Documentary Analysis On John Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration Newcastle University Documentary Analysis

1327 words - 6 pages

Documentary commentary on John Locke’s ‘letters concerning toleration’:
John Locke was an 17th Century English enlightenment thinker. His ‘Letters of toleration’ were published in England after the ‘Glorious revolution’ (1689) during a time of great ‘hope and anticipation’.[footnoteRef:1] His overarching argument was to ‘distinguish exactly the business of civil government and that of religion’.[footnoteRef:2] In other words, that countries should exist with religion and civil society being totally independent from each other. Locke goes further in his letters and argues that the only role for the state should be to protect and preserve the commonwealth (common good). The commonwealth being man’s civil interests which he names as ‘life, liberty, health, and indolency of body’ and ‘the possession of outward things’.[footnoteRef:3] Ultimately, Locke’s main ambition was the ‘separation of church and state’.[footnoteRef:4] [1: Garrett Ward Sheldon, Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, (Infobase Publishing, 2001), p34.] [2: Bette Novit Evans, Interpreting the Free Exercise of Religion: The Constitution and American Pluralism, (Uni of North Carolina Press, 1997), p33.] [3: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration: Latin and English Texts Revised and Edited with Variants and an Introduction, (Springer Science & Business Media, 6th Dec 2012), p15.] [4: Darian Auburn McWhirter, The Separation of Church and State, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994), p4.]
Although Locke strongly advocated religious toleration in his Letters. Atheism was his ‘one notable exception’.[footnoteRef:5] This is based on the belief that since Atheist’s do not believe in the afterlife they do not fear the consequences of their actions from God. Thus, they will have no incentive to uphold rules and therefore this would undermine the integrity of the magistrate. However, in his letters Locke highlights any church or religion such as Judaism or a ‘heathen’ may be permitted within in society.[footnoteRef:6] Regardless of whether their ‘opinions are false and absurd.’ So long as they are not detrimental to the commonwealth.[footnoteRef:7] As it was Locke’s opinion they at least had a moral obligation to abide by state laws for fear of their god. During the 17th century period this view would have been shared by ‘by almost all his contemporaries’.[footnoteRef:8] The French philosopher Pierre Bayle on the other hand was ‘much more radical’ than Locke.[footnoteRef:9] Although he agreed with Locke that the church and state should be separate. He argued for ‘toleration to the max’, including atheists.[footnoteRef:10] Bayle’s view was that the behaviour of human beings is not a result of religious beliefs or convictions but by ‘passions, impulses, and temperament'.[footnoteRef:11] Therefore, unlike Locke, Bayle believed ‘atheists could be as moral as Christians’.[footnoteRef:12] In other words, our conscience is not driven by a divine power but is a natural phenomenon. In summary Locke’s letters advocate tolerating all religions. However, illogical or nonsensical but stopped shorted of accepting Atheism in civil society. He felt they lacked the moral incentive to abide by state laws. [5: Adalei Broers, John Locke on Equality, Toleration, and the Atheist Exception, (Inquiries Journal, 2009),] [6: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p88.] [7: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p88.] [8: Marlies Galenkamp, Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration, (Eleven International publishing),, p87.] [9: Hilary Brown, Luise Gottsched the Translator, (Camden House, 2012), p7.] [10: Marlies Galenkamp, Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration, (Eleven International publishing, 2012),, p87.] [11: Marlies Galenkamp, Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration, (Eleven International publishing),, p88.] [12: Ira O. Wade, The Structure and Form of the French Enlightenment, Volume 1: Espirit Philosophique, (Princeton University Press, 8th March 2015), p248.]
Another key aspect of Locke’s letters were his views on punishment. He argued that the civil magistrate’s coercive powers should only stretch to ‘civil concernments’. I.e. the state should only punish those who ‘violate the laws of public justice and equity’.[footnoteRef:13] Therefore, since Locke does not include religious matters as apart of the public justice system. State coercion should not be ‘extended to the salvation of souls’.[footnoteRef:14] In other words, The magistrate should not have the power to use state punishment with regards to religious matters. Moreover, Locke also suggests that the civil magistrate does not have the legitimacy to use state force to impose their religion on its subjects. Since God has never given the authority for one man to rule ‘over another’.[footnoteRef:15] Indeed, Locke goes further and suggests even if one outwardly demonstrates their religious beliefs. This would not be of any significance if this did not match their inner convictions. I.e. true religion can only be bought about through the worship to God in one’s own mind. As Locke states, ‘faith is not faith without believing’.[footnoteRef:16] Thus, religious punishment would give no reward to either the magistrate or the offender as it would not change their ‘inner judgement’.[footnoteRef:17] Instead Locke suggested true belief can only be ‘swayed by education and argument’.[footnoteRef:18] Something which he condones governments doing. Locke letters do however set out limits his punishment argument. In so far as, if a certain religious practise becomes damaging to the commonwealth. Then the magistrate has the right to coerce this practice. Crucially however this is a political matter not a religious one. In his letters he illustrates this with the example of ‘Meliboeus’ sacrificing his calf on religious grounds.[footnoteRef:19] However, if it is in the commonwealth’s interests to preserve their numbers then the magistrate may forbid this practice for a length of time and coerce those who continue to do so. It is this analogy that demonstrates Locke’s ‘regulated toleration for Catholicis’.[footnoteRef:20] In so much as, Locke was of the opinion that Catholics cannot be trusted to give their full allegiance to the magistrate since they also ‘owe blind obedience to an infallible pope’ and are therefore not faithful to the national law.[footnoteRef:21] Thus, as with the sacrificing of the calves. Practicing Catholics would be a destructive force towards the commonwealth and therefore their practices should be forbidden by the state. This opinion is consistent with his writings in 1667 whilst working under the Earl of Shaftsbury. In which he expressed the opinion Catholics are ‘destructive of all governments except the Pope’.[footnoteRef:22] In short, Locke’s letters argued against state punishment of all religious practices. However, if those religious practices begin to infringe on national laws then the magistrate has the legitimacy to coerce them. [13: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p82.] [14: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p83.] [15: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p83.] [16: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p83.] [17: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p83.] [18: Jennifer Biess, Locke’s Theory of Intolerance, (Res Publica, 2010), ] [19: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Viking anthologies read in seminars), p86.] [20: John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration Early Enlightenment Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 30th March 2006), p37.] [21: R. J. Snell, Those Intolerable Catholics – In Locke’s Time and Ours, (Crisis Magazine, 5th Feb 2014), ] [22: Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatise of Government, (Princeton University Press, 21st Aug 1986), p99.]
Overall, Locke’s letters concerning toleration narrow the magistrate’s role in society to preserving the commonwealth and to create ‘boundaries to protect people’s freedom’.[footnoteRef:23] He does however, not include atheist’s within civil society for they cannot be trusted to uphold rules. Although all other religions are permissible in spite of how illogical they appear so long as they are not damaging to the commonwealth. Moreover, he views state punishment of religious intolerance trivial. Since it has no bearing on man’s inner judgement. He does argue for the coercion of Roman Catholics. For their allegiance to the Pope renders them potentially unfaithful to national laws. Therefore, to conclude the principle of Locke’s letters concerning toleration was to distinguish completely civil society and religion. [23: Mark Juergensmeyer, Religion in Global Civil Society, (Oxford University Press, 3rd Nov 2005), p102.]


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