Saturday, January 02, 2021

John Locke's Friendships in the "Republic of Letters"

I have written many posts over the years on the evolved natural desire for friendship (including philosophic friendship) and how this desire for friendship is satisfied in liberal societies, which refutes those critics of liberalism who claim that it promotes a selfish individualism that dissolves all social bonds and human virtue.  Some of these posts can be found herehere, and here.

I have been thinking more about this while reading some of John Locke's correspondence, because it shows his life-long devotion to the exchange of letters to sustain and deepen his friendships, and particularly his philosophic friendships.

Prior to the 17th century, few people left behind them as much correspondence as did Locke.  There are 3,637 surviving letters written by him and to him.  (All have been published by Oxford University Press in eight volumes edited by Esmond de Beer.  244 of them have been published by Oxford in one volume--Selected Correspondence--edited by Mark Goldie.)  Cicero and Augustine left a few hundred each.  Erasmus was the great letter writer of the Renaissance, crafting over 3,000 for publication.


In the 17th century, as literacy and education improved, letter-writing became a pervasive activity in English culture.  The General Post Office was established by parliamentary act in 1657, which created a system of postal delivery for England, Scotland, and Ireland.  The expansion of the British Empire supported a global network for the exchange of letters.  Locke received letters from North America, Jamaica, India, and China.

By the end of the 17th century, there was a "Republic of Letters" in which scholars and learned people exchanged ideas, news, and books.  This arose chiefly in the triangle of London, Paris, and Amsterdam.  Locke lived in France (1675-1679) and the Dutch Republic (1683-1689), where he formed life-long friendships that he sustained through correspondence after he returned to England.

New learned journals, such as the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and Jean Le Clerc's Bibliotheque universelle published "philosophical letters" written by people like Locke.  Sometimes letters were collected into books.  Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education incorporated verbatim his letters to his friend Edward Clark advising him on the education of his son. 

For the first time in human history, there was a global exchange of written communication that made it possible for some philosophers like Locke to aspire to an encyclopedic knowledge of both the natural world and the social world around the whole Earth.


Like Plato and Aristotle in Athens, or David Hume and Adam Smith in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Locke found that philosophic friendships were best formed and cultivated in clubs--small groups of people who meet regularly for intellectual discussion.  This shows that the philosophic life is possible in any society liberal enough to allow freedom of thought and discussion in voluntary associations.

As an undergraduate at Oxford (1652-1656), Locke discovered the "experimental philosophical club," a weekly meeting of people interested in the new experimental sciences of nature, which became the basis for the Royal Society in 1660.  This Oxford experimental club included Thomas Willis, the founder of neurology, and his best pupil Richard Lower, who had been Locke's friend when they were both students at Westminster School.  Lower introduced Locke to the study of medicine and experimental philosophy.  Locke was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1668.

In 1667, Locke joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, living in London at Ashley's Exeter House.  There Locke founded a little club that met regularly in his room to discuss scientific, theological, and philosophical questions.  The members included Ashley and Locke's friends John Mapletoft (a physician and clergyman), Thomas Sydenham (a famous physician who was Locke's mentor), and James Tyrell (a Whig lawyer and political and historical writer, who wrote Patriarcha non Monarcha [1681], which anticipated some of Locke's arguments in the Two Treatises of Government).

Because he was implicated in a Whig conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, Locke was forced to flee to the Dutch Republic in 1683, where he settled first in Amsterdam.  There he began his life-long friendship with Philip van Limborch, a professor of theology who was writing a book Theologica Christiana similar to Locke's later Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) in contending that the simple truths of Christianity could be known by reason, and that a Christian society could rightly tolerate religious dissent (with the exception of Roman Catholicism).

Fearing that he would be arrested by agents of the King in Amsterdam, Locke went underground by hiding in a house where only two or three friends were allowed in.  His friends letters were sent to Limborch, who secretly passed them to Locke.  Later, Locke felt safe enough to organize a club in Amsterdam similar to his Exeter House club.  Then, in 1687, he moved to Rotterdam, where he joined the household of Benjamin Furley, a prosperous Quaker merchant.  There he formed another club--called the Lantern Club.  After James II was deposed and William and Mary put on the British throne in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, Locke returned to England in February of 1689.  Furley wrote to him: "All in the Lantern salute thee, and do regret thy absence."  Locke was never to see Holland again.  But for the rest of his life, he corresponded with his philosophic friends there--particularly, Furley and Limborch.

In the autumn of 1689, Locke's Two Treatises of Government, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and A Letter Concerning Toleration were all published.  But while Locke was identified as the author of the Essay, the other two books were anonymous; and he did not identify his authorship until he did so in his will at his death in 1704.

From 1691 until his death, Locke lived in the home of Sir Francis Masham and Lady Damaris (Cudworth) Masham at Oates in the county of Essex about twenty miles northeast of London.  Whenever he was in London, he could attend meetings of the new discussion club he had formed--the Dry Club.

In the 1690s, Locke was part of a new kind of club called "the College," which was a group of Locke's friends in Parliament who consulted with Locke about political issues.  The key members were Edward Clarke, John Freke, and John Somers.  Locke regularly corresponded with all of them about political debates in Parliament.

Locke also corresponded with many women, sometimes writing flirtatious letters to other men's wives.  A few of these women he recognized as philosophic friends.  In some ways, Damaris Cudworth became Locke's most intimate friend.  They first met in 1682 when she was 24, and he was 50.  They wrote love letters to one another under the names "Philander" and "Philoclea."  As the daughter of a philosopher--Ralph Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist--Damaris was something of a philosopher herself.  She wrote books of philosophical theology.  She married Sir Francis Masham in 1685.

After Locke had joined the Masham household at Oates, he wrote to Limborch about Damaris:

"The lady herself is well read in theological and philosophical questions, and of such an original mind that very few men could equal her in the abundance of her knowledge and her ability to use it.  Her judgment is excellent, and I do not know many people who can bring such clarity of thought to the study of the most difficult subjects.  She has also a capacity for searching through and solving problems beyond the range not only of most women but of most men."

Locke's most philosophically important correspondence was his extended exchange of letters with William Molyneux, because Locke amended later editions of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in response to Molyneux's criticisms.  That will be the topic for my next post.

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