Toleration Essay

Toleration—derived from the Latin verb tolerare, menaing to endure, to bear with—refers to “a deliberate choice not to interfere with conduct which is disapproved” (Horton and Nicholson 1992, 2).The term is generally used to describe the actions of both individuals and governments, and an extensive scholarly literature has explored the attitudinal structures, personal characteristics, and developmental influences that lead people to tolerate, to combine a negative judgment about something with a conscious decision not to interfere with or suppress it. Historians of political thought have explored the emergence of arguments and policies that either support or oppose policies of toleration, while empirical studies have focused on the shifting boundaries of the tolerable and intolerable, along with the dynamics that lead to the suppression of civil and political rights for members of unpopular minorities.

Toleration is a largely negative and minimal term; that is, it refers to the absence of something—coercion or punishment—and thus falls somewhere between persecution on the one hand and full liberty and equality on the other. Yet, this minimalist term has historically represented a crucial step in the protracted struggle for more expansive political rights. Tolerationist politics seeks to carve out a protected social space for unpopular groups, acknowledging the reality of diversity and disagreement within society; in this sense, a minimal term like toleration may require extensive government action to safeguard unpopular minorities. Reasons for tolerating vary widely and may include prudential, strategic, or instrumental considerations; religious convictions about the importance of free assent in matters of faith; weariness of the social costs of continued persecution; theories of epistemological skepticism or relativism; or philosophical commitments to autonomy as a fundamental value.

Origins Of Toleration

Historically, toleration debates have most often been associated with matters of religion and have addressed the rights of marginalized or minority religious groups to worship undisturbed or persecuted. Scholars often trace the roots of toleration, especially in the liberal tradition, to the wars of religion in early modern Europe and to seventeenth-century England, where religious issues were intimately connected with the political disputes that led to the beheading of one king, Charles I, and the abdication of another, James II. Certainly, tolerationist systems of various sorts had existed in prior times and places: under the Roman Empire; in the Ottoman millet system, where religious communities received a measure of autonomy to order their own affairs; and in the work of medieval thinkers who envisioned adherents of diverse religions peacefully coexisting. But sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe saw two important and relatively simultaneous developments: the coalescence of a host of philosophical, political, psychological, theological, and economic arguments in favor of religious toleration and the political-military victory of protolerationist forces and, thus, the implementation of a measure of toleration in England, in France under the Edict of Nantes, and in other places across the continent.

Liberal theory has built its philosophical and political system on the primacy of toleration as a blueprint for addressing socially divisive phenomena. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1690) is generally considered the most prominent liberal defense of religious toleration, yet the importance of Locke’s formulation lies not in its originality, but in the way that Locke digested over a century’s worth of tolerationist arguments, and in the influence his work had on Jefferson and others in the American context. Indeed, Locke was just one of many important sixteenth and seventeenth-century figures (e.g., Montaigne, Bayle, Spinoza, Milton, and Castellio) who contributed to the spread of tolerationist ideas in Europe. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) broadened this defense of free religion and speech into a theory that championed the rights of individuals to act on their deepest beliefs in all matters that did not result in direct harm to others.

The liberal constitutionalist tradition, which owes such a debt to Lockean and Millian thought, places toleration at its cornerstone, a fundamental element of legitimate government: In the words of David A. J. Richards, toleration lies “at the very moral heart of the dignity of constitutional law” (1986). John Rawls self-consciously styled his political liberalism on the model of Locke and claimed that his system “completes and extends” the struggle for toleration that began in early modern Europe (154). But questions of toleration extend beyond religion into other areas of social and political life, wherever unpopular or controversial groups face a hostile environment and stand in need of protection from state interference or menacing by their enemies. Over time, tolerationist arguments have been employed in attempts to protect groups marginalized on account of gender, sexual orientation, unpopular political views, and race.

Criticism Of Toleration

At the same time, the concept of toleration has not been without its detractors. Critical theorists have objected to the fact that “tolerance” of differences leaves in place powerful social disparities that remain uncontested because of its focus on the maximization of individual choice. Postmodern theorists and those seeking a more positive celebration of difference often criticize toleration as insufficient, grudging, and unsuitable for the complete respect of difference. Toleration, in this view, grants permission for difference but does not praise or affirm it.

Such critiques possess a degree of truth—even its defenders often admit that toleration is an “old-fashioned ideal” (Gray 1995, 27)—yet toleration’s benefits should not be overlooked, such as the cessation of violence and persecution between groups with long histories of violence and the extension of basic political and institutional protections to unpopular groups. Toleration, according to this view, represents a necessary though not always sufficient political achievement. Surely the tolerations ideal recognizes that political theory and practice involve the gradual, often halting, and always contested extension of civil and political rights, and the tradition of toleration continues to play a central role in the ongoing struggle for human freedom and dignity.


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  21. Walzer, Michael. On Toleration. New Haven:Yale University Press, 1997.
  22. Zagorin, Perez. How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

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