unpopular King James II convinced him to step down in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.[7] This Glorious Revolution was dubbed the “bloodless revolution,” as it was a successful, nonviolent rebellion against a king who had lost the people’s mandate to lead. Unlike Hobbes, whose ideology was informed by England’s bloody civil war, it is the noble Glorious Revolution that primarily molded Locke’s worldview.

An inspired Locke, already 56, finally wrote his first major published work, a book now hailed among the most important in Western history: the “Two Treatises of Government.”[8] The “First Treatise” rebuts “Patriarcha Non Monarcha,” an earlier book from political philosopher Robert Filmer that defended absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. The “Second Treatise” outlines Locke’s ideal political system — a system under which the entire Western world operates today.


To understand Locke’s political ideas, we must first understand his positions on the aforementioned Hobbesian concepts. Regarding man’s “state of nature,” Locke disagreed with Hobbes’s pessimistic take on our natural, evil inclinations. Starting with a different premise, Locke believed we were born as a “tabula rasa,” or blank slate.[9] All our knowledge and beliefs develop not as a result of innate tendencies, but from experience. (In psychology’s popular “nature versus nurture” debate, Locke would have very much sided with nurture and Hobbes with nature.)

As a result, Locke has much more faith in humanity. His view of our state of nature appeals to the best of us. He thinks that under the right circumstances, we can be reasonable, fair, and decent. We can therefore be trusted to problem-solve — to come up with the best answers to fit certain situations. We can be good.

For that reason, Locke believes Hobbes’s nearly absolutist state is unnecessary. In fact, it can lead to more problems than it solves. Like the absence of government, the common man’s historical struggle against tyranny also leads to bloodshed.[10] That struggle may even embitter the common man and turn him cruel. It’s that cruelty which Hobbes says requires a strong state to control a people, but Locke implies that it can be the government itself that soured the people’s disposition in the first place.

Thinking Hobbes’s premise flawed and his conclusion self-fulfilling, Locke edited the social contract. Whereas Hobbes only granted to man a single natural right — the right to life — Locke believed all men were born with three rights: life, liberty, and property. These broad new rights were considerably more liberal. “Liberty” could entail any number of evolving freedoms and guarantees. Meanwhile, “property” included all possessions. Locke believed a person’s labor was infused with inherent value to a state, and a laborer worked in order to have property and possessions. If the government could violate one’s property, one’s motivation to work decreased, which then hurt the strength of a civilization.

Rarely had the masses been treated with such respect. Locke believed common people had a role to play in a successful civilization, and they should therefore be treated like valued citizens. The state’s reason for being was not merely to maintain order; it should also oversee its citizens’ welfare by safeguarding their natural rights. The best way to do that was not only by protecting the people through laws, but also not overreaching into its people’s lives. In other words, the power of the government should be limited.

Importantly, Locke also outlined what should occur if the government breached its end of the social contract, which would mean it did not protect citizens’ rights to life, liberty, or property. Such a violation triggers a fourth right: the right to rebel (or the right of revolution). In essence, if the government failed the people, the people should get a new government.

It’s perhaps the most important idea in the history of political science. Even Hobbes had fallen short of such a proposal. Though both men placed the divine right within us instead of within kings, Locke went further and rejected the hereditary, near-absolutist model altogether. The state doesn’t have inherent authority. Authority is loaned to it by the people. The social contract is revocable.

Locke’s other ideas in “Two Treatises” — and various works over the next 15 years — now come across as a veritable wellspring of modern political theory. His model government had branches with separated powers and checks and balances between them. Like a good Whig, he promoted a legislative branch comprised of the people’s representatives. He blasted hereditary rule. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” he pushes back against another Hobbesian belief — that government should promote religious uniformity to create an efficient society — by insisting on a separation of church and state. He wanted all faiths, even non-Christians, treated equally under the law.[11] All of his arguments supported his main thesis — that the best kind of government is a limited government.

In 1704, John Locke died at 72 having never had a wife or children. Yet, he soon became the grandfather of a revolution.


Locke’s political ideology is now called classical liberalism. It’s founded on the premise that government gets its legitimacy not from divine right, hereditary authority, or military strength but instead from the consent of the governed for the purposes of safeguarding our unalienable rights. That probably sounds familiar to you — not because you’ve read Locke, but because, at some point in your life, your most boring history teacher made you read the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The following italicized text comes from its second paragraph:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… Locke said of man that he is “by nature free, equal, and independent.” He believed we’re all born a “tabula rasa” and with the same natural rights.
  • …that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Though the founding fathers swapped in the last bit, this sentiment is clearly lifted from Locke, who noted that the reason man needed government was “to preserve himself, his liberty, and property.”
  • That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… Locke believed that the point of government is to protect our natural rights, a power made possible “by the will and determination of the majority.”
  • …that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. . . . Locke asserted “the people shall be the judge” of a government and its efficacy, and they have a right and obligation to rebel against a government that’s not doing its job and replace it with one that will.

Though it was not until 70 years after Locke’s death that the Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson (#24) with input from the rest of the Continental Congress, we could essentially call Locke its co-author. Many of the colonial complaints in the years leading up to their revolution — taxation without representation, security in one’s homes and possessions, due process of law — echoed the greatest philosopher of the country from which they would soon separate.

The revolutionary period at the end of the eighteenth century can be seen as the culmination of the Enlightenment, as it was the Enlightenment that offered justification for the revolution. The American founding fathers were well-read, and nothing more inspired their movement than the Enlightenment’s ideals. The colonial rebels were the first to put into action the sentiments of a movement that, to that point, was mostly just an intellectual exercise. America’s founding fathers received political ideas from other Enlightenment philosophers — Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Baron de Montesquieu, and Voltaire (#22), to name a few — but none of them rivaled Locke’s influence.

Importantly, the impact of Locke didn’t end when 1783’s Treaty of Paris ended hostilities between Britain and America. It was then time for the Americans to govern. By the end of the 1780s, they settled on a document that has guided the United States government ever since: the U.S. Constitution. Look closely enough at its parchment, and once again we find John Locke’s fingerprints.

As advocated by Locke’s social contract, the U.S. created a government to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” The first three articles of the Constitution go on to create three branches of government, each with the ability to check the others. Moreover, the most powerful of the three, the legislative, contained elected representatives.[12] Shortly after the states ratified the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was added to it, protecting Americans’ freedom of life, liberty, property, and freedom of worship. Lockean ideas all.

Meanwhile, the Americans built into their government elections and ways to amend their governing document. If the people did not like their government, no longer would they have to rise up in a violent rebellion and slay the sovereign; they merely had to wait until the next election and vote out who they didn’t like or gain enough consensus to modify the government itself. Thus, built into the country’s governing document was a peaceful “right to rebel” if the government did not have the consent of the governed. The weapon of revolution used to be bullets, but it became ballots.

Locke’s impact, of course, was not limited to the United States. Locke and the American cause soon inspired others. The subsequent French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man mirrors the American ideals inspired by Locke.[13] These ideas slowly spread until the entire Western world followed Locke’s lead. Representative democracies and constitutionally limited monarchies are now the norm across the West and much of the world. Meanwhile, these more limited governments widened the individualistic track on which we began running during Martin Luther’s Reformation, which in turn made it more likely that someone like James Watt could set up the Industrial Revolution and our economic and innovative potential could be unleashed.

In a remarkable and consequential paradigm shift, Locke’s classical liberalism overturned the traditional power structure of Western government. Before him, most countries were governed by an almost omnipotent state controlling the people and doing whatever it wanted in the process. The implementation of Locke’s ideas meant that governments, imbued with limited authority, were subordinate to us. We aren’t the only ones who have rules we must follow; the government does as well. A radical idea at the time has become commonplace today.

The influence of such a reversal is profound. With a government that is expected to be responsive to the governed, we contribute to that governing. We influence and can even control the government’s agenda. We tell it what to prioritize. Through this process, we can affect our civilization’s politics, economy, culture, society, and science — every way the government can affect our lives.[14] In addition to all of the above, a society having these new, far-reaching abilities justifies Locke’s high ranking on this list. What a colossal change in the way we live and get things done compared to just a short time ago.

Therefore, feeling considerably more confident in our lives, liberty, and property, we can call John Locke the fourth most influential figure in Western history.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]Usually.

[2]The answers to these questions very much determine how a person or group would structure a government and its relationship with the governed, because how one answers these questions reveals their “first principles,” and these first principles justify one’s politics. That’s important to keep in mind when considering modern political discourse. For example, if someone thinks people’s behavior and decision-making can be trusted more than the government, or if they generally think life is fair, they’re more likely to bend libertarian and hold small-government positions like lower taxes, less economic regulation, minimal restrictions on gun ownership, and more. If someone thinks individuals don’t do what’s best for the group and government can be an agent of good, or that life isn’t fair and there should be efforts to equalize the playing field, they’ll likely develop opposite political positions. From the premise sprung logical conclusions. If you can’t identify and change someone’s premise, you have little chance to change their stance on a political issue. Change the premise, change the conclusion.

[3]Hobbes didn’t make the Top 30, but he did make a showing in the “Next 30.”

[4]Though the concept of a social contract predates Hobbes (all the way back to, of course, the ancient Greeks), Hobbes formalizes the term for the modern world.

[5]Someday I’m going to have a post that airs my grievances with the modern uses of “liberal” and “conservative.” Politicians and talking heads have mangled their meanings. For now, however, just keep in mind that for most of world history, “liberal” meant the promotion of rapid change and devolving more power to the people while “conservative” meant traditionalism and top-down politics.

[6]Wow, Hobbes was pretty important. Wait a minute… should he have been in the top 30 after all? WHAT HAVE I DONE?!

[7]There’s a lot to say here. You are advised to skip this footnote. *Inhale* After the Tudor monarch Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) started the Anglican Reformation in order to divorce his first wife, English Catholics and Anglicans developed an acrimonious relationship. For much of post-Reformation English history, an Anglican majority, including powerful state officials, did its best to marginalize English Catholics, who generally lacked full political rights and protections. Henry’s oldest daughter, the stubbornly half-Spanish and fully-Catholic Queen Mary (r. 1553-1558), exacted some “bloody” revenge during her reign, which deepened Anglican animosity toward their denominational archrivals. When Mary died without heirs and the throne passed to her younger sister, the Anglican Queen Elizabeth (#19), the hope was that Anglicans would forever rule England. Catholics were again ostracized, though the Stuart Dynasty, which followed the Tudors after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, had a soft spot for them. The second Stuart king, the Anglican Charles I (r. 1625-1649), married a French Catholic, Mary, though their two surviving sons and potential heirs to the throne, Charles and James, were raised Anglican. Parliament, however, didn’t care much for Charles, and it soon severed his body’s close relationship with his head. The terrified sons fled to the welcoming arms of cousin Louis XIV, King of France (r. 1643-1715). While there, younger brother James was wooed by Catholicism and converted to his mother’s sect at the age of 35. Eventually, the elder son, Charles, was invited back to England to become King Charles II (r. 1660-1685), and he remained so until his death in 1685. Unfortunately for his country’s Anglicans, he had no children, so the throne therefore passed to his younger brother, the converted Catholic James, who became King James II. Most English, including Parliament, bristled at the return of a Catholic monarch after all this time, but they remained patient. James was already in his 50s and his only two children, daughters Mary and Anne, were born before his conversion and had been raised Anglican. Parliament resolved to merely outlive James and wait for the Crown to pass to Mary. But then, James’s second wife — 25 years his junior and an Italian Catholic — became pregnant. Knowing the child would be raised Catholic by his or her Catholic parents, England waited with bated breath until the child was born and the sex revealed; since a boy would trump Mary in the line of succession, the Anglican majority hoped it would be a girl. The baby was, of course, a boy, and he was named, of course, James. Baby James was indeed baptized Catholic, and theoretically he could be the link to a centuries-long Catholic line of English Stuarts. That just wouldn’t do for Parliament and the English people. Plotting with James’s daughter Mary — whose marriage to her Dutch cousin William, the Prince of Orange, gave them command of thousands of soldiers in the Netherlands ready to support many of the English people — Parliament demanded James step down in favor of the pair. Seeing the writing on the wall and picturing his head in a basket, James abdicated. William and Mary became William III and Mary II, joint-sovereigns of England after whom the American College of William & Mary was soon named. Shortly after, Parliament rammed through a liberal agenda, including the English Bill of Rights, to limit the sovereign’s power. This is the moment Parliament permanently eclipsed the monarchy as the more politically potent force in England. *Exhale* Now you know why that was a footnote.

[8]Full title: “Two Treatises of Government: In the Former, The False Principles, and Foundation 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.” I assure you what he lacked in titling skills he made up with political insight.

[9]It’s actually in a concurrent work to the Two Treatises, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” where he laid out this epistemological philosophy. It blends well with the more major publication, and using its ideas here helps us understand Locke’s reasoning. 

[10]A position later taken by Karl Marx (#9)

[11]Exception: Catholics. Still, judged against his era, his toleration to everyone else was progressive. The persistent anti-Catholic sentiments of Anglo-American culture stem from the fear of Catholics being more dedicated to a foreign leader (the pope) than their local state. It’s not the faith itself that bothered Locke and other non-Catholics — it’s the split loyalties. In America, similar anti-Catholic bias has been around from the beginning. Early in colonial America, the colony of Maryland — named after the aforefootnoted Catholic queen consort of Charles I, Mary — was founded by Lord Baltimore as a safe-haven for Catholics who were frequently mistreated either in England or another British colony. In 1649, its colonial government passed the first religious toleration act in American history. Notably, it only protected Protestants and Catholics, not all faiths. In other words, one could be any religion they wanted, as long as it was Christian.

[12]Yes, the legislative branch is more powerful than the president. Imagine if the power of all 535 members of Congress were condensed into an individual. That person could pass any law they wanted and, if necessary, override the president’s veto. The Legislator could declare war on whomever he wanted, and he could deny any high-ranking executive appointee, including judges, and he would even have a chance to amend the Constitution itself if enough states were on board. The president cannot initiate or pass legislation, nor do the steps of amending the Constitution go through the executive branch. The legislative branch is immensely powerful, even if its cumbersome structure naturally cedes leadership to the chief executive.

[13]Of course, the French experiment eventually went berserk. Excessive revolutionary leaders soon stopped protecting life, liberty, and property in a paranoid counterrevolutionary purge. The French Revolution’s failure was a result of being inspired by Locke’s liberalism when rebelling but not when operating their new government. The Americans did a cleaner job of it.

[14]Though we sometimes are frustrated with how slowly government acts on an important issue, the cause of that slow reaction almost always stems from a considerable fraction of the population disagreeing with what we want to do. That’s the blessing and curse of democratically-based governments. Other people besides the majority get a say.

9 thoughts on “#4. John Locke

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