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The interests and memories which spring from local customs contain a germ of resistance which is so distasteful to authority that it hastens to uproot it. Authority finds private individuals easier game; its enormous weight can flatten them out effortlessly as if they were so much sand.
    -Benjamin Constant

This book began with an intuition concerning a remarkable coincidence in modern history. [T]he idea of toleration as we have received it in the tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill first came into providence along with the rise of modern nation-states. My intuition was that there might be some connection. [...]

The historical coincidence is seen not simply in the genesis of these two trends. The movement toward strong centralized governments was accompanied by a sustained secularization of private life and a trend toward relaxing the moral discipline of society.
    -A.J. Conyers, Preface to The Long Truce

Few aspects of modern liberal democracy are more celebrated than religious toleration. This toleration is widely hailed as one of the prime guarantors of freedom and even as one of the great achievements of democracy. But this last is especially odd because it treats tolerance as an end in itself. It obviously is not one, else we'd just tolerate everything and have done with it. But no one--or very few--would suggest that the ideal society would tolerate everything--from pederasty to cannibalism. Rather, tolerance is a means, a way of ordering our society and our lives so that we can achieve certain ends. Specifically, it is a means of allowing people with fundamental disagreements, usually religious, to occupy the same society without resorting to violence over their different beliefs. It is no surprise then to see the modern concept of tolerance arise in the 17th Century, towards the end of the period when Catholicism and Protestantism had fought bloody wars across Europe. Religious tolerance offered what Mr. Conyers calls a "modus vivendi", a way for these enemies to live together in peace and relative harmony. But, as Mr. Conyers notes above, this toleration has coincided with the rise of ever more centralized governments. In effect, toleration, by diminishing the claim to truth and the moral authority of religion, removed one of the key obstacles to the aggrandizing of all power by the State. And so, toleration has, whether paradoxically or intentionally, been an enemy of freedom.

This, at least, is the case Mr. Conyers has to make and he does so rather well. He looks at Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine and at the Greek philosopher Aristotle to see what pre-modern toleration looked like, then surveys theorists of the modern state and of toleration--especially Johannes Althusius; Thomas Hobbes; John Locke; Pierre Bayle; John Stuart Mill; and John Dewey*--to see how they changed the idea of toleration to serve their own purposes. All of the analyses are interesting, but it is necessarily his take on Locke that is the centerpiece of the book, for noone is more closely associated with the idea of religious toleration.
The initial and in many ways most important point to consider about Locke--and it pertains to Hobbes and Bayle also--is that the social milieu of their day was defined by religious warfare. It is no coincidence that it was men of this era who bequeathed to us the modern version of toleration, because they were using it to meet the particular problem of their time and trying to find a way to defuse religious tensions:
For Locke, as we have also seen in the case of Hobbes and Bayle, as well as many other thoughtful people of the seventeenth century, 'religious sectarian warfare is the fundamental problem of politics.'
But few today would argue that the main problem of Western politics, at least domestically, is a surplus of religion, and it is for just this reason that we should be somewhat suspicious of the notion that the solution they crafted is appropriate to all men of all times. Moreover, whatever their intentions at that time and no matter how serviceable their ideas proved in their time, we owe it to ourselves, and to them, to look carefully at what the long term effects have been, intentional or unintentional. And, because these men are also leading theoreticians of the modern centralized nation-state, we should be on our guard to see how these ideas fit together. For, if the promise of religious toleration is greater freedom, but in practice it has served the relentless growth of state power, and thereby diminished freedom, then the promise has been betrayed.

As it happens, a goodly chunk of Mr. Conyers' analysis of Locke is derived from an essay, John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration, by Colgate University's Robert P. Kraynak, the best professor I ever had. Mr. Kraynak there sought to reconcile the earlier writing of John Locke (The Two Tracts on Government), advocating a kind of absolutist authority for the state over religion, with the later writings (the Essay on Toleration and the Letter Concerning Toleration), which famously advocated toleration of religion. This had disturbed commentators since the older writings were discovered, but it was Mr. Kraynak's insight that there is less conflict between the two Lockes than there first seems, so long as we keep in mind that Locke's intent in both instances was to avoid religious conflict rather than to benefit religious belief. In fact, both amount to efforts to reduce the influence of religion in political affairs:
The Protestant reformers questioned the orthodoxy of the established church and created widespread disorder by insisting, through various sects, on establishing new bases of orthodoxy and thus securing their own power politically. At the same time, implicit in the Reformation was the freeing of the church from "priestly orthodoxy" and securing instead liberty of conscience.

The background of the Reformation and the ensuing wars clarified the problem for Locke. Orthodoxy was employed by the state to bring order, but now orthodoxy was an uncertain touchstone. Locke found that this new circumstance called for rethinking the role of the state in regard to religion. If one cannot be certain of what is right in matters of religion, and one does not wish to endure the tumultuous conflicts arising from many religious opinions, then two options present themselves. One option is "secular absolutism, in which the state establishes a religion but makes no claim it is the true religion." This was Hobbes's solution, and it became in essence the option first taken by Locke. The other option is liberal toleration. In this case, religion is no less subordinated to the state: it is relegated to the sphere of the private life and prevented from having meaningful political influence because "the disestablishment of religion deprives them [the priests] of all pretexts for interfering in politics." The change that students of Locke have noticed, and puzzled over, is a change in strategy, as Kraynak sees it, and not a change in "purpose and principle."
Mr. Kraynak's essay ends with a clear and concise statement of the basic thesis:
[C]ontemporary scholars have been unable to provide a satisfactory account of Locke's development because they deny that there is a connection between absolutism and toleration. Now, this denial is not simply an accident of scholarship. It occurs, first of all, because Locke defends liberty of conscience as a right in the Letter; and this work, rather than the absolutist Tracts or the prudential Essay was published by Locke and established its reputation. Hence, it is presumed that Locke's "first principle" is Liberty rather than Security, and that absolutism and toleration are opposites in principle because of their opposing attitudes toward liberty of conscience.

But this impression could not withstand a careful analysis of Locke's Letter, if it were not strengthened by the contemporary understanding of liberalism. Few people today use the Lockean arguments that liberty of conscience must be allowed in order to prevent priestly domination and must be limited by the requirements of security. Instead, liberty of conscience is justified by arguments from Kant, Mill, Dewey, and certain existentialists. They require liberty for ends such as the development of an autonomous moral personality, or the progress of culture and science, or the authenticity of self-expression. As an end-in-itself or as a means to ends higher than civil peace, liberty of conscience appears to have no affinity whatsoever with absolutism.

Yet this affinity remains, and can be seen in the practice of all tolerant societies. For even when liberty serves higher ends, the ends are limited by the requirements of civil peace. Hence, tolerant societies discourage actions which disturb others out of moral zeal, such as public preaching and public-spiritedness. And they encourage behavior which is private and retiring, whether devoted to lower ends such as commerce and hedonism, or to higher ends such as autonomy, culture, science, and authenticity. In addition, the diversity of opinions is limited by an underlying uniformity; for toleration is sustained only by a general distrust of religious and moral authorities. Hence, tolerant societies require official and unofficial enlightenment which promotes intellectual and psychological skepticism. These conditions are the foundations of all tolerant societies, indicating that toleration always is based on an exclusive moral choice and an ultimate uniformity of opinion. Therefore, despite its advances in the uses of liberty and in fostering diversity, contemporary liberalism retains its Lockean basis as its affinity with secular absolutism.
And Mr. Conyers offers an especially good metaphor for the effects of this phenomenon:
Toleration in its modern form is the solvent that dissolves the bonds of interdependency. It therefore makes society fit for the "new" ordering and regulating powers of the state.
The question arises as to whether that was the specific intent of men like Locke, whether they knew as they were propounding the theory of toleration that it would atomize society and destroy religious institutions as counterweights to the state, or whether this was an unexpected byproduct of what was just an honest attempt to minimize the religious tensions of their time. Both Mr. Kraynak and Mr. Conyers are of the view that toleration was meant to serve the transfer of power to the state, but in the end perhaps we can set that aside as an interesting, but ultimately secondary, academic question. What matters for us today is that, regardless of what its originators meant it to achieve, toleration has in fact removed a vital check on the power of government and, especially, deprived religion of moral authority and thereby left us with a demoralized politics. Absent a religious, or revealed and absolute authority to defer to, we have no coherent basis for a general morality.

This dilemma becomes clear when Mr. Conyers turns to the later advocates of toleration, like John Stuart Mill, with his theory of utilitarianism. Mill acknowledged that, "from the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum, or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem of speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellectuals, and divided into sects and schools, carrying on vigorous warfare against one another." But, of course, they've found no acceptable basis, so Mill was free to propose his own, the principle of utility:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
Even setting aside the issue of whether happiness is an ultimate value, there are obvious problems here with subjectivism and relativism that make the principle of utility a rather unsatisfactory basis for morality. Nor have Mill's contemporaries and those who've come after--Kant, Nietzsche, the pragmatists, etc.--done any better. And, if we've no way to know how we should behave, there's no way to know what kind of society we should be trying to build, so toleration is necessary just to keep us from quarreling endlessly and eventually violently over the equally valid notions that each of us will come up with on our own. Mr. Conyers, towards the end of his discussion, states the problem thus:
[T]he very character of modernity has accorded tolerance the status of a secular virtue. It is a virtue inasmuch as it strengthens a certain predisposition toward life together. It is secular in that the predisposition it strengthens is one of postponing or diverting the quest for meaning that is an essential component of social cohesion and the forming of groups or associations. Religion, of course, is what we call that quest, along with the practices and habits of the heart it engenders, The religious impulse is strong enough to bind people together, and also strong enough to set them at deadly odds with one another.

Toleration, as we modern people have defined it, is the decision to replace that quest with another one both practical and material in nature. Thus, it actually lessens the binding authority of community life, an authority that makes subtle appeal to manners, traditions, group sanctions, and respect for elders. At the same time, the ersatz virtue increases the need for organization, authority exerted from outside the group, formal laws, as well as emphasizing the protection of abstract "rights" that are divorced from what the living community calls the "good".
We are arrived then at the paradoxical point where the advocates of tolerance, despite aiming for a reduction of sectarianism and an increase in freedom, have instead delivered a completely atomized social system wherein every man is his own sect and each is totally dependent on the State. It's so perverse, it would be amusing were the condition of society and freedom not so dire today.

This brings us to Mr. Conyers conclusion, in which he proposes not that we discard toleration altogether, but that we abandon the modern doctrine of toleration, which has served only power, and return to the more traditional practice of toleration, which serves the pursuit of knowledge:
What I am distinguishing as the practice of toleration, over against the doctrine that emerges from development of democratic liberalism, is the logical result of a recognition that our imperfections oblige us to listen to the insights of others. We are utterly dependent upon the gifts of society and tradition--even traditions other than our own. It is toleration that recognizes not the implied self-sufficiency of the individual or of various idiosyncratic groups in a supposed pluralistic world but the insufficiency of these limits and the ultimate need for a catholic vision. Even as the doctrine of toleration promotes isolation, the practice of toleration gently nudges us into community. Therefore, authentic toleration serves, and does not hinder, the forming and functional life of groups within society. It does not hinder in that it does not discourage the quest for ultimate meaning that is the inner light and life of any social group of any lasting importance.
The advantages of authentic toleration, for anyone who believes that our society has inherited wisdom which it is dangerous to disregard, are obvious. We are hereby afforded the capacity to defend both our quest for meaning, the end of our society, which we are certainly entitled to define for ourselves, and the accumulated wisdom of our culture, though we are required to keep an open mind with regard to the wisdom of other traditions. Since our traditions, religious and to some degree secular, offer guidance as to how we should behave, impose responsibilities for each other upon us, and invest institutions other than government with authority, spiritual as well as temporal, we are rescued from dependence on the State to impose rules and regulations, to "care" for us, and to arbitrarily define our "rights". The end result could then be a society that, though more religiously inclined, is more cohesive, freer, and more truly tolerant (at least of those who share a common quest) than the society that modern democratic liberalism has rendered. If this seems melodramatic, because America has retained much freedom, think instead of the way Europe is tending, towards a demoralized, bureaucratized, authoritarian State, its population, economy, and influence in steady decline. Presumably, even those who propounded the doctrine, could they see what they have wrought, would prefer the authentic practice, which may yield that which they sought: peaceful liberty. Yet, at the same time, this liberty will return to a subordinate position as a mere means, serving the higher ends of creating a good society and continuing Man's quest for ultimate meaning. Best not hold our breath waiting for this to happen, but Mr. Conyers' book is a great contribution to an alternate vision of toleration and of a healthier form of liberal democracy.

*(Dewey is an interesting case because, if you look at what Louis Menand has written about the rise of pragmatism after the American Civil War--a philosophy which quite specifically sought to relativize truth in order to tamp down political passions and which sought to authorize the majority to try out any idea that popped into its collective head, with little or no regard for the possibly tyrannical nature of such experimentation--it is remarkably similar to the original rise of toleration in the 1600s.)


Grade: (A)


See also:

A. Conyers Links:

    -Baylor > Truett Home > Truett Faculty > A. J. Conyers III, Ph.D.
    -BOOK SITE: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit by A.J. Conyers (Spence Publishing)
    -ESSAY: Rescuing Tolerance (A. J. Conyers, August/September 2001, First Things)
    -ESSAY: We need true tolerance, but our thinking about it is skewed (A.J. CONYERS, 08/31/2002, The Dallas Morning News)
    -ESSAY: Protestant Principle, Catholic Substance (A. J. Conyers, November 1996, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Communism's Collapse: The Receding Shadow of Transcendence (A.J. Conyers, May 2, 1990, Christian Century) -REVIEW: of The Coming of God by Jurgen Moltmann (AJ Conyers, Books & Culture)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A. J. Conyers, on the origins of the modern view of tolerance (MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, May/June 2001)
    -ARTICLE: Christians called to reclaim definition of toleration (Mark Wingfield, April 16, 2001, Baptist Standard)
    -ESSAY: Fundamentalism: East and West: As we chart our way through an international crisis, we should recognize the tensions between modernity and tradition, toleration and moral absolutes, Christianity and Islam. (Catholic World Report, January 2002)
    -ESSAY: Locke and Religious Toleration (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -EXCERPT: from Liberalism by Ludwig von Mises: The Foundations of Liberal Policy: Tolerance
    -LECTURE: The World After Modernity ( John J. Reilly, Sixth Annual Conference of the Center for Millennial Studies Boston University, November 3 to 6, 2001)
    -ARCHIVES: "a. j. conyers" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit by A.J. Conyers (Jeremy Lott, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Truce (Kenneth Baker, S.J., Homiletic & Pastoral Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Truce (Loren Lomasky, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Truce (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Long Truce (Joseph R. Stromberg, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of God, Hope, and History: Jurgen Moltmann and the Christian Concept of History by A.J. Conyers (Barry A. Harvey, Theology Today)

Book-related and General Links:

    The Politics of Meaninglessness (MICHAEL A. CASEY, 5 November 2003, Sydney Institute)
    -ESSAY: Recovering (from) Enlightenment? (Steven D. Smith, Fall 2003, Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series)
    -ESSAY: Religious Freedom and Pluralism (Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Spring 2002, Markets & Morality)
    -ESSAY: The Other and Ourselves: Is Multi-culturalism Inherently Relativist? (Charles Taylor, Project Syndicate)
    -REVIEW: of Toleration, Identity, and Difference. Edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus (J. Budziszewski, American Political Science Review)

    -John Locke (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -John Locke (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -John Locke Foundation
    -John Locke (1632-1704) (Oregon State)
    -John Locke (1632-1704), The Philosopher of Freedom (Blue Pete)
    -ETEXTS: John Locke. 29 August 1632 - 28 October 1704
    -John Locke Bibliography Home Page
    VINDICATING JOHN LOCKE: HOW A SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY "LIBERAL" WAS REALLY A "SOCIAL CONSERVATIVE" (Thomas G. West, Witherspoon Lecture at the Family Research Council on February 23, 2001)
    -Locke's Doctrine of Human Action (Mark Blitz, 8/26/02,
    -ESSAY: Was Leo Strauss Wrong About John Locke? (James R. Stoner,
    -REVIEW: of Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion¹s Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth Century Philosophy by Ross Harrison (Duncan Ivison, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
    -ESSAY: Proselytizing for Tolerance (Paul J. Griffiths, November 2002, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Jaffa Versus Mansfield: Does America Have A Constitutional or A "Declaration of Independence" Soul? (Thomas G. West, 11/29/02, Perspectives on Political Science)
    -ARCHIVES: "john locke" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Career of Toleration: John Locke, Jonas Proast, and After (Barry Alan Shain, American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of John Locke and the Origins of Private Property by Matthew Kramer (Jason Soon, Policy)
    -REVIEW: of Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy. By Michael Zuckert (Joshua Mitchell, First Things)
    Locke, Two Treatises (R.J. Kilcullen , POL167: Introduction to Political Theory, Macquarie University)

   -ESSAY : Leviathan's Shadow (Derek Copold, September 2001, Texas Mercury)
    -REVIEW: of Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion¹s Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth Century Philosophy by Ross Harrison (Duncan Ivison, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of ASPECTS OF HOBBES By Noel Malcolm (Sylvana Tomaselli, The Spectator)

    -ESSAY: THE CENSORS ARE COMING! THE CENSORS ARE COMING! (Jeff Jacoby, September 27, 2001, Boston Globe)

The Angry Man (Phyllis McGinley 1905-78)
The other day I chanced to meet
An angry man upon the street--
A man of wrath, a man of war,
A man who truculently bore
Over his shoulder, like a lance,
A banner labeled ñTolerance.î

And when I asked him why he strode
Thus scowling down the human road,
Scowling, he answered, ñI am he
Who champions total liberty--
Intolerance being, maÍam, a state
No tolerant man can tolerate.

ñWhen I meet rogues,î he cried, ñwho choose
To cherish oppositional views,
Lady, like this, and in this manner,
I lay about me with my banner
Till they cry mercy, maÍam.î His blows
Rained proudly on prospective foes.

Fearful, I turned and left him there
Still muttering, as he thrashed the air,
ñLet the Intolerant beware!î