Four Letters on Toleration (by John Locke)
If we measure the importance of a book by the degree in which it expressed the feeling of the time in which it was written, upon a subject of the greatest moment, few works will be entitled to a higher position than Locke's famous Letters on Toleration. The first letter—for there are four in all—contains what has become, in the present day, the orthodox faith on the subject. There is hardly a line of the argumentative part of it which would not still express, as concisely and systematically as it is possible to express them, the popular views of the matter. Indeed, if an abstract of it were republished without saying where it came from—in some provincial newspaper, for instance—no one would think that it was anything else than a summary of what the editor himself, and all his predecessors for generations before him, had been continually saying on the same topic. This, in a sense, is high praise, for it is not every one who is able so exactly to hit the popular feeling of his own, and of subsequent ages, as to succeed in writing what will serve many generations as a commonplace. On the other hand, it is difficult not to feel that commonplaces are commonplaces, even if they do last for a couple of centuries, and that there is something not altogether creditable to the reputation of a philosopher, in the fact that he succeeded in inventing and perpetuating such commonplaces. These considerations give a good deal of interest to Locke's Letters on Toleration; but behind them lie the questions, Are they true? Do they really settle the question which they discuss, as fully as, from their success, they would appear at first sight to have settled it?
With respect to the Letters themselves, we doubt whether many people in the present day read them, and we could not conscientiously advise any one to take the trouble of doing so, who had not some special reason for examining Locke's writings. The first Letter is short, and comparatively interesting, but the second is longer; the third is terribly long, filling three hundred octavo pages; and the fourth, which is fragmentary, and is not published in the folio editions of Locke, is a continuation of the third Letter after an interval of twelve years, and was left by the author in an incomplete state.
Moreover, the second and third Letters belong to one of the dreariest of all departments of literature. They are answers written in the old controversial style to an antagonist who, to judge from the quotations which Locke gives from his letters, was not in the least degree worth answering. The unfortunate author in question appears to have been of opinion, that persecution was a very bad thing, but that 'moderate penal laws' with 'convenient penalties' were highly useful, not as punishments to men for not believing in the true religion, but as practical inducements to them to give a full consideration to its precepts and doctrines, the end of which would of course be that they would embrace it.
It was easy enough for Locke to show that a person who held such a view as this occupied a contemptible position; but, to tell the truth, his triumph becomes after a time exceedingly monotonous, and the eternal jangle of 'I did not say what you say that I said,' and 'If you mean this, then I say that; but if you mean that, then I say this,' becomes after a while insufferably tiresome. Controversial pitched battles are, as a rule, terribly dull and uninstructive reading when they are in the least degree personal. The attack and defence of a doctrine, which has sufficient interest and plausibility to be worthy of a full statement and an artistic demolition, is often interesting; but a personal dispute about the merits of a particular book or pamphlet is, of all forms of literature, the most repulsive. There is hardly a redeeming passage in the third Letter on Toleration. It is all skirmishing and refutation from beginning to end; the subject itself is lost sight of in the continual confusion of quotations and dissections of quotations.
The first of the three Letters is the really interesting part of the work, and it is worth while to give some account of its principal points, because there can be no better text for an inquiry into one of the most curious and instructive of all political problems, practical or theoretical. Toleration, Locke tells us, he regards as 'the chief characteristical mark of the true Church.' He says that he cannot believe that those who are careless of their own salvation should care for the salvation of others, and that it is impossible to think that those who 'persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretence of religion,' 'do it out of friendship and kindness towards them'; or that men who do not punish immorality, which is beyond all question opposed to every view of religious belief, are actuated by a pure regard for religious belief when they do their best to extirpate particular sects.
Such being the general spirit in which he is disposed to regard persecution, Locke proceeds to justify his aversion to it by laying down the theory by which it is, in his view, condemned. He does this very shortly and distinctly, and in a manner which, as we have already observed, settled the commonplaces on the subject effectually for a long time. 'I esteem it' (he says) 'above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. . . . The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.'
The power of the civil magistrate ' neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls,' for three reasons: First, because the care of souls is 'not committed to the civil magistrate any more than to other men.' It is not committed to him either by God, or by the social contract. Secondly, 'The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.' Thirdly, magistrates differ, and, 'there being but one truth, one way to heaven, what hope is there that more men would be led into it if they had no rule but the religion of the Court?’
The magistrate, therefore, cannot lawfully persecute; but can the Church do so? 'A Church I take to be a voluntary society of men joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such manner as they judge acceptable to him and effectual to the salvation of their souls.' All discipline ought to tend to public worship, and 'by means thereof the acquisition of eternal life. All discipline ought, therefore, to tend to that end, and all ecclesiastical laws to be thereunto confined. Nothing ought nor can be transacted in this society relating to the possession of civil and worldly goods.' The only exceptions to this general rule of toleration are the cases of persons who hold 'opinions contrary to human society or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society'; of Churches which are 'constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into them do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of a foreign prince'; and, lastly, of atheists, because 'promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bond of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.'
This is the substance of Locke's first Letter on Toleration, and, if we strike out the exceptions, it would not be easy to give in a few words a better sketch of the views which, at the present day, are most widely popular upon the subject. They are identical with the theory which the French are constantly in the habit of putting forward, in rather finer words, about the separation between the temporal and spiritual powers. Lord Macaulay added hardly anything to them in his review of Mr. Gladstone; and Warburton takes Locke's Letters on Toleration as the foundation of his own treatise on the Alliance between the Church and the State. Notwithstanding all the popularity of which this is but a very slight specimen, it appears to us that the theory in question is unsatisfactory.
The first objection to it applies to the method on which it proceeds, which is to form a notion as to what a State ought to be, and then to make that notion the criterion by which you are to judge of the duties and functions of existing States. Locke's plan, in fact, would appear to have been, to form in his own mind a scheme which appeared to him to be advantageous for the States with which he was acquainted, to take that as the model of a State, and then to condemn everything which diverged from it, on the ground that it was not agreeable to the law of nature. His whole theory, if fairly examined, is little more than a continued repetition of one thought in a variety of different forms of words; which thought is, that the Church and the State are independent societies, having perfectly distinct objects in view, each of which is to be attained by the use of means altogether unfit for the attainment of the other.
Why the Church and the State should thus be regarded is a question which he does not answer; and if his letters are contrasted with such a book, for instance, as Bossuet's Politique tirée de l’Écriture Sainte, the only result is that Locke takes one view of the matter and Bossuet another, while neither gives his readers the means of ascertaining which of the two is right. The truth appears to be that the problem to be solved is misconceived by writers like Locke. It is lost labour to attempt to form an abstract idea of a State by the process of taking such parts of existing institutions as you happen to like, and rejecting those which you happen to dislike, and then using the result as a model. The only soluble problem is, What, as a fact, are, and have been, the effects of such and such institutions, and are those effects good or bad?
Moreover, in order to solve a problem of this sort, it is not enough to measure every institution by your own standard of what is useful or desirable. It is necessary to go further—to enter into the ideas and designs of those who founded the institutions which you are going to criticise, and to see what in the long run was the sort of result at which they aimed, and which they ultimately succeeded in bringing out. To say that, in point of fact, civil governments were all instituted for the preservation of property in the wide sense of the word, and that Churches are all voluntary societies for devotional purposes, is to say what is not true.
What civil governments were instituted for, and whether for any specific purpose at all or not, is a question which, for want of distinct information, it is now impossible to answer; but nothing can be more obvious than that, from the very first commencement of such Governments as those of which history gives us any record at all, we find them applied to purposes of a much wider kind, regarded with feelings, and demanding and receiving sacrifices, which are by no means consistent with the view that they existed merely or principally for police purposes.
To take a trite example, let any one read the funeral oration of Pericles, and ask himself whether it is conceivable that he, and the other citizens of Athens, regarded their city in the light in which, according to Locke's view, they ought to have regarded it. It is perfectly clear that no such theory ever entered their heads. The Athenian was to Athens what a member is to the body. He derived from his city, not merely protection for his property, but his whole moral, social, political, and religious education. It was the sphere in which he lived and moved and had his being; and the same is true even in a stronger sense of the Roman citizen and the city of Rome.
So, again, to speak of the Christian Church of the Middle Ages as a voluntary association for the purposes of religious worship and of getting to heaven, is to pervert all history. The mediaeval Church was anything but a voluntary association. It was the most remarkable, and probably the most powerful, organisation that ever existed in this world, making, and in case of need enforcing, claims to obedience upon all moral and religious questions, from all persons whatever, with a degree of vigour which no other institution ever displayed. It was of course open to Locke to say that the civil governments with which he was acquainted were fit only for police purposes, and that the Churches with which he was acquainted were useful only in so far as they were voluntary associations for purposes of worship, and there is no doubt much to be said for the opinion that Church and State are, as a fact, continually tending to assume those forms. But it does not follow that Locke's principles can be laid down a priori, as if they were eternal truths applicable to all times and countries alike, and that the rules which flow from them can be universally prescribed as being of general and perpetual obligation.
Apart, however, from objections to Locke's method of inquiry, objections suggest themselves to the particular conclusions at which he arrived. One impression which his Letters leave on the mind is unsatisfactory, though it appears hard to blame him for what is certainly a form of honesty. Locke writes throughout, not as if he thought theological differences matters of little importance, but as if he thought them important in the highest degree. He continually insists on the doctrine that there is but one road to heaven, and his whole argument proceeds upon the extreme hardship of preventing people by force from having as good a chance as may be of discovering that road.
Locke's zeal for toleration is much more the zeal of a sectarian in a minority than that of a man who has a low opinion of theological controversy in general. There is an air of illiberality, and something approaching to selfishness, in a great part of his writings on the subject, of which it is not easy to give an idea. He seems to be continually saying, We are all swimming for our lives, and likely enough to be drowned as it is. What can it matter to you whether I am drowned or not, and why cannot you let me take my chance in my own way, and according to my own judgment?
This, however, is the fault, not of Locke, but of his antagonists. He applied honestly the principle for which they contended. If all religion is resolved into a tremendous system of criminal law, Locke's view of the case is altogether unanswerable. If God Almighty is the head inquisitor and persecutor who burns in everlasting fire every one who does not believe certain doctrines, all subordinate persecution becomes impertinent. If you are convinced that I shall certainly be damned if I do not believe what God has commanded me to believe, you ought to feel that your interference can make no real difference, unless you can prove that you, the persecutor, have a special Divine commission to persecute on behalf of specific well-ascertained doctrines.
In short, all Locke's arguments become, from this point of view, entirely unanswerable as against the civil magistrate; for no civil magistrate ever was so absurd as to claim infallible knowledge on these subjects, in virtue of his magistracy; and if he had done so, the fact that magistrates differ in their religious views as much as private men, would be conclusive against him.
There is, however, one of Locke's arguments which, famous as it is, appears to us to be a fallacy. Persecution, says Locke, secures only outward conformity, and not inward persuasion, and it is inward persuasion only which can really produce salvation. If, therefore, salvation is the object, why persecute? The answer to this is, I persecute, not for your sake, but for the sake of your children and neighbours. You would be damned as a heretic, at all events. Being persecuted into outward conformity, you will be damned as a hypocrite, and it matters little to you on which charge you are sentenced; but the consequence of persecuting you, will be that your children will be brought up in the truth, and that your neighbours will not be seduced from it. This, however, is only one of Locke's arguments. It is not a link in a chain, and the answer to it does not affect the others.
The true arguments in favour of and against persecution, always appear to us to depend upon a view of religion different from, and wider than, its aspect as a system of supernatural criminal law. If religions are regarded, not merely as collections of propositions to be believed, and of practices to be observed, under pain of supernatural punishment hereafter, but as institutions adapted (be their origin what it may) to exercise over the people by whom they are professed, the deepest and most various of all influences—if, for instance, the Church as it existed in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, was regarded as the great educator and teacher of the whole human race—it was surely the most natural thing in the world to use violence in order to prevent its authority from being questioned, and to maintain its influence undiminished.
If we look at the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant, as displayed either in nations or in individuals, whether in history or in speculation, it is surely not surprising that particular men or nations should vehemently prefer the one or the other type of character. It is quite intelligible that they should say, We will devote our whole lives, and use every energy of mind and body, and every resource of our nature, to plant Romanism, or Protestantism, in our borders, and to secure its power and development there to the utmost limit of time to which we can look forward. Such an object, whether right or wrong, is at least as intelligible as the fervour of attack and defence which was excited by the French Revolution; and there can be no doubt at all that persecution forms the natural outlet for such feelings.
Charles V. and Philip II. did effectually stamp out Protestantism, in various parts of their dominions, especially in Belgium and Spain. The power, as distinguished from the opinions, of the Pope and his clergy was effectually broken in this country, by the legislation of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth. After terrible convulsions, France had its wish, and did emphatically reject Protestantism, at all events in its religious and conservative form. In a word, the great argument for persecution is, that it is in the nature of war, that religions are well worth fighting about, and that the arms used in the warfare are effective. As for the notion that all fighting and all force, except for the protection of person and property, is wrong in itself, it cannot be maintained for a moment without reducing history to the level of a Newgate Calendar.
The ends of national existence—that is to say, the objects which national existence and the power of making laws are, as a fact, capable of procuring—are far wider than this. They may be described, in a word, as consisting in the development, the exercise, and the exaltation of human nature to the highest pitch of excellence of which it is capable. They embrace in fact, not merely the protection of existing interests, but the increase of human greatness and happiness in all its forms. Conquests like those of Alexander, the establishment of a religion like Christianity, the redistribution of property on principles better adapted to the happiness of the world than those which are recognised at any given moment, and the redistribution of political authority and artificial honours, are all matters which fall within the power of a nation, and of the laws which are the expression of its will; and history is full of cases in which their exercise has conferred enormous and durable benefits on mankind. If this be so, why is the forcible establishment, or the forcible suppression, of a religion to be regarded as a thing always and everywhere abominable and monstrous?
The answer to this—and, as it appears to us, the only answer—is that it is not possible to base the duty of toleration upon any such universal principles as those which are laid down by Locke. It is impossible to say that, under no circumstances, at no time, and at no place, can it be justifiable to persecute. There may be, and there probably are, races in which the belief of certain facts, a moral sympathy with particular precepts, and enthusiastic admiration for particular persons, run so rapidly into one indistinguishable whole, and identify themselves so closely with principles and practices utterly at variance with the spirit of the national institutions, and with the course which the vast majority of its members wish to run, that it is impossible to tolerate, and necessary either to persecute or be converted.
The alternative, 'Drink or Fight,' is by no means confined to the backwoods of America. There are states of society in which opinion, sentiment, and practice, are so closely and inseparably united, that neutrality and toleration are scarcely possible, and in such cases persecution can hardly be blamed. This, however, must be taken in connection with another principle of the utmost importance and of universal application —the principle, namely, that free inquiry is the great, and indeed almost the only possible guarantee for the truth of any doctrines whatever. Persecution destroys this guarantee, and is therefore unfavourable to any intelligent and real belief in the truth of any creed whatever.
This principle, however, goes a long way. It applies to supernatural as well as to human punishments for religious belief. If God Almighty is regarded as an omnipotent persecutor, and human persecution is repudiated only as superfluous, men are not much better off than they were before. Toleration may be defended without admitting the moral innocence of religious error. Persecution may be defended without asserting the guilt of religious error; but the controversy between those who tolerate and those who persecute will never be treated justly except by those who admit its innocence.
What can and ought to be said, with as much emphasis as may from time to time be required, in favour of toleration in our own age of the world, is that the religious questions which agitate Western Europe are perfectly capable of being discussed without violence, and that the use of violence would do unmixed harm, not only to the cause of truth, but also to the development and improvement of the whole character of mankind. None of the religions now in existence amongst us can, with any show of reason, be alleged to be so much better, truer, and more beautiful than all the rest, that it would be worth while to go to the terrible expense in labour, suffering, and heart-burning which would be necessary to its establishment by force. On the other hand, all our existing forms of religion have so much good in them that it is highly desirable that they should mutually instruct each other; and there are besides a vast number of influences of various kinds at work in the world which are not dependent upon religion at all, but to which religious persecution would in all probability be utterly fatal.
These are the real arguments against persecution, and it appears improbable to the last degree that, now that human society has reached its present condition, their force will ever be diminished, or indeed will ever cease to increase. If this view of the matter be correct, it will follow, that the fault of the ordinary commonplaces upon the subject of which Locke's Letters are the earliest, and one of the best, summaries, is that they apply to all ages what is true only of an age of high cultivation.
If Locke had limited his argument to his own days, and had avoided the mistake—a mistake, as we have tried to show, which is altogether at variance with the tendency, if not with the express rules, of his own philosophy—of laying down broad a priori principles as the justification of particular propositions which in reality have a firm foundation of their own to rest upon, his Letters would have been as true in theory as they undoubtedly were useful in practice. It is, however, quite another question whether they would not have lost as advocacy what they gained as philosophy; and what was wanted there and then certainly was advocacy, and not philosophy. In Locke's days philosophy had still a long road to travel before it could step boldly out of the old leading-strings and swaddling-clothes, and preach its own doctrines in its own words from its own pulpit.
Saturday Review, March 9, 1867.