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Lock’s arguments on tolerance

2977 words (12 pages) Essay in Philosophy

5/12/16 Philosophy Reference this

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Why did Locke argue in favor of tolerance ? Are his Arguments good ones ?

During his life, John Locke was regarded especially as the apostle of political and religious freedom; today he is mainly known as a philosopher; he is considered as the fathers of modern metaphysics. His ideas were however fought at the time everywhere in Europe. He was very severely judged, in Germany, by Leibniz who wrote: New Essays on Human Understanding to answer to “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” by John Locke.

“Mr. Locke, had subtlety and address, and some species of surface metaphysics which it could raise. ” Leibniz wrote

However Locke holds an important place in the history of modern philosophy. He started a new manner of philosophizing: he started a new method, “the empirical method”, which represents, a legitimate tendency of the human spirit[1]. This is why it is interesting to wonder how Locke affirms his position on tolerance. A Letter Concerning Toleration is known as one of the most important text where marked the distinction between the State and the Churches, the civil society and the religion community.

Due to his personal convictions, religious and political, Locke as an Erasm dissident had never accepted the political implication of the churches Anglicans and Lutherans in the “Reform”[2], and so the religious dogmas. He is very early interested by the liberalism he discovered in Holland in witch he lived for a few time and took part of the political issues. he bounds with Philippe de Limborch, a criticized theologist, and he dedicated to him his Letters Concerning Toleration. The questioning of Locke on toleration derives clearly from these double doctrines, political and religious.

Thus, Locke thinks that any man belongs to two societies, the civil society where, as a citizen, he preserve by his obedience of the laws, his life, his freedom and the safety of his person and his goods. But also to the religious part of it such as churches, “societas libera et spontanea”[3], which he can  choose it freely. If these two societies coexist without interfering, i.e. if the separation of the State and the churches is clearly established, the problem of the tolerance does not arise any more. It is consequently enough to create a “limit” or rather a regulation of non-intervention by delimiting with precision the lawsuits. Thus, as we can’t mix the sky and the ground, the two society civil and ecclesiastical are different from their origins and their goals. The authority of the priest is null apart from his church or in regard of people from “outside” the church community. Just like the justice who cannot decide instead of a priest. The justice is not competent in the spiritual field[4].

Apart from this general principle of separation, all the remainder is only theology. Locke clearly lays down the rules of reciprocal good behavior of the churches and the State. “The magistrate has to intervene in the worship or the rites, times and the circumstances, neither in their introduction, nor in their prohibition. Even the sin, when it does not have civil consequences, does not have to be repressed”[5].  But morals, the straightness of manners, field at the same time of the religion and the civil society, offers risks of reciprocal encroachment; it will be enough to distinguish spiritual research of the souls and the public property. To believe finally that the sects are dangerous for the State is too much excessive pessimism for Locke: total freedom will stop the extremism of the “dissenters”[6].

From this general tolerance, beneficial for the law and order, will create two different but complementary societies. Locke will take for example the Holland state as precursory in this field. Two restrictions however does not agree with the doctrines of Locke. Concerning toleration, the Catholics are excluded, who obey a foreign power and are not considered to be faithful to the social contract[7], but also atheists, drawn aside in the same  due to their impossibility of respecting their word and their oath. The tolerance, which theoretically they own on the spiritual level, is refused by the political power: the humanism of Locke does not make him forget,  in contrary to Bayle, his anti-Romans prejudices[8].

John Locke poses the bases of a theory of a radical separation of the State and the Church. The political authority cannot nor should force the consciences. On the other hand, it belongs to the state to preserve the interests of whole the population[9]. Consequently, the individuals cannot be sanctioned for the demonstration of their religious convictions as long as it does not constitutes a threat for the law and order of the state. In spite of appearances, the toleration according to Locke is an act of faith more than an act of reason. The tolerance is the respect granted to the freedom of others, translated in its manners of thinking, of acting, but also in a political and religious way. This attitude of respect thus results in the refusal of a judgment stating with an unlikely opinion of what is foreign for us. And so on the only basis of “foreign” view of it[10]. Thus, a tolerant person  will proceed to a suspension of his judgment for such habit that he does not know, such foreign religious practice he doesn’t believe in. The toleration can seem as an act of prudence because of ignorance and implications of causes of the activities and thoughts which are foreign to us.

Toleration such as John Locke conceives it, is not the toleration of anything, it must be exerted within the framework of the respect of the laws, to allow human freedom[11]. The outlook of Locke on the personal identity tends, certainly, to separate all inferences between the political, social and religious way of life. However, toleration in which Locke believes in, cannot solve the problems which England of the time are facing. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke seems to allot an important and unbounded value to the principle of toleration, since he prescribes to admit in the State the plurality of the religions, the dogmas and the practices which differentiate each one of them. From this point of view, the principle of toleration is dissociated clearly from Bayle point of view[12].

Initially, the definition that Locke made of the Church confirms such an opposition: “The members of a religious community could be attached by other bonds […] which are assured to get the eternal life. Thus, a Church is a linked partnership to voluntarily aim the same goal[13]“. The Toleration principle is established by a separation between the field of the civil interests of the citizens, and so members of the State, and the spiritual interests of faithful, members of a Church. The plurality of the religions inevitably rises from the principle of  a voluntary adhesion to a set of dogmas and practices which characterizes each religion, and thus proposes with each worshiping  potential a means of serving God and reaching the eternal life[14]

Firstly, the worshiping meet in a religious place to return to God a public worship, a “external worship” to take the expression of Locke, ordered by ecclesiastical laws. No ecclesiastical dignitary, no Prince, can force a State to choose a religion without taking the risk to damn all his worshiping. This is why toleration involves the concept of freedom. The religious liberty which results from it initially contributes to fix the limit between religious attitude and behavior against the public state. And so we have to exclude the atheism option from toleration. Locke shows that it is enough to refer to the  separation principle of the civil and spiritual fields to be able to qualify sectarian any religion which would try to extend their influence and their laws to his worshiping, in the public area and so to other worshiping churches[15]. In addition, atheism does not apply with toleration because the system of belief  refuses the existence of God deprives its followers of the basis of a truly moral existence[16].

Thus, the principle of the religious toleration arises initially as a principle which makes it possible to keep in place the current religions and makes it possible to put a “limit” between what is tolerable or not. But, in a completely parallel way, the Letter Concerning Toleration keep subordinating the religious differences against a personal belief witch doesn’t have any normative principles. It is because no law, no authority, civil or religious, can impose by the force a belief or a faith which the plurality of the religions cannot be threatened. More exactly, the normative principle of the tolerance guarantees this plurality by taking into consideration, the  relationship between the Church and the State. But in the strict field of the faith, this plurality is subordinate to the strict individuality of the belief. That means that intolerance does not have any true effect, it does not threaten any belief and remains inoperative because no “power” can change an individual belief: “But the main point and what fix the question, it is that by supposing that the doctrines of the magistrate are the best, and that the way which it orders to follow it […], despite everything of that, if I am not persuaded by myself that my safety is no more assured. I will never go to heaven by a road which my conscience disapproves[17]

Consequently, the plurality of the Churches, considered as religious institutions, is reduced to the public and collective expression of the individual beliefs, of a “interior worship” in which, returns to the conscience and toleration.

Locke gives two arguments which support the tolerance as necessary. First it’s about religion : the tolerance is “in conformity with the Gospel of Jesus-Christ”: indeed, Christianity requires to be concerned with our single safety, the others safety are not our problems. The second argument is more rational : the tolerance is in conformity “with the common direction of the human beings”: Every Human beings are equipped with reason and can by this faculty realize the importance of toleration without falling down into religious wars.

These two arguments appear so obvious that Locke allows himself to disparage those which think differently: he speaks about a “monstrous thing” the fact “that there are rather blind people” not to recognize the principle of tolerance. They are “blind”, that means that their faculty to see must really be failing because there is however “such an amount of light which surrounds them”. it can be understood by this metaphor of the “light” the clearness of the obviousness and reasonable of his arguments.

The tolerance is a “need”. The concept of need is opposed to contingency, it means that we cannot stay without the tolerance, it is too much important in our societies. Moreover, there is an “advantage”, that in fact means positive consequences, such as civil peace.

Locke “shows”, it means that in addition of a negative judgment on intolerant people, he qualify them “as blind men” and blame them for this purpose. Thus, by showing the intolerant people, Locke denounce an illegitimacy and an illegality ; And so intolerant people doesn’t have the right to be intolerant. Which is a contradiction in itself on a toleration basis.

The philosopher draws up a quite pejorative portrait of intolerant people aiming at underlining their defects of personality. He speaks about “the pride and the ambition of the ones”: this is justified by the fact that intolerance rests epistemologically on a dogmatism, i.e. there is an absolute truth (tolerance rests, on skepticism) and so mistakes are not tolerable. He also speaks about “passion and the not very charitable zeal about the others”. Charity is a concept defended by the Christian religion supporting charity whatever it is, but this attitude is obviously not from someone intolerant, in which does not support the others.

He says that these men are “naturally like that” so, if these defects are “natural” and not from a cultural origin, it will be difficult to get rid of it, because our “true nature” is what we did not choose freely, it is what was imposed to us[18]. But it can also refer to “natural”  as a weaker meaning in which involves more the “decision making” of a human being. By saying that, Locke shows his favor towards the tolerance and denounces the intolerant.

However, the father of Liberalism, denounce the intolerant people by judging the others or are tolerant. It means that nobody dares to criticize the intolerant people without finding them any excuses of being intolerant[19]. This point must bring the question of  a thin limits between tolerance and  intolerance: what kind of tolerance should adopt the tolerant face to the intolerant people ? To tolerate the intolerant people must only go to the direction of supporting it with resistance. For example, it is like taking a drug is something we support and resist at the same time to avoid it.

the intolerant people “are pulled by the violence of their unsettle passions”, that suggest that the intolerant lost the self-control, he is subjected by his impulses. The nature of “violence” is a major recall if we refuse to be tolerant. Intolerance leads to the civil war.

One of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers, has drawn through his writings on the tolerance, a desire for advancing politically, intellectually and civilly the British society during a tough time. Thus, by promoting tolerance and liberty, he contradicts himself by putting restrictions not really conformed of his previous arguments of tolerance and liberty, concerning atheist people for example. Moreover by saying that religious liberty should be as open as possible and directed by laws, he is actually mixing state and religion, which is a contradiction of his Letter concerning tolerance.

However, the message of Locke, released the historical context and its philosophical references, affirms its topicality and its modernity. Our world does not cease suffering from the difficult stability between politics and religions. Marxists societies did not succeed  harmoniously to integrate these “spontaneous societies” which are churches nor to break social difficulties which established them. The Islamic societies refuse a contrary separation with the Koranic tradition. But the liberal world of Occident always sees in the idea of tolerance the surest base of its balance, safety, its richness and its spiritual diversity, undoubtedly also its survival.


  • According to Oxford English Dictionary, “the empirical method is similar to the experimental method. However, an essential difference is that in an experiment the different “trials” are strictly manipulated so that an inference can be made as to causation of the observed change that results.”
  • The Edict of Nantes in witch Locke took part of it when he was traveling across France
  • The Second Treatise of Government: And A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • In  A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke is using a magistrate as political figure of justice and so the public society
  • A Second Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • Refer to the social contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections by Pierre Bayle, Richard H. Popkin, Craig Brush, and R.H. Popkin
  • In a monarchy as presented in Locke letters the state is represented by a “Prince” and so the “population” as “subjects”
  • What is considered as “foreign” could be rejected and not understood. And so toleration will not be followed and respected.
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • Bayle believed in religious tolerance but was not for a strong and powerful religious authority. Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections by Pierre Bayle, Richard H. Popkin, Craig Brush, and R.H. Popkin
  • A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • Toleration: A Critical Introduction by Catriona McKinnon
  • Locke divides conscience principle and individuation . He admits that it doesn’t change the difficulty. A Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke
  • Locke and the Legislative Point of View: Toleration, Contested Principles, and the Law by Alex Tuckness
  • Locke supposes in this passage that the civil authority agrees with the religious authority on the best possible religion, and shows that such a union of the temporal powers and spiritual would remain without effect on individual safety.
  • On the other hand, T. Hobbes thinks differently.
  • Locke believe that’s not everyone deserve tolerance, which is a contradiction to his argument about individual liberty and civil peace.
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