This volume brings together the principal writings on religious toleration and freedom of expression by one of the greatest philosophers in the Anglophone tradition. It contains not only Locke's canonical "Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689), but also his early "Essay Concerning Toleration" (1667), extracts from the "Third Letter for Toleration" (1692), and a large body of Locke's briefer essays and memoranda on these themes.
A LETTER CONCERNING TOLERATION.
TO THE READER.
THE ensuing Letter concerning Toleration, first printed in Latin this very year, in Holland, has already been translated both into Dutch and French. — So general and speedy an approbation may therefore bespeak its favourable reception in England. I think indeed there is no nation under heaven, in which so much has already been said upon that subject, as ours. But yet certainly there is no people that stand in more need of having something further both said and done amongst them, in this point, than we do.
Our government has not only been partial in matters of religion; but those also who have suffered under that partiality, and have therefore endeavoured by their writings to vindicate their own rights and liberties, have for the most part done it upon narrow principles, suited only to the interests of their own sects.
This narrowness of spirit on all sides has undoubtedly been the principal occasion of our miseries and confusions. But whatever have been the occasions, it is now high time to seek for a thorough cure. We have need of more generous remedies than what have yet been made use of in our distemper. It is neither declarations of indulgence, nor acts of comprehension, such as have yet been practised or projected amongst us, that can do the work. The first will but palliate, the second increase our evil.
ABSOLUTE LIBERTY, JUST AND TRUE LIBERTY, EQUAL AND IMPARTIAL LIBERTY, IS THE THING THAT WE STAND IN NEED OF. Now though this has indeed been much talked of, I doubt it has not been much understood; I am sure not at all practised, either by our governors towards the people in general, or by any dissenting parties of the people towards one another.
I cannot therefore but hope that this discourse, which treats of that subject, however briefly, yet more exactly than any we have yet seen, demonstrating both the equitableness and practicableness of the thing, will be esteemed highly seasonable, by all men who have souls large enough to prefer the true interest of the public, before that of a party.
It is for the use of such as are already so spirited, or to inspire that spirit into those that are not, that I have translated it into our language. But the thing itself is so short, that it will not bear a longer preface. I leave it therefore to the consideration of my countrymen, and heartily wish they may make the use of it that it appears to be designed for.
John Locke (1632 - 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher, whose association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Much of Locke's work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This opposition is both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to the evidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes important to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these institutions. The positive side of Locke's anti-authoritarianism is that he believes that using reason to try to grasp the truth, and determining the legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. This in turn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of the divine purpose for humanity. Locke's monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to God, the self, natural kinds and artifacts, as well as a variety of different kinds of ideas. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot. Locke also wrote a variety of important political, religious and educational works including the Two Treatises of Government, the Letters Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.