I’m a big fan of John Locke (of Enlightenment “Two Treatises on Government” fame). (Yes, I’m a nerd.) Although he wasn’t the only philosopher of his time to think in terms of a social contract, he was arguably the most consequential; his approach to the role of government had an enormous influence on the Founders who crafted America’s constitution. So when I came across this article about a previously unknown text of his, I was fascinated.
A “once in a generation” discovery of a centuries-old manuscript by John Locke shows the great English philosopher making his earliest arguments for religious toleration, with the scholar who unearthed it calling the document “the origin and catalyst for momentous and foundational ideas of western liberal democracy”.
Dated to 1667-8, the manuscript titled “Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others”, was previously unknown to academia. It had been owned by the descendants of one of Locke’s friends until the 1920s, when it was sold at auction to a book dealer. From there, it went into private collections until it was donated to St John’s College, Annapolis, in the latter half of the 20th century. It lay unstudied in archives until Locke scholar JC Walmsley noticed a reference to it in a 1928 book dealer’s catalogue, and raised an eyebrow: Locke, a hugely influential Enlightenment thinker, was not known to have extended his arguments for religious tolerance to Catholics.
Because tolerance of Catholics (or, in Catholic countries, tolerance of Protestants) was pretty much unthinkable at the time he wrote, attributing such sentiments to Locke seemed an unlikely stretch, so scholars put the newly discovered manuscript through a number of tests in order to determine whether it was, indeed, Locke’s.
“Locke is supposed to have never tolerated Catholics,” said Walmsley. “All his published work suggested that he would never even consider this as a possibility. This manuscript shows him taking an initial position that’s startling for him and for thinkers of his time – next to no one suggested this at this point. It shows him to be much more tolerant in certain respects than was ever previously supposed.”
Locke, who died in 1704, is known for his Two Treatises on Government, which which became a foundational text for modern western democracy. His other hugely influential texts included the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which provided philosophical grounds for the scientific revolution, and A Letter Concerning Toleration, which influenced James Madison’s thinking on the separation of church and state in his work on the US constitution.
The newly-discovered document was written before A Letter Concerning Toleration, and adds to our understanding of Locke’s approach to what we now call “nondiscrimination.” As America’s religious and racial diversity explodes, the growth of “toleration”–or more properly, civic equality and inclusion–becomes an ever more critical element of a functioning polis.
Joseph Macfarland, dean of St John’s College, said it was “an unexpected pleasure to find that we are in possession of a manuscript by Locke himself on a question so critical to American political life and to liberal democracy generally”.
Calling the question critical is an understatement. We either overcome our innate tribalism and learn to live amicably together, or this experiment we call America is over.
The 2020 election provides us with a stark choice: We can re-elect Trump and validate various degrees of intolerance of anyone who isn’t a white Christian male, or we can reject the politics of hate and division and embrace “toleration.”