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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

7 - Corruption and Regeneration in the Political Imagination of John Locke

Summary

On the last morning of his life, John Locke asked to be carried once more into his study. There he sat and dozed in an easy chair, fading and gasping out his life, in his lodgings at the Mashams’ in Essex on Saturday, 28 October 1704. One of his fervent hopes in his final months was that the attention of educated Europe would be captured by the vision of politics set out, in its initial form, in the Two Treatises of Government of 1689 and Du Gouvernement Civil of 1691. This vision had been of relatively little public importance during his lifetime. Now it was carefully revised for republication in English and French; instructions for posthumous editions were in hand. Two days earlier, on 26 October, Locke appears to have invited Pierre Coste to his room: he wished to secure a new French translation from Coste, the Huguenot refugee who had joined the Masham household in 1697. Three days earlier, Locke had still found the strength to concentrate on his manuscripts, and had amended his instructions regarding what should be published posthumously, what left unpublished. He had addressed the instructions to Peter King, an aspiring lawyer, his cousin and executor.

According to Locke's directions, amongst the papers King would find, for instance, Locke's ‘discourse of Seeing all things in god’, his refutation of Nicolas Malebranche's position. Locke was satisfied he had shown Malebranche's ‘to be a very groundless opinion’, and friends equally satisfied had pressed him to publish. Yet he had decided against publication both because he was ‘noe freind to controversie’ and because Malebranche's was ‘an opinion that spreads not’ but was ‘like to die of itself or at least to doe noe great harm’. The key to understanding Locke's decision is that it was neither the difficulties involved nor the merits of his case against Malebranche's theory that were uppermost in his mind; rather, what concerned Locke was the fate of European civilisation. His instructions are a litmus test of his appraisal of risks to future generations. Malebranche's theory appeared to pose no risk to them.

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