Lost memoir paints revered philosopher John Locke as ‘vain, lazy and pompous’

·4 min read

John Locke is regarded today as one of England’s greatest philosophers, an Enlightenment thinker known as the “father of liberalism”. But a previously unknown memoir attributed to one of his close friends paints a different picture – of a vain, lazy and pompous man who “amused himself with trifling works of wit”, and a plagiarist who “took from others whatever he was able to take”.

Dr Felix Waldmann, a history lecturer at Cambridge, found the short memoir at the British Library while looking through the papers of 18th-century historian Thomas Birch, who had acquired a trove of manuscripts from his contemporaries. Among these were drafts of a preface to an edition of Locke’s minor works by Huguenot journalist Pierre des Maizeaux. Sandwiched between Des Maizeaux’s drafts were five pages written in French, in which the journalist had recorded an interview with an anonymised “Mr …” about Locke.

Waldmann describes the discovery as the “holy grail” of Locke scholarship: not only is the memoir scathing about Locke’s character, it also reveals that he had read Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 masterpiece Leviathan, a work that was hugely controversial at the time, and which Locke had always denied knowing. Other scholars have hailed the find as “extraordinary”.

“This changes scholarship on Locke and I was absolutely stunned to find it,” said Waldmann. “It’s extraordinarily exciting … I don’t think I’ll ever find anything as significant.”

In a peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Modern History, Waldmann identifies the anonymous source as James Tyrrell, a close friend of Locke for decades. The pair met in Oxford in 1658 and corresponded for most of their lives. Locke stayed in Tyrrell’s home for several weeks, and Tyrrell took care of many of Locke’s possessions between 1683 and 1689 when the philosopher was exiled to the Netherlands.

The memoir opens with a reminiscence about Locke’s time at Oxford where, according to Tyrrell, Locke “did not study at all; he was lazy and nonchalant, and he amused himself with trifling works of wit”. Locke is remembered as a man who “prided himself on being original, and he scorned that which he was unable to pass off as his own”.

“This inclination often made him reel off, with great ceremony, some very common claims, and recite, pompously, some very trivial maxims,” Tyrrell tells Des Maizeaux. “Being full of the good opinion that he had of himself, he esteemed only his own works, and the people who praised him.”

Waldmann believes Des Maizeaux did not publish Tyrrell’s reminiscences because his edition of Locke’s works set out to celebrate the philosopher. “I imagine he was rather shocked to hear these things about Locke’s personal character and understandably just left it all out,” he said.

Tyrrell also claims that one of Locke’s books was “a copy of another which he claimed never to have read”, even though Locke had been “incited” to buy the book years before. Waldmann described this accusation as “a bit strong”.

“But what’s interesting is the fact that Tyrrell, who we regarded as Locke’s closest friend, is prepared to call him a plagiarist; that he thinks Locke’s success is a product of intellectual laziness,” he said.

But the Cambridge academic says the most significant revelation is Tyrrell’s revelation that Locke had read Hobbes’s Leviathan.

“It’s by far the most notorious work of philosophy published in the 17th century – [it was] absolutely heretical and Hobbes was looked upon with extraordinary suspicion,” said Waldmann. “Locke spends decades denying that he was familiar with Hobbes in any way, shape or form. He never cites Leviathan in any of his published works, never refers to him in his letters, thousands of which survive, so he’s gone out of his way to avoid any association.”

But Tyrrell claims to Des Maizeaux that Locke “almost always had the Leviathan by H on his table, and he recommended the reading of it to his friends”, even though he “later affected to deny, in the future, that he had ever read it”.

“The idea that Locke had no interest in his greatest predecessor has been greatly debated,” said Waldmann. “There are no mysteries comparable to Locke being placed in dialogue with Hobbes, and here is Locke’s closest friend saying he had Leviathan almost always on his table.”

Tyrrell goes on to damn Locke in many ways, both major – “he was avaricious, vain, envious, and reserved to excess”; “he took from others whatever he was able to take, and he profited from them” – and minor: Locke was reportedly so timid that “often, at night, the noise of a mouse made him get up and call out for his host.”

The relationship between the two had deteriorated as time went on, Waldmann said. “Locke becomes increasingly rude about Tyrrell to his face and to others, so that’s one personal animus,” he said. “The second was Locke’s extraordinary success. By the early 18th century, Tyrrell is still alive and he’s watching his dead friend, one who didn’t treat him particularly nicely, become the most celebrated literary figure of the past five decades. I feel he’d been sitting on this and he felt, well, now’s the chance.”

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