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Essays on the law of nature   [c. 1663-1664]


    Bodleian Library, MS. Locke e. 6, ff. 63v-17v rev.  [draft of essays IV-VIII] [ca. 1663-1664]
    Bodleian Library, MS. Locke f. 30, ff. 122-173v  [copy by Brounower] [1681?]
    Bodleian Library, MS. Locke f. 31, ff. 9-119  [copy by an unknown amanuensis] [1664?]

Description:   Locke drafted eight Latin lectures or disputations on the law of nature in his capacity as Censor of Moral Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1664. The lectures bear no title; their first editor, Wolfgang von Leyden, called them Essays on the law of nature; a later editor preferred Questions concerning the law of nature, because they are in the traditional form of scholastic quæstiones or disputations, giving arguments for and against a disputed thesis. The working title in The Clarendon edition of the works of John Locke is a variation on the same theme: Disputations on the law of nature.

There are three manuscript versions:

MS. Locke e. 6 [“MS A”] is clearly the earliest; it contains drafts of five of the essays and the title only of another, written in Locke’s hand with numerous deletions and additions. For his draft, Locke turned over a notebook used for “Lemmata” and wrote on unused versos at the back. The text begins on f. 63v and continues through f. 17v rev.. On f. 53v rev. appears the title of an additional essay, without text: “An firma animi persuasio probat legem naturae.”

MS. Locke f. 31 [“MS B”] is a copy by an unknown amaneunsis containing all eight essays, as well as the titles only of three more (but not the title given in MS. A). The text is neatly written on the recto of each leaf, leaving the verso blank for additions and corrections. The titles of many of the essays are in Locke’s hand, and there are numerous deletions and corrections. At the end of the final essay (f. 119), Locke wrote “Sic cogitavit J. Locke 1664.”

Finally, MS. Locke f. 30 [“MS C”] contains (ff. 121-173) a clean copy by Sylvester Brounower, without corrections; it ends “Sic cogitavit J Locke.” Jenny Strauss Clay argues, from evidence of the watermark, that the copy was probably made around 1681; she also argues that the copy may be a clean copy created for possible publication. The manuscript consists of eight quires, signed A-H8 and captioned “Lex na[tur]a.”


  1. Essays on the law of nature / John Locke ; the Latin text with a translation, introduction and notes, together with transcripts of Locke’s shorthand in his journal for 1676, edited by W. von Leyden. – Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1954. – pages 108-214. [Locke #944]. – Uses MS. Locke f. 31 as copy-text.
  2. [Selections (English translation):] British moralists, 1650-1800 / selected and edited with comparative notes and analytical index by D.D. Raphael. – Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1969. – vol. 1:160-166. [Locke #343]
  3. Questions concerning the law of nature / John Locke ; with an introduction, text, and translation by Robert Horwitz, Jenny Strauss Clay, and Diskin Clay. – Ithaca ; London : Cornell University Press, 1990. – pages 94-250. [Locke #944A]. – Based on MS. Locke e. 6 and f. 31, with preference given to the former.
  4. Disputations on the law of nature / John Locke ; edited by Hannah Dawson and Richard Ellis. – Oxford : Clarendon Press, in preparation. – (The Clarendon edition of the works of John Locke)
  5. [Essay VIII (English translation):] Political writings / John Locke ; edited and with an introduction by David Wootton. – London ; New York : Penguin Books, 1993. – pages 177-183. [Locke #867+] – The Von Leyden translation (#1 above).
  6. [English translation:] Political essays / Locke ; edited by Mark Goldie. – Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1997. – pages 79-133. [Locke #867+] – The Von Leyden translation (#1 above).

  7. For translations, see the section on this work in the John Locke Bibliography.

Discussions:   Von Leyden, “Introduction” to publication #1 above; Abrams, “Introduction” to Two tracts on government (1967), pages 84-107; Horwitz, “Introduction” to publication #3 above; Jenny Strauss Clay, “The manuscripts” in publication #3 above, pages 63-72; M. A. Stewart, review of publication #3 in Locke newsletter, 23 (1992):145-165.

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