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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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3. The Transition to the Age of Reason. Because
the practice of the right religion was considered so
important, and because there was such a conviction
that only one form of religion could be right, it was
only by a very slow process (and by certain changes
in the very structure of Christian thinking) that tolera-
tion could come to be itself a religious ideal. In the
middle of the seventeenth century it seems to come
almost as a “discovery” to some people that the other
man's creed, instead of being the product of perversity,
might be as much a case of conscience as one's own;
and perhaps it required the standing presence for a
considerable period of rival sects to produce the per-
suasion that, though a man may hold his own faith as
an absolute, he must treat the matter with a certain
degree of relativity in his relations with other men,
who have the same right to follow their conscience.

Some progress was made through pondering on the
current doctrine that ethics required the granting to
others of the treatment one expected to receive from
them. It was more easy for the various branches of
Protestantism to adopt this attitude towards one an-
other than to give Roman Catholics the benefit of it.
When sects were multiplied—as in Puritan England—
and when religious variety had become a standing
phenomenon, it was more easy to see that the individ-
ual judgment had come to have preponderant signifi-
cance; and some sects were individualistic, some highly
insistent about the Inner Light. It meant a kind of
intellectual revolution, but when one came to see that
voluntariness of belief was itself an essential thing (and
that the quality of belief even had some relation to
its voluntariness), Christians in the course of time could
come to wonder why they had ever permitted perse-
cution at all. Protestants came to feel that diversity
itself might be enriching for Christendom, that truth
might be served by the clash of controversy, and that
the right could be brought to prevail in the long run
by force of mere persuasion.

But the laymen played a great part in the coming
of toleration. In England, a certain religious indiffer-
ence—or a reaction against fanaticism—was visible
from the 1650's. There may have been an increasing
squeamishness about the infliction of suffering for reli-
gious reasons and a feeling that extravagant sects had
exposed the pretentions of authoritarianism. The set-
tlement in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the need
for manpower in Germany to aid in the work of eco-
nomic recovery after the devastation of the Thirty
Years' War, the growing importance of the laity in
society and the decline in the general prestige of the
clergy—these, as well as special political conjunc-


401

tures—have their part in the coming of a toleration
which still left dissenters penalized in some ways. As
the eighteenth century proceeded a country like
England ceased to have the appearance of a “Christian
Society” and the Church of England became more like
a privileged “Establishment” in a secular state. In both
England and Ireland, the Catholics were still harassed
by cruel penal laws. In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the
Edict of Nantes, and deprived his Protestant subjects
of the toleration they had enjoyed for nearly a century.

In the meantime, however, other factors had been
altering the place of religion in society and in life, and
making the survival of religious intolerance all the
more anomalous. Christianity had successfully con-
fronted the superior culture of Greco-Roman antiquity.
In the Middle Ages it had subjugated Aristotle to its
own purposes and had survived the contact with what
had been in some respects the higher civilization of
the Arabs. At the end of the seventeenth century it
was to find itself more seriously embarrassed by a
scientific movement which sprang in a sense from its
own bosom—a movement absolutely and uniquely
European, rising from the traditions of the Western
world itself. The scientific movement of the seven-
teenth century carried human thought beyond anything
that ancient Greece or ancient China had ever given
the promise of producing, and the student of its ante-
cedents would find himself carried back to some of the
subtle thinking of the scholastic writers.

The movement was promoted to a considerable
degree by men who often believed that, by concrete
enquiries into history and nature, they were glorifying
the Creator and illuminating the work of Providence.
It was one of its essential principles that men should
turn away from the discussion of final causes and the
ultimate essence of things, topics which had hitherto
proved so tantalizing and distracting. They should
observe how one particular thing in the natural world
acted upon another, and by reflection and inference
upon the observed results, they should climb to a range
of important intermediate generalizations. So they
freed their minds for a more specialized form of re-
search, freed science itself from its compromising en-
tanglement with “natural philosophy.” Some of them
were looking for laws before they properly knew how
to discover them, and were seeking to embrace every-
thing in the realm of law—leaving no gaps in the
clockwork universe—before they had found the clue
that might lead them to such a system. And they said
that they were vindicating the rationality of God the
“Creator,” a God whom they could not believe to be
guilty of arbitrariness or caprice in his arrangement
of the cosmos.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who, when he had estab-
lished the automatic working of the solar system, was
seized with misgiving, because he realized that instead
of leading to the greater glory of God, it might tempt
men to think that a deity was henceforth a superfluity.
At this point he seemed to show an uncommon anxiety
to find some loopholes in the system that he had pro-
duced. The inferences from the system itself, and the
victory of the mechanistic (or, as it called itself, the
“geometrical”) kind of thinking that now became
fashionable—the overall result of the seventeenth-
century revolution in science—opened the door to a
“deism” which allowed the existence of a Creator who,
after setting everything in motion, had become the
complete absentee.

The Church confronted the crisis at an unfortunate
moment, a moment when religion in general had come
to an exceptionally low state. Fanaticism had continued
until the middle of the seventeenth century and it had
added to the bitterness of war in Europe, as well as
the constitutional struggles in England. The Puritan
regime in England had been followed by the relaxation
and license that is associated with the reign of Charles
II. The religiosity of the latest period of Louis XIV's
reign was followed by a similar reaction—the levity
and the laxity of the subsequent Regency. The conces-
sion of religious toleration in England at the end of
the seventeenth century coincided paradoxically with
the decline of the body who were to have been its
main beneficiaries—the Presbyterians—some of whom
began to move into Unitarianism. Only the advent of
John Wesley put an end to what had been a serious
religious setback in the country at large. The conflict
between the Protestant and the Catholic versions of
religious authority would seem in any case to have had
the effect of undermining confidence in any kind of
claim to authoritativeness.

The results of the scientific revolution were some-
times popularized and transmuted into a new world
view by men like Fontenelle in France, who had caught
skepticism not really from science itself but from the
writings of classical Greece. The wider knowledge of
the globe, the writings of travellers, the study of primi-
tive peoples and distant civilizations, and developing
notions of comparative religion, made it possible to
reckon with cultures that had never been touched by
Greece and Rome, and to envisage the traditions of
Christendom as not in any sense universal, not neces-
sarily even central, but something of a regional phe-
nomenon. On this view, all religions were merely the
effect of an original and basic “natural religion” which
in every place had come to be overgrown with peculiar
local accretions, local mythologies, local legends.

When Sir Isaac Newton clinched the success of the
seventeenth-century scientific revolution, there was a
sense in which, in any case, the authority of both the
Middle Ages and the ancient world was at last over-


402

thrown. Also the secularization of life was proceeding
rapidly; and at the end of the seventeenth century the
intellectual leadership passed to the regions which
were industrially and commercially the most advanced
—England, Holland, and France, particularly the
Huguenot part of France. The learned world had lost
its leading position; the arbiters in the realm of thought
were a wider reading-public, a bourgeois class that
prided itself on a worldly-minded kind of common
sense.