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Aurea mediocritas

A Gentleman’s “moderate knowledge”: Mediocrity as the Appropriate Measure of Learning in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Giuliana Di Biase
p. 57-80


Il s’agit ici d’étudier la spécificité des recommandations qu’adresse Locke aux professeurs sur le choix d’un programme d’études approprié dans Some Thoughts Concerning Education, dont le caractère essentiel semble être la modération. L’excellence dans les savoirs classiques et modernes est inutile à la formation d’un homme accompli, l’éducation ayant pour but d’inspirer des habitudes vertueuses, ce pour quoi suffisent des manières modestement raffinées et un aperçu des diverses sciences. Ce « savoir suffisant » semble devoir être rapproché de « l’état de médiocrité » qui, selon l’Essay Concerning Human Understanding, est propre à l’homme dans sa vie terrestre. C’est la leçon que Locke juge nécessaire de rappeler à la noblesse de son temps : la médiocrité qu’il prête à l’ensemble des êtres humains est particulièrement propre à décrire la condition de la noblesse dans les dernières décennies du xviie siècle, marquées par l’inquiétude.

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  • 1  The first lines of the epigraph read: “siste viator, Hic juxta situs est Joannes Locke. Si qualis (...)

1The term mediocrity is not particularly frequent in Locke’s lexicon: a few occurrences are to be found in two of his unpublished essays, “Study” and “Scrupulosity,” as well as in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in the correspondence, and in particular in the Latin epitaph which Locke composed for himself.1 In spite of this tenuous presence, the term seems to play a crucial role in the context of Locke’s works, for it introduces what may be considered as the basis of his epistemological, moral, religious as well as political thought: the “state of mediocrity” he referred to in some of his writings conveys the idea that human beings are naturally characterized by imperfection, finitude and uneasiness, a condition equally far from the extremes of certain knowledge and total ignorance. Since human faculties and life are limited, this is essentially what Locke’s concept of mediocrity implies, men should not waste their time and intellectual efforts in too subtle speculations concerning divine or natural things; rather, they should work actively to improve the conveniences of this life, be useful to others and better themselves, in order to comply with God’s will. To accept and remain in the mediocrity of our earthly state means for Locke to content ourselves with the measure God has assigned to our natural faculties, without desiring what goes beyond our intellectual capacities and wasting our time idly: this was a lesson he probably thought of as highly necessary to recall to the proud intellectuals of his time (to the Cartesians in particular), as well as to the English gentry, whose social and economic status was changing in the late seventeenth century. I will return to this phenomenon and its relevance later, in the last paragraph of this paper; in what follows, I shall attempt to examine the various occurrences of the term mediocrity in Locke’s writings starting from the first one, which is to be found in a journal note for March 26, 1677, entitled “Study.”


  • 2  The list of subjects in “Study” is reminiscent of Aquinas’ teaching, according to which the three (...)

2The first apparition of the term mediocrity in Locke’s writings goes back to 1677, when he was in France and came into contact with Jansenism. In the above-mentioned journal note, Locke devised a list of studies which were to be considered as dutiful occupations for any man, in order to live a good life in accordance with God’s will and merit eternal rewards (King 1: 180-81). The study of Heaven, of prudence and of what is required by one’s personal calling represented the three fundamental duties any man had to comply with, for Locke; mediocrity was invoked in order to circumscribe this sphere of obligations, corresponding to the fundamental commands of the law of nature (to honour God, to preserve oneself through work and be useful to others).2 In order to highlight the necessity to devote one’s highest intellectual efforts to the fulfilment of these duties, Locke insisted on the limits of human faculties and on the finitude of man’s life:

he that thinks his understanding capable of all things, mounts upon wings of his own fancy, though indeed Nature never meant him any, and so venturing into the vast expanse of incomprehensible verities, only makes good the fable of Icarus, and loses himself in the abyss. We are here in the state of mediocrity; finite creatures, furnished with powers and faculties very well fitted to some purposes, but very disproportionate to the vast and unlimited extent of things. (King 1: 197)

3What was essential, Locke insisted, was neither to despair completely of, nor to be overconfident in man’s intellectual abilities: though the vast extension of truth far exceeded the mediocre capacities of man’s understanding, preventing him from knowing infinite things, substantial essences and natural operations, human faculties were perfectly suited to the attainment of man’s supreme end, which could be enhanced by the “improvement of natural experiments for the conveniences of this life, and the way of ordering himself so as to attain happiness in the other” (198). Intellectual mediocrity was inscribed in God’s benevolent design, which had given man sufficient talents to attain happiness in this and the other world.

4In another journal note written one year later, entitled “Scrupulosity,” Locke extended the concept of mediocrity to the entire sphere of human agency:

I have often thought that our state here in this world is a state of mediocrity, which is not capable of extremes, though on one side there may be great excellency and perfection; that we are not capable of continual rest, nor continual exercise, though the latter has certainly much more of excellence in it. We are not able to labour always with the body, nor always with the mind; and to come to our present purpose, we are not capable of living altogether exactly by a rule, not altogether without it – not always retired, not always in company. (King 1: 210)

  • 3  Ashcraft names this condition a “state of mediocrity” (237).

5Perhaps more than any other, this passage shows the fundamental importance the concept of mediocrity had in Locke’s thought, as well as its true meaning, the idea of a medietas embracing both the theoretical and practical sphere. Since man’s terrestrial condition corresponds to a state of mediocrity, Locke argued in “Scrupulosity,” a morality apt to human beings should not be over-scrupulous in its dictates, for this would amount to aspiring to an impossible excellence (an extreme inadequate to human faculties and powers, and therefore irreconcilable with God’s benevolence); rather, it should adopt a more modest perspective, limiting the binding precepts in number and degree of specificity. Mediocrity also involved the political dimension of human life: men are neither completely social nor unsocial, neither capable of living together without any rules nor under too strict ones. An obvious corollary of this is that political life should tend towards intermediate forms of government, so as to avoid both the extremes of absolutism and anarchy. As has been emphasized by Richard Ashcraft, mediocrity appears to be the characteristic trait of Locke’s description of the state of nature as a state of uncertainty and uneasiness in the Second Treatise of Government;3 the mixed monarchy which Locke commended in this work as the best form of government may be interpreted as the political correspondent to the mediocrity of human nature.

  • 4  Locke owned various editions of the first four volumes of Nicole’s Essais (volume 1 in both the fi (...)
  • 5  See John Locke as a Translator 122-23; Locke translated it with “the ages of life.” In the Essay, (...)
  • 6  See Essay, 2.23.12, 303, where Locke insists on better sight being useless to man: “if, by the hel (...)

6The relevance which the concept of mediocrity began to acquire in Locke’s writings in the late 1670s might be due to his well-documented reading of Pierre Nicole’s Essais de morale, three of which, “Discours contenant en abregé les preuves naturelles de l’existence de Dieu et de l’immortalité de l’âme,” “De la faiblesse de l’homme,” and “Des moyens de conserver la paix avec les hommes,” he translated into English.4 Like many Jansenists, in the Essais Nicole emphasized the feebleness of man’s faculties and body, the corrupted nature of human beings as well as the brevity of their life, in order to dispose men to seek support in God alone and to act morally to obtain salvation. According to Nicole, the mind was incapable of ever attaining much knowledge, and most men did not even extend themselves in thought beyond their bodily needs; reason had been given them to understand good and evil and govern desires and actions, but few used it, the majority being led by reputation, beauty, honour and place. In particular, in “De la faiblesse de l’homme,” Nicole criticized both intellectual pride and the sinful abasement of man’s condition to the beast’s state of ignorance: the refusal of both these excesses is the substance of Locke’s concept of mediocrity. The emphasis which Nicole placed on the theme of men’s intellectual weakness had not been registered at any point in Locke’s notebooks or works before 1677; Nicole and Arnauld had already insisted in L’art de penser (383) on the limited amount of certainty available to our judgments through senses (a theme Locke’s Drafts for the Essay were conversant with), but also on its being sufficient for “l’usage de la vie” (an expression also to be found in the third of the Essais translated by Locke).5 This sufficiency was insisted on by Locke in “Study” as well as in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: the example of the eyes, which Arnauld and Nicole introduced in L’Art de penser as “lunettes taillées de la main de Dieu,” reappeared in the Essay slightly modified in order to emphasize the same concept, the fitness of “our Senses, Faculties, and Organs, to the conveniences of Life, and the Business we have to do here,” as well as the infinite wisdom their contrivance was evidence of.6

  • 7  There is some important evidence of this reading in Locke’s journal, for instance in a long note h (...)

7Another source for the conceptualization of man’s earthly state as a state of mediocrity in Locke’s writings may be traced back to his well-documented reading of Pascal’s Pensées7 in the late 1670s: Pascal celebrated mediocrity as the only condition suited to human beings and commended the ability to maintain oneself within its borders as true human dignity. For him,

  • 8  The passage is to be found p. 276 of the 1678 edition of Pascal’s Pensées, which Locke owned (Harr (...)

l’extrême esprit est accusé de folie, comme l’extrême déffaut. Rien ne passe pour bon que la médiocrité. C’est la pluralité qui a éstabli cela, & qui mord quiconque s’en échappe par quelque bout que ce soit. Je ne m’y obstineray pas; je consens qu’on m’y mette: & si je refuse d’estre au bas bout, ce n’est pas parce qu’il est bas, mais parce qu’il est bout; car je refuserois de mesme qu’on me mist au haut. C’est sortir de l’humanité, que de sortir du milieu: la grandeur de l’ame humaine consiste à sçavoir s’y tenir: & tant s’en faut que sa grandeur soit d’en sortir, qu’elle est à n’en point sortir.8

  • 9  Erasmus’s paradoxical encomium of Folly in his Stultitiae laus introduced the skeptical attitude w (...)

8The eloquent eulogy of mediocrity in Pascal’s Pensées, as well as the reading of Nicole’s Essais, might have contributed to shaping Locke’s concept of mediocrity as a medietas ingenii strongly characterized by skepticism or, rather, by a Christianly oriented pessimism with reference to men’s intellectual achievements. Many more sources come to mind, both classic (Aristotle’s notion of mesótes as the middle virtuous state between vicious extremes in his Nicomachean Ethics, II. 2, 1104a11-41) and modern (Erasmus, Montaigne and Gassendi’s skepticism);9 references to the mediocrity of the human intellect abound in the Christian church fathers’ works, and represent a well-documented topos in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writings of authors influenced by Pyrrhonism (Scodel 31-34). In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon, who was most influential in the development of Locke’s epistemic thought, introduced his form of skeptical scientific inquiry as the middle way between dogmatic and Academic extremes, the “presumption of pronouncing on everything, and the despair of comprehending anything” (Works 8: 59): this is essentially what the concept of mediocrity Locke formulated in “Study” highlighted. Nonetheless, the temporal coincidence between the first apparition of the term in Locke’s writings and his reading of Nicole and Pascal suggests they might have been his main source of inspiration in the theorization of man’s terrestrial condition as a state of mediocrity.

9In “De la faiblesse de l’homme,” Nicole insisted on the link between man’s intellectual weakness and the close dependence of the human mind on the body; this same link was emphasized by Locke in a passage in his correspondence dating back to February 21, 1682, where another occurrence of the term mediocrity is to be found. Writing to Damaris Cudworth, he expressed his disagreement with the views formulated by the neo-platonic John Smith in his Selected Discourses, which attributed to some extremely virtuous men the possibility of elevating themselves through illumination to a knowledge of God higher than that of the generality of human beings; Locke claimed this affirmation was irreconcilable with the mediocrity of human under-standing and dangerously inclined towards enthusiasm. In his terms, the four kinds of knowledge enumerated by Smith, corresponding to different degrees of perfection in the knowledge of God, should be substituted by a threefold partition of mankind:

I cannot quit my former division of men who either thinke as if they were only body and minde not soule or spirit at all, or those who in some cases at least thinke of themselves as all soule seperate from the commerce of the body and in those instances have only visions or more properly imaginations, and a third sort who considering themselves as made up of body and soule here and in a state of mediocrity make use and follow their reason. (Correspondence 2: 488).

10What we apprehend from the letter is that Locke considered man’s acceptance of his state of mediocrity as fundamental in order to avoid both the visionary excess of enthusiasm and the materialistic excess of atheism. Mediocrity would remind man of his being body and soul at the same time, that is of his being neither angel nor brute; it would oblige him to constantly follow the dictates of reason as the only faculty through which it is possible to obtain a sound, if limited, knowledge of God. Leaving reason aside leads to enthusiasm, expecting too much from it leads to atheism: between these excesses lies the acceptance of mediocrity for Locke, as a precondition to the proper use of our natural faculties.

11The importance of accepting intellectual mediocrity was also insisted on in the Essay. In the fourth book, in the context of the exploration of the end and objects of human knowledge, he declared that man’s faculties were perfectly suited to the attainment of everything which was necessary to increase the stock of men’s “conveniences of life,” but that they were inadequate with reference to the knowledge of the real substance of things. An advancement of science could be obtained “only by Experience and History”: this was “all that the weakness of our Faculties in this State of Mediocrity, which we are in this World, can attain to” (Essay 4.12.10, 645). The concept was the same as that which had been exposed in “Study,” although greater emphasis was placed in the Essay on the conformity between the state of mediocrity characterizing human faculties and the divine, providential design. God would have

afforded us only the twilight, as I may so say, of Probability, suitable, I presume, to that State of Mediocrity and Probationership, he has been pleased to place us in here; wherein to check our over-confidence and presumption, we might by every day’s Experience be made sensible of our short-sightedness and liableness to Error; the Sense whereof might be a constant Admonition to us, to spend the days of this our Pilgrimage with Industry and Care, in the search, and following of that way, which might lead us to a State of greater Perfection. (Essay 4.14.2, 652)

12Mediocrity was therefore to be intended as a fundamental ingredient in God’s design of salvation, depriving man of the possibility to obtain earthly perfection in order to disclose heavenly perfection to him; the acceptance of mediocrity preserved man from intellectual pride and encouraged industry, for only a good life spent in useful and virtuous actions could obtain eternal rewards.

13The inclusion of man’s intellectual weakness in the context of God’s design of salvation represents the background of the new argument Locke introduced in his Third Letter for Toleration: the magistrates’ fallibility in matters of religion was conceived of in this letter as conforming to God’s wise plan, which established that men should be saved through faith, not through a clear knowledge of the truth. In the Essay, faith was characterized as “the Assent to any Proposition, not thus made out by the Deductions of Reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God” (4.18.2, 689); accordingly, in the Third Letter Locke insisted it would be wrong for a magistrate to lay claim to the exclusive possession of truth in matters of religion, for this would amount to affirming the knowledge of something which God himself had placed beyond the reach of human faculties. Given the limits which He had imposed on the latter,

an agreement in truths necessary to salvation and the maintaining of charity and brotherly kindness with the diversity of opinions in other things, is that which will very well consist with Christian unity, and is all possibly to be had in this world, in such an incurable weakness and difference of men’s understandings. (Works 5: 237).

  • 10  “If there be need of Authentick Interpreters of the word of God. what is the way to find them out? (...)

14Though Locke did not mention mediocrity in the Third Letter, he essentially referred to this concept when introducing the notion of an incurable, that is to say natural and unavoidable, weakness of under-standing preventing man from attaining a clear knowledge of the one true religion, though not preventing him from reaching an agreement on the fundamental religious truths. Clearly, the emphasis Locke placed on this weakness seemed to be in contrast with the autonomy he attributed to reason in interpreting the Scriptures in The Reasonableness of Christianity: probably he himself perceived this contrast, as his later correspondence (in particular a letter to Anthony Collins, where he referred to the need of “Authentick Interpreters”) reveals.10 Locke’s Paraphrase of St. Paul’s epistles was conceived of essentially as a means to bridge the gap between two extremes, an individual potentially mistaken interpretation of the Scriptures and a passive acceptation of a superimposed authoritative reading: an attentive reading of them, supported by a prolonged study of reliable interpreters, was the best support to the mediocrity of human understanding in matters of religion.

  • 11  Regarding the association between the gentleman and the “middle sort of people,” intended as an ex (...)

15Intellectual weakness was also insisted on in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and it is probably in this context that we can gain deeper insight into the social, political meaning of Locke’s claims concerning the mediocrity of man’s faculties. The moderation to which mediocrity was usually equated by early modern authors (Scodel 2-5) represents the basis which supports Locke’s educational project; it is to be intended both as a mediocritas morum and as mediocritas ingenii. Although the term mediocrity never appears in the context of Some Thoughts (a text which was not destined for a philosophical public, as the Essay was), Locke’s claims concerning the “moderate” knowledge and skills to be acquired by a gentleman couple well with the state of mediocrity he assigned to human faculties in his previous writings. A gentleman’s learning should be equally far from the excesses of scholars’ pedantry and the vicious ignorance of those who are socially inferior: the middle way between these extremes was the path Locke pointed to in Some Thoughts as the best suited to the peculiar “state of mediocrity” of gentility, to whose middle social position he attributed a key role in the troubled political situation of his times.11


  • 12  See Locke to Edward Clarke, 27 January 1692 (Correspondence 4: 377); Locke to Clarke, 2 January 16 (...)
  • 13  A letter Locke wrote to his friend Benjamin Furly some years later, on May 30 1701, reveals his pe (...)

16Some Thoughts was a text written for the English gentry; in the dedicatory letter to his friend Edward Clarke, which opened the work, Locke affirmed his aim was to devise an educative method which could be helpful to “Men in their distinct Callings,” yet he added, “that most to be taken Care of, is the Gentleman’s Calling. For if those of that Rank are by their Education once set right, they will quickly bring all the rest into Order” (80). The difficult political situation England was facing after the Glorious Revolution was probably what Locke was alluding to by making implicit reference to a state of disorder; as for the causes of the latter, “the Great Decay of Christian Piety and Vertue every where, […] in the Gentry of this Generation” he denounced in Some Thoughts (§ 131) was surely, in his opinion, the most relevant one. The English political scenario was compromised by the blindness of its leading classes;12 the “pride and vanity” of courtly manners had infected the customs of the “inferior Grandees,” who had “found out idle and uselesse imployments for themselves and others, as Locke wrote in “Labor” (Locke on Money 2: 493). In his dedicatory letter he declared that it was necessary to devote special attention to a gentleman’s education since this was, in his opinion, the best restorative measure designed to reverse the effects of this situation.13

  • 14  Locke reread De officiis several times during his life; manuscript evidence of these readings is c (...)
  • 15  The great value attributed to liberality in Some Thoughts recalls Cicero’s teaching in De officiis (...)

17Some Thoughts was published specifically for children similar to those of Locke’s prosperous friend Edward Clarke, to describe the education necessary for “our English Gentry” (80). Locke declared that “the well Educating of their Children is so much the Duty and Concern of Parents, and the Welfare and Prosperity of the Nation so much depends on it,” that everyone should promote it. He did not spell out how gentlemen were supposed to bring “all the rest into Order,” but he probably thought of the power of the example of the gentry in setting manners and of its ruling of society in terms of making and interpreting laws; this was, for Locke, the true sense of a gentleman’s calling. Like Cicero in De officiis,14 he conceived of society as a texture kept together by the bounds of reciprocal benevolence and gratitude, and of gentlemen as playing a fundamental part given their crucial political and economic role.15 Gentlemen should become an exemplum for the rest of society, for both the lower and upper classes, by submitting their individual expedience to the search for the common good; to do this, they should become exemplary virtuous men, respectful of their Christian and civil duties.

18Some Thoughts is a manual on how to guide a young gentleman to virtue; nearly half of its total sections are concerned with this topic. Locke declared that a gentleman’s education should focus essentially on one purpose, the formation of a virtuous and useful man; any scholarly achievement should be conceived of as secondary with respect to this end. Without virtue, Locke insisted, there is no right disposition, and without right disposition knowledge is to no purpose:

if once got, though all the rest should be neglected, [a right disposition] would, in due time, produce all the rest: and which if it be not got, and setled, so as to keep out ill and vicious Habits, Languages and Sciences, and all the other Accomplishments of Education will be to no purpose, but to make the worse, or more dangerous Man. (§ 177)

  • 16  Cf. Some Thoughts, § 147: “You will wonder, perhaps, that I put Learning last, especially if I tel (...)
  • 17  In Essay 4.7.11, Locke criticized the massive use of disputation in schools as a way of corrupting (...)

19The acquisition of virtue represented the “hard and valuable part” of education, harder to be acquired than “a Knowledge of the World” (§ 70); the priority attributed to virtue explains why Locke seemed to consider learning of little importance, a paradoxical attitude in a man who had grown up within the walls of Westminster Grammar School and Christ Church College.16 Locke deprecated specifically the humanist practice of writing Latin compositions and verses (§ 171), and had some scornful remarks to make about those who thought Latin and Greek of such fundamental importance (§ 94); a “taste” of the sciences and of scholarship, along with a capacity for application, were sufficient in his view “to keep him [the child] from Sauntering and Idleness.” All that was required was “to open the Door, that he may look in” (§ 94); what a boy needed to be taught was that which would be of most frequent use to him in the world. He should begin by learning to read and write and “to express himself well in his own Tongue” (§ 189), then he should learn Latin and French. Though “absolutely necessary to a Gentleman,” Latin was a waste of time for anyone who was going to enter a trade, where “he fails not to forget that little, which he brought from School” (§ 164); when learnt, Latin was to be acquired by familiar conversation, for usage. “I know not,” Locke declared, “why any one should wast his Time, and beat his Head, about the Latin Grammar who does not intend to be a Critick, or make speeches and write Dispatches in it” (§ 168). The Latin learnt was to assist reading, not for the writing of compositions and verses; Greek was only necessary for a scholar (§ 195). Rhetoric and logic should be studied “in the shortest Systems [which] could be found” (§ 188); dialectic should be disregarded because of its encouraging “a captious and fallacious use of doubtful Words” contrary to the basic principle of morals, the love of truth (§ 189).17 Locke was also against the practice of those arts which were traditionally part of the gentleman’s curriculum (except insofar as they could be of some utility, as in the case of drawing, § 161): painting was characterized as a sedentary and, consequently, unhealthy recreation (§ 203), training in music was depreciated being a too demanding task, offering uncertain profit perspectives and implying the engagement in “such odd Company” (§ 197). Dancing was encouraged as the best means to give children “confidence and behaviour,” even though Locke declared it was better “not have little Children much tormented about Punctilio’s, or Niceties of Breeding” (§ 67). As for poetry, Locke objected to children learning to write Latin verses as he objected to verses in general (§ 170).

  • 18  The passage is a quotation from Seneca’s Epistulae 106.12.
  • 19  This notion, Locke insisted on in Some Thoughts, should be imprinted in children’s minds at a very (...)

20Excellence in scholarly learning, as well as in those courtly and chivalric exercises which since the Renaissance had been the bedfellow of liberal arts, was rejected not only because of its comparison with virtue, but also for the brevity of man’s life and the weakness of understanding: “Our short Lives,” Locke insisted in Some Thoughts, “will not serve us for the attainment of all things; nor can our Minds be always intent on something to be learn’d” (§ 197). Since a man could not “have Time and Strength to learn all Things,” he continued, “Pains should be taken about that, which is most necessary” (§ 94).18 He had already developed this argument in “Study,” where he affirmed that “the whole time of our life […] is not enough to acquaint us with all those things, I will not say which we are capable of knowing, but which it would not be only convenient but very advantageous to know” (King 1: 172). The list of studies which Locke recommended in the 1677 note as duties any man had to comply with represents the frame of the educational project developed in Some Thoughts: the acquisition of “a true Notion of God” through the reading of the Bible was to be the starting point of education (§ 136),19 whereas the study of Cicero’s De officiis was the best support to the practice of those virtues necessary to comply with His will (§ 185).

  • 20  Writing to one of his pupils, John Alford, in 1666, Locke recommended the latter should take care (...)

21Frequent variation in children’s activities and studies was highly recommended in Some Thoughts, because of their minds loving variety, freedom and soon growing weary of anything requiring a prolonged effort of attention (§ 127); the need for variation was also insisted on in “Scrupulosity,” as a consequence of man’s mediocre state. The scope Locke assigned to recreation in the note, that is the necessity to refresh the part (either mind or body) affected by an effort, was repeated in Some Thoughts: in both contexts, Locke emphasized the instrumental role of recreation, intended as a means to recover the strength necessary to work. The austerity which suffused those pages of Some Thoughts celebrating Stoical moderation in desire as well as serious application and industry, made it clear that, in Locke’s opinion, a man could gain the right to recreation only through the need for rest from work, and not from idleness: gentlemen were not to be idle because they did not need to undertake manual labour to support themselves, but rather to serve others.20

22The state of mediocrity Locke referred to in “Study,” “Scrupulosity” and the Essay corresponds in Some Thoughts to a mediocrity of learning: the “moderate knowledge” Locke recommended with reference to the study of Latin (§ 168), as well as the “moderate skill” in the various arts he considered as appropriate to a gentleman (§§ 197, 199) introduced the idea of a middle way between “too much” and “too little” learning, two extremes which were both to be avoided by a gentleman. The first one was the excess typical of the pedant: in Some Thoughts, Locke identified pedantry as a perversion of learning due to an incorrect educative method based on the massive learning by heart of “scraps” of authors (§ 175). Stuffing children’s memory with “the rich and handsome Thoughts and Sayings of others,” without enriching their own “poor Stuff,” was to provide them with the “Furniture of a Pedant,” of which nothing was less becoming to a gentleman in Locke’s view. Pedantry was characterized in Some Thoughts as the attitude proper to commentators, who, having nothing to say on their own, devoted their efforts to complicating what others had said in plain words; if designed to be a scholar, the gentleman should be advised “ ʼtis nothing but Mens laziness which hath encouraged pedantry to cram rather than enrich Libraries, and to bury good Authors under heaps of Notes and Commentaries” (§ 195). The gentlemen who intended to become scholars were not to content themselves with repeating what others had profusely written, but rather to go back to original texts; this was the only way they could differentiate themselves from the pedants, for Locke.

  • 21  Regarding the importance of Boyle’s work, and of Boyle himself as a new pattern of the English Chr (...)

23The identification of the scholar with the pedant had become quite general in Stuart society, where pedantry was synonymous with rudeness, disputatiousness and incivility (Shapin, “A Scholar” 287-92); particular forms of scholarly life and the whole form of Scholasticism were increasingly condemned as nothing but pedantry in the view of those advocating a reform of learning, because of their fostering a form of life in no way suitable for a civic gentleman. Modern learning appeared more in tune with the new ideal of gentility emerging in the second half of the seventeenth century, an ideal claiming commitment to an active life as the true essence of nobility and the way to fulfil one’s divine ordered role in civil society. This was Boyle’s ideal: experimental philosophy was suitable for gentlemen because it allowed them to pursue truth virtuously, without acquitting their responsibility to their fellowmen. Boyle’s “Christian virtuoso” incarnated the figure of the new gentleman of education, who was authentically a gentleman for his philosophical pursuit and dissemination of knowledge; it was experimental natural knowledge which elevated him, a knowledge of the first hand acquired through observation.21 The “virtuoso” was made magnanimous, disciplined, generous, modest, peaceable and civically useful by his study of nature; however, this was not what Locke recommended in Some Thoughts. The gentleman was not required to excel in natural philosophy, as the Boylean “virtuoso” was: neither was the New Philosophy nor any other reformed study of nature to have, in Locke’s view, more than a peripheral place in the fashioning of a gentleman. The various systems of natural philosophy in vogue in his time were to be taken into account by a gentleman only “to fit himself for Conversation,” without expecting to find any certainty or truth in them:

the Systems of Natural Philosophy, that have obtained in this part of the World, are to be read, more to know the Hypotheses, and to understand the Terms and Ways of Talking of the several Sects, than with hopes to gain thereby a comprehensive, scientifical, and satisfactory Knowledge of the Works of Nature. (§ 193)

  • 22  In “Labor” Locke denounced the “languish estate of a broaken health which the neglect of bodily la (...)

24Clearly, we are far from Boyle’s ideal of the “Christian virtuoso,” but we are equally far from the ideal of the gentleman-scholar theorized by humanist pedagogues such as Thomas Elyot. Excellence in liberal arts was not the gentleman’s main business, for Locke: this was one of the extremes to be avoided, and the one he criticized the most given his personal experience of its intemperance.22 The other extreme, ignorance, was often associated in Some Thoughts with vice: natural wrong inclinations and ignorance were man’s “most shameful nakedness” (§ 90), which exposed him to the many evils of the world. To instruct children’s ignorance was to preserve them from acquiring ill habits (§ 110) and to provide them with the equipment necessary to face the many perils of adult life (most of which came from ill-bred men).

  • 23  Regarding these attributions and their criticism in seventeenth-century England, see Shapin, Never (...)
  • 24  Music seemed to be tolerated more than encouraged in Ascham, Peacham and Gailhard’s works: it was (...)
  • 25  “I do not expect Youth should have the fruit of every Art, Science, Language, or Vertue I have nam (...)
  • 26  “So as hitherto I shewed how young men may be made Scholars, now I must direct them how to become (...)
  • 27  In 1691, the anonymous pamphlet “A proposal for an Equal Land-Tax: Humbly Submitted to Considerati (...)
  • 28  Several passages in Some Thoughts are devoted to cautioning parents against the negative influence (...)

25Virtuous habits, not scholarly curricula, were to be, in Locke’s view, the mark of distinction between gentility and others; a gentleman’s decorum was to be identified with his active engagement in the world in the service of others. Clearly, this identification provided a sharp contrast to the traditional attributions of a scholar’s mode of life (solitude and melancholy),23 a contrast which had already become apparent in several seventeenth-century English instructional writings before Some Thoughts. The educational works by Roger Ascham, Henry Peacham, Jean Gailhard and Obadiah Walker already insisted on the necessity of simplifying the scholarly curriculum and of focusing a gentleman’s education more on the performance of the civil duties attached to his social status than on the refinement of his manners; excellence in any art was not to be considered as a gentleman’s main business. According to Peacham, the gentleman was not expected to rival the professional musician24 or to excel in any other type of study, but rather to be ready with his sword and counsel at the call of his prince; learning added ornament to nobility, yet it should not become a diversion from its greater responsibilities. Gailhard’s gentleman owed his extensive learning more to the direct experience of the world than to scholarly erudition; perfection in any kind of learning was not the main purpose of his education.25 An adequate programme of learning ought to take the pupil out of his studies into the world, or, in Gailhard’s own words, “from amongst the dead, to converse with the living.”26 An education conceived in any other way could only produce pedants, a category of identity much like the “vulgar.” Likewise, in his Of Education Obadiah Walker criticized pedantry as a vice to be avoided “in all Professions” (255); a gentleman’s education should focus on learning “things necessary or useful” (in primis modern languages, 110), as well as on a virile, robust apprenticeship of virtue. A “sufficient perfection” in studies, “not so much as is required for a Professor” (114), was what a gentleman’s education should aspire to: this sufficient perfection was also the measure Locke recommended for a gentleman’s studies in Some Thoughts, as a medietas between the extremes of the refined scholar and the rudely mannered, vicious and ignorant man. The moderate knowledge on which Locke insisted had its ultimate justification in the state of mediocrity he referred to in the Essay and in his previous writings: both were finalized towards identifying the performance of moral and civil duties as the true end of human life and, in particular, in Some Thoughts, of a gentleman’s life. To comply with his religious, moral and civil obligations was the only excellence a gentleman could and should aspire to; this should be the focus of his efforts, both intellectual and practical, and the main purpose of his education for Locke. This was, in late seventeenth-century England, the fundamental lesson he intended to impart to the gentry, a teaching well suited to a world where the process of becoming a gentleman was as ongoing as the impoverishment of landed peers, whose dire financial straits had been eased by government pensions after the Restoration (Beckett 45), but had returned to their previous state after the Glorious Revolution.27 The figure of the gentleman born celebrated by Peacham, for whom scholarly learning constituted an ornament which added to nobility, was gradually being replaced in late seventeenth-century instructional writings by the new figure of the gentleman of education, whose internal endowments were well above the many reversals of fortune and poverty in particular. The new ideal of gentility depicted in instructional writings such as Gailhard’s Compleat Gentleman owed its special status to virtue and the knowledge of the world, not to inherited titles or possessions; this was also the point of Locke’s insistence on virtue and service to others as the true marks of gentility in Some Thoughts. The mediocre state he attributed to human beings both in “Study” and the Essay might appear particularly appropriate when describing the gentry’s condition in the last few decades of the seventeenth century, which was significantly marked by uneasiness and anxiety: the burden of taxes imposed upon this class increased significantly after the Glorious Revolution, in order to wage the wars King William was engaged in. Locke’s hopes for a moral, political as well as social renewal focused on the gentry: it was necessary to remind them of the moral import of their calling, a virtuous middle condition between the two extremes of the “Grandees,” corrupted by court luxury, and the lower classes, which “Fortune” had “laid […] below the level of others” (§ 117). To remain faithful to his mediocrity was essentially what Locke recommended to the gentleman: vicious, idle indulgence in those costly pastimes which “the Vanity and Pride of Greatness and Riches” had brought into fashion (§ 207), as well as imprudent complaisance to the bad customs of the inferiors,28 were both extremes to be avoided in order to become a virtuous and useful man. As for learning, the virtuous middle way to follow precluded a gentleman from both excess in and lack of erudition: scholarly and modern learning should only be “tasted” by him, without becoming his main occupation at least in the early years of his life (those to be devoted to education). The moderate knowledge which Locke recommended a gentleman should acquire in Some Thoughts couples well with the state of mediocrity he assigned to human beings in his previous writings, a condition which he probably thought of as a particularly representative of the gentry’s situation in those years: the virtuous intellectual mediocrity which he recommended should be cultivated in the Essay had to be the measure of a gentleman’s studies. The only excellence the latter should aspire to was that of a virtuous life: imperfection and instability were the main characteristics of human life and powers, the only defence against which was a Christianly oriented life spent in the fulfilment of one’s obligations, in primis the duty of being useful to others.

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Filleau de la chaise, Nicolas. Discours sur les pensées de Mr. Pascal, où l’on essaye de faire voir quel étoit son dessein, avec un autre discours sur les preuves des Livres de Moïse, et un traité où l’on montre qu’il y a des demonstrations. Paris: Guillaume Desprez, 1672.

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Nicole, Pierre. Moral Essays, contain’d in several Treatises on many important Duties. Written in French by Messieurs du Port Royal. Faithfully rendred into English by a Person of Quality. 2 vols. London: J. Magnes and R. Bentley, 1677-80.

Oldys, William, ed. The Harleian Miscellany: Or a Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts [...] Found in the Late Earl of Oxford Library; Interspersed with Historical, Political and Critical Notes Etc. 8 vols. London: T. Osborne, 1744-46. 

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1  The first lines of the epigraph read: “siste viator, Hic juxta situs est Joannes Locke. Si qualis fuerit rogas, mediocritate sua contentum se vixisse respondet” (Locke Works 1: xxxix).

2  The list of subjects in “Study” is reminiscent of Aquinas’ teaching, according to which the three fundamental laws of nature were the study of God, the preservation of oneself, and living in society; in Essays on the Law of Nature, Locke declared that these three laws “embrace all that men owe to God, their neighbour, and themselves” (159), and he restated this conviction in “Study.”

3  Ashcraft names this condition a “state of mediocrity” (237).

4  Locke owned various editions of the first four volumes of Nicole’s Essais (volume 1 in both the first edition of 1671 and the fifth edition of 1679; volume 2 in the third edition of 1678; volumes 3 and 4 in their first edition respectively of 1675 and 1679). See Harrison & Laslett nos. 2040, 2040a and 2040b. A bilingual edition of the three essays, with Nicole’s original text on one side of the page and Locke’s translation on the other, is in John Locke as a Translator. Locke intended to publish his translation, but was forestalled by the appearance of a complete edition of Nicole’s Essays in English (Nicole 1677-80). Regarding Locke’s reading of Nicole, see Lough, Cranston 175-77, Woolhouse 128, 142, and Marshall 89-90, 131-37, 151-52, 157, 168, 178-86, 188-97, etc., who pays close attention to the first and the third of the three essays of Nicole that Locke translated. A mention of Nicole’s Essais appears in a journal note Locke wrote on July 29, 1676 (An Early Draft 81-82).

5  See John Locke as a Translator 122-23; Locke translated it with “the ages of life.” In the Essay, he would use the expression “conveniences of this life” to refer to the same concept.

6  See Essay, 2.23.12, 303, where Locke insists on better sight being useless to man: “if, by the help of such Microscopical Eyes (if I may so call them,) a Man could penetrate farther than ordinary into the secret Composition and radical Texture of Bodies, he would not make any great advantage by the change, if such an acute Sight would not serve to conduct him to the Market and Exchange; If he could not see things, he was to avoid, at a convenient distance; nor distinguish things he had to do with, by those sensible Qualities others do.”

7  There is some important evidence of this reading in Locke’s journal, for instance in a long note he wrote on February 8, 1677 (An Early Draft 84-90), whose content recalls Pascal’s theory of the two infinites of science (the infinitely great and the infinitely small). Regarding Locke’s interest in Pascal (which is confirmed by the introduction of a revised version of Pascal’s wager in Essay 2.21.70, 282), see Bonno 49-63, 74, 101, 103-04, 210, 224-26, 244-49, 251-52; McKenna, 1: 450-502.

8  The passage is to be found p. 276 of the 1678 edition of Pascal’s Pensées, which Locke owned (Harrison & Laslett, no. 2222), but not in the previous editions. Locke’s library included the 1675 edition by Adam Demen (no. 2222a) as well as Filleau de la Chaise’s Discours sur les pensées de M. Pascal (no. 2223), where the clear knowledge of “un esprit mediocre” was lauded (63). The 1678 edition appeared too late to influence Locke’s early conceptualization of mediocrity (1677, see above); besides, both the 1675 and 1678 editions of Pensées became part of Locke’s library after 1681 (Harrison & Laslett, Appendix V, 276). However, the deep knowledge of Pascal’s thought attested by the journal note Locke wrote in early 1677 suggests that he might have read more than Filleau de la Chaise’s Discours in that period.

9  Erasmus’s paradoxical encomium of Folly in his Stultitiae laus introduced the skeptical attitude which would be typical of many Renaissance writers: the mediocrity they pursued was modelled on Sextus Empiricus’ distinction between three schools of philosophy, the dogmatists, who claimed to have discovered the truth, Academic Skeptics, who asserted it cannot be apprehended, and Pyrrhonists, who continued inquiring. Montaigne adapted Sextus Empiricus’ distinction to the Aristotelian scheme: both dogmatists, who attributed “a capacity for all things” to the human mind, and Academics, who argued that it is “capable of nothing,” were to be reproached because of their espousing extreme positions (792). Similarly, in Syntagma Philosophicum, Gassendi attempted to find what he called a middle way between skepticism and dogmatism.

10  “If there be need of Authentick Interpreters of the word of God. what is the way to find them out? That is worth your thinking of, unless you would have every one interpret for himself: And what worke would that make? Betwixt these two find something if you can” (Locke to Anthony Collins, 1 Oct. 1703, Correspondence 8: 73).

11  Regarding the association between the gentleman and the “middle sort of people,” intended as an exemplum of social moderation, see Shagan 242-53.

12  See Locke to Edward Clarke, 27 January 1692 (Correspondence 4: 377); Locke to Clarke, 2 January 1693 (4: 614); Locke to William Molyneux, 5 April 1696 (5: 594).

13  A letter Locke wrote to his friend Benjamin Furly some years later, on May 30 1701, reveals his persistent concern for moral reformation, a task made urgent by the widespread corruption of customs: “This when I examin into the causes of it [the difficulty to find a good tutor for Furly’s son] I impute to the great corrupsition and dissoluteness which has overspread this part of the world and of late years got into all ranks and professions of men, and seems to me the certain forerunner of that ruin confusion and disorder which seems to threaten all Europe” (Correspondence 7: 337).

14  Locke reread De officiis several times during his life; manuscript evidence of these readings is collected in Marshall 160-62, 164-66, 299-300. Marshall also highlights the great relevance Locke attributed to Cicero’s moral thought in the context of Some Thoughts.

15  The great value attributed to liberality in Some Thoughts recalls Cicero’s teaching in De officiis 1.43-49, where beneficence was celebrated as a fundamental means in order to create links of gratitude and esteem between citizens. Locke recommended parents should teach their children “that the most liberal has always most plenty, with Esteem and Commendation to boot” (§ 110); like Cicero, he also insisted liberality should never conflict with the rules of justice, in order not to encourage covetousness in the receivers.

16  Cf. Some Thoughts, § 147: “You will wonder, perhaps, that I put Learning last, especially if I tell you I think it the least part. This may seem strange in the mouth of a bookish Man: and this making usually the chief, if not only bustle and stir about Children; this being almost that alone, which is thought on, when People talk of Education, makes it the greater Paradox.”

17  In Essay 4.7.11, Locke criticized the massive use of disputation in schools as a way of corrupting young people’s intellects: “such a way of Learning is likely to turn young Men’s Minds from the sincere Search and Love of Truth” (601). The practice of disputation was therefore hardly compatible with religion.

18  The passage is a quotation from Seneca’s Epistulae 106.12.

19  This notion, Locke insisted on in Some Thoughts, should be imprinted in children’s minds at a very early age; see also §§ 157-58.

20  Writing to one of his pupils, John Alford, in 1666, Locke recommended the latter should take care not to spend his time idly, and not to trust in his possessions too much because “being wiser and better” was the only thing “that gives one advantage over beasts or other men” (Correspondence 1: 281).

21  Regarding the importance of Boyle’s work, and of Boyle himself as a new pattern of the English Christian gentleman, see Shapin “A Scholar” 298-301.

22  In “Labor” Locke denounced the “languish estate of a broaken health which the neglect of bodily labour seldom fails to bring them [the scholars] to” (Locke on Money 2: 494).

23  Regarding these attributions and their criticism in seventeenth-century England, see Shapin, Never Pure 153-54.

24  Music seemed to be tolerated more than encouraged in Ascham, Peacham and Gailhard’s works: it was conceived of as a diversion from greater responsibilities and as an activity which needed to be controlled and channelled, because the young took it readily but, unfortunately, even passionately. Music appeared to be improper for a man because it was unmanly; it did not match with the strong ideal of virility which prevailed in late seventeenth-century writings on education. Regarding this topic, see Leppert 24-25; Solinger 3-6. In Some Thoughts, Locke located music in “the last place” in the list of accomplishments appropriate to a gentleman (§ 197), because it could imply the engagement in odd companies and even more because of the necessity to employ time on “things of most use and consequence.”

25  “I do not expect Youth should have the fruit of every Art, Science, Language, or Vertue I have named; only let them have the seeds of it: and let these be dispositions thereunto, and foundations to build upon hereafter” (Gailhard 1: 100).

26  “So as hitherto I shewed how young men may be made Scholars, now I must direct them how to become gentlemen indeed; not by birth, for nature doth that for them, but by Merit and Virtue. I will bring them out of their study, and from amongst the dead, to converse with the living. We must now make them look abroad, raise them to a higher form, and teach them how to know the world: which to live in and not understand, is a shame and disadvantage when one is come to a competent age” (Gailhard 2: 1-2). 

27  In 1691, the anonymous pamphlet “A proposal for an Equal Land-Tax: Humbly Submitted to Consideration” had put forward the thesis that “some would have the Gentry take the whole Burden” of financing wars that were being waged in defence of the Protestant succession “upon themselves and few others” (Oldys 2: 485).

28  Several passages in Some Thoughts are devoted to cautioning parents against the negative influence of servants; see for instance § 19: “Those mean Sort of People, placing a great Part of their Happiness in Strong Drink, are always forward to make Court to my young Master, by offering him that, which they love best themselves.” See also §§ 59, 68, 69, 70, 76, 89, 107, 138.

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Giuliana Di Biase

Università G. d’Annunzio, Chieti-Pescara

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