John Locke is considered today as one of the greatest English philosophers, an Enlightenment thinker known as the “father of liberalism”. But a hitherto unknown memoir attributed to one of his close friends paints a different picture – of a conceited, lazy and pompous man who “played around with insignificant works of the mind,” and a plagiarist who “took from others everything he could take.” ”.
Dr Felix Waldmann, professor of history at Cambridge, found the short memoir at the British Library while browsing the papers of 18th-century historian Thomas Birch, who had acquired a wealth of manuscripts from his contemporaries. Among these were drafts of a preface to an edition of Locke’s minor works by the Huguenot journalist Pierre des Maizeaux. Between the drafts of Des Maizeaux, there were five pages written in French, in which the journalist had recorded an interview with an anonymized “Monsieur …” about Locke.
Waldmann describes the discovery as the “holy grail” of Locke’s scholarship: not only are the memoirs scathing about Locke’s character, they also reveal that he had read Thomas Hobbes’ masterpiece Leviathan, an extremely controversial work at the time, and one which Locke had always denied knowing. Other researchers hailed the discovery as “extraordinary”.
“It changes the stock market on Locke and I was absolutely amazed to find it,” said Waldmann. “It’s extraordinarily exciting … I don’t think I’ll ever find something so meaningful.”
In a peer-reviewed article published in the Journal of Modern History, Waldmann identifies the anonymous source as James Tyrrell, a close friend of Locke for decades. The couple met in Oxford in 1658 and corresponded for most of their lives. Locke stayed in Tyrrell’s house for several weeks, and Tyrrell looked after most of Locke’s belongings between 1683 and 1689 when the philosopher was exiled to the Netherlands.
The memoir opens with a reminiscence of Locke’s time in Oxford where, according to Tyrrell, Locke “didn’t study at all; he was lazy and nonchalant, and he amused himself with small works of mind ”. Locke is remembered as a man who “prided himself on being original, and he despised what he couldn’t pass off as his own.”
“This inclination has often caused him to utter, with great ceremony, very common claims and to recite, pompously, very trivial maxims,” Tyrrell told Des Maizeaux. “Being full of the good opinion he had of himself, he valued only his own works and the people who praised him.
Waldmann believes that Des Maizeaux did not publish Tyrrell’s reminiscences because his edition of Locke’s works was intended to celebrate the philosopher. “I imagine he was rather shocked to hear these things about Locke’s personal character and naturally left it all out,” he said.
Tyrrell also claims that one of Locke’s books was “a copy of another he claimed he had never read,” even though Locke had been “tricked” into buying the book years before. Waldmann called the accusation “a bit strong”.
“But what’s interesting is the fact that Tyrrell, whom we consider to be Locke’s closest friend, is willing to call him a plagiarist; that he thinks Locke’s success is the product of intellectual laziness, ”he said.
But the Cambridge scholar says the most important revelation is Tyrrell’s revelation that Locke read Hobbes’s Leviathan.
“It is by far the most famous work of philosophy published in the 17th century – [it was] absolutely heretical and Hobbes was viewed with extraordinary suspicion, ”said Waldmann. “Locke spends decades denying that he knew Hobbes in any way. He never quotes Leviathan in any of his published works, never refers to him in his letters, of which thousands survive, so he has tried to avoid any association.
But Tyrrell told Des Maizeaux that Locke “almost always had H’s Leviathan on his table, and he recommended it to his friends to read,” though he “later affected to deny, in the future, that he ever read he”.
“The idea that Locke had no interest in his greater predecessor has been widely debated,” said Waldmann. “There are no mysteries comparable to Locke being put into dialogue with Hobbes, and here is Locke’s closest friend saying he almost always had Leviathan on his table.”
Tyrrell continues to damn Locke in several ways, both majors – “he was stingy, conceited, envious, and overly reserved”; “He took from others whatever he could take, and he took advantage of it” – and minor: Locke would have been so shy that “often at night the sound of a mouse would make him get up and call his host. “
The relationship between the two had deteriorated over time, Waldmann said. “Locke is getting more and more rude to Tyrrell in the face and to others, so it’s a personal animosity,” he said. “The second was Locke’s extraordinary success. At the start of the 18th century, Tyrrell is still alive and he watches his late friend, the one who didn’t treat him particularly well, become the most famous literary figure of the past five decades. I feel like he sat on it and he felt now was the opportunity.