The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Tolerance


   The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a level of violence that appalled Europeans both for its intensity and its reason: this violence directly resulted from the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It soon became apparent that neither Protestantism nor Catholicism would go away, and not only that, Protestantism was splintering rapidly into a number of variant sects; so a new way of dealing with alternate religions besides violence had to be thought of. Eventually states began to pursue moderate courses; rather than exterminate contrary religions, they began to ignore them; rather than attempt to overthrow nations adopting a different form of Christianity, states began to simply live with the fact. Religious tolerance, then, was a last-ditch effort by various states to maintain the security.


Discovery and Reformation
Martin Luther

Discovery and Reformation Reader
Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Enlightenment Glossary
Rights

Enlightenment Reader
Voltaire, Treatise on Tolerance
   Eventually this political program of religious toleration collapsed with the new Enlightenment ideas of the individual or subject, which posited that every individual was separate and distinct from others, and of rights, or principles of autonomy. The concept of rights derives ultimately from Martin Luther's concept of Christian freedom, in which individuals are granted sole authority over their religious beliefs. It is but a small step from the idea of individual religious autonomy to the idea of individual autonomy in other areas as well. These ideas encouraged Enlightenment thinkers to revamp the notion of religious tolerance into a general social and political virtue; tolerance of variant religions should be extended to variant ideas (hence freedom of speech), variant philosophies, and variant cultures. Perhaps the most eloquent advocate of tolerance was Voltaire, whose treatise on tolerance argues that the worst horrors in history are a product of intolerance. Tolerance, I should stress, did not mean "acceptance" to the Enlightenment, it only meant that one would take no steps to coerce physically or otherwise other individuals into changing their beliefs, thoughts, or customs. One was still free to disapprove of those beliefs, thoughts, or customs. The project we're engaged with in this class—multiculturalism—is simply a latter day version of the Enlightenment doctrine of tolerance.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97