All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Toleration is a policy or attitude toward something that is not approved and yet is not actively rejected. The word comes from the Latin tolerare (to bear or endure), suggesting a root meaning of putting up with something. There is no single and widely accepted definition of the term, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that every author uses it in his or her own way. Therefore it may be best to understand the many uses of the word in terms of family resemblances.

It should be clear that each of the languages that uses a variant of the Latin term (German, Toleranz; Dutch, tolerantie; French, tolérance; Spanish, tolerancia; Italian, tolleranza; etc.) adds its own slightly different connotations to the word, based on historical experiences. Languages that do not derive the word from Latin have synonyms, each with some overlap and some difference in usage.

Throughout much of the history of the concept, toleration referred largely to a policy or attitude toward different religions. Intolerance could mean burning at the stake of heretics or apostates and forced conversions of adherents to different religions, and tolerance could mean anything short of that. By the late twentieth century, demands for toleration could also refer to other disputed behaviors such as sexual orientations, clothing and dress, drug use, vegetarianism versus meat-eating, and more (although religion was often not far behind these disputes). Ethnic and cultural behaviors and language usage could be the subject of tolerance and intolerance as well. In medicine, toleration refers to an organism's capacity to absorb or endure something without untoward consequences.

Conceptual Nuances

Most uses of the word understand it as referring to a middle ground on a spectrum between rejection, intolerance, hate, and persecution on one end, and acceptance, approval, love, and respect on the other. They distinguish it from indifference because it only comes into play when something is disliked or disapproved and matters.

Who is doing the tolerating, who or what is being tolerated, and exactly what such toleration entails can vary enormously. Individuals can be said to tolerate their own personal foibles, not to tolerate fools, or to tolerate whole groups. Groups can be said to tolerate individuals within or without, or other groups. States and other political authorities can be said to tolerate individuals, groups, or other states. That which is tolerated can range from the very existence to the appearance, ideas, or activities of the tolerated entity. Toleration can range from providing only limited encouragement, to doing nothing, to applying limited sanctions short of persecution.

Some authors have tried to distinguish "toleration" from "tolerance," with the former referring to official policies and the latter to a personal attribute, but ordinary language does not seem to distinguish the two. For example, we can say that the behavior of tolerant persons shows that they tolerate others, or that all we are asking for from another person is toleration. We can also say that a government policy reflects tolerance of some activity.

Some authors have thought that toleration is only a second-best, half-way measure, and that we ought to go beyond toleration to embrace and respect others. This is certainly the right thing to do where whatever is being tolerated actually deserves to be embraced. But one can wonder if all human beings really are always doing things that deserve respect. What would the world be like if all people and all of their activities were worthy of embrace? Certainly unlike anything we have seen so far. Then, perhaps, there would be no need for a concept like toleration. But until that moment arrives, this is the term for the response to things that merit neither active persecution nor full acceptance.

Toleration may look weak and thin from the perspective of a possible acceptance and embrace, but it can look very good from the perspective of someone who is undergoing persecution. Many a victim of intolerance would just like to be left alone, and that is one of the modes of toleration. One of the paradoxes of toleration is that if one is tolerant of everything, then one is also tolerant of the intolerant. This may mean complicity with persecution, or at least failure to prevent it.

Related Concepts

A large vocabulary of related concepts has been used to define and promote toleration. If, as mentioned above, religion created many of the disputes that lead to persecution, it also produced many concepts that can lead toward toleration. Irenicism (the seeking of peace), the pursuit of concord, comprehension, latitudinarianism, and basic agreement on fundamentals have been policies of many theologians and churchmen. Where these policies recognize that we may never approve of everything the other thinks or does, they promote toleration. Where they imply that someday we will all agree, they go beyond it.

Other terms that have both religious and secular meanings are relevant. Mercy and charity may inspire one to tolerate. Patience is close to the root meaning of the Latin word, helping one endure what one disapproves. Humility, modesty, and skepticism about one's own knowledge of what is right may incline one to tolerate others even when one disagrees with them. Indulgence can mean allowing something that one could prevent. Compromise may mean conceding some points in order to gain others, tolerating the loss of the conceded points.

High-minded philosophical principles can lead toward toleration. Belief in the autonomy and independence of other people can justify leaving them alone even when one does not like what they are doing. Principles of impartiality and neutrality may make a state stay out of religious or other quarrels. Of course, not just any principle will do: most persecution is justified by principle as well.

Toleration has not always been the result of principle. It can come about for purely practical reasons because of exhaustion, impotence, or impasse. It can be the result of politique calculation that hostility does not pay. Swiss physician and theologian Thomas Erastus (15241583) gave his name to Erastianism, a term for state supremacy and policies that enforce toleration in order to maintain political stability and prevent religious fighting. Gag orders and decrees prohibiting further debate have often been used to silence contending parties in the hopes of reaching a modicum of mutual toleration.

Liberty of conscience and freedom of religion are policies that sometimes overlap with toleration and sometimes go beyond it. Liberty of conscience usually means that everyone may think what they like, and no one will inquire into what they think. But this is compatible with suppressing public expression of what one thinks. On the one hand, this may be better than regimes in which "thought police" are constantly monitoring people's ideas; on the other, it is not as free as forms of toleration that permit expression. Freedom of religion often means that one can choose among two or more established religions, but it sometimes also implies that one must choose one of the available religions. It may not tolerate rejection of all religion.


In modern times and in liberal ideology, toleration has a positive valence, associated with open-mindedness and egalitarianism. It can be a valued character trait or a beneficial attribute of a group or state.

But toleration has also been considered a negative trait or attribute. It can be associated with laziness, carelessness, and slacking. While many moderns do not consider it lazy or careless to tolerate other religions, we can capture some of the force that this charge once had if we consider that doing nothing about cruelty or murder could be characterized as tolerating it. Then the tolerators would be tolerating something they should not, perhaps out of cowardice or carelessness.

Another negative valence of toleration can be found in the Marxist tradition, where tolerating something can be considered part of an oppressive regime. "Repressive tolerance" can include tolerating evil and oppressive people or activities. It can also mean tolerating a protesting group and thus depriving it of the importance it would have if it were taken seriously. In effect, this theory holds that in conditions of class inequality, both tolerance and intolerance are repressive.

Other modern groups have considered toleration condescending and ultimately affirmative of conditions of injustice. For example, T. S. Eliot (18881965) wrote that in the conditions of modern secularism "The Christian does not want to be tolerated" (Cranston, p. 101); rather, she wants to be respected. Similarly, spokespeople for ethnic groups, women, gays, and others have objected that simply being in a position of having to be tolerated is already unfair, reflecting power inequalities.

Perhaps because of its middle-way position, toleration is rarely likely to be stable over a long period. Rather, persons or states can become more or less tolerant or more or less tolerated as time goes by and opinions or conditions change. Since intolerance is often a response to a perceived threat, when the perception of threat increases or decreases, toleration may become less or more of an option. Individuals or groups that were once persecuted out of fear but are now perceived as harmless can become tolerated and eventually embraced. Vice versa, if people who were once considered innocuous become perceived as more of a threat, intolerance of them may increase.

Toleration in the Ancient World

Cyrus the Great of Persia (r. c. 558529 b.c.e.) is a key figure at the foundation of two traditions of toleration. He is praised in the Hebrew Bible for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity. And Xenophon (c. 431c. 352 b.c.e.) lauded him in The Education of Cyrus (after 394 b.c.e.) for his policy of religious toleration, placing him in the Greek tradition. Scholars have speculated that his toleration of Medes, Hyrcanians, and other religious and ethnic groups was largely an imperial political strategy. He needed to draw on the manpower of conquered kingdoms and knew it would be easier to defeat kings whose peoples believed they could thrive under his rule.

Aspects of Buddhist religious thought, which originated in India, also justified peacefulness and toleration. Ashoka (r. c. 273232 b.c.e.), the last emperor of the Mauryan dynasty in India, renounced war and promoted Buddhism while remaining tolerant of other religions.

Throughout much of history, the ancient Chinese were tolerant of a variety of religions ranging from Confucianism to Buddhism and Taoism to animism. Manichaeans and Jews thrived at times. Scholars have speculated that it was precisely because they were tolerated and not persecuted that Jews in ancient China seem to have shed their identity and blended into the rest of the population.

The Koran contains passages about living in peace with peoples of other religions, especially "peoples of the book" (Jews and Christians). Therefore, Islamic cultures such as medieval Spain tolerated flourishing Christian and Jewish communities in what was known as convivencia, or living together in peace. The Ottoman Empire developed regimes of toleration of those religions that included the "millet" system, in which each religion had its own legal system and paid its own tax rate, even though only Muslims could hold higher offices.

The ancient Romans were generally tolerant of the existence of many cults because of polytheism, which implied that every hearth, city, and people could have its own gods. When they became an imperial power, they tolerated any religion that would also show signs of respect for Roman deities. They conceived of the Jewish War not as wars against that religion but against a rebellious subject people. Christians were persecuted for their refusal to take part in the imperial cult and for their disrespect for Roman rule, not merely for their religion.

The Rise of Christian Persecution

Throughout world history, local practices of toleration have been interspersed with pogroms and persecution. Sometimes practices of toleration have come before ideas about it, and sometimes ideas have come before practices. Wherever toleration is practiced as a norm, there is not much need to think or write about it. By far the most elaborate discussion of the issue took place in the Christian West in the period from 1500 to 1800, precisely because a great deal of persecution was going on. To fully understand it, we must go back to the origins of Christian persecution.

The situation in the Roman Empire changed when the emperor Constantine (r. 306337) legalized Christianity in 313 and promoted it as the public religion. Now it was implicated in state power and had to decide whether to tolerate or persecute others. In the following millennium there were wars against Muslims and persecution of pagans and Jews, as well as contentions within Christianity. With respect to the latter, one could justify intolerance if the people one disagreed with could be labeled as heretics or blasphemers.

The word heresy originally meant "choice," as in a choice of beliefs or sects, with no negative connotations. But various passages in the New Testament used it to mean sinful divisiveness. Early church fathers such as St. Irenaeus (c. 120 to 140c. 200 to 203), Tertullian (c. 155 or 160after 220), and Eusebius of Caesaria (c. 260c. 339) refuted the chief early heresies. In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to settle church doctrine and then issued an edict banning heresies. In 385 a Spanish bishop, Priscillian (c. 340385), became the first person to be executed for heresy.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) was the most influential theorist of persecution. After belonging to the Manichaean heresy in his youth, he joined the Catholic Church in 387 and eventually became a bishop. Facing Manichaean, Pelagian, and Donatist heresies, at first he advocated peaceful methods but by about 400 he began to endorse coercion. He interpreted the parable of the tares (Matt. 13:2430) and the parable of the feast (Luke 14:2123) to justify coercion of heretics. The latter was a particularly long stretch, because the parable merely has a rich man prepare a banquet and send his servant out into the streets to find people and "compel them to come in." Later, both Catholics and Protestants justified forced conversions on the basis of this invitation to a feast.

Further developments in the justification of persecution include the definitions of heresy in Gratian of Bologna's (d. before 1159) Decretum (c. 1140) and many further decrees. The persecution of heretics became the object of armed warfare in the bloody Albigensian Crusade (12091229). In 1233 Pope Gregory IX (ruled 12271241) assigned the persecution of heresy to the Dominican order, establishing the Inquisition.

Medieval voices for tolerance.

However, not everyone went along with the violent treatment of religious difference. The Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian of Peter Abelard (1079?1144) demonstrated that the pursuit of knowledge could not be detached from the inclusion of diverse standpoints. John of Salisbury (c. 11151180) and Marsilius of Padua (c. 1280c. 1343) combined defenses of personal liberty with functionalist accounts of the organic unity of the political community to maintain that the health of the body politic requires freedom of thought, speech, and even action. John Wycliffe (13301384) developed a theory of toleration that derived from his theology of grace and his political theory of the king's responsibility to protect the welfare of both the graced and the ungraced.

Medieval times also included voices for toleration from the disempowered. Menachem Ha-Me'iri (12491316) developed a uniquely Jewish theory of toleration to justify cooperation with gentiles. Christine de Pisan (13641430) stressed the interdependence of the various parts of the body politic to justify tolerant treatment of differences of gender, class, and nationality.

In the late medieval or early Renaissance period, Nicholas of Cusa's The Peace of the Faith (1453) recognized that mankind was inherently and inescapably diverse in language, culture, and politics. If there will always be different customs and rites, toleration is justified because persecution is futile. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494) and others from this period also developed toleration for non-Christians from their interests in the Jewish Kabbalah and pagan philosophy.

Early Modern Period

The Protestant Reformation created the most serious challenge to toleration in early modern Europe. Martin Luther (14831546), John Calvin (15091564), and Huldrych Zwingli (14841531) were the three most influential leaders of this movement, which permanently divided Christian Europe. Each demanded toleration for their own movement, but could be intolerant of other religions. Early Catholic responses included violent repression of the Protestants, but Humanists like Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) called for a more irenic response of continuing dialogue and peaceful admonition.

Early Protestants soon justified being left alone based on their interpretations of the Bible. Spiritualists like Hans Denck (c. 14951527) and Sebastian Franck (c. 1499c. 1542) and mystics like Jakob Böhme (15751624) felt that God is within every man, and religious individualism is God's purpose. Persecuted Anabaptists from Balthasar Hubmaier (14851528) and David Joris (c. 15011556) to Thomas Helwys (c. 1550c. 1616) and Leonard Busher (dates unknown) argued that religious persecution is against the spirit of Jesus Christ and that judgment about matters of faith should be left to God. Menno Simons (14961561), founder of the Mennonites, argued for Christian pacifism, and Italian Protestants like Bernardino Ochino (14871564) and Celio Secondo Curione (15031569) defended their right to religious toleration on such grounds as faith is a gift from God, it is tyranny to punish an error of the soul, and God's church has room for great variety.

At first the Protestants could claim the high moral ground because they did not use violence like their Catholic opponents. Then, in 1553, Michael Servetus (15111553) was burned for antitrinitarian heresy in Calvin's Geneva. This provoked Sébastien Castellio (15151563) to write some of the first sustained defenses of toleration. De haereticis (1554; Concerning heretics) collected the irenic opinions of several writers and essays by the author under false names. "Heretic" is just the word we use to describe those with whom we disagree, he asserts. The suffering of persecution is actually the sign of a true Christian, and persecution of people who are acting in accord with their consciences promotes hypocrisy and is harmful to everybody. In later works Castellio drew on the ancient skeptics for their rejection of pretended certainty and argued for the separation of church and state. Other writers including Jacobus Acontius (14921566) and Mino Celsi (d. c. 1575) followed up on Castellio's thinking. Among these, Dutchman Dirck Coornhert (15221590) insisted that civil unity was more important than religious unity; he was one of the first to argue in favor of tolerating atheists.

Throughout the early modern period, the ideal of the primitive church as voluntary and nonviolent appealed to many people. It could be carried to the point where Pietist Gottfried Arnold's Impartial History of Churches and Heretics (16991700) redescribed most alleged heretics as pious, and most of the orthodox as the real heretics.

Catholic toleration.

In the Anglophone world there has long been a tendency to claim that most theories of toleration came from the Protestant side. But Father Joseph Lecler found a Catholic writer in favor of toleration for almost every Protestant toleration theorist. For example, Cardinal Reginald Pole (15001558) developed the thought that "Heretics be not in all Things Heretics" into a defense of toleration. In the France of the religious civil wars of the sixteenth century, Chancellor Michel de l'Hôpital (15051573) strove for compromise and toleration between the Calvinists and Catholics, partly on the basis of his own Catholic religious convictions. The great author Michel de Montaigne (15331592) never renounced Catholicism even as his Essays (15801595) contained many reasons for toleration drawn from individualism, skepticism, and a deep sense of the bodily nature of human beings. Such thinkers were sometimes called "politiques" because of their arguments for toleration on practical political grounds.

Jean Bodin (15301596) is an intriguing figure, ostensibly Catholic, but he could have been a Judaizer. In several works including Colloquium of the Seven about the Secrets of the Sublime (c. 1588) he argued for nonviolence, neutrality, and mutual agreement not to discuss differences that might lead to fighting.

The Spanish conquest of Latin America led to much abuse of the natives, partly on the ground that they were not good Christians. Writers like the bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas (14741566), wrote in their defense. Half-Spanish half-natives like Felipe Guaman Poma (15321614) wrote to reconcile the two cultures, to little effect. Garcilaso de la Vega, known as "the Inca" (15391616), also spoke up for tolerance from the native side.

By the mid-eighteenth century active persecution of Protestants in France had died down, but in 1762 Jean Calas, a Protestant, was the victim of a judicial murder. The famous writer Voltaire (16941778) took up the cause, publishing A Treatise on Toleration (1763), which received European-wide circulation and discredited such persecution in public opinion. It may have been the last major cri de coeur against religious violence, because even contemporary and later Catholic treatments of heresy such as François Adrien Pluquet's Dictionary of Heresies of 1762 and Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier's Methodical Encyclopedia of 17881832 took for granted that heresy did not justify violence.

Antitrinitarianism (Socinianism).

Antitrinitarianism or unitarianismthe theory that Jesus and the Holy Spirit did not share God's naturewas a heresy considered as bad as atheism and persecuted all over Europe. But conditions close to anarchy have often been good for toleration. The absence of centralized power in Poland in the later sixteenth century meant that it became a haven for Lelio (15251562) and Fausto (15391604) Sozzini, founders of the antitrinitarian Socinians, and followers such as Samuel Przypkowski (15921670). They developed a battery of reasons why they should not be persecuted, most of them rooted in Scripture. Their much-anathematized writings were published in the Netherlands, which had one of the freest presses of the day. Later, many thinkers such as Isaac Newton (16421727) were clandestine sympathizers with antitrinitarianism under another of its variants, Arianism.

The Netherlands out front.

The Dutch published a great deal of toleration theory and practiced toleration to a substantial degree from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. During early decades of the Revolt of the Netherlands (15681648) almost anything could be published because of the exhaustion of the political authorities, the myriad of decentralized jurisdictions, and appreciation of the economic value of the book market. William the Silent (15331584), leader of the Dutch Revolt, wrote that repression of worship leads to hypocrisy and that no false religion would last.

In the early seventeenth century a theological dispute in the Netherlands between Gomarists and Arminians led to suppression of the Arminians, but also to many writings against that suppression. Simon Episcopius (15831643) and Jan Uytenbogaert (15571644) wrote that Christian charity and reciprocity requires freedom of conscience, even for Catholics. Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 15831645) defended a limited tolerance as part of his theory of natural law, which was developed by later natural-law theorists like the German Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694). Pufendorf's Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion (1687) claimed that the genius of the Christian religion was nonviolence, that people's thoughts were not punishable, and that the civil authorities should control religion.

Benedict Baruch Spinoza (16321677), an excommunicated Jew, wrote one of the most robust defenses of freedom of thought while living in the Netherlands. In his Theological-Political Treatise (1670) he argued for arming the state for security against the mob, and then for reining in the state in matters of religion. Pierre Bayle (16471706), a Huguenot refugee in the Netherlands, developed the most sophisticated and most tolerant theory of the century. In Letters on the Comet (1682) he showed how atheists could indeed live in civil peace, and in Philosophical Commentary on the Words "Compel Them to Come In" (1685) he developed a wide-ranging theory of toleration based on the rights of conscience, even erring conscience, that would protect not only Protestant sects, but Catholics and virtually all others as well. In his last writings, he asserted that he would rather live under an atheist king because that king would have one less reason to persecute.

The English Civil War and its aftermath.

The anarchy of the English Civil War was also fertile ground for toleration writings. John Dury (15951680), Samuel Hartlib (c. 16001662), and Johann Comenius (15921670) drew on millenarian hopes to justify reunion and peace among Protestants. Merchant and Leveller William Walwyn (16001680) wrote in favor of complete religious toleration on religious grounds. Leveller Richard Overton (fl. 16421663) argued for toleration of Jews and Catholics and made free use of humor to take down overserious persecuting pride, a method recommended in Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristics (1711). John Milton (16081674) made an impassioned case for toleration of divorce in several pamphlets, and then wrote the first major defense of that aspect of toleration known as freedom of the press in Areopagitica (1644). His work was followed up in the first substantial French and German defenses of freedom of the press by Elie Luzac (1749) and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1787).

Roger Williams (1603?1683) founded the English colony of Rhode Island as a haven of freedom of religion, and published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) in favor of separation of church and state and freedom of religion on Christian grounds. William Penn (16441718) founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for persecuted Quakers and published The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience (1671).

Thomas Hobbes (15881679) wrote Leviathan (1651), one of the most influential theories of absolute power in the history of political philosophy, but he has also been credited with a theory of toleration in the ruler's own self-interest. Trying to control people's thoughts may provoke too much opposition and squanders power that can best be used elsewhere.

The English philosopher John Locke's (16321704) first work on toleration opposed it (1667). But after living for some years in the Netherlands, becoming friends with Dutch toleration theorist Philip van Limborch (16331712), and reading Pierre Bayle and Adriaan Paets (16311686) he developed a theory of toleration, which he published in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). He relied on the Calvinist point that everyone is responsible for his own salvation, skepticism about who really knew the truth, and the political benefits of toleration. Like Milton, however, he was unable to conceive of toleration of Catholics and atheists because of their alleged political unreliability, but later wrote for legal endenization of Muslims and against licensing of the press.

Economic interests, travel writings, and belles lettres.

Beyond religious and philosophical ideas, one source of toleration in theory and practice was economics. The Dutch found that wide toleration paid off in economic growth and provided a demonstration effect for the rest of Europe. Henry Robinson's (c. 1605c. 1664) pamphlets of the 1640s and Daniel Defoe's (16601731) many writings of the beginning of the eighteenth century pointed out the commercial benefits of toleration of merchants and customers of differing religions.

Another source of tolerationist ideas was travel literature, which introduced Europeans to different customs and religions from around the world. This could include actual travel accounts; somewhat fanciful travel literature such as Fernão Mendes Pinto's Travels (1614); and imaginative works like Denis Veiras's History of the Sevarites (16751679), Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Other genres of literature could be important, too. Aphra Behn's play Oroonoko (1688) taught English audiences to tolerate Africans, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779) expressed the values of toleration for late-eighteenth-century Germany, and Karl Friedrich Bahrdt's play The Edict of Religion (1787) ridiculed Frederick William II's attempt to legislate religious conformity.

Despite all of the foregoing defenses of toleration, open admission of Socinianism or atheism remained dangerous throughout the early modern period. One recourse for Socinians, atheists, and libertines was the circulation of manuscripts and even clandestine printed works in the large underground literature of the time. Much of this literature, which included many pleas for toleration, has been explored in the French annual La lettre clandestine (1992).

Toleration of Jews.

Jews and heretics were often subjects of popular and clerical intolerance in medieval and early modern Europe, but writers could counteract some of that sentiment. Millenarians favored toleration of Judaism because they believed that the Jews must voluntarily convert before the restoration of Christ. Histories such as Jacques Basnage's History of the Jews (17071716) and Ludvig Holberg's History of the Jews (1742) helped place this much-maligned people in a more favorable light. The Jewish writer Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783) was an eloquent plea for religious tolerance.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

It seems safe to say that although toleration of differing religions remains a political issue even into the twenty-first century, there have been few or no substantial novelties concerning the idea of toleration since the eighteenth century. Wilhelm von Humboldt's The Limits of State Action of 1852, his follower John Stuart Mill's On Liberty of 1859, and twentieth-century pleas for tolerance have largely debated, restated, and updated the theoretical ideas already in place from earlier times.

Legal Acts and Declarations

In addition to political pamphlets and philosophical arguments, from the sixteenth century on toleration can be tracked by study of the legal provisions that were decreed to grant it. One form of toleration was settled by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which ended some of the wars between Lutherans and Catholics. Under the formula cuius regio eius religio (the ruler determines the religion) it held that each prince could decide which of the two religions would be established in his territories and permitted adherents to the other religion to emigrate. Although not much, this was an entering wedge for wider forms of toleration. The principle was reaffirmed, this time including Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The Revolt of the Netherlands against Spain after 1560 eventually gave the once-persecuted victorious Protestants the dilemma of deciding how to deal with the large number of Catholics in their territories. Pacts of tolerance were published as early as the 1570s, and in some localities Catholics were forbidden to proselytize or engage in public processions but were allowed to worship in private homes.

In 1568 the Diet of Torda in Transylvania consolidated religious enactments of the previous decades into a decree that "no one should be abused by anyone for his religion" and further similar provisions. In the following decades Anabaptists, Unitarians, Jews, and Orthodox Christians were protected by various laws and patents. In 1573 the king of Poland was forced to accede to the Confederation of Warsaw, which granted Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and even antitrinitarians some protection from persecution, leading to a golden age for Socinians there that lasted for several decades until Catholicism regained the ascendancy.

After decades of civil war between Calvinist Huguenots and Catholics in France, Henry IV enacted the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed Protestant rights to worship in their churches and even to certain fortified cities. Several other edicts of the sixteenth century attempted to settle continuing religious rivalry, but Louis XIV ended efforts to make coexistence possible by his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. As many as a hundred thousand Calvinists fled France.

Taking advantage of the outflow of these talented and hardworking Huguenots, Frederick William I, the Calvinist great elector of Lutheran Brandenburg, issued the Decree of Potsdam in 1685, announcing that he would provide refuge to them and respect their religion. Many came and settled in Berlin, helping the city prosper.

The Toleration Act of 1689 demonstrates what the word could mean in England in that period. It suspended penal laws against Protestants who refused to conform to the Church of England. It did not lift penalties against antitrinitarians and Catholics, who were only given equal rights in 1813 and 1829, respectively. It maintained privileges such as exclusive qualification for political office for members of the Church of England. Nevertheless, this could be considered toleration because it allowed some dissenting sects that had not previously been permitted to worship in public to do so. Its perhaps unintended consequence was to keep alive the idea that other sects could eventually be tolerated, too.

Many who emigrated to the English colonies in North America did so in pursuit of religious freedom. Maryland's Act Concerning Religion of 1649 was the first to spell out religious freedom. As mentioned above, Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in order to institute religious liberty. By the later eighteenth century, the ideal of religious toleration was often institutionalized by declarations of rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, several other state declarations, and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791) provided for religious freedom. In France, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" of the National Assembly in 1789 provided that "No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law" (Article 10). The United States and France served as models for such ideals and declarations in many countries throughout the next century.

Twentieth-century declarations.

In the twentieth century, the United Nations internationalized the tradition of declarations of rights to toleration. In 1948 the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance" (Article 18).

In 1996 the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a "Declaration of Principles of Tolerance." Ignoring the ordinary usage of tolerance as referring to the middle of the spectrum between persecution and warm embrace, UNESCO redefined it by fiat as "respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures" (Article 1.1). This was surely well-intended as an effort to move people who are unjustifiably opposed to diversity toward more open-mindedness. But if warm embrace becomes the exclusive meaning of toleration, we will surely need another term for our attitude or policy toward the things we may justifiably not respect, accept, or appreciate, but also do not persecute.

See also Christianity ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Liberalism ; Liberty ; Orthodoxy ; Orthopraxy .



Bahrdt, Karl Friedrich. The Edict of Religion: A Comedy; and The Story and Diary of My Imprisonment. 1789. Translated and edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2000.

Bayle, Pierre. Pierre Bayle's Philosophical Commentary: A Modern Translation and Critical Interpretation. 1685. Translated by Amie G. Tannenbaum. New York: Lang, 1987.

Castellion, Sébastien. Concerning Heretics. 1554. Translated by Roland H. Bainton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration, in Focus. 1689. Edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge, 1991.

Luzac, Elie. Essay on Freedom of Expression. 1749. In Early French and German Defenses of Freedom of the Press, edited by John Christian Laursen and Johan van der Zande. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Milton, John. Areopagitica. 1643. In Areopagitica and Other Political Writings by John Milton, edited by John Alvis. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999.

Penn, William. The Great Case for Liberty of Conscience. 1670. In The Political Writings of William Penn, edited by Andrew R. Murphy. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Pufendorf, Samuel. Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in Reference to Civil Society. 1687. Edited by Simone Zurbuchen. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Robinson, Henry. Liberty of Conscience. 1644. San Francisco: California State Library, 1940.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theological-Political Treatise. 1670. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001.

Williams, Roger. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. London: n.p., 1644.


Berkvens-Stevelinck, Christiane, Jonathan Israel, and G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes, eds. The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

Cranston, Maurice. "John Locke and the Case for Toleration." In On Toleration, edited by Susan Mendus and David Edwards. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Eijnatten, Joris van. Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Public in the Eighteenth-Century Netherlands. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Guggisberg, Hans R. Sebastian Castellio, 15151563: Humanist and Defender of Religious Toleration in a Confessional Age. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1997.

Jordan, W. K. The Development of Religious Toleration in England. 4 vols. London: Allen and Unwin, 1932.

Laursen, John Christian, ed. Histories of Heresy in Early Modern Europe: For, against, and beyond Persecution and Toleration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

, ed. Religious Toleration: "The Variety of Rites" from Cyrus to Defoe. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Laursen, John Christian, and Cary J. Nederman, eds. Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Lecler, Joseph. Toleration and the Reformation. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1960.

Levine, Alan. Sensual Philosophy: Toleration, Skepticism, and Montaigne's Politics of the Self. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2001.

Murphy, Andrew R. Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Nederman, Cary J. Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100c. 1550. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Nederman, Cary J., and John Christian Laursen, eds. Difference and Dissent: Theories of Toleration in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

John Christian Laursen

views updated


TOLERATION. Toleration (or its cognate, tolerance) denotes the readiness of an individual or a community to permit the presence and/or expression of ideas, beliefs, and practices differing from what is accepted by that individual or by the dominant part of the community. Toleration demands forbearance only; it does not require approval or endorsement of the tolerated ideas, beliefs, and practices. A tolerant person respects differences between him- or herself and other people; a tolerant community respects differences between groups and/or among individuals within the social totality. Toleration is thus antithetical to the persecution or repression (systematic or individualized) of ideas, beliefs, and practices that differ from one's own. Indeed, a tolerant person or society will protect the ability of such ideas, beliefs, and practices to persist even while acknowledging disagreement with them.

In early modern Europe, the main object of toleration in reality and as an ideal was difference of confession among religious communities, all of which claimed to be Christian. The Protestant Reformation had fragmentedpermanently, as it turned outthe institutional and doctrinal unity of the Latin Christian Church that the faith had supposedly upheld since the time of St. Paul. During the sixteenth century, under the impact of Lutheran and Calvinist condemnations of the impurity of the visible Roman Church, not to mention the English Church's institutional break with Rome and the emergence of extreme sects such as the Anabaptists, Christianity was forced to reinvent itself as a creed united in faith but divided in rite. This situation has commonly led scholars to conclude that only in the post-Reformation context did the ideal vision and real conduct of tolerance enter into Europe, expressed by various proclamations of toleration as well as by the theoretical statement found in the Epistola de Tolerantia (1689; Letter on toleration) of John Locke (16321704).

Yet the assertion of the singular modernity of toleration, arising in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, masks the complexity of its history. Prior to the sixteenth century, certain voices at the core as well as on the periphery of European society were prepared to countenance the presence of dissenters and even heretics within Christianity as well as the existence of various non-Christian convictions. Moreover, other important issues, such as the discovery of the New World with its large population previously unexposed to the Christian faith, also drove the debate about the extension of forbearance to cultures and religious rites utterly alien to Europe. Finally, no particularly compelling evidence suggests that the desire to persecute forms of difference and dissentin religion as in other fields of human endeavorabated with the rise of modern Europe. Even those prepared to tolerate certain divergent Christian confessions were equally ready to exclude and brutally suppress other self-identified ChristiansRoman Catholics, Anabaptists, Hutterites, millenariansnot to mention deists, atheists, and similar free thinkers.

This context needs to be considered when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the modern European approach to toleration. Even before the monk Martin Luther (14831546) nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Witten-berg in 1517, Europeans were grappling with the consequences of their encounter with the indigenous peoples of the Americas following the discoveries of the 1490s. Spain and Portugal in particular sought and received the authorization of the Roman Church to conquer and settle the lands of the Caribbean and Central and South America under the guise of evangelizing and converting the native populace. Some thinkers recoiled with considerable horror from the slaughter and enslavement that ensued. The towering figure of the School of Salamanca, Francesco de Vitoria (c. 1486?1546), objected to the appropriation of the Aristotelian categories of barbarism and slavery by nature. Following de Vitoria, the Dominican bishop and former conquistador Bartolomé de Las Casas (14761566) composed a series of writings in Spanish as well as Latin defending the rights of the native population to maintain their cultural, political, and religious traditions and practiceseven such controversial rites as human sacrifices, not to mention refusal of Christian missionaries and resistance to conquest. In a famous debate with the Scholastic advocate of Spanish dominion over the Indians, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, held at Valladolid in 1550, Las Casas used the materials of Aristotle's corpus, Thomism, and canon law to refute the assertion by the Spanish crown of its right to impose religion and civilization at swordpoint upon indigenous Americans. Rather, a Christian attitude toward the Indiansrooted in divine and natural law as well as the teachings of the pagan philosophersdemanded forbearance of their way of life, even if Europeans found their faith and rituals abhorrent.

At one time, scholars viewed the Reformation as a singularly positive stimulus to the promotion of toleration. It is true that Martin Luther, at least in some contexts, appears to defend tolerance on the grounds that the magistrate should be concerned only with the care of the body and does not have the tools at his disposal to control or alter the state of a person's soul. But other reformers, most notably John Calvin (15091564), were inclined to deny any measure of forbearance for religious positions that did not strictly conform to their new orthodoxy. Indeed, one of the important early defenders of toleration during the sixteenth century, Sebastian Castellio (or Sébastien Châteillon) (15151563), published pseudonymously a treatise entitled De Haereticis, an Sint Persequendi ('Of heretics, whether they should be persecuted') in reaction to Calvin's instruction to the city of Geneva in 1553 to burn a visiting Spanish heretic theologian, Michael Servetus, who opposed the doctrine of the Trinity. Castellio argued that coercion is an inappropriate tool for effecting a change of religious views, since Christian belief must be held with sincere conviction. Hence, clerics and magistrates must refrain from the persecution of convinced Christians who cling to doctrines that do not coincide with official teachings. While Castellio did not go so far as to license broad dissemination of heterodox theology, he maintained that a Christian's duties extended to tolerating the free and honest faith of fellow believers even in the face of disagreements of understanding and interpretation.

In the short term, voices such as Castellio's went unheeded. Rather, in places such as France and Germany, where the Reformation enjoyed greatest support, violent harassment of religious minoritiesCatholic or Protestantpersisted and often threatened to erupt into full-scale religious warfare. It is true that some rulers and regions found ways to stamp out conflict, either by fiat or by negotiation. The most famous resolutions, such as the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) and the Edict of Nantes (1598), tended to be short-lived. But in Switzerland, where Reformed and Catholic communities often lived side-by-side, accommodation concerning the sharing of power and mutual respect for different rites succeeded in eliminating persecution in many areas. The Dutch Republic managed to achieve a similar arrangement, as did a number of eastern European states, including Poland, Transylvania, and Moravia.

These tolerant practices were certainly approved by many thinkers who subscribed to a range of confessions. Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1535), one of the leading humanists of the age and a Catholic who nonetheless sympathized with the cause of reform, promoted a vision of toleration that he derived from the principles of classical rhetoric. According to Erasmus, violence was an inadequate, as well as un-Christian, means of dealing with unbelief. Only by speech might those who strayed from truth be convinced of the error of their ways. And both preaching and conversationthe two predominant ways in which the orthodox express truth to the errantdemanded that one tolerate the heterodox, if only in order to achieve conversion. Another humanist, Jean Bodin (1529/301596), pushed this discursive paradigm of tolerance even further. In his Colloquium Heptaplomeres de Rerum Sublimium Arcanis Abditis (1588; Colloquium of the seven about secrets of the sublime), Bodin adapted the standard literary genre of the interreligious dialogue, in this case between advocates of the major world religions and of various philosophical interpretations of divinity. Unlike previous texts of interreligious dialogue, however, Bodin's discussion produced a stalemate: no one changed his mind and no conversions occured. Bodin's point has been understood as the promotion of tolerance, either because the relative merits of creeds cannot ultimately be demonstrated or because dialogue makes us realize that all religions have their merits and demerits. The text of the Colloquium was passed around secretly in manuscript for centuries, none daring to publish until the middle of the nineteenth century such a reputedly notorious challenge to the self-evident superiority of Christianity.

The cause of toleration became more visible as a political and intellectual force during the seventeenth century. As a practical aim, the Levellers in England during the 1640s made freedom to dissent from the established religion a central plank of their political program. Likewise, major figures in European philosophy weighed in on the side of freedom of religion. Thomas Hobbes (15881679) recognized the mischief that religion caused to the maintenance of public peace and order. His solution to the potential for religious conflict was not persecution of dissent but acknowledgment that, since faith was an inward matter, coercion of belief pertained to neither church nor state. So long as one's convictions about God and the afterlife did not produce external political dispute, Hobbesian logic required that the sovereign permit subjects to embrace whatever confession they liked. Baruch Spinoza (16321677) followed Hobbes in recognizing the inability of the government to control the inward faith of individuals. He therefore claimed a broad application for a right to liberty of thought and conviction without inference from a sovereign's (or a church's) determination of the truth or falsity of an individual's ideas. On the one hand, Spinoza proposed to employ the armed might of the state to rein in the activities of intolerant clergymen and mobs. On the other hand, he set clear limits on the power of the magistrate to persecute all forms of religious and intellectual dissent. The German jurist Samuel Pufendorf (16321694), too, advocated the protection of religious freedom in the name of the interests of the state. The sovereign must exercise control over the affairs of religion, not in order to impose "true" religion, but in order to ensure that "hotheads, pride, fame, and ambition" do not lead to civil conflict and sedition.

When viewed from the perspective of this intellectual backdrop, the concept of tolerance proposed by John Locke does not appear especially innovative or creative. Locke built his theory on a clear distinction between the aims of the church and the purposes of government. The church seeks to care for souls, whose condition cannot be changed by force but only by persuasion. Since the role of government is the protection of the life, liberty, and estate of subjects, its work cannot extend to the business of religion. For Locke, the magistrate should maintain public tranquility and defend individual rights. Thus, liberty of conscience was justified in the case of most Christian (and perhaps some non-Christian) rites. Of course, Locke insisted that government must take an appropriate interest in religious ideas and rites when they were capable of undermining social trust and political obedience. For this reason, he sought to exclude atheists and to ban any religious institutions that taught the superiority of the church to the temporal magistrate in civil affairs.

While Locke's account of toleration has received by far the most attention, the version proposed by the pre-Enlightenment thinker Pierre Bayle (16471706) is perhaps the most consistent and thoroughgoing of the late seventeenth century. Bayle is sometimes termed a Calvinist advocate of tolerance. Seeking to refute a range of arguments for persecution, Bayle baldly asserted that all forms of suppression of religious diversity encourage hypocrisy and erode social order. Indeed, to harass religious dissenters constitutes an affront to God. An erring conscience, if it be held in good faith, deserves as much protection as a correct onea principle that Bayle extended even to atheists. Unlike many of his predecessors, he did not embrace a strict distinction between the inward and the outward, and he thus took seriously the ability of the threat of coercion to weaken the beliefs of individuals. But should a person be forced to surrender his or her inner convictions, an act of sacrilege has been committed because God forgives error on account of the purity of the intention. A false belief sincerely held was regarded by Bayle to be superior in the eyes of God to a true conviction held only as a result of external compulsion. Bayle did admit that rites which are likely to detract directly from civil order may be constrained or excluded, but his main concern seems to be fanatical sects that inspire their adherents to engage in conduct that endangers the health and well-being of other inhabitants of the community.

The themes highlighted by seventeenth-century proponents of toleration received further elaboration during the eighteenth century, in particular, the problem of balancing personal liberty of conscience against the need for public order and obedience. For instance, the journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe (16601731) railed in his writings against conformity, and he was only too happy to satirize the foibles of the persecutorial impulse. Although a dissenter himself, he once dared to publish a hoax pamphlet, "The Shortest Way with Dissenters" (1702), purportedly written by a High Church spokesman, that called for the hanging en masse of religious nonconformists.

The two most intellectually powerful eighteenth-century proponents of toleration were Christian Thomasius (16551728) and Immanuel Kant (17241804). Thomasius, a central figure of the so-called "civil Enlightenment," adopted a jurisprudential approach according to which all supposed heresies were framed in a historical light, and the charge of dissent was viewed simply as a means for different sects to vilify one another. Theological and metaphysical questions should be set aside in favor of a prudential law of religion (Staatskirchenrecht) that permitted and regulated expressions of religious diversity. Like Hobbes, Thomasius showed how an absolutist conception of government might yield a thoroughgoing principle of tolerance. Kant was certainly the more famous figure in the promotion of tolerant attitudes. His essay Was ist Aufklärung? (1784; What is enlightenment?) pronounced a human duty to become liberated from self-imposed mental chains and to develop an independent capacity for critical reflection. This requires a public sphere that is fully tolerant of differences in thought and action among individuals. Yet Kant also asserted the overriding duty that each person has to obey government, so that the subjects of a ruler have a supererogatory responsibility to refrain from public expression of ideas or doctrines that might promote disobedience to the sovereign will. For Kant, too, toleration did not necessitate the institutional primacy of rights associated with political liberalism.

Despite Kant's insistence upon obedience, a considerable number of Enlightenment thinkers in fact defended various forms of toleration in the eighteenth century. Thomas Paine (17371809) dismissed the terminology of "toleration" itself as inherently intolerant, since it depended upon the grant of the state, preferring to speak of basic rights associated with freedom of conscience and thought. The French philosophes, who were the main champions of enlightenment, likewise announced themselves to be defenders of tolerance. But perhaps it was with the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," approved by the National Assembly of France on 26 August 1789, that such a basic liberal conception of liberty of belief and worship received its characteristic statement.

See also Anabaptism ; Bayle, Pierre ; Bodin, Jean ; Calvin, John ; Defoe, Daniel ; Dissenters, English ; Enlightenment ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Kant, Immanuel ; Las Casas, Bartolomé de ; Locke, John ; Luther, Martin ; Nantes, Edict of ; Philosophes ; Reformation, Protestant ; Revolutions, Age of ; Salamanca, School of ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Thomasius, Christian .


Primary Sources

Bodin, Jean. Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime. Edited by Marion Leathers Kuntz. Princeton, 1975.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Collected Works of Erasmus. 22 vols. to date. Toronto, 1974.

Las Casas, Bartolomé de. In Defense of the Indians. Edited by Stafford Poole. DeKalb, Ill., 1974.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration in Focus. Edited by Susan Mendus and John Horton. London, 1991.

Pufendorf, Samuel. Of the Nature and Qualification of Religion in Reference to Civil Society. Translated by J. Crull. Edited by Simone Zurbuchen. Indianapolis, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Creppell, Ingrid. Toleration and Identity: Foundations in Early Modern Thought. New York, 2003.

Grell, Ole Peter, and Roy Porter, eds. Toleration in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Laursen, John Christian. Religious Toleration: "A Variety of Rites" from Cyrus to Defoe. New York, 1999.

Laursen, John Christian, ed. Histories of Heresy in Early Modern Europe: For, Against, and Beyond Persecution and Toleration. New York, 2002.

Laursen, John Christian, and Cary J. Nederman. Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment. Philadelphia, 1998.

Murphy, Andrew R. Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America. University Park, Pa., 2001.

Nederman, Cary J. Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100c. 1550. University Park, Pa., 2000.

Nederman, Cary J., and John Christian Laursen, eds. Difference and Dissent: Theories of Religious Toleration in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Lanham, Md., 1996.

Remer, Gary. Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration. University Park, Pa., 1996.

Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke's Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Cary J. Nederman

views updated


"Toleration" is a policy of patient forbearance in the presence of something that is disliked or disapproved of. Toleration must thus be distinguished from freedom or liberty precisely because it implies the existence of something believed to be disagreeable or evil. When freedom or liberty is said to prevail, no criticism, moral or otherwise, is entailed of the people who are said to be free or of the use to which such people put their freedom. Indeed, there are some writers who would reserve the words liberty and freedom for the rightful exercise of human choice, thinking, with the poet John Milton, that "only the good man can be free." Toleration, on the other hand, has an element of condemnation built into its meaning. We do not tolerate what we enjoy or what is generally liked or approved of. We speak of freedom of speech, of worship, and of movementspeech, worship, and movement being good or ethically neutral things. But when we speak of toleration, we speak of the toleration of heretics, dissenters, or atheists, all of whom were once thought to be wrongdoers, or we speak of the toleration of prostitution, gambling, or the drug traffic, all of which are still generally regarded as evils. To tolerate is first to condemn and then to put up with or, more simply, to put up with is itself to condemn.

T. S. Eliot once surprised his readers by saying, "The Christian does not wish to be tolerated." He did not mean, as some supposed, that the Christian yearned for martyrdom. He meant that the Christian did not wish to be put up with. The Christian wanted something betterto be respected, honored, loved. And what Eliot said in the name of Christians would doubtless also be said by Jews, Muslims, Mormons, African Americans, or any other minority group that finds itself tolerated by a larger society. Toleration is always mere toleration. It is less than equality just as it is distinct from liberty, and it is sharply at variance with fraternity. For these reasons toleration is far from an ideal policy; it is contaminated, so to speak, by that very implication of evil which its meaning contains.

Toleration must also be distinguished from indifference. A man who has no feelings about something is indifferent to it, not tolerant, for if he has no feelings, he cannot be said to dislike or disapprove of it. He cannot claim to put up with what troubles him in no way. It has sometimes been said by critics of religious toleration that such toleration is evidence of indifference to religion and that indifference to religion is bad. Here one must distinguish a logical connection from a historical one. It may well be a historical fact that the growth of religious toleration as a government policy in France and England during the eighteenth century was due to a diminution of religious fervor, to an increase in worldliness, and in a word, to indifference. Even so, however, the toleration must be distinguished from the indifference, for the words have significantly different meanings. There have been many men, like Thomas Hobbes, who were personally indifferent to religion but opposed to religious toleration, and many, like John Locke, who had strong religious beliefs but who favored religious toleration.

Alternatives to Toleration

The alternative to toleration is often said to be persecution. This is a misleading dichotomy. Persecution is by definition always wrong. Moral condemnation is part of the meaning of the word. Yet who is to say that the alternative to toleration is always a wrong policy? Is the suppression of the drug traffic, for example, wrong? Is it persecution? It would be perverse to say that everything that is not tolerated is persecuted. Persecution is one alternative to toleration. However, there is another alternative which must be expressed in more neutral language, though, of course, it is one of the central difficulties of all social theory that neutral language is not always at one's disposal. Almost all the words we use in discussing social and political problems have a normative element in them. We might be wise, for lack of a better term, to rely on the word suppression as the alternative to toleration. To ask whether the persecution of religious dissenters was justifiable in thirteenth-century Europe is to prejudice the issue from the outset by speaking of persecution. But one might have an impartial discussion about whether the suppression of religious dissent was justifiable at that time and place, for even those who practiced it would agree to calling it suppression.

Many writers have opposed policies of toleration, but few have ventured to defend intolerance. This is clearly because intolerance in private life is considered a moral defect or weakness, a defect allied to arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and impatience. Hence, intolerance has an unpleasant ring. James Fitzjames Stephen frankly advocated intolerance in opposition to John Stuart Mill's policy of toleration, but though Stephen's arguments were of a kind more likely to appeal to the majority, his success with the public was conspicuously less than Mill's; manifestly, Stephen had made an infelicitous choice of language. Most supporters of what Stephen called intolerance have preferred to speak of order, discipline, authority, or control in putting forward a case for suppression against one of toleration.

Pagan and Christian Attitudes

The central problem of toleration in Western history was for centuries the problem of religious toleration. This is one of the consequences the West has faced because its religion is Christianity. Polytheistic religions are by nature more tolerant. The Greeks, for example, were conservative in the matter of religious ceremonies and institutions, but they admitted a great variety of theological beliefs. Where there were many gods, there could be many dogmas. And although Socrates and the Pythagoreans were persecuted, it was not on religious grounds but because they were accused of threatening the morality and political security of the community. The Romans were less steady in their policy, alternating between policies of general permissiveness and repression of particular sectsnotably, but not exclusively, the Christians. Roman toleration was limited by at least one specifically religious notion, namely, the belief that the traditional deities would punish a whole people for the offense of those who failed to worship them.

The early Fathers of the Christian church, having themselves been cruelly persecuted by the Romans, were in favor of religious toleration as a principle. But as soon as Constantine made Christianity a state religion, the pagans, who had once been the persecutors, became the persecuted. Nevertheless, it may be recorded that the Christian repression of paganism never went to the cruel lengths to which Roman repression had gone. St. Augustine, an early advocate of suppressing heretics, went out of his way to say that the death penalty for heresy was wrong. The comparatively few pagans who were put to death by the Christian emperors were usually executed on charges of sorcery rather than of worshiping false gods.

This policy of moderate repression continued throughout the early Middle Ages. In the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation, toleration was virtually repudiated on principle by European Christians. The few Christians who continued to favor religious toleration are conspicuous for that very reason. They include the Anabaptists in Germany, the Arminians in Holland, Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, Sebastian Castellio in France, Socinus in Poland. But the main Protestant churches, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican, were not conspicuously more tolerant than the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church's chief instrument of religious discipline was the Inquisition, which freely employed torture as well as the death penalty in its endeavors to recover erring souls for God.

Christian arguments in defense of repression are several. Some writers repeat the old pagan argument that God is offended by heretical practices and is likely to inflict disasters on the whole community as a punishment. Other writers stress the point that heresy is a crime, a form of revolt against lawful authority, a culpable betrayal of promises made (even if only by proxy) at baptism. Crime, it is argued, cannot be tolerated. A more sophisticated argument maintains that the authority of the church is as essential to the continued existence of civil society as is that of the state; hence, those men who defy the church are akin to those who repudiate their duty to the king. Thus, members of such religious sects as the Cathari, Waldenses, and Albigenses are regarded by certain Catholic theorists as seditious rebels who have put themselves in a state of war with the sovereign power. The true religion seals men together in the safety of the commonwealth; dissent and heresy are therefore likely to open the way to anarchy. Furthermore, it is held by all these Christian writers that to tolerate heresy is to do no service to the man concerned, for to leave him alone in his error is to leave him in a state of sin, faced with the prospect of eternal damnation in the life to come. It is thus thought to be no real cruelty to inflict painful penalties, even death itself, on an erring man if by so doing one is sparing him the far greater torments of hell.

Philosophical Arguments for Toleration

The philosopher who is best known for having addressed himself to the Christian arguments for suppression was the Englishman John Locke. In the seventeenth century Christians were generally beginning to lose confidence in the old policy of repression, although it was still being practiced. The unity of Christendom was plainly ended and not likely to be recovered. Protestantism in its various forms had come to be almost as great a power in the world as Catholicism. The old notion of one true faith against heresy had lost its meaning. Besides, although Protestantism in its leading forms did not preach toleration, it preached a gospel that led inexorably to the demand for toleration; the Protestant doctrine that every man must be a priest unto himself gave the dissenter just as good grounds as the orthodox believer for claiming that his faith was true. Confidence in the utilityand justiceof suppressing unorthodox opinions was shaken by such writers as Pierre Bayle (16471706), who in his Pensées sur la comète (1682), argued that morality is independent of religion.

Locke's plea for toleration, set forth in his Epistola de Tolerantia, published in 1688, was not the first such plea, but it was the earliest systematic argument in its favor. Locke's first point is that repression is not an effective policy. Force can be used to make a man go through the motions of a given form of Christian worship, but force cannot make a man entertain any faith or belief in the privacy of his soul. What force can do is make a man pretend to be an orthodox believer. And such a policy, says Locke, is not only useless but also morally harmful since it is bound to breed hypocrisy. Locke thus totally rejects the Catholic argument that forcelet alone torture and deathcan bring any man to salvation.

Second, Locke rejects the traditional argument that a man's obligation to the church is equal to his obligation to the state and that civil society will lapse into anarchy if religious dissent is tolerated. Locke describes the church as a "voluntary society" which has a mission in the world quite independent of the functions of the state. The church exists to save men's souls, and it can fulfill this mission only by persuasion, by essentially nonviolent means. The state, on the other hand, exists to protect men's rightstheir lives, liberties, and estatesso that the use of force as an ultimate sanction is a necessary part of the state's function. The state has no concern with the salvation of men's souls, just as the church has no concern with the use of force. Nor has the state any knowledge of what the true religion is. The Persian ruler believes it is Islam; the Spanish ruler believes it is Catholicism; the English king believes it is Anglicanism. They cannot all be right. Therefore, that a religion is established is no evidence that it is the true religion. Each man has his own faith, and every person's conscience is entitled to the same respect.

Locke's theory of toleration was intimately connected with his theory of freedom. Since he held that one of the most fundamental reasons for the existence of the state was the preservation of man's natural right to liberty, he argued that the government was entitled to use force against an individual only when it was necessary to protect the rights of others. Certain things, Locke agreed, could not be tolerated: (1) the propagation of "opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society"; (2) any claim "to special prerogative opposite to the civil right of the community"; (3) the activity of "persons who are ready on any occasion to seize the government, and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects"; (4) transferring allegiance to a foreign prince; and (5) denying the existence of God.

Locke's reason for withholding toleration from atheists was the rather quaint one that a man who did not believe in God could not take a valid oath and that oaths and covenants were "the bonds of human society." Locke was unwilling to extend toleration to Roman Catholics, not on religious grounds but because he held, with some reason, that Roman Catholics were not loyal subjects of the English crown, since they owed their first allegiance to a foreign prince, the pope.

Locke's argument for toleration, which seemed distinctly avant-garde when it was first published, eventually came to be regarded as common sense. Indeed, even Catholic teaching on the subject of toleration moved toward Locke's position. Later Catholic apologists distinguished between (1) theological dogmatic toleration, (2) practical civil toleration, and (3) public political toleration. The first, theological dogmatic toleration, was resisted as firmly as ever. The teaching of the Catholic Church was held to be the absolute and certain truth; thus, to tolerate any opinion at variance with it would be to tolerate falsehood, and the clear duty of the rational mind to uphold truth and deny falsehood imposed an equally categorical duty to deny any religious or moral teaching at variance with the teaching of Rome, which is infallible. However, what is called practical civil toleration was gradually accepted by Catholics. First, it was said to be the Christian's duty to distinguish between the error and the man who erred. Error was always to be opposed, but the man who erred was to be regarded, in full Christian charity, as a fellow man and, therefore, not to be persecuted. On public political toleration, later Catholic theory was somewhat ambiguous. This was because of the need to claim for Catholic minorities in Protestant states the utmost possible toleration without equally committing Catholic governments to tolerating Protestant minorities. Thus, the principle of public political toleration was admitted to vary between its application in a secular state and in a "truly Christian state."

The outstanding exponent of the case for greater toleration in the nineteenth century was John Stuart Mill. In many ways his argument followed the lines laid down by Locke, but Mill put fewer limitations on toleration than did Locke. He was more insistent that the only justification for interfering with any man's liberty was a reasonable assurance that some danger or threat to the liberty of another was involved. Again, where Locke was exclusively concerned with the protection of individual liberty from the interference of state and church, Mill was increasingly concerned with the limitations on human freedom that stemmed from unwritten lawthe pressure of convention and public opinion. Mill wanted to see toleration extended from the realm of politics to that of morals and manners, to all self-regarding actions, as he called them. Mill, as a Victorian, lived, of course, in a society that not only frowned on things like free love, adultery, and Sabbath-breaking but also vigorously applied the social sanction of ostracism to any who committed these sins. Mill felt that people were more oppressed and hemmed in by the unwritten laws than they were by laws enforced by the state and that human freedom and variety could not flourish in a repressive atmosphere. Mill demanded toleration because he held that liberty, individuality, and variety were of the highest ethical value; they were what made man "nobler to contemplate."

Mill's ablest critic, James Fitzjames Stephen (in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, written in reply to Mill's essay On Liberty ), argued that intolerance was a necessary preservative of society. The modern liberal state was possible precisely because society was able to discipline itself through unwritten laws. It was a good thing for men to be compelled by social intolerance to keep laws of conduct that the wisdom of the ages had shown to be good. Mill's claim that there was a class of self-regarding actions that had a right to be tolerated because they did not affect others was, in Stephen's view, unfounded; almost everything a man did affected someone else. Suicide, intemperance, debauchery, and so forth were not things that injured the agent alone. The class of self-regarding actions was virtually an empty one. And since almost all conduct was other-regarding, society had a right to interfere as widely as it did. Stephen argued that the general run of men did not have the wit to think out moral codes of their own or the strength of character to obey such codes if they established them. Hence, some form of external sanction was needed if morality was to be upheld. Stephen also rejected Mill's view that variety was a good thing in itself. Goodness, he agreed, was varied, but that did not mean that variety itself was good; a nation in which half the population was criminal would be more diversified than a wholly honest one, but it would not be a better nation. Dissent for its own sake Stephen condemned as frivolous and sentimental Bohemianism. Eccentricity was a mark of weakness rather than of strength; and constraint, far from being an evil, was a great stimulus to exertion. Stephen even held that the intolerance that went with the Puritan spirit had been one of the chief factors enabling England to surge ahead of other nations in making industrial and social progress.

Political Toleration

With the rise of totalitarian governments in the twentieth century, the problem of toleration took on a new aspect. For democratic and freedom-loving governments the toleration of intolerance became an acute problem. In 1936 the British government introduced a ban on political uniforms because of the disturbances caused by Oswald Mosley's fascist movement and its black-shirted adherents; an attempt was made under Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1965 to proscribe acts of racial discrimination. After World War II the United States was troubled by the difficulty of deciding how much toleration could be safely extended to communists when several communists proved to be Russian or Cuban agents and when all communists seemed to have a more pronounced loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the United States. The position of the communists in twentieth-century America was thought to resemble that of the Catholics in seventeenth-century England, and many Americans recalled Locke's view that such persons had forfeited their right to toleration. Other Americans argued that repression was futile; the interdiction of open communist organizations would do little to protect the state from secret and more sinister communist activities. Hence, an abridgment of political toleration would do no good to anyone, for it would simply create martyrs without eliminating spies. Thus, the argument both for and against political toleration in the twentieth century cannot be said to have differed greatly from the debate concerning religious toleration that exercised the minds of earlier generations.

See also Augustine, St.; Bayle, Pierre; Eliot, Thomas Stearns; Freedom; Hobbes, Thomas; Liberty; Locke, John; Mill, John Stuart; Milton, John; Socinianism.


Bonet-Maury, G. Histoire de la liberté de conscience en France. Paris: Alcan, 1909.

Budziszewski, J. True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992.

Creighton, M. Persecution and Tolerance. London: Longmans Green, 1895.

Devlin, P. A. The Enforcement of Morals. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Hart, H. L. A. Law, Liberty and Morality. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Horton, John, and Peter P. Nicholson, eds. Toleration: Philosophy and Practice. Aldershot, U.K.: Avebury, 1992.

Jordan, W. K. The Development of Religious Toleration in England. London: Allen and Unwin, 19321940.

Kamen, Henry Arthur Francis. The Rise of Toleration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.

Kilcullen, John. Sincerity and Truth: Essays on Arnauld, Bayle, and Toleration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

King, Preston. Toleration. London: Allen and Unwin, 1976.

Lecky, W. E. History of the Rise of Rationalism in Europe. London: Longmans, 1877.

Lecler, J. Histoire de la tolérance au siècle de la Réforme. Paris, 1955.

Locke, John. Epistola de Tolerantia. Gouda, 1688.

Luzzatti, L. La libertà di conscienza. Milan, 1909.

Mendus, Susan, ed. Justifying Toleration. Conceptual and Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mendus, Susan. Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989.

Mendus, Susan, and David Edwards, eds. On Toleration. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London, 1859.

Newey, Glen. Virtue, Reason, and Toleration: The Place of Toleration in Ethical and Political Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ruffini, F. La libertà religiosa. Florence, 1901.

Seaton, A. A. The Theory of Toleration under the Later Stuarts. Oxford, 1911.

Stephen, J. F. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. London, 1861.

Tinder, Glenn E. Tolerance and Community. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Voltaire, F.-M. de. Traité sur la tolérance. Paris, 1763.

Wolff, Robert Paul, Herbert Marcuse, and Barrington Moore Jr. A Critique of Pure Tolerance. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Maurice Cranston (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

views updated

tol·er·a·tion / ˌtäləˈrāshən/ • n. the practice of tolerating something, in particular differences of opinion or behavior: the king demanded greater religious toleration.