on January 13, 2003
Locke's _A Letter Concerning Toleration_ is key for many reasons, not least of which is its startling relevance to contemporary society. Locke sees tolerance as fundamentally a "live and let live" situation, a state which must be acheived to avoid the endless relativity of a regime fueled by religion; as each man is orthodox to himself and heretical to others, he argues, religious tolerance *must* be a basic societal tenet for the state to function. Excellently argued and written, Locke's _A Letter Concerning Toleration_ is an "inevitable read" for most students that should be welcomed with open arms and minds.
on February 19, 2002
John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration is one of the most under appreciated texts in the liberal tradition of political philosophy. When read in conjunction with his Second Treatise, it clarifies the relationship Locke envisions between individuals and the Lockean state. The subject of the Letter is specifically religious toleration, but his general argument for toleration is also applicable to issues of more modern concern.
In the letter, Locke argues that all religious practices should be tolerated unless they are a threat to the proper functioning of the state. Some specific practices are not tolerated - Locke perceives the Catholic allegiance to the Pope, at that time, not only a religious leader, but also an influential foreign political leader, as a threat to the state, and he believes that atheists cannot be trusted by the state, since they have no higher power to whom they can swear an oath. Locke does not tolerate these individuals, because of his (inaccurate) perceptions of them, but religion is still not the basis for their non-toleration. (In the sense that others who are inherently untrustworthy, or bowed to a foreign ruler, would also not be tolerated, regardless of their religion).
The toleration of some other practices is situational. For instance, a state that normally has no law against individuals slaughtering animals (for food, et al) cannot prevent a religious sect from sacrificing an animal, but if that same state, needing meat for its troops in a time of war, bans all private citizens from killing animals, then this ban applies likewise to the sacrifice of animals as part of religious worship. This is not a state of license, in that the civil government does not actively promote a variety of (or for that matter, any) religious practices, but it is a state of negative liberty, in which the state remains neutral to the religious content of religious worship. Specific sects or acts of worship can be banned if they are "prejudicial to other men's rights" or they "break the public peace of societies," but they cannot be banned on religious grounds.
Some critics have argued that Locke's Letter is no longer very relevant: he deals only with religious toleration, and religious toleration is widely accepted and practiced in the modern Western world. However, the historical context of the Letter suggests it retains its relevance. In Locke's day, religion was not the dormant issue it is today; rather it was the most controversial issue of public debate. Before Locke, toleration was just something the underdog wished for in order to survive until he gained power over everyone else. Locke, however, goes beyond this pettiness and creates a theoretical defense of toleration as an extension of his political theory. While Locke probably did not imagine the controversial issues of political debate today, the broad basis for his defense of religious toleration implicitly justifies other sorts of social toleration in the modern world.
If a state is created for the purposes and by the methods Locke suggests in his Second Treatise, then the men who consent to form such a state retain a significant negative liberty of belief and action. Any of these beliefs or actions must be tolerated by the state unless they fail Locke's criteria for religious toleration, namely, unless they are "prejudicial to other men's rights" or they "break the public peace of societies."
If possible, I would recommend trying to find a copy of the Routledge edition of this work (ed. Horton & Mendus), which includes critical reactions to Locke's Letter. However, Amazon currently lists it as out of print. Whatever edition you can find is worth reading: the need for toleration is as great in our own time as it was in John Locke's, and his contribution to the debate is likewise as valuable now as it was then.
on November 26, 2002
This work by Locke, in spite of its brevity, is a required piece of reading in order to put in perspective the other endeavors of the author.
The issues discussed in this Essay were at the base of the formation of political theory in the Western world, during the centuries of enlightenment. Locke's effort in the case of this Letter (of the 4 he wrote, this is the first one, published in 1689 in English, from a text published some months previously in Holland) was the rescue of religious tolerance vis a vis political powers and structures, and the recognition of the need for a sphere of private religious freedom, legally guaranteed and exempt from the interference of political power.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: When Locke wrote this Letter, there was still controversy regarding the definition of the concepts of liberty of conscience and religious freedom. In fact, the first step of the ladder is represented by the idea of religious tolerance. The starting point of analysis, at the time, came from the observation of the fact that certain degree of intolerance has always existed (religious, political, racial) in the human nature. If one analyzes the origin of religious intolerance in the western world, it stems necessarily from the fact that every Church or denomination, claims with more or less clarity to be the sole bearer of the truth. In this context, what could be the meaning of "tolerance" as a concession or pretense ? To recognize to the dissidents and minorities the possibility to coexist peacefully in a certain society, without having to renounce the external manifestations of their beliefs. But the need for religious tolerance can only make sense in a society where a dominant religious majority has the power to impose onto others its dogmas, either directly (a theocratic government) or through secular political power (the papist states).
On the other hand, the concept of religious freedom implies the recognition for the individual of the natural right to freely profess and express his beliefs, without the intervention or interference of political power or Government. Accordingly, whilst tolerance had been considered historically as a "concession" granted by the dominant religious movement or Church to other religious minorities, religious freedom appears in the Western civilization only once the political power is separated from the religious community. And here the Reform had its influence.
LOCKE'S TOLERANCE: Against this background, the problem of tolerance appears to Locke as a political problem, based on his conception of the State as a society born out of the consent of free men. In his State, it is logical to deny the political power, the possibility to interfere in private matters. Locke defends religious tolerance recurring to several arguments.
Politically, war and factionalisms are not the product of religious differences, but of human intolerance. In other words, it is not a requisite for the State, in order to function, to have a unified religion. From the religious standpoint, the Church is a free and voluntary assembly. No man can be forced by the magistrate to enter or remain in a specific Church or religious denomination. Only if we freely follow the mandates of our conscience, we follow the road to salvation. Thus, all political efforts to force us to adopt the "true faith" are vain and anti-religious.
Persecution, in itself, is not Christian and Locke concludes that in all matters related to the faith, violence is not an adequate or acceptable mean to gain followers.
Religious freedom, therefore, is a natural right of the individual and truth cannot be monopolized by any single religious denomination or person.
RESTRICTIONS: Does Locke really advocate absolute freedom for all men of every sect or religion when he writes: "Absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, is the thing that we stand in need for"?
Not really. Tolerance has to be just, but practicable, in accordance to public interest. Therefore tolerance cannot condone ideas that are contrary to society or to moral rules required for the preservation of society. Doesn't Rome require submission from a catholic prince to a foreign power? For Locke, there is no real distinction between Catholics and atheists, from the political standpoint.
CONCLUSION: For Locke the only limits to religious freedom are the need to avoid damage to other individuals and the preservation of the existence of the State. On the other hand, such a freedom is only viable as a consequence of the secularization of politic and the separation between Church and State. I TRULY RECOMMEND THIS SEMINAL WORK. Time has not taken away certain lessons that are to be learned, if we want to live in a better world, a more tolerant one. GOOD ANTIDOTE AGAINST FUNDAMENTALISM.
on July 21, 2015
Locke's Letter on Toleration is one of the greatest defenses of religious liberty and libertarian ideals ever written. Locke calls for complete freedom of conscience and restricts the state to what concerns men civilly in their property, lives, liberty and protection against fraud and violence.
The conscience of men and the rituals and ideals of each particular religion and not the purview of the state. Civil society is not the concern of government. The state has limited duties and the prescribing the faith of people is not one of them.
His argument today applies to issues of polygamy, gay marriage, etc as issues for INTERNAL matters of a church, whom and how they decide membership while the state must treat all fairly before the law.
Locke argues that unless the church is violating general rules of society, their rules of membership are not the purview of government. He is a true advocate for the separation of religion and government
on July 26, 2004
The previous reviews leave little that needs to be added, especially from marquisburano. This is a great afternoon read that serves as a peek into the influence of our Founding Fathers as well as a glimse of the early ideas that led to the Revolutions.
There is only one thought to add that may be splitting hairs, but holds theoretical ramifications when one considers it. Locke describes in this book 'separation of state from the church'. Yes, he supposes individual freedom of expression of faith, but he views the institutions of faith as entities that can be proactive within the state. The split hair is that in a 'separation of church and state' (which actually is not stated in the Constitution) scenario, we arive at a benign faith community that exists exclusive (in theory) of the state. The first is a restriction only on the state to act on the church, the latter creates a duality for those of faith.
The author does not necessarily imply an opinion for either interpretation. The point made is that this book must be read with the eyes of the history in which it was written. Knowing the history is a great start, but you must also examine it hermaneutically to understand that Locke was arguing against England intermingling (understatement) with the Chruch, as many other authors since Henry VIII have done.
Read Locke, he is one of the masters of his time and our lives are affected by it daily.