8 minute read

The Other European Views of

Tolerance And Toleration

The term "tolerance," reflecting a unique approach to the Other, requires a detailed explanation as to its meaning and manifestations during different cultural periods. While classical Greece and Rome generally tolerated people of different beliefs, it would be more correct to identify the openness toward Others as toleration. The persecutions of Jews, and later of Christians, was not the result of religious doctrines, but rather the consequence of claims by Jews and Christians as to the absolute truth of their respective beliefs. Augustine was the first to formulate a preliminary concept of tolerance toward those who embraced different religions (Jews) or were sinners in the eye of the Church, such as prostitutes (Epistola ad Vincentium V [1649]), as long as such open-mindedness contributed to the cohesiveness and stability of the Christian community. However, Augustine vehemently attacked those Christians who followed deviant teachings (Donatists), and approved of their persecution. In the Middle Ages, scholastic writers pursued the idea of tolerance in the light of sinful behavior that could be accepted as long as it did not affect the principles of Christian belief. Thomas specifically differentiated among heathens, Jews, and heretics, and argued for the toleration of various religious practices among Christians as long as they supported the truth of the New Testament. Moreover Thomas rejected forced conversion and baptism since such acts constituted a violation of natural law (Bejczy, p. 370).

A number of medieval writers explicitly advocated tentative models of tolerance. In his middle High German epic Willhelam (c. 1218), Wolfram von Eschenbach's female protagonist Gyburc pleads for humane treatment of the heathens, her own relatives who she had left behind when she fled to the Christian world with her lover and future husband Willhelam. In the pan-European love story Floire et Blanchefleur (Old French version, c. 1160), just as in Aucassin et Nicolette (Old French, early thirteenth century), the difference in religion of the young couple has no significance, whereas love is described as the dominant force that overcomes all social, ethnical, military, and political conflicts (Shutters, 2004). In the anonymous middle High German verse romance Reinfried von Braunschweig (c. 1280), the protagonist at first intends to force his opponent, the Prince of Persia, to convert to Christianity. But, upon the latter's plea, Reinfried allows the Persian to maintain his religion because he realizes that a forced conversion would never make the Prince into a true Christian. In fact the protagonist abandons all his religious goals and becomes a secular tourist who simply admires the wonders of the East. The Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull (c. 1232–1316) strongly advocated openness toward the Other in his Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men (c. 1275–1290). Similar to Peter Abelard's Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian (c. 1136–1139), Llull's treatise is built upon dialogues among representatives of the three world religions about their specific form of belief. Although Llull, like Abelard, explicitly advocated Christianity, he accepted other religions as valid belief systems that he could not and did not want to condemn absolutely. On the contrary, both Abelard and Llull suggested that conversion to Christianity must be based on true conviction, which in turn was based on an intellectual, rational discourse in which the opponent was convinced of the falsity of his or her original belief and convinced by logical arguments and a newfound faith to accept Christianity (Nederman, Muldoon). Although in reality openness toward other religions was hardly ever practiced—as evidenced by the many persecutions and expulsions of and pogroms against Jews—many medieval and early modern philosophers can be credited with bold, farsighted exploration of the possibilities for various religions to exist side by side. Nicolaus of Cusa (1401–1464), in De pace fidei (1453), proposed embracing the concept of concordia (concordance) of the religio una in ritum varietate (one religion in a variety of rituals). Some humanists such as Thomas More (1485–1535) and Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466–1536) advocated acceptance of religion as an individual worldview that should not be imposed on other people. Heretics should be persecuted, but only by the state and only when they represented a danger to the entire community (De amabili ecclesiae concordia liber [1533]). Conversely Martin Luther (1483–1546), although he had broken with the Catholic Church, strongly defended the persecution of Jews and members of various Protestant sects, and approved of the death penalty. John Calvin (1509–1564) defined tolerance as friendliness of the spirit (mansuetudo animi), but he did not raise any objections to imposing the death penalty on heretics, such as the Spanish theologian Miguel Serveto (c. 1511–1553).

On the opposite side of the debate was the French philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–1596) who defended the freedom of individual consciousness and tolerance (Six Livres de la République [1576]). In the tradition of Abelard and Llull, Bodin composed a dialogue text in which representatives of various religions discuss their theological differences (Colloquium heptaplomeres [c. 1593]).

Religious tolerance was an important issue in the wake of religious wars on the European continent and in England up to the end of the Thirty Years' War because the dominant religions persecuted minorities, which in turn led to military conflicts. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the first to define religious convictions as "private opinions" (Leviathan [1651]), which paved the way for John Locke's famous "Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689): "For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another" (Locke, see Zagorin). Nevertheless even Locke refused to accept atheists and charged them with refusing to abide by the basic rules of human society, which were predicated on the concepts of covenants, promises, and oaths.

Traditional scholarship argues that Locke's "Letter Concerning Toleration" represents the first attempt in the history of the Western world to establish philosophical principles of tolerance, followed by comparable statements by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). But even though the term tolerance might not be fully applicable in other contexts, as early as late antiquity and the Middle Ages writers and philosophers embraced certain types of tolerance, or at least toleration, for example Augustine, John of Salisbury (c. 1115–1180), Marsiglio of Padua (1275–1342), Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), and Bartolomé De Las Casas (1484–1566) (Nederman, 2000). Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546), insisting upon the inalienable rights of all peoples, formulated such astonishingly open-minded views regarding the North and South American Indians and their inhumane treatment at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors that his works were almost put on the papal index of forbidden books (Schmidinger, pp. 194–202). In particular, de Vitoria argued that conversion to Christianity can only be possible if the prospective convert has been convinced rationally. Infidels can never be forced to convert, since faith is also a matter of reason. This attitude resonated profoundly in John Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690): "Such is the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of any thing by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgment that they have framed of things.… It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men's opinions; and that light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties" (Vernon, p. 17). In other words, tolerance, or acceptance of the Other, in his inalienable character and nature, has been explored by philosophers throughout history, but has remained a fleeting concept regularly undermined and challenged by social, economic, political, and military realities.

Major breakthroughs in the history of modern tolerance did not occur until the late eighteenth century. Emperor Joseph II of Austria issued a law of tolerance for the various religious (Christian) communities in his inherited lands, giving members of non-Catholic communities recognition, as long as the dominance of the Catholic Church was not compromised. In letters that he exchanged with his mother Maria Theresa, he said that he remained an ardent defender of Catholicism, but wanted to give Protestants equal rights, at least in terms of their status as citizens, and to grant them the right to practice their religion. The Constitution of the United States was based on the principle of tolerance, best reflected in the Bill of Rights, as formulated by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and Thomas Paine (1737–1809) in his enormously popular Rights of Man (1791).

The most influential and far-reaching public defense of tolerance, however, might well be that of the German Enlightenment writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) in Nathan the Wise (1779). Based on an episode from Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1348–1350), the key component of the story is a parable that the Jew Nathan tells the Sultan Saladin. The Sultan, short of money, encourages Nathan to identify which of the three world religions is the only true one, hoping to extort money from Nathan who is sure to reveal his preference of Judaism. Nathan, however, does not provide a straightforward answer, and instead relates the parable of a man who owned a valuable ring that had the power to make its bearer loved by all people. The ring's owner leaves the ring to the son who is dearest to him. The pattern of that legacy is continued for many generations, until one day a father has three sons whom he loves equally. When death approaches, the father has two perfect copies of the ring made and secretly gives one to each of his three sons, pretending that it is the only and true ring. After his death the sons go to a judge to determine who owns the authentic ring and hence who is heir to the father's estate. The judge refuses to decide and advises the three brothers to "Let each of you demonstrate his belief in the power of his ring by conducting his life in such a manner that he fully merits—as anciently promised—the love of God and man." The brothers are told to return to the ultimate judge, God, within a thousand years and to confirm before Him who had been the most loved because of his kindness and piety. Saladin understands Nathan's message and discharges him, accepting him as a friend. Saladin has learned that all three religions are equal in their basic essence and that believers of all faiths should tolerate each other, competing only in an attempt to be most worthy of the love of families and neighbors.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Octadecanoate to OvenbirdsThe Other European Views of - Perspectives In The Ancient World, Medieval Perspectives, Religious Perspectives, Legal Perspectives, Mysticism, Demons, And The Other