Roger’s Rules

Looking backward to look forward: some wisdom from John Locke on tolerance

Look through some notes, I stumbled upon an excellent little piece by the British journalist William Rees-Mogg regarding the wisdom of John Locke on the subject of tolerance: “As usual, the great John Locke got it right,” Rees-Mogg wrote in the London Times. “The world ought to be more tolerant but some things remain intolerable.” Rees-Mogg is thinking in particular of the contemporary pertinence of Locke’s brief but immensely influential tract, A Letter Concerning Toleration.

In that work, Locke directly addresses a subject that is at the center of debate today: “how can people with different beliefs live with one another in peace?” How indeed? Locke’s short book is a bible of liberalism, all the more valuable because it sketches not only the desirability of tolerance, but also its limits. Locke was full of incautious phrases praising “absolute liberty” and condemning “narrowness” of spirit. But he also understood that liberty, if it is to be genuine, must be defended, which means that it must on essential issues be circumscribed. As Rees-Mogg notes, Locke is is “careful to specify when toleration becomes impossible.” And it is here, perhaps, that Locke is most pertinent to our current situation. “In recent years,” Rees-Mogg writes,

governments have repeatedly come up against these limits. Locke did not believe that governments could always tolerate “opinions contrary to human society, such as manifestly undermine the foundations of society”. It is not clear what Locke had specifically in mind, but terrorism would surely be covered. In the 20th century both Nazism and Leninism were “opinions contrary to human society” in this sense — they were simply intolerable.

He also warned against trying to tolerate certain doctrines that 17th-century Protestants attributed to the Jesuits. These included the teaching that “faith is not to be kept with heretics”, and that “kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms”. Locke thought that “a Church has no right to be tolerated” whose members have to obey a foreign prince because that would mean that the ruler allowed “his own people to be listed, as it were, as soldiers against his own Government”.

Seventeenth-century Islam was included in the criticism. “It is ridiculous for anyone to profess himself to be a Mohametan (sic) only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, while at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor.” Fortunately, the Papacy no longer claims the right to excommunicate and depose monarchs, there is no Ottoman Emperor, and if there still is a Mufti of Constantinople he certainly has no universal authority in Islam. But Osama bin Laden really is a dangerous man who does claim obedience of his followers.

Read the entire essay here.