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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Lexicology tells us that up to the beginning of the
eighteenth century the word “tolérance” had, in
French, a pejorative meaning: a lax complacency
towards evil. In 1691, in his admonition to Protestants
(VIe avertissement aux protestants, III, ix) Bossuet still
proudly described Catholicism as the least tolerant of
all religions and, as if to compete with this proud boast,
the Walloon Synod of Leyden (an overwhelming ma-
jority of whose members were Huguenot refugees)
firmly condemned religious toleration as a heresy. In
the course of the crucial years of “the crisis of the
European conscience,” the century-old meaning of the
two words was reversed: intolerance became a vice
and tolerance a virtue; an opinion which had previ-
ously been held only by isolated and suspect theoreti-
cians was suddenly widespread and became part of the
common language. Thus the ideal of religious tolera-
tion had emerged through a delayed reaction to the
natural propensity of groups to penalize those members
who departed from the beliefs and practices of the
majority, represented by those of the ruling classes, so
that the majority or dominant view acquired ipso facto
the character of an imperative rule.

The pleas for religious toleration initially appear as
protests against the measures taken by the authorities
against dissenters, and later, as refutations of arguments
advanced to authorize or encourage the use of force
against dissenters.

As regards persecution, theory follows practice as
is often the case in the history of ideas; theory is
advanced to explain practice, to authorize it, to defend
it against its critics, and in that way the theorists of
intolerance could have helped, extended, and
aggravated its practice, but they were not its insti-
gators. Likewise the partisans of religious tolerance
have probably been successful at times in alleviating
the severity of some punishments inflicted on minori-
ties. They may have speeded the end of persecutions
and discriminatory practices. Sometimes even, by their
influence on a prince, they played a role in establishing
a precarious and tiny pocket of liberalism, although
in these cases we must be careful not to lend too much
weight to purely theoretical considerations. The end
of religious persecution depended first of all upon the
evolution of Western societies; i.e., their seculariza-
tion—associated with a growing realization of their
temporal interests, and consisting of a steady weaken-
ing of the once intimate solidarity between Church
and State—gradually relegated the question of an indi-
vidual's religious affiliation to the domain of private
life, that sphere of liberty which the community is able
to leave to the individual without endangering itself.


Then the varieties of belief of its members no longer
appeared as a menace to the loyalty required by the
group's concern for security and prosperity.

This evolution has had its ups and downs in different
tempos in various countries in Europe. Only recently
has a Jesuit been able to enter Sweden; theoretically
Switzerland is still closed to him; the few Spanish
Protestants still suffer nowadays from discriminatory
measures, and in countries where parties calling them-
selves Marxist are in power the practice of religion
is seriously hindered. On the other hand, already in
the sixteenth century there were some islands of
significant religious pluralism in Eastern Europe
(Transylvania and Poland, particularly). Each of these
instances is related to local conditions and particular
historical antecedents. Besides, the historian should not
be content with reading the laws. In each instance he
must try to determine the actual practice of carrying
out laws before drawing a conclusion, because, espe-
cially under the Old Regime, it turns out that this
practice deviated appreciably, in one way or another,
from the letter of the law. Thus, around 1680, in the
Netherlands' United Provinces, in spite of the fact that
the restrictive legislation concerning Roman Catholics
had not been revoked, a religious tolerance reigned,
unmatched by any other country in Europe, for the
restrictions were simply not enforced.

At the same time, although the Edict of Nantes was
still law in France, the Protestants came under pres-
sures, legal chicaneries, and annoyances which already
bordered upon religious persecution, because the orig-
inal meaning of the text of the Edict was reduced to
almost nil by means of the belittling casuistic inter-
pretation of “the letter of the law.” It is enough, then,
for us to recall the extreme complexity of the evolution
which led Western countries from their initial practices
of persecution to their current and sometimes rather
limited respect for the religious freedom of their citi-
zens. The tortuous path of this journey can be analyzed
only if one pays careful attention to its close ties to
different national histories. Thus, for example, the
Huguenot situation improved when France was at war:
for one thing, the internal problems of the realm be-
came of secondary consideration; on the other hand,
the fear of an alliance of French Protestants with the
enemy—in the eighteenth century a particular night-
mare to the authorities—made it a point of wisdom
not to push them to despair; so that the oscillations
of European foreign policy had repercussions even in
the daily life of peasants in remote corners of

Religious intolerance can assert itself in two direc-
tions: externally, when a persecuting religion faces
believers in another religion, belonging to a separate
political system backed by military force, the result
is a crusade or holy war; or else, internally, with respect
to dissenters, schismatics and heretics (those who
choose, as indicated by etymology, and whose faith,
institutions, or other rites show some differences from
those of the prevalent party), the result is persecution.

The first form of intolerance—that of Charlemagne
against the Saxons, for example, who were given the
choice between baptism and death—is easy enough to
interpret. It is the ideological side of a bellicose dis-
pute, the warfare bringing not only two tribes or two
nations, but also their gods into conflict. In the case
of conquest followed by colonization, the example of
the Romans shows the adaptability of polytheism: it
easily accommodates a multiplicity of deities, so that
in the end the initial conflict gives way to a religious
coalescence. On the other hand, the unique and “jeal-
ous” nature of the God of Judeo-Christian monotheism
forbade his faithful ones that “sacrifice to idols” which
the imperial Roman authorities regarded above all as
evidence of political loyalty. (Incidentally, the conflict
between the Huguenots and the power which insisted
upon their recanting, under Louis XIV, produced a
misunderstanding of the same type. For the Huguenot,
to convert to Catholicism was to embrace “the papist
idolatry” and therefore to commit a frightful sin, while
from the viewpoint of authorities, the adoption of one
form of Christianity rather than another was such a
trivial affair that the royal power felt justified in
suspecting some sort of subversion among those who
refused to obey and who thus deserved the most dire

A new element arose with monotheism: theology,
with the notion of a creed, of a precise and articulated
doctrinal belief corresponding to absolute Truth (since
revealed). Simultaneously there appeared the possi-
bility of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of correct wording
and erroneous wording—by accretion, suppression, or
modification, even if it were of only one article of faith.
As soon as rituals cease to be self-sufficient, as in an-
cient paganism, and are no longer akin to traditional
festivities—such as we still have in Christmas trees and
Easter eggs—the notion of sacrament becomes
inseparably associated with acts, intentions, and
speculative content.

So long as the profession of Christianity was inter-
mittently exposed to measures of persecution by the
political authorities, Christian writers defended reli-
gious liberty, and many passages from the Church
Fathers eloquently justify it. However, soon after the
imperial throne was won over to Christianity, the
Church hastened to enlist the secular arm against
heretics. Saint Augustine in particular followed that
path. In spite of his original hostility towards con-


straint, he ended up as its theoretician, owing to the
successes that penal sanctions had against the Donatists.
Quickly the pagans, in their turn, became victims of
persecution. It would be an anachronism to denounce
outrageously the unfairness of such a double standard.
Our modern relativistic attitude tends to make us re-
luctant to recognize the reality, both in concept and
in experience, of a view of things in which absolute
truth—which one felt sure one possessed—has quite
a different weight and status than error. For age after
age it appeared dazzingly evident that Truth, by
definition, enjoys rights of its own—and that it would
be grotesque, unthinkable, criminal to even think of
extending these rights to “errors.” If we do not try
to gain a sympathetic understanding of this ingenuous
principle, a fundamental tendency in ancient cultures,
we are doomed to superficiality, and by implicitly
assuming the problem solved, we ignore the slow
and difficult awakening of the ideal of toleration.

The most instructive type of religious intolerance,
and that which is peculiar to various monotheisms (for
Islam has known it also) is persecution directed against
internal dissent, against heretics. According to Aquinas
(it goes without saying that the facts were far from
being always true to his doctrinal views), one ought
not to use constraint to convert pagans and infidels,
who should be brought to Christianity only by a free
conversion, moved by preaching and example.
Although the Jews ought technically to be considered
as infidels, their dispersion within Christian countries
made them liable too often to be dealt with simply
as heretics of the worst kind. The religious affinities
created by a common respect for the Old Testament
unleashed against them a fratricidal hostility. The
sources of Western anti-Semitism are far from being
wholly religious, but a theological concept such as that
of deicide has played a significant role in investing with
respectability and legitimacy the sociological fury of
conformity, that is to say, the normative value attri-
buted to the characteristics of the statistical majority.

Nevertheless, if fact had followed theory, the condi-
tion of the Jews would have been a little less harsh
than that of the heretics (which had often been the
case in Rome and in the papal States). The justification
of intolerance toward the dissenter rests, in fact, on
the notion of the indelible stamp given by baptism:
the compelle intrare is precisely a compelle remanere
(“Compel them to come in” means exactly “compel
them to remain”). As one is a priest eternally, one is
a Christian forever. The means of constraint are
destined to compel the heretic to honor his tacit cove-
nant and to make, as it were, his concrete mode of
existence coincide with that essence which he received
with the seal of baptism and which he is not in any
position to modify. As bad luck would have it for so
many heretics in the course of the centuries, the condi-
tions guaranteeing the validity of the sacrament of
baptism were defined very generously: even if admin-
istered according to a heretical rite, baptism is valid
if only it includes a minimal trinitarian formula which,
effectively, is present in almost all Christian baptismal
liturgies. From this fact there readily arises the prob-
lem, not only of individuals who, born into the “true
religion,” depart of their own volition as adults and
ought either to be punished for their defection or
compelled to return to the fold, but also of those who,
born in the bosom of heresy and having never known
another form of Christianity, by the fact of their
baptism and often unknown to themselves, fall under
the power and authority of the “True Church.” In our
ecumenical age, this conception of baptism creates a
link between all the “separated brethren” of various
denominations, but until quite recently (cf. the decree
on ecumenism of Vatican II) this sacrament, common
to all Christians, provided the proper base for the
inalienable rights that the Roman Church arrogated
to itself over all the baptized, without considering the
opinion of the persons involved. Still, in 1857, in the
Mortara affair, Pius IX strictly applied the traditional

In other words, membership in the Church was
established by birth, because it was sealed by the
earliest sacrament. “We are Christians by the same title
as we are either Perigordians or Germans” observes
Montaigne (Essays, II, xii). A man acquires his religion
as he learns his language, the sphere par excellence
of pure tradition. The concept of “implicit” faith
allowed the authorities to consider as orthodox anyone
showing obedience to the priesthood, and the unity
of faith played a role somewhat akin to that played
by the “one party system” in many countries of the
Third World. The prevailing point of view considered
the masses as a herd which their shepherds had the
task of leading; the flock was regarded, if not literally,
as beings of an inferior sort to that of the rulers—
nobility and clergy—at least as little, or backward,
children committed to the care and decisions of adults.

We, in the West, now adopt a different attitude.
Citizens are reputedly mature beings, equal and re-
sponsible. But both viewpoints are equally unrealistic,
even though the first appears static, the second, dy-
namic. The social reality does not coincide with the
theory. Many citizens in our democracies behave as
minors, manipulated and manipulable by publicity and
propaganda, and conversely, powerful personalities
flourished in the Middle Ages and under the Old
Regime, even outside of the privileged classes and the
very small number of educated elite. Personalities exist


in all centuries and all cultures, but, on the other hand,
the abstract concept of an autonomous individual is
scarcely meaningful in a civilization defined by a
marked hierarchical stratification (family, parish, cor-
poration, etc.) and by economical and technical struc-
tures of a pre-capitalistic nature.

In the past, the need for social conformity, gained
and maintained, should the occasion demand, by force
(fines, imprisonments, banishments, executions) and the
spontaneous repression of deviant and disruptive
tendencies, operated all the more intensely and
selectively in the religious realm, because for a long
time that was the only area in which centralizing
tendencies operated without too much hindrance. It
is not an accident that the practice of a certain reli-
gious toleration progressed—although in fits and
starts—at the same time as the constitution of national
states, the birth of capitalism, and the rise of modern
science. The consensus, once acquired in the new
areas—political loyalty, the demands of economic ad-
vance and social mobility, the mechanistic inter-
pretation of Nature—became less necessary on the
religious level, as if that which was required socio-
logically was a certain area of general agreement, with
little concern about which particular area.

In defense of this minimal conformity, arguments
multiplied—often sophistically invoked: they were
scriptural arguments, drawn either from the precepts
of the Old Testament against idolators and blas-
phemers, or from the “Compel them to come in” of
the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Luke 14:23)—an
exegesis advanced by Saint Augustine and revived
secondarily by Calvin—or, even stranger yet, from the
Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew
13:24-30, 36-43). Although the sense of this parable
seems to be exactly the opposite, it was supposed that
it commends long-suffering only when the distinction
between the wheat and the tares is elusive (as in the
case of sinners); but that the obvious characteristics
which patently identify the heretic, permit without risk
of error his being uprooted from the field of Christian-
ity and command that he be committed to the flames.
In other respects the revival of the study of Roman
Law, encouraged by the Renaissance, furnished judicial
arguments and precedents, based on a multitude of
laws of the late Empire. Present-day historians surmise
that these laws were a means of intimidation in their
times and that they were rarely enforced. They observe
that the death penalty with which those laws threat-
ened the Manicheans had political explanations, for the
seat of this heresy was in Persia, a dangerous enemy
of the Eastern Empire. But in the Renaissance this
legislation was taken literally, and, the dualistic char-
acter of the greater part of the medieval heresies
having rendered the term “Manichean” synonymous
with “heretic,” these impressive texts lent authority
to the extirpation of heresy by fetter and by fire.

It is well known that the greater part of medieval
heresies included economically and socially subversive
elements, and that they appealed particularly to the
disinherited. In the repression which heretics incurred,
motives born out of social conservatism compounded
the zeal to defend religious orthodoxy. The recurrence
through centuries of the shock and horror felt by the
privileged at a program suggesting even the faintest
hint of communism is well known, as are the bright
hopes that it usually awakens in the poor. Thus there
are some historians who consider Marxism, in some
respects, a Christian heresy because in spite of the
evident paradoxical nature of that label, many of the
characteristics of the communist movements allow for
some curious parallels with the heresies of the past.

Let us go back to the Renaissance. Medieval law
had itself also justified the most dire penalties against
heretics. Likened to the poisoner of wells, the arsonist,
the counterfeiter, and the murderer—the heresiarch
and the votaries whom he enticed were pictured as
public pests which the authorities had the solemn
obligation to purge from the face of the earth. To the
initial idea of extirpation and punishment—expiatory
and exemplary—was joined, particularly in the case
of the disciples of mischief, the desire to correct and
to lead into the right path, by means of minor penalties,
the lambs who had strayed.

These texts and these ideas of such diverse historical
origin all concurred, at least as they were interpreted,
in authorizing the idea that religious conformity,
obtained, if necessary, by force, was a beneficent re-
quirement at all levels. It was advantageous for the
individual concerned that he be constrained to return
to eternal salvation, (for “Outside the Church there
is no salvation,” as Saint Cyprian had said), and it was
profitable for the collectivity, for God had not given
the sword to the princes in vain, and the heretic is
the most dangerous of all criminals since he is a threat
to the highest good, the salvation of the soul. Finally,
since his situation was reduced to that of the blas-
phemer and idolator, the heretic, guilty of divine lèse-
majesté, was assumed to offend God himself, and the
vindication of God's glory was vital, both to piety and
in order to protect the group from the terrible punish-
ments of the Lord. For a long time, in fact, the
historians explained disasters—epidemics, floods,
military defeats, etc.—as the results of divine wrath,
which it was not wise to provoke by a careless indul-
gence—a “tolerance”—toward the “enemies of God.”

If one reflects upon it, one is struck by the coherence
and doctrinal consistency of the ideological justifica-


tions provided for the practice of religious intolerance.
The system of justification stands up admirably on all
levels, and the unavoidable sociological necessity for
a minimum consensus gives it an imperative accent.
This necessity for consensus has not disappeared from
among us, but its field of application is more concerned
with political or racial questions than with religious
ones. We know that in most countries certain political
parties are outlawed, that immigration is controlled,
that certain minorities—or majorities in the case of
South Africa—have to endure multiple discriminations,
often very harshly applied. But the contemporary ex-
ample which can help us best to penetrate the mental-
ity of the most reflective and convinced religious per-
secutors is that of the laws of prophylaxis and hygiene
(vaccination, quarantines, etc.) which the civil authori-
ties impose upon the citizens. The persecutors were
as convinced that they were doing their duty and
acting for the common good (and, incidentally, for that
of the dissidents themselves) as the governments which
in our day establish decrees in order to control an
epidemic; in the first case the theologians, and in the
second the physicians, are the competent experts who
guide the action of the “secular arm.”

Considered as punishments, the penalties inflicted
on heretics do not present any particular problem.
They aim at checking a certain delinquency (as was
the case with punishments inflicted on sorcerers). It
is when constraint is supposed to call the heterodox
back into the right path that an explanation becomes
necessary. Indeed, to penalize an error is not to refute
it, and the partisans of toleration would constantly
stress this point. They would also observe that perse-
cution creates the problems which it claims to solve:
the only alternative left to the dissident group is that
of armed revolt. On the individual level, it creates only
martyrs or hypocrites. This kind of objection, conse-
quently, makes a point of showing the complete
inappropriateness of the intended goals of intolerance.

It is belatedly, toward the time of the revocation
of the Edict of Nantes (1685), that the theorists of
persecution presented more minutely detailed analyses
which go back to Saint Augustine. They made a pre-
liminary assumption, which is astonishingly naive,
namely, that any searching comparison of their respec-
tive dogmas allows anyone to discern clearly the truth
of orthodoxy and the error of heresy. The stubbornness
of the dissident implies then that he “clings tenaciously
to his opinions” through either conceit or indolence.
The penalties which are inflicted on him are destined
to counteract his obstinacy or his laziness by fostering
the conditions of persuasion, but not directly to enforce
conversion. (Inspired by a rudimentary pedagogy, this
scheme can just as well commend the promise of re
ward as the threat of punishment, and the former
course was not neglected in France, with respect to
the Protestants, until about 1679.) Only an authori-
tarian and paternalistic culture, prone to liken the
profession of a religion to a respectful submission, was
apt to encourage faith in disciplinary procedures to
induce genuine conversions. Moreover, the theoretical
scheme unrealistically demands a constant interplay of
sanctions and preaching: but—whence the musty odor
of hypocrisy which these justifications of constraint
emit—no one can ignore the fact that the Huguenots
saw more dragoons than missionaries worthy of that

All the literature of propaganda, which prepared and
extolled the revocation of the Edict of Nantes,
eloquently attests to a perceptible evolution of mental
attitudes—contrary to what appears at first glance—for
it tries hard to justify the means of constraint that
previously had seemed too natural to need explanation.
This so long-delayed Counter-Reformation that France
experienced, had something artificial and anachronistic
about it. When it happened, the ecclesiastical
authorities took pains to give it an emphatic religious
overtone, and to add to their credit the crushing of
French Protestantism; but it seems clear that the
Revocation responded mostly to certain demands—
ineptly understood, but that is of little importance
here—of raison d'état, of judicial modernism (the Edict
applied to a corporate body, not to individuals), and
of an increased internal security of the Realm, ensured
by its religious unity.

The primary importance of that aspect of the prob-
lem is demonstrated by a counterproof. The majority
of the theoreticians of religious toleration, who were
all Protestants, regularly making an exception of
Roman Catholics, because of their allegiance to the
Pope (a foreign sovereign capable of releasing them
from their requirement of fidelity to their prince),
justified their subjection to certain discriminatory
measures (cf. in England, the Test Act, 1673). It was
not their religious convictions in themselves which
were penalized, but the potential political conse-
quences which were attributed to them—as in the case
of the Huguenots, who were basically called to account
for their liaisons and sympathies with England and the
United Provinces. An analogous perspective explains
why the majority of authors excluded atheists from the
toleration which they advocated: without belief in
divine sanction beyond the grave, people suspected
that the individual would be a sort of outlaw with no
“brake” on the road to sin. It required a whole evolu-
tion of ideas to recognize that, in fact, morality and
civic-mindedness are not as necessarily integrated with
religious convictions as had been traditionally assumed,


or as long as ethics and political theory have remained
inextricably mingled with religious dogmas.

Such a mentality was so dominant and so unques-
tioned that we meet it again in the schismatics and
the heretics themselves; which is understandable since
they claimed “to be carrying away the true Church”
with them (as certain Huguenots picturesquely put it),
and since their original aim had been to reform
integrally the Christian Church. The events which
allowed the different forms of Protestantism to domi-
nate, at least partially, in Northern Europe frustrated
the hopes of the two factions, both dedicated to the
ideal of the unity of the Church. The conviction that
it is the duty of the Christian magistrate to rebuke
heresy had, however, consequences somewhat less
sanguinary on the Protestant side than on the Catholic.
It is well known that Italy, Spain, and a part of the
German and Slavic countries were held or won back
to obedience to Rome by methods which were too
often cruel. On the other hand, while the executions
of Catholics—heretics from the point of view of a
Protestant—were regularly enough associated with
issues of a political order, Catholics were in fact more
often annoyed, persecuted, or exiled, rather than put
to death.

Nevertheless, the great reformed confessions (the
established churches) for a long time harshly perse-
cuted the followers of sects, Antitrinitarians (who were
subject to death in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire
after 1532), and Anabaptists. In the case of the latter,
once again considerations of social conservatism often
played a significant role. The heretic and the revolu-
tionary are indistinguishable in many cases, and it is
difficult to know which of the two characters is re-
sponsible for the mercilessness on the part of the
authorities and of public opinion. The drownings at
Zurich, the decapitations at Berne, the burning at the
stake of Servetus in Geneva, etc., eloquently attest that
the same fundamental principles of intolerance were
shared by all the authorities of Europe. That the perse-
cutions carried out in Protestant States had been on
the whole less bloody and less prolonged than those
urged upon the authorities by the Society of Jesus and
the Spanish Inquisition remains an ancillary statement
of fact from the strict point of view of the history of

The more or less clandestine presence of sectarians
in Protestant countries and the relative freedom of the
press which often existed there, explain why after the
Council of Trent it would only be from the reformed
side of the religious frontier dividing Europe that one
would meet writers arguing in favor of tolerance. Some
sects, to be sure, considering that to suffer persecution
is the “mark” of the true Church, responded to it
simply with nonviolent fervor; however, in general, the
condition of being persecuted fostered a critical ap-
proach. It was among the sectarians that we find re-
vived a conception (held formerly by the early Church
Fathers facing the Roman pagans) which, undergoing
development and secularization, was to play an out-
standing role in the theory of tolerance; this conception
can be described in modern terms as the distinction
between Church and State and between ecclesiastical
and political tolerance. The small sectarian groups
claimed to assemble only the elect, and consequently,
contrary to the Churches with their territorial parishes,
they did not aim at being coextensive with the total
population. This was enough to make the sectarians
distinguish expressly civil society, with its purely
earthly ends, from the little band of the “Righteous,”
and to make them dissociate completely the second
from the first (thus, originally, Anabaptists and
Socinians refused to bear arms and to take cases to
court). The ecclesiastical intolerance of the Anabap-
tists, on the other hand, was maximal. It brought about
schisms, which were accompanied by reciprocal
excommunications, frequently enough within the
bosom of their groups.

Other sectarians, often dominated by eschatological
preoccupations, deprecated the State as a sinful insti-
tution. They were then far from conceiving the idea
of a legitimate but religiously neutral State. However,
with time, their conceptions of millennium became
more sober. Their distinction between the political and
the religious realm, and their voluntaristic notion of
ecclesiastical affiliation as the explicit choice of an
adult individual, have been the essential ingredients
of the liberal doctrine of religious toleration. Indeed,
they necessarily implied that the ideas which led
inevitably to persecution had to be modified. In
denying to theologians the right to set in motion the
secular arm, the very possibility of the constraint of
conscience disappeared.

Another direction of thought tried to accomplish the
same purpose by an about-face which brought about
a marked subordination of the Church to the State
namely, the Erastian tendency, which had meaning
only in Protestant countries, and to which rallied the
Arminian minority in the Netherlands. It shows a
somewhat exaggerated trust (if we think of the revoca-
tion of the Edict of Nantes) in the breadth of views
of civil authorities, themselves religiously involved, the
magistrate being the minister of God. This trust is
explained by the observation, repeated a hundred
times, that the persecuting charges were always
delivered by the clergy and fostered by their incurable
pretentions to theocracy. We shall return below to
Erastianism, with regard to the separation which it


stated between the deep inner convictions of a man
and their outward expression, a postulate which
psychologically seemed scarcely realistic.

On the whole, the enormous conceptual structure
which justified the practices of persecution as an obli-
gation of sovereigns was a colossus with feet of clay.
The argument from authority is only efficient as a
sledgehammer argument, as long as it is not recognized
for what it is: it is effective only when it does not have
to be accompanied by authoritarianism to impose itself,
because that which is, in fact, tradition, is perceived
as an unchallenged truth, and consequently held as
indisputable. An argument from authority which re-
quires a justification, or even a simple explanation, is
already virtually on the defensive and condemned in
the long run. We cannot here become involved in
analysis, as brief as it might be, of the many factors
which have shaken the ingenious ethnocentricity of
medieval culture, at the dawn of modern times,
through the social upheavals which they brought about.
It is sufficient to remind ourselves that the religious
division of Europe, caused by the Reformation, was
to deliver a mortal blow to the principle of authority
which neither of the two camps had questioned. In
fact, as soon as authority no longer had a monopoly,
with its stranglehold broken, the initiative inevitably
went to the individual, whose examination was to
decide the choice to be made among the authorities
competing to solicit his obedience. The Peace of
Augsburg (1555) with its principle cujus regio ejus
recognized the freedom of conscience of the
rulers. Just as when in ancient Egypt, immortality,
initially available to the Pharoah alone, was eventually
offered to all the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, the
principle included in the Peace of Augsburg, led,
inevitably, to the subsequent opening up of the
freedom of individual conscience.

The argument from authority had been contested,
on the theoretical level, by all the forms of rationalism
which contributed so powerfully to the emancipa-
tion—in a way, to the creation—of “the individual,”
if only in challenging the law of the greatest number.
However, many authors deliberately excluded criticism
of practical questions from the field of their investi-
gations: they wanted to be faithful and obedient sub-
jects to their absolute prince and fideistic in religious
matters. This characteristic was common to men who
were otherwise quite different. It was the case with
Descartes. It was also the case with the “erudite
Libertines,” unbelieving, well-read persons, in whom
an aristocratic egoism and a fearful scorn of bad taste
resulted in an outward conformity which hid the ironic
skepticism of their private thoughts. Finally, it was the
case with a man as ardently religious as Pascal
(1623-62) who in a fragment of a treatise on the vac-
uum (Un fragment d'un traité du vide) advocated a
break between the area in which authority rules with-
out compromise, in which total renunciation is “sweet”
(theology), and that of natural sciences in which ex-
acting reason, powerful and critical, interpreting the
testimony of experience, has the sole right to be heard.
This difficult balance constituted a real issue only dur-
ing a rather short cultural period. Inevitably, from the
domain of science where one tended to isolate it, or
from the private conviction which it was unwise to
make public, rational method and bold criticisms were
extended and dominated the touchy areas of scriptural
exegesis and political theory, which the older genera-
tions had thought they could keep them from entering.

Many writers, however, as far back as the sixteenth
century, directly challenged the practices dictated by
religious intolerance. Each of them argued in his own
way and used arguments differing in emphasis. But we
ought to restrict ourselves here to setting out the main
themes of specific indictments followed by these
courageous pioneers.

A first direction, moral or irenic, distinguishes those
who consider the use of violence as a monstrous incon-
sistency on the part of Christians, since the Gospel
preaches only love and gentleness. As do all rigorists,
these authors refused to allow that that which is a
crime on the individual level becomes legitimate when
it is done in the name of the group. It is significant
that Erasmus condemned war even more decidedly
than persecution. Such a perspective serves to distin-
guish ethics, which is the heart of the Gospel, from
speculative dogmas which one can elaborate from
Scripture, and gives preference to “orthopraxis” over
“orthodoxy.” One should be very careful to note that
although such a current of thought was able, at the
end of two hundred years, to influence the thought of
a man like Voltaire (supremely indifferent to the con-
tent of dogmas, which he considered pure rubbish), its
first representatives had theological truth much at
heart. They were religious and pious men, and if obe-
dience to the moral precepts of the Gospel seemed
to them to surpass any other consideration, the dog-
matic formulation retained great significance for them.
But it appeared to them as the object of a humble and
fervent quest rather than knowledge transmitted from
the past. Unity became for them an ideal to strive for,
which ought to be prefigured here and now by fraternal
relations among Christians. Attentive to the frailties
of the human spirit, they avoided arrogantly imposing
on others personal convictions which they had been
able to approach—partial, approximate truths, not
absolute ones (Castellion). To their eyes the free inter-
change of ideas was a fruitful method of investigation,


and in all areas of thought the truth could only gain
by it (Milton). Heresies themselves had been useful to
the early Church, in helping it to sharpen its dogmatic
tenets. Religious pluralism benefited each of the com-
peting confessions by fostering emulation in virtue and
knowledge (Acontius). The indomitable freedom of
spirit made appeals to physical constraint completely
absurd, since force can lead to lip service but never
to the forming of a conviction.

Another direction of thought brought together
people perhaps less sensitive to the suffering of the
victims of intolerance than concerned about peace and
public order, not only on the practical level, as the
Third Party of the Politiques who, in France, supported
Henry IV and backed the Edict of Nantes, but on the
theoretical level as well. These writers tried to redis-
cover the lost doctrinal unity by digging below differ-
ences, in order to bring to light the common root. They
gave a privileged status to the dogmas on which the
main churches were agreed, and proposed to hold as
optional the doctrines on which they differed (some-
what in the manner followed by the Council of Trent,
which had distinguished between points of dogma and
scholastic opinions).

This tendency resulted quickly enough in the idea
of Natural Religion—the religion which ruled from
Adam to Abraham, but also the religion of which the
conclusions are available to reason alone, at once
extolling the principles of Natural Law and Natural
Ethics; thus the passage to pure Deism was carried
out imperceptibly. Other theorists challenged the ne-
cessity of a strict correlation between internal convic-
tion and external practice. Acknowledging the individ-
ual's full liberty of conscience, they asked him to
comply in the matter of the expression of his convic-
tions in gestures and in ritual—treated consequently
as adiaphora—with the rules promulgated by civil
authorities. It was the Erastian solution, which we have
already mentioned and which was defended, among
others, by Hobbes and Spinoza. All believers, from this
point of view, can and should to a certain extent put
up with the reigning ecclesiastical organization—a
stand which curiously (for the basic motives of the two
breeds of writers were extremely different) meets the
approval of the “spirituals,” mystics who favored the
inner life and to whom faith mattered infinitely more
than religion. The attempts at reunion, pursued with
perseverance during the seventeenth century, either
among confessions drifting from the Reformation, or
among all Christian churches, gathered together, mo-
mentarily, deeply religious irenics and politically
minded men, primarily concerned with civil peace.

A posteriori, it is easy enough to see the major theo-
retical obstacles with which such efforts were faced.
On the one hand, the list of “fundamental articles”
ought to have been all the shorter in order to get the
greatest agreement, but the more traditional parties
steadfastly attributed a “fundamental” character to
some articles which the unifiers exerted themselves in
vain to put forth as “optional.” Moreover, unknown
to its promoters, this kind of effort challenged the
cardinal principle of intolerance less than its point of
application. “None shall have wit, but we and our
friends,” as Molière said in another context; the circle
was expanded, but not opened to all. They still
remained within the confines of a Bergsonian “closed
religion,” of a Church outside which there is no salva-
tion. That is to say one did not truly accept the other
as different, as a being distinct from oneself, but one
would strive, not without naively generous intentions,
to see in one's fellow being an alter ego, a counterpart
of oneself.

It is instructive to note that the two works which
canonized the ideal of religious tolerance (and by
which the authors who vulgarized it in the eighteenth
century were inspired) had been published a few years
apart, in Holland, where there was a freedom of the
press unequalled at that time. They had been written
(independently) by two refugees who were also laymen
—the Huguenot Pierre Bayle (Commentaire philo-
sophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ 'contrains-les
4 vols., Amsterdam, 1686-88) and the Whig
John Locke (Epistola de tolerantia, Gouda, 1689, and
soon translated into English and Dutch, and later into
French). It is also noteworthy that the two books had
appeared without bearing the name of their authors.
Bayle's treatise, in a sense, closed a period. It exhaus-
tively refuted all the arguments ever put forward to
justify persecutions, which the new propaganda cam-
paign, associated with the revocation of the Edict of
Nantes, had provided the occasion to expound. Useless
for the public good, immoral, contrary to the precepts
of reason and the gospel, founded on erroneous
psychological analyses, absurd and vain—such is the
way religious intolerance appeared under this search-
ing indictment. But Bayle did not stop there. He
affirmed that far from being a legitimate way to serve
God, persecution essentially offends Him.

Bayle in effect posed the problem no longer from
the traditional point of view of “objective truth,” but
from that of the subjective perception made by the
individual. Inverting an Augustinian phrase, he wrote:
“What matters is not to which end constraint is used,
but whether it is used at all” (Commentaire philo-
III, xvii), which is wrong because to seek
to weaken the fidelity of anyone to his inner convic-
tions is a sacrilegious affront to the laws of God himself,
who, in consideration of the intention, forgives the


error. Bayle's point of view is profoundly religious so
the tolerance which he defines covers the heretic, the
innovator, the prophet of coming revelations—and the
missionary of whatever religion—an exceptionally lib-
eral attitude. Bayle also extended tolerance to the
atheist as an individual, while accepting somewhat
reluctantly that the civil authorities could forbid him
to proselytize. A man aware of the problems of his
times, he also authorized, on the basis of purely politi-
cal considerations, certain safety measures against
Roman Catholics, as, for example, their ineligibility for
certain civic responsibilities. Finally he decided that
immoral and antisocial theories and acts should be
subject to penal sanctions. In this case “fanaticism” was
not prosecuted as a heresy, but simply on grounds of
the danger that the conduct which it inspired in its
followers might involve for the physical security of
their fellow citizens.

As for the work of Locke, it is the end-product of
all the intellectual ferment concerning political theory
and tolerance which had seethed in England during
the seventeenth century. Locke himself at the start
poses the problem in terms which contain its solution,
whence the brevity of the pamphlet—for he makes a
formal distinction between State and Church (which
is equivalent to defining the latter in sociological lan-
guage, as a “sect”) from which civil tolerance logically
follows. Less religious than Bayle's (which demanded
that we respect the image of God in all men), the
doctrine of Locke had more realistic foundations inas-
much as his view appealed to a more easily understood
interest: an Englishman, fervent defender of liberties
which he showed to be inseparably linked together,
Locke asks each man to make certain that there would
be no encroachment upon his own rights, and in order
to achieve that, to abandon the regimenting of the
convictions of others. There we already have the indi-
vidualism and utilitarianism of the eighteenth century:
“enlightened self-interest.” If he granted to Roman
Catholicism a full liberty of conscience, Locke coupled
it nevertheless with certain restrictions in civil matters,
for almost the same reasons as Bayle: any religion
which threatens to violate the distinction between the
political and the spiritual spheres warrants a certain
amount of suspicion. But quite differently from Bayle,
Locke does not tolerate the atheist, who is incapable
of taking an oath, and is thus an asocial being. His
disciples of the Enlightenment follow him on this point
and put the atheist next to the religious innovator,
whom they will urge the authorities to imprison or
banish before he can gather any followers. The problem
here is indeed much more political than religious.
Tranquility and collective prosperity are the supreme
values, as is shown by the importance given to the
argument from the commercial advantages which tol-
erance brings: money has no smell, and the contrast
between the misery of Spain and the opulence of the
United Provinces was to become a matter of great
persuasive eloquence in the eighteenth century.

To sum up, the evolution of ideas consisted, on the
level of social structures, in making religious confes-
sions pass from the status of a “church of multitude”
(with territorial pretentions and in which membership
is established by birth) to that of a church of professing
believers (held together, no longer automatically and
passively, but by choice). On the level of values, it goes
from the idea of absolute Truth as a sacred legacy
received from the past, to the idea of truth as a quest
and a constant reformulation in the language of
cultural evolution—a reformulation which is always
approximate and relative, and which implies a keen
awareness of the weakness and radical inadequacies of
the human mind, as well as a more and more modest
agnosticism. In a more limited way this evolution oc-
casioned a shift which brought “the heretic” close to
“the infidel” (renouncing then compelle remanere) and
dogmatic error close to ignorance (more and more
liberally considered invincible, this being the only case
where it is innocent, and no longer, as formerly, con-
sidered a guilt calling for punishment). This entire
evolution of secularization, because of the resistance
which it encountered, made way for an anticlericalism
all the more powerful and diffuse as its sources and
its forms multiplied. But above all the doctrine of
religious tolerance appeared linked to a general split-
ting up, which, destroying the warm solidarities of
communities and ancestral traditions, has set up the
modern individual as autonomous, and, as it were, the
seat of authority in the midst of social mobility. This
splitting up suggested too many worldly goals for the
individual's appetites and ambitions for the religious
values to continue to dominate his mental world and
hence express his will to power and his aggression.


For important statements of the theory of persecution,
see Théodore de Bèze [Beza], Traité de l'autorité du
magistrat en la punition des hérétiques
(1560), the original
Latin text of which had appeared in 1554, as De haereticis
a civili magistratu puniendis libellis.
... For the Roman
Catholic side, see, for instance, La conformité de la conduite
de l'Église de France pour ramener les Protestants avec celle
de l'Église d'Afrique pour ramener les Donatistes à l'Église
(Paris, 1685); and Traité de l'Unité de l'Église
et des moyens que les Princes chrétiens ont employés pour
y faire rentrer ceux qui en étoient sortis,
2 vols. (Paris,
1686-88), by the Oratorian Louis Thomassin. (A posthumous
enlarged second edition appeared in 1700 under a different


title: Traité dogmatique et historique des Édits..., 3 vols.)
This is a serene and scholarly defense of persecution. See
also, as late as the mid-eighteenth century, the different
books of Abbé Caveirac.

One finds a comprehensive general bibliography in Father
Joseph Lecler, S. J., Toleration and the Reformation (London,
1960); originally, Histoire de la tolérance au siècle de la
(Paris, 1955). There is a useful, shorter bibliography
in Henry Kamen, The Rise of Toleration (New York, 1967);
see also idem, The Spanish Inquisition (London, 1965) and
Léon Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme, 3 vols. (Paris,
1955); Volume 4 in preparation.

In Persecution and Liberty, essays in honor of George
Lincoln Burn (New York, 1931), one finds several papers
of great value, specially one by R. H. Bainton on Castellion,
with respect to which, for the sake of brevity, it is enough
to mention that practically all of Bainton's production is
of prime importance for the present subject. In Autour de
Michel Servet et de Sébastien Castellion,
ed. B. Becker
(Haarlem, 1953), appear studies in four different languages,
according to the nationality of the different collaborators.
W. J. Stankiewicz, Politics and Religion in Seventeenth-
Century France
(Berkeley, 1960) should be noted; and
Hérésies et sociétés dans l'Europe préindustrielle, XIe-XVIIIe
Colloque de Royaumont présenté par Jacques Le
Goff (Paris and The Hague, 1968), assembles also a number
of scholarly studies on its theme.

There is a recent critical reissue of the original Latin
text of Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration in French,
Italian, Polish, as well as English-German translation, all
of them published under sponsorship of the Fédération
Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie and of UNESCO,
in the collection “Philosophie et Communauté Mondiale.”
Another important edition is Epistola de tolerantia, trans.
J. W. Gough, with an introduction by Raymond Klibansky
(Oxford, 1968). The latest printing of Bayle's Commentaire
is more than two centuries old, but it is
included in the second volume of his Oeuvres diverses,
recently photographically reissued in Germany.

Other works include: J. W. Hauer, Toleranz und Intoleranz
in der nichtchristlichen Religionen
(Stuttgart, 1961); Guido
Kisch, “Toleranz und Menschenwürde,” Miscellanea
4 (Berlin, 1966); and H. R. Schlette,
“Toleranz,” Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, Vol. II,
ed. Heinrich Fries (Munich, 1963).


[See also Agnosticism; Church as an Institution; Deism;
Freedom; God; Heresy; Individualism;Law, Natural;Refor-
; Sin and Salvation; Skepticism; Utilitarianism.]