If you had asked Thomas Jefferson who were his three top thinkers he would have replied Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke. We chose this week’s hero because when we looked him up,we found he illustrated something very profound, but also very trite, about heroes and about people in general.
Jefferson was right. Locke is a towering figure by any standards. leave aside that he was an excellent teacher and doctor. His Two Treatises of Government had a profound effect on the Founding Fathers of he United States. His contributions to philosophy are immense, effortlessly bridging Bacon and Spinoza, and thereby opening the way to the marvellous Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. His writings against slavery, in favour of religious toleration and for liberalism in general seem to lie at the root of the modern world. His contributions to economic theory were far from negligible.
Yet this anti slaver by night was a keen instigator of the dreadful slave codes of South Carolina in his day job. This founder of liberalism advocated compulsory work for the children of the poor from age three onwards, to tap their productivity and instil a healthy work ethic. Enterprising readers will no doubt find many more examples of how he was not an all round nice guy of the sort so beloved of Hollywood movies. Few great men and women are. Few ordinary people are. Locke had a living to earn, and like the rest of us was a child of his times. if he saw amazingly clearly on some issues, then that is to his credit. If he took things for granted that we now find odd or barbaric, he is not alone. It wasn’t so very long ago that smoking was seen as normal, admirable, and a certain guarantor of both public wisdom and private virtue.There are many today who would love to use his faults to close down his work. They are the enemies, the sorts that fill up the academies and secret police departments in totalitarian states. Locke and his followers discussed ideas, not people. They did all the good stuff in History.
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