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A Book Review… Deciphering John Locke On Tolerance

September 7, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Jolley, Nicholas. Toleration and Understanding in Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. x + 175 pp. Cloth, $70.00.

This book is an attempt to identify a unifying strain of thought in three works by John Locke that Nicholas Jolley rightly believes an uninformed reader might think were written by three different people. The works are An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1671), Two Treatises on Government (1690), and Epistola de Tolerantia (1689). The third mentioned work may not be as influential as the first two but may be the most important one for understanding Locke’s mature thought on the subject of tolerance.
Jolley finds that Locke, unlike Hobbes, is not a systematic philosopher. He reminds the reader that Locke’s early years coincided with the English Civil War, which broke out in 1642, and that Locke in addressing the issues of the day did not always integrate one position with another. Locke admitted that he was often obscure and sometimes contradictory, but too busy or lazy to make the needed clarification.
In the Two Treatises Locke attacks the doctrine of the divine right of Kings. God’s role in matters political is limited, he maintains, to what can be known though natural theology. God exists, and is responsible for the natural order. God has endowed us with certain natural rights, but has left us to establish the state under which we live.
Following Hobbes, Locke reasons that it is through mutual consent, that is, by compact, and not by divine right that the sovereign attains political legitimacy.
On the subject of private property, Locke reasons that God gave the Earth to mankind in general, enjoining human beings to use their natural faculties to improve the Earth. Men, in doing so, thereby acquire rights to the fruits of their labor.
In 1667 Locke, for political reasons, moved to Holland where, as the guest of Lord Ashley, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, a longtime patron, he composed the Epistola de Tolerantia. The work was prompted by the revocation of the Edict (Treaty) of Nantes. That treaty, signed by King Henry IV of France, separated civil from religious unity and granted Calvinists and other Protestants substantial rights in what was then a predominantly Catholic country. With its revocation Protestants were no longer protected. Religious warfare ensued.
In the Epistola Locke affirms the right of self-determination in matters of religious observance, but with exceptions. Those who owe allegiance to a foreign power, atheists, and those whose religious faith does not permit them to extend to others the toleration they claim for themselves are to be excluded. Papists are unfit for toleration, in his thought.
On epistemological grounds, Locke is troubled by transubstantiation and other doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The one essential article of the Christian faith is, he asserts, “Jesus is the Messiah.” Religious conflict between Anglicans and Puritans concerning nonessentials may be tolerated as long as it does not interfere with the political order. That said, Locke remains especially critical of those he calls “enthusiasts,” Quakers, Puritans, and others whose beliefs fall short of knowledge properly called scientia. Many Christian beliefs, for example, belief about the Resurrection, may be justified biblically although they do not rise to the level of knowledge, in Locke’s opinion.
Knowledge in the strict sense consists of propositions that are either self-evident or are capable of demonstrative proof, according to Locke. The distinctive truths of the Christian religion that are considered to be divinely revealed are beyond the scope of natural reason. Thus the skeptic is entitled to reject them. Nevertheless, God and something of His nature is knowable by natural reason. Given that the existence of God can be known by natural reason, there is no excuse for atheism. Consequently, toleration is to be denied the atheist because promises, covenants, and oaths will have no hold on him.
What is at issue is the sufficient condition for forcing human beings to be members of the established church, the Church of England. Given Locke’s theory of knowledge, “knowing is always knowing for one’s self”; no one can do my knowing for me, nor can anyone coerce belief. Yet there are cases where the individual is ill-equipped to make a judgment and must rely on authority. Assurance based on the authority of another, no matter how well grounded, is not scientia. Nevertheless, submission to the sovereign in matters of religion is consistent with the “compact,” with the authority individuals have granted to the sovereign, who by virtue of the compact is charged with their total well-being, spiritual and material.
A problem arises insofar as the magistrate, like all other human beings, does not and cannot have knowledge in the strict sense on disputed religious issues. In the end, Locke will advocate toleration of all speculative opinions insofar as they pose no threat to the public order.
On the subject of morality, Locke begins with the proposition that no moral principle is innate. Moral reasoning must begin, he holds, with self-evident principles and definitions, somewhat like Euclidean geometry, that is, truths about God, His will, and our dependence upon Him as creatures. The rest flows from experience in the light of those first principles. It must be acknowledged that Locke is a pious Christian, empirical in the Aristotelian sense, but not an empiricist limiting knowledge to sense experience. He does have metaphysics.
From the outset of his career, Locke was subjected to criticism from many quarters. Perhaps his foremost critic was Jonas Proast (1640-1710), a High Church Anglican, chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford. In Toleration and Understanding in Locke, Nicholas Jolley makes use of the extensive, but often neglected, correspondence between Locke and Proast to flesh out Locke’s mature thought with respect to freedom and tolerance.

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