There are at least three good reasons for a new survey on the works of John Locke.
First of all, since 1947, when Locke’s papers were acquired by the Bodleian Library, scholars have had access not only to his published work, but also to his notebooks, drafts and letters. Furthermore several of Locke’s works have not yet been published or have not properly been examined. His own journal, which he kept for much of his life, is still only partly available in print. Dutch records concerning his exile in Holland have not been fully explored; so, for example, some letters in the Amsterdam University Library shows us that Locke was the first to pay tribute to the role of Descartes in his own thinking, an element that tones down the traditional divide between the two philosophical giants of the seventeenth century. In this respect, as the three editors claim, ‘there has […] never been a better time to be a Locke scholar’ (p. x).
Second, there is a growing need of studying Locke as a man of his own time, a man whose considerations and conclusions were stimulated by the age in which he lived, and whose views cannot be properly understood independently of it.
A third good reason for re-examining Locke’s works is related to the need to reconsider the wide range of his interests. Most current surveys of his thinking neglect his diverse intellectual interests. Contemporary readers might actually ignore that he wrote a seminal work on education, helped draft the constitution of one of England’s North American colonies, produced two significant works of biblical scholarship, published papers on economic theory and wrote several reports on a variety of government affairs. Locke also trained to be a doctor; he was a diplomat and a civil servant; he worked with some of the keenest political minds of his generation, and went into exile under suspicion of sedition.
The structure of this book is clear and straightforward, so as to facilitate quick reference by scholars and students. It starts with biographical information, a chronology of Locke’s works and a chronology based on the years of their publication. This is important piece of information since, by 1688, Locke had written many works but had published only a few. So, for Locke, as for other authors, it is important to distinguish between writings and publication. Many works have often faced vicissitudes independent from the author’s will, being published only posthumously.
The second chapter contains profiles of his contemporaries, especially those who, explicitly or implicitly, influenced him from a philosophical, scientific or political standpoint – even if only in terms of opposition, as in the case of Robert Filmer, from whom Locke differed in many ideas, not last that for which civil society was a macrocosm of a private family; for Locke, it was not. Particularly interesting is, among other things, the intellectual portrait of Isaac Newton by G.A.J. Rogers.
The third chapter, by John Sergeant Richard Willis, extremely useful for Locke scholars, offers the readers a series of portraits of the first critics of his work, from George Berkeley to Leibniz, from John Sergeant to Richard Willis. The fourth chapter, the longest, examines the concepts through which we can grasp the wide range of Locke’s interests. From ‘Absolutism’ to ‘Republicanism’, from ‘Ancient Constitutionalism’ to ‘Morality and Its Demonstration’, from ‘Education and Its Role in Civil Society’ to ‘Toleration’, all the essential problems of Locke’s thought are touched upon. The conceptual entries are by different authors who are usually up to the task – that is, to offer accessible and detailed information on the life and work of a thinker who ‘was a child of the late Reformation and a parent of the early Enlightenment’ (p. 1).
Less conventional is the entry-concept of ‘Ancient Constitutionalism’, written by Clare Jackson. Thanks to letters, documents and works unpublished or overlooked by scholars, the author challenges, at least partially, the authoritative judgment of Quentin Skinner, who has claimed that Locke rejected and repudiated ‘one of the most widespread and prestigious forms of political argument at the time’ (p. 125). From a letter of January 1689 to Edward Clarke, for example, we learn how much Locke appreciated the ‘ancient government’ as something that should have been restored to protect and promote freedom. As he explained in Some Thoughts concerning Reading and Study for a Gentleman(firs published in 1720), the art of governing men in society had to be learned ‘by experience and history, especially that of a man’s own country’ (p. 126). That said, it remains anyway true that while recognizing its importance in the history of political theory, Locke ‘rejected the conservative and obscurantist implications of prescriptive modes of argumentation’ (ibid.).
Rather disappointing, instead, is the entry on ‘Republicanism’, since, while it tackles with clarity and wealth of references the tradition of ‘classical republicanism’ in English history investigated by Zera S. Fink and Quentin Skinner, it basically says nothing on what Locke owed to this current of European political thought. The author, Markkus Peltonen, limits himself to point out in the last few sentences of his essay how recent scholars ‘have emphasized that the republican concept of liberty is of crucial importance to his Two Treatises and that the issue of a life of virtue surfaces in his work on Education’ (p. 209). It is a missed opportunity to acquire new knowledge on a very interesting aspect of Locke’s thought. Historiographically up-to-date and entirely devoted to the analysis of Locke’s works, including unpublished and less known writings, is the entry ‘Property’, by Koen Stapelbrock.
The fifth chapter provides a synopses of his key writings, while the sixth offers four slightly longer contributions. The first three are intended to provide an assessment of the influence and the reception of Locke’s works in epistemology and politics, metaphysics, religion and the state in early eighteenth-century England, and, then on French civil philosophy in the ‘république des lettres’. The fourth contribution concentrates instead on contemporary Locke scholarship (after the Second World War).
Overall, this is an extremely useful volume, both for the student and for the researcher, and could very well be used as a valid support in teaching in higher education.
[articolo originariamente apparso su «History», Volume 101, Issue 344, January 2016, pp. 137-139]