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“Toleration” is a policy of patient forbearance in the presence of something that is disliked or disapproved of. Toleration must thus be distinguished from freedom or liberty precisely because it implies the existence of something believed to be disagreeable or evil.

When freedom or liberty is said to prevail, no criticism, moral or otherwise, is entailed of the people who are said to be free or of the use to which such people put their freedom. Indeed, there are some writers who would reserve the words liberty and freedom for the rightful exercise of human choice, thinking, with the poet John Milton, that “only the good man can be free.”

Toleration, on the other hand, has an element of condemnation built into its meaning. We do not tolerate what we enjoy or what is generally liked or approved of. We speak of freedom of speech, of worship, and of movement—speech, worship, and movement being good or ethically neutral things.

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regarded as evils

But when we speak of toleration, we speak of the toleration of heretics, dissenters, or atheists, all of whom were once thought to be wrongdoers, or we speak of the toleration of prostitution, gambling, or the drug traffic, all of which are still generally regarded as evils. To tolerate is first to condemn and then to put up with or, more simply, to put up with is itself to condemn.

T. S. Eliot once surprised his readers by saying, “The Christian does not wish to be tolerated.” He did not mean, as some supposed, that the Christian yearned for martyrdom. He meant that the Christian did not wish to be put up with.

The Christian wanted something better— to be respected, honored, loved. And what Eliot said in the name of Christians would doubtless also be said by Jews, Muslims, Mormons, African Americans, or any other minority group that finds itself tolerated by a larger society. Toleration is always mere toleration.

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T. S. Eliot

It is less than equality just as it is distinct from liberty, and it is sharply at variance with fraternity. For these reasons toleration is far from an ideal policy; it is contaminated, so to speak, by that very implication of evil which its meaning contains.

Toleration must also be distinguished from indifference. A man who has no feelings about something is indifferent to it, not tolerant, for if he has no feelings, he cannot be said to dislike or disapprove of it. He cannot claim to put up with what troubles him in no way. It has sometimes been said by critics of religious toleration that such toleration is evidence of indifference to religion and that indifference to religion is bad.

Here one must distinguish a logical connection from a historical one. It may well be a historical fact that the growth of religious toleration as a government policy in France and England during the eighteenth century was due to a diminution of religious fervor, to an increase in worldliness, and in a word, to indifference.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

Even so, however, the toleration must be distinguished from the indifference, for the words have significantly different meanings. There have been many men, like Thomas Hobbes, who were personally indifferent to religion but opposed to religious toleration, and many, like John Locke, who had strong religious beliefs but who favored religious toleration.

Alternative to Toleration

The alternative to toleration is often said to be persecution. This is a misleading dichotomy. Persecution is by definition always wrong. Moral condemnation is part of the meaning of the word.

Yet who is to say that the alternative to toleration is always a wrong policy? Is the suppression of the drug traffic, for example, wrong? Is it persecution? It would be perverse to say that everything that is not tolerated is persecuted.

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alternative to toleration

Persecution is one alternative to toleration. However, there is another alternative which must be expressed in more neutral language, though, of course, it is one of the central difficulties of all social theory that neutral language is not always at one’s disposal.

Almost all the words we use in discussing social and political problems have a normative element in them. We might be wise, for lack of a better term, to rely on the word suppression as the alternative to toleration.

To ask whether the persecution of religious dissenters was justifiable in thirteenth-century Europe is to prejudice the issue from the outset by speaking of persecution. But one might have an impartial discussion about whether the suppression of religious dissent was justifiable at that time and place, for even those who practiced it would agree to calling it suppression.

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defend intolerance

Many writers have opposed policies of toleration, but few have ventured to defend intolerance. This is clearly because intolerance in private life is considered a moral defect or weakness, a defect allied to arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and impatience. Hence, intolerance has an unpleasant ring.

James Fitzjames Stephen frankly advocated intolerance in opposition to John Stuart Mill’s policy of toleration, but though Stephen’s arguments were of a kind more likely to appeal to the majority, his success with the public was conspicuously less than Mill’s; manifestly, Stephen had made an infelicitous choice of language. Most supporters of what Stephen called intolerance have preferred to speak of order, discipline, authority, or control in putting forward a case for suppression against one of toleration.

Pagan and Christian Attitudes

The central problem of toleration in Western history was for centuries the problem of religious toleration. This is one of the consequences the West has faced because its religion is Christianity. Polytheistic religions are by nature more tolerant.

Pagan and Christian Attitudes
Pagan and Christian Attitudes

The Greeks, for example, were conservative in the matter of religious ceremonies and institutions, but they admitted a great variety of theological beliefs. Where there were many gods, there could be many dogmas. And although Socrates and the Pythagoreans were persecuted, it was not on religious grounds but because they were accused of threatening the morality and political security of the community.

The Romans were less steady in their policy, alternating between policies of general permissiveness and repression of particular sects—notably, but not exclusively, the Christians. Roman toleration was limited by at least one specifically religious notion, namely, the belief that the traditional deities would punish a whole people for the offense of those who failed to worship them.

The early Fathers of the Christian church, having themselves been cruelly persecuted by the Romans, were in favor of religious toleration as a principle. But as soon as Constantine made Christianity a state religion, the pagans, who had once been the persecutors, became the persecuted. Nevertheless, it may be recorded that the Christian repression of paganism never went to the cruel lengths to which Roman repression had gone.

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Counter Reformation

St. Augustine, an early advocate of suppressing heretics, went out of his way to say that the death penalty for heresy was wrong. The comparatively few pagans who were put to death by the Christian emperors were usually executed on charges of sorcery rather than of worshiping false gods.

This policy of moderate repression continued throughout the early Middle Ages. In the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation, toleration was virtually repudiated on principle by European Christians.

The few Christians who continued to favor religious toleration are conspicuous for that very reason. They include the Anabaptists in Germany, the Arminians in Holland, Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, Sebastian Castellio in France, Socinus in Poland.

religious discipline

But the main Protestant churches, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican, were not conspicuously more tolerant than the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s chief instrument of religious discipline was the Inquisition, which freely employed torture as well as the death penalty in its endeavors to recover erring souls for God.

Christian arguments in defense of repression are several. Some writers repeat the old pagan argument that God is offended by heretical practices and is likely to inflict disasters on the whole community as a punishment.Other writers stress the point that heresy is a crime, a form of revolt against lawful authority, a culpable betrayal of promises made (even if only by proxy) at baptism.

Crime, it is argued, cannot be tolerated. A more sophisticated argument maintains that the authority of the church is as essential to the continued existence of civil society as is that of the state; hence, those men who defy the church are akin to those who repudiate their duty to the king.


Thus,members of such religious sects as the Cathari, Waldenses, and Albigenses are regarded by certain Catholic theorists as seditious rebels who have put themselves in a state of war with the sovereign power. The true religion seals men together in the safety of the commonwealth; dissent and heresy are therefore likely to open the way to anarchy.

Furthermore, it is held by all these Christian writers that to tolerate heresy is to do no service to the man concerned, for to leave him alone in his error is to leave him in a state of sin, faced with the prospect of eternal damnation in the life to come. It is thus thought to be no real cruelty to inflict painful penalties, even death itself, on an erring man if by so doing one is sparing him the far greater torments of hell.

Philosophical Arguments for Toleration

The philosopher who is best known for having addressed himself to the Christian arguments for suppression was the Englishman John Locke. In the seventeenth century Christians were generally beginning to lose confidence in the old policy of repression, although it was still being practiced.

Philosophical Arguments
Philosophical Arguments

The unity of Christendom was plainly ended and not likely to be recovered. Protestantism in its various forms had come to be almost as great a power in the world as Catholicism. The old notion of one true faith against heresy had lost its meaning.

Besides, although Protestantism in its leading forms did not preach toleration, it preached a gospel that led inexorably to the demand for toleration; the Protestant doctrine that every man must be a priest unto himself gave the dissenter just as good grounds as the orthodox believer for claiming that his faith was true.

Confidence in the utility—and justice—of suppressing unorthodox opinions was shaken by such writers as Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), who in his Pensées sur la comète (1682), argued that morality is independent of religion.

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Epistola de Tolerantia

Locke’s plea for toleration, set forth in his Epistola de Tolerantia, published in 1688, was not the first such plea, but it was the earliest systematic argument in its favor. Locke’s first point is that repression is not an effective policy. Force can be used to make a man go through the motions of a given form of Christian worship, but force cannot make a man entertain any faith or belief in the privacy of his soul.

What force can do is make a man pretend to be an orthodox believer. And such a policy, says Locke, is not only useless but also morally harmful since it is bound to breed hypocrisy. Locke thus totally rejects the Catholic argument that force—let alone torture and death—can bring any man to salvation.

Second, Locke rejects the traditional argument that a man’s obligation to the church is equal to his obligation to the state and that civil society will lapse into anarchy if religious dissent is tolerated.

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voluntary society

Locke describes the church as a “voluntary society” which has a mission in the world quite independent of the functions of the state. The church exists to save men’s souls, and it can fulfill this mission only by persuasion, by essentially nonviolent means.

The state, on the other hand, exists to protect men’s rights—their lives, liberties, and estates—so that the use of force as an ultimate sanction is a necessary part of the state’s function. The state has no concern with the salvation of men’s souls, just as the church has no concern with the use of force. Nor has the state any knowledge of what the true religion is.

The Persian ruler believes it is Islam; the Spanish ruler believes it is Catholicism; the English king believes it is Anglicanism. They cannot all be right. Therefore, that a religion is established is no evidence that it is the true religion. Each man has his own faith, and every person’s conscience is entitled to the same respect.

theory of freedom
theory of freedom

Locke’s theory of toleration was intimately connected with his theory of freedom. Since he held that one of the most fundamental reasons for the existence of the state was the preservation of man’s natural right to liberty, he argued that the government was entitled to use force against an individual only when it was necessary to protect the rights of others.

Certain things, Locke agreed, could not be tolerated:
  1. the propagation of “opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society”;
  2. any claim “to special prerogative opposite to the civil right of the community”;
  3. the activity of “persons who are ready on any occasion to seize the government, and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects”;
  4. transferring allegiance to a foreign prince; and
  5. denying the existence of God.
Locke’s reason for withholding toleration from atheists was the rather quaint one that a man who did not believe in God could not take a valid oath and that oaths and covenants were “the bonds of human society.”

foreign prince
foreign prince

Locke was unwilling to extend toleration to Roman Catholics, not on religious grounds but because he held, with some reason, that Roman Catholics were not loyal subjects of the English crown, since they owed their first allegiance to a foreign prince, the pope.

Locke’s argument for toleration, which seemed distinctly avant-garde when it was first published, eventually came to be regarded as common sense. Indeed, even Catholic teaching on the subject of toleration moved toward Locke’s position. Later Catholic apologists distinguished between
  1. theological dogmatic toleration,
  2. practical civil toleration, and
  3. public political toleration.
rational mind
rational mind

The first, theological dogmatic toleration, was resisted as firmly as ever. The teaching of the Catholic Church was held to be the absolute and certain truth; thus, to tolerate any opinion at variance with it would be to tolerate falsehood, and the clear duty of the rational mind to uphold truth and deny falsehood imposed an equally categorical duty to deny any religious or moral teaching at variance with the teaching of Rome, which is infallible. However, what is called practical civil toleration was gradually accepted by Catholics.

First, it was said to be the Christian’s duty to distinguish between the error and the man who erred. Error was always to be opposed, but the man who erred was to be regarded, in full Christian charity, as a fellow man and, therefore, not to be persecuted. On public political toleration, later Catholic theory was somewhat ambiguous.

This was because of the need to claim for Catholic minorities in Protestant states the utmost possible toleration without equally committing Catholic governments to tolerating Protestant minorities. Thus, the principle of public political toleration was admitted to vary between its application in a secular state and in a “truly Christian state.”

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

The outstanding exponent of the case for greater toleration in the nineteenth century was John Stuart Mill. In many ways his argument followed the lines laid down by Locke, but Mill put fewer limitations on toleration than did Locke. He was more insistent that the only justification for interfering with any man’s liberty was a reasonable assurance that some danger or threat to the liberty of another was involved.

Again, where Locke was exclusively concerned with the protection of individual liberty from the interference of state and church, Mill was increasingly concerned with the limitations on human freedom that stemmed from unwritten law—the pressure of convention and public opinion.

Mill wanted to see toleration extended from the realm of politics to that of morals and manners, to all self-regarding actions, as he called them. Mill, as a Victorian, lived, of course, in a society that not only frowned on things like free love, adultery, and Sabbath-breaking but also vigorously applied the social sanction of ostracism to any who committed these sins.

ethical value
ethical value

Mill felt that people were more oppressed and hemmed in by the unwritten laws than they were by laws enforced by the state and that human freedom and variety could not flourish in a repressive atmosphere. Mill demanded toleration because he held that liberty, individuality, and variety were of the highest ethical value; they were what made man “nobler to contemplate.”

Mill’s ablest critic, James Fitzjames Stephen (in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, written in reply to Mill’s essay On Liberty), argued that intolerance was a necessary preservative of society. The modern liberal state was possible precisely because society was able to discipline itself through unwritten laws.

It was a good thing for men to be compelled by social intolerance to keep laws of conduct that the wisdom of the ages had shown to be good. Mill’s claim that there was a class of self-regarding actions that had a right to be tolerated because they did not affect others was, in Stephen’s view, unfounded; almost everything a man did affected someone else.

moral codes
moral codes

Suicide, intemperance, debauchery, and so forth were not things that injured the agent alone. The class of self-regarding actions was virtually an empty one. And since almost all conduct was other-regarding, society had a right to interfere as widely as it did.

Stephen argued that the general run of men did not have the wit to think out moral codes of their own or the strength of character to obey such codes if they established them. Hence, some form of external sanction was needed if morality was to be upheld. Stephen also rejected Mill’s view that variety was a good thing in itself.

Goodness, he agreed, was varied, but that did not mean that variety itself was good; a nation in which half the population was criminal would be more diversified than a wholly honest one, but it would not be a better nation. Dissent for its own sake Stephen condemned as frivolous and sentimental Bohemianism.

Puritan spirit
Puritan spirit

Eccentricity was a mark of weakness rather than of strength; and constraint, far from being an evil, was a great stimulus to exertion. Stephen even held that the intolerance that went with the Puritan spirit had been one of the chief factors enabling England to surge ahead of other nations in making industrial and social progress.

Political Toleration

With the rise of totalitarian governments in the twentieth century, the problem of toleration took on a new aspect. For democratic and freedom-loving governments the toleration of intolerance became an acute problem.

In 1936 the British government introduced a ban on political uniforms because of the disturbances caused by Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement and its black-shirted adherents; an attempt was made under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1965 to proscribe acts of racial discrimination.

Political Toleration
Political Toleration

After World War II the United States was troubled by the difficulty of deciding how much toleration could be safely extended to communists when several communists proved to be Russian or Cuban agents and when all communists seemed to have a more pronounced loyalty to the Soviet Union than to the United States.

The position of the communists in twentieth-century America was thought to resemble that of the Catholics in seventeenth-century England, and many Americans recalled Locke’s view that such persons had forfeited their right to toleration.

Other Americans argued that repression was futile; the interdiction of open communist organizations would do little to protect the state from secret and more sinister communist activities. Hence, an abridgment of political toleration would do no good to anyone, for it would simply create martyrs without eliminating spies.

communist organization
communist organization

Thus, the argument both for and against political toleration in the twentieth century cannot be said to have differed greatly from the debate concerning religious toleration that exercised the minds of earlier generations.
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