True tolerance: Locke vs. Spinoza

Recently, a long-lost text written by the philosopher John Locke turned up at St. John’s College, a small, private liberal arts school in Maryland. Until now, it had been long forgotten by the world, so it’s discovery created quite the stir in the philosophical world. I’m not very good at reading Locke’s handwriting, but judging by its title, “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with Others,” it appears that Locke magnanimously found his way to allowing Catholics to live beside him.

John Locke (1632-1704)

And that’s good, but also not too surprising, because Locke is often held up as a paragon of tolerance. He’s also the great thinker who came up with the idea that the purpose of government is to protect its citizens’ life, liberty and property. So, you get the idea that he had a large influence on the movers and shakers of the American Revolution, who also enshrined the freedom of religion into the Constitution in the First Amendment.

But maybe, just maybe, John Locke wasn’t all that.

Maybe, there’s someone more deserving of the title the Father of Freedom.

I think you know where I’m heading with this.

You: Property of God

Locke’s entire theory of rights and freedom rested on his conception of god. It was as much a theological argument as it was a philosophical one. And it was a line of thought that should be familiar to anyone who’s had to sit through a basic U.S. civics class or take any Introduction to the Constitution course in college.


Man, Locke said, belonged to God. We might say “people” today, but back then, it was just “man,” and while I’m sure he thought women belonged to God, too, I’m not certain he meant to ascribe to women any of the rights he was about to discuss. At any rate, Locke’s idea is that man is of God, and man’s task in this world is to affirm his relationship to God.

As lecturer and commentator Kenan Malik writes:

Locke’s theory is essentially a theological conception, asserting that it is for every individual not just to assume responsibility for seeking the salvation of his or her soul but… to perform openly that form of worship by which he or she seeks salvation. Locke’s toleration then revolves primarily around freedom of worship and theological discussion, placing little emphasis on freedom of thought, speech and persuasion beyond what relates to freedom of conscience.

Locke further states that as man goes about this task, it is incumbent on government to get out of his way. He elaborates on this by saying that, furthermore, the government’s job is to actually protect this freedom of conscience, as well as its citizens liberty and property. You may have heard it phrased as this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” Ah, yes. The words of the Declaration of Independence, practically cribbed from John Locke himself.

It turns out Locke is a big hero of the “small government” crowd today (at the same time they want the government to corral people indefinitely into ‘detention centers’ and take over people’s property to build a pointless wall).

But Locke’s got a problem. It turns out, he’s not exactly sold on his own ideas. He’s certain atheists shouldn’t have this freedom he talks about, and he’s not so sure about Catholics. They’ve got divided loyalties to a “prince in Rome.” Apparently, from the title of the newfound text, he found his way to somehow extend Catholics the right of citizenship – how magnanimous. Yet despite this, he’s revered as a hero of tolerance to this day.

True tolerance

But right around the same time Locke was kicking around, there was someone else writing about tolerance, government and freedom. And, in my opinion, doing a better job of it. He didn’t hang his argument on God, and he didn’t feel the need to exclude any group on the outskirts of society from its benefits. And his name was Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza is tired of your half-assed tolerance.

Unlike Locke, Spinoza’s argument for tolerance is based on reason alone. It is a political philosophy and not a theological one, and it’s rooted in the need for a stable state. It should go without saying, but a stable state benefits its people by allowing them to increase happiness in their lives, and happiness, to Spinoza, is a virtue unto itself.

So, the argument goes like this: States must allow freedom of thought and belief rather than attempting to compel belief, because beliefs cannot be forced. He wrote:

Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions … The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.

Even if a state attempts to force it, the declarations of faith that follow are false and lead to growing resentment among the populace. Eventually, that resentment will lead to outright revolt and revolution. Spinoza and the Dutch population of the day should have been very aware of that fact, having just won their freedom from Spain in the late 1500s over largely a religious argument and their desire to break free from the Catholic church.

It wasn’t just about churches and synagogues, of course. Spinoza wanted everyone to be free to think and talk about everything. That was the whole point. I mean, he didn’t get his sorry self kicked out of the synagogue for his renegade ideas for nothing. He wanted everyone to be brave enough to say the things they didn’t dare give voice to.

In Spinoza’s worldview, this freedom was to be open to all. To the Dutch Reform who had the upper hand in his home country. To the Catholics who were on the outs there. To Jews like his family who sought refuge there.. Even to atheists like he was rumored to be.

Now that’s true tolerance — not grudging, not hesitatingly offered. And that’s a model of how we should act and the kind of country we should be.

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