Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Rethinking 'the rise of toleration'

A new text, Natural Law and Toleration in the Early Enlightenment (co-edited by Timothy Stanton), challenges some of the key premises on which modern western concepts of toleration are based and sheds new light on the political thinking of John Locke

Below, Dr. Stanton explains why the conventional idea of toleration as "a child of diversity and doubt" needs rethinking, and why we should take the trouble to understand the history of toleration in modern Europe in all its complex detail.

"The textbooks tell us that toleration goes hand in hand with liberalism and that the appeal of liberalism derives in large part from its commitment to tolerating diverse ways of life.  That commitment, in its turn, is usually thought to proceed in theory, and to have proceeded in historical fact, from the recognition that there is no single right way to live, or that all ways of life have something to be said for them—none is intrinsically better than all the others. Toleration, in other words, is a child of doubt and diversity, and its triumph is that of virtue over vice, of reason over superstition (by which is meant nowadays supernatural religion), and of individual freedom over state coercion.

The English philosopher John Locke has long enjoyed a starring role in this textbook story: his political philosophy is said to have announced the birth of liberalism while his Letter concerning toleration is said to have provided the first liberal justification of toleration.  On this view, Locke’s Letter shows that religion is the business of the individual, who possesses the right to go about that business as he or she chooses.  It follows both that religion is optional and that it ought to be tolerated by the state.  Coercion of the individual by the state in respect of religion is inappropriate because religious belief is a wholly private matter. However, there is an alarming inconsistency in Locke’s position for, having established this much, he denies toleration to Roman Catholics and atheists: a black mark in Locke’s otherwise unblemished liberal record.

A new study from the Department of Politics radically revises this textbook story. In Natural Law and Toleration in the Early Enlightenment, which I edited with my former colleague Jon Parkin (now St. Hugh’s, Oxford), leading scholars in the field, including Maria Rosa Antognazza, John Dunn, Knud Haakonssen, and Ian Hunter, challenge the assumption that toleration was born of doubt and diversity.  They reveal, by contrast, how some of the most seminal discussions of toleration in the western tradition were rooted in certitude, not doubt. The book offers significant new interpretations of a series of classic thinkers, including Samuel Pufendorf, Christian Thomasius, G. W. Leibniz, Jean Barbeyrac, Francis Hutcheson, and, above all, Locke. Two essays in particular, that by Ian Harris and my own contribution ‘Natural law, nonconformity and toleration: two stages on Locke’s way’, decisively shift the terms in which Locke must be understood.  They show that, with Locke, religion was neither optional nor private, not a matter of right for the individual primarily, but of duty for each and every one, a duty prescribed by natural law and knowable with certainty by all.

Law was a pivotal category in Locke’s analysis.  It pointed him to the idea of jurisdiction, and, more precisely, to two corresponding jurisdictions, the ecclesiastical and the civil.  The different purposes implied in these two jurisdictions, and the different ways in which they were established, made churches and states free from one another’s jurisdiction.  Religious worship, conducted in churches, is simply outside civil jurisdiction and not subject to it: it is not tolerated by the state, for the state has no jurisdiction over it, but rather free.  Toleration finds its place in the toleration, by all, of other people’s manner of worshipping God—as they must—as they judge they must.  On the other hand the state, because it is entrusted with the ends implied in civil jurisdiction, is required to coerce atheists and Roman Catholics.  Atheists reject natural law and with it the very notions of civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, while Roman Catholics deny the integrity of civil jurisdiction, believing that the jurisdiction of their own church extends over every other and over every state.  Therefore the denial of toleration to both groups was a necessary consequence of Locke’s jurisdictional thinking. Toleration and intolerance went hand in hand and, as strange as it sounds to the modern ear, there were duties to both.  Thus a new Locke comes into view.

Natural Law and Toleration in the Early Enlightenment is published by Oxford University Press for the British Academy, as volume 186 of the Proceedings of the British Academy.  Since 1905 this series has provided a unique record of British scholarship in the social science and humanities.  It seeks to publish themed volumes that drive scholarship forward and are landmarks in their field.  Jon and I were especially pleased that John Dunn agreed to contribute a ‘Postface’ which offers a powerful meditation on the importance of understanding the detail and complexity of the history of toleration in modern Europe for any adequate view of its past, its present, and its future prospects.  His chapter is a fitting conclusion to the book, for that is the on-going task to which it makes its own small contribution".     

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