Historical notes in a reflection on tolerance for a new political imaginary


Jun, 2021
We are used to talk of “tolerance,” or of “tolerant,” or “intolerant” attitudes, “intolerable” situations in socio-political and religious debates, in the media, and on social networks. But what do we want to say or mean when we talk about “tolerance”? What does it mean to be “tolerant”? What is the origin of this concept, and why has it become so relevant at this moment in history?

If we survey all of those around us, we will receive a majority and perhaps even unanimous vote in favor of tolerance and tolerant behaviors. It could not or should not be otherwise in our democratic, plural Western societies and citizenships. We relegate intolerance to totalitarian societies, ruled by dictatorships, dominated by violence, with fragmented and uneducated populations. But is this truly the case? Do we not sometimes brandish the term “tolerance” as an empty fetishism, a banner or decoy without substance?

Furthermore, if it is “good” to be tolerant, does this mean we must accept all convictions and opinions equally, without critique? Is being tolerant the same as being relativist? With whom or with what should we be tolerant—living beings, ideas? Why do we think tolerance is necessary or useful in truly democratic and progressive states?

In the following text, the concept of “tolerance” is examined, both its origin and meaning. The objective is to reach some outline of it, which allows us to answer the initial questions with a better understanding of the facts.

Photo_ Picturepest_ CC BY 2.0
A brief historical approach to the concept of tolerance

The concept of tolerance is relatively recent in our ethical-political arsenal. It dates back to the origins of modernity, as compared to other older concepts (including those of “freedom,” “justice,” or “virtue,” which were already addressed in Greek thought by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, or Aspasia de Mileto). Tolerance emerges in the history of thought as linked to the wars between Christian religions in the 16th and 17th centuries. If we were to give it a birth certificate, it could be dated to April 13, 1598, when King Henry the IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes in France, establishing tolerance as the basic principle par excellence of political and religious coexistence, after the massacre of the Huguenots on the night of Saint Bartholomew in 1572. There are many examples of bloody religious struggles in Europe after this date, some specific (such as the 1641 outrage of the Irish in Ulster towards English “heretics,” as recounts Hume in his History of England), and other longer and intense ones, including the Thirty Years War ending the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Now, if we examine a bit further, we discover that peaceful coexistence of tolerance cannot be attributed solely to dissension between various religious confessions. A clear example includes that of Spain, where (as Ramon Llull pointed out) there had been peaceful coexistence for centuries between the “three cultures” of Al-Andalus (Christian, Jewish and Muslim).

Tolerance and peace emerged alongside the origins of modernity in this sense, as two sides of the same coin. The true causes of wars were not differences between religious dogmas or rites (which the majority of believers were unaware of and even today remain unaware of), but the political, territorial and economic power that linked to religious power in medieval theocracies. Furthermore, religious differences in Europe were associated with the emergence and advance of the Protestant Reformation (initiated by the Augustinian friar Luther in 1517 in Wittenberg), which precipitated the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. This divided Germany and the rest of European countries into a mosaic of kingdoms and principalities governed by the law of “cuius regio, eius religió,” which meant that the prince’s religious affiliation was applicable to all citizens of his territory. The Peace of Westphalia really sought to end territorial confessions by introducing a series of clauses regulating peaceful coexistence in the same kingdom or principality. That is, it would be a guarantee that subjects could practice religions other than that of their ruler “as long as they did not violate his authority.” Religious tolerance from its beginnings thus appeared connected to peaceful coexistence between citizens, when the true political ends of rulers were economic and political power as well as territorial expansion. This is something that we can perceive clearly in the failed efforts of philosopher, jurist and diplomat G.W. Leibniz to achieve reunification of Germany’s Christian churches [1][1] With respect to these conversations, see Leibniz’s exchanges with Langrave Ernst von Hessen-Rheinfels, Madame de Brinon or Pellison (Gottfried Wilhelm, L. (1984). Escritos de filosofía política y jurídica [Writings of political and legal philosophy]. (J. de Salas, Ed.). Editora Nacional. On the reunification of the churches and the political implications, see my work, Roldán, C. (2020). Leibniz: En el mejor de los mundos posibles [In the best of all possible worlds]. EMSE EDAPP, pp. 103-110.. The implicit aim was to create a strong nation that could compete with the French power of Louis XIV, which crystallized into the federal nation we know today. The path of nationalisms can be traced through Europe, but not the secular foundations of states, which are the only entities capable of protecting different beliefs held within them via disassociating various religious institutions form political power and therefore, public education of citizenship.


Tolerance interrupts modern thought

In the context of the first modernity, reflections of philosophers like Pierre Bayle (Philosophical Commentary, 1687) and John Locke (Letter on Tolerance, 1689), which were widely diffused among contemporaries, acquired indisputable credibility. They were considered the most rich and influential contributions to the concept of tolerance at the time. Other philosophers including Baruch Spinoza (with his critical study of the Scriptures), John Milton or Baron de Montesquieu (and his Persian Letters, 1717) dedicated their reflections and writings to the concept of tolerance, with Voltaire (Treaty on Tolerance, 1764, ed. R.R. Aramayo, 1997) contributing somewhat later. While this is not an exhaustive account, these authors did agree on the defense of autonomy and the freedom of citizenship. They argued that each individual must be “free to” believe what they consider to be true or appropriate, and that no authority can oblige that individual to ascribe to any confession, solely due to having been born or living in a given place. Tolerance was thus born from freedom, with certain surnames; synonyms include “freedom of conscience,” “freedom of belief,” “freedom of opinion,” “freedom of expression,” or “freedom of the press,” the latter of which was perhaps established by Milton in his 1643 Areopagitica. In other words, each individual should tolerate that another thought, believed, or expressed his opinion, which could be different from their own. Therefore, a good monarch was one who guaranteed social peace by combining these ingredients of heterogeneity. To put it another way, defending the coexistence of different creeds required an aconfessional state, if its political power were to extend to all subjects regardless of their religious beliefs. The state was the guarantor of this idea of religious tolerance, which only necessitated that political authority not interference in private matters such as that of religious choice. For this reason, the idea of tolerance was considered “negative,” and criticized by some authors such as G.W. Leibniz for political reductionism. In his arguments he points out that it is the mere deference of a peaceful coexistence between creeds, advocating for a freedom of conscious that does not develop more complex aspects of the knowledge and recognition of the other—of other religions and of other cultures. I will return to this.


Each individual and community contributes different perspectives to the knowledge of both things (nature), other individuals, their beliefs and their socio-political organizations (cultures).
The limits of negative tolerance

The negative concept of tolerance manifests an implicit judgement of rejection regarding the “thing tolerated”—there is a pejorative connotation underlying its etymology. In the Royal Spanish Academy’s Dictionary, “tolerar” (from the Latin tolerare), means to “suffer, bear with patience, allow something that is not considered lawful without expressly approving it, resist, or endure.” The same is true in French (tolérer), English (to tolerate), or German (dulden). That is, one tolerates something that is threatening and harmful to them, something “different” or “foreign to their own identity, to what we know or what suits us (for example, a meal). In order to move in the direction of “positive” tolerance, as opposed to the “tolerance of bearing,” we have to locate the “tolerance of understanding.” Once taking a step towards wanting to overcome difference and the visceral rejection of the “other,” we then arrive at the rational terrain of “positive” tolerance,” which combines peaceful coexistence with the real complexity of different freedoms in the knowledge and recognition of others. This respect for other beliefs, religions and cultures, compelling one to modify their own and to convince the other to modify theirs, allows for walking together towards the regulative horizon (in the Kantian sense) of a more reasonable “community.” This is none other than what Leibniz described as the principle of the la place d’autrui [2][2] V. Opúsculo in the Akademia edition, IV, 3, 903., which reformulates the traditional “golden rule.” In this sense, putting oneself in the place of the other,” or “reflectively taking the place of the other,” constitutes the cornerstone of the “recognition” of our fellow men as equals with the effect that each individual understands themselves as “one more among others,” without privileging their point of view, but with the understanding that each individual carries something valuable in themself. In some languages like Spanish, “the other” is a masculine word, because in its origins in modernity “the other” was not really considered equal and therefore it was not possible to take “her” place, which would be that of a “sexual object,” for the “procreation of the species,” or a “domestic carer.” Philosophy penned by women at the time (Marie de Gournay, Olympe de Gouges, Mme. de Châtelet or Mary Wollstonecraft) focuses on the concept of equality and on the vindication of women’s legal and political rights. They could not exercise active citizenship (vote, work outside the home or hold political office). In reality, women were tolerated as long as they did not leave their “natural place,” but I digress.


Towards a positive tolerance of other cultures: justice, perspective and pluralism

In addition to its practical utility, in order to pursue a better coexistence or even to better achieve our goals, the theoretical importance of a principle like “the place of the other” lies in how it allows us to infer the general idea of justice. Given the impossibility of being able to position ourselves from a “objective or impartial point of view,” this principle teaches us that “the place of the other, when one places oneself in it, is the true point of view from which to equitably judge,” by rendering us “suspicious of injustice in everything that we would find unjust if we were in the place of the other, simultaneously making us carefully examine what we would want if were in that place.” The key of positive tolerance is that we are “reflectively putting oneself in the place of the other,” which is the cornerstone of our recognition of others as similar, while at the same time not privileging any point of view a priori, and recognizing the validity of the world’s plurality of perceptions.

Positive tolerance thus leads to two other concepts—“perspective” and “plurality”—which are of great importance to philosophy and its implications. These are ethical-political application of metaphysical and epistemological principles that defend, on the one hand, diversity, complexity, and human heterogeneity. On the other hand, they establish that in each individual, time, religion or culture we can discover a part or aspect of truth. It is the philosopher’s task to contribute to perfecting these different perspectives in order to establish universal justice. Each individual and community contributes different perspectives to the knowledge of both things (nature), other individuals, their beliefs and their socio-political organizations (cultures). Reflecting on the modern origins of tolerance demonstrates it is evolving—abandoning a world based on myth and belief—and becoming more complex as relates to what Kant calls “cosmopolitan societies,” and what in the 20th Century began to be termed “multiculturalism.” The discussion appears to have shifted from religious difference to cultural diversity, although in the 21st Century we are witnessing a boomerang of some religious beliefs as they resurface in a powerful and globalized way. These are once again manifested in such a manner that convey less spiritual interest, but rather seem to be oriented towards building impervious identities—impenetrable, incompatible, and thus serving as seeds of violence.

In this context, the interest taken in Chinese culture in early modernity is noteworthy. Leibniz holds that European civilization was failing to apply its moral principles, quite the opposite of what was taking place with Chinese civilization. As such, beyond the dazzling Chinese culture arriving to Europe at the time (imported silk, porcelain, lacquers), Leibniz proposed a more profound fundamentals of civilization, to ensure that Europe could successfully complete its civilizational process. For years, he argued with the Jesuit Bouvet about his plan to found an Academy in China for research into writing, culture and religion, in order to conduct an exchange with the Academy of Sciences in Paris. In this sense, in a letter to Bourguet in 1710, he went so far as to propose that schools be created in Europe, where the Chinese could teach Europeans, as the latter (convinced of their superiority) would otherwise not inform themselves on Chinese progress. However, there is an epistemological limit in the knowledge of “the other,” that draws from our perspectives and convictions. For this reason, Leibniz always referred to China as “the other Europe,” or the “Eastern Europe,” and looked for similarities between Chinese concepts and those of Europeans. For example, Leibniz identifies the Li of Chinese theology as “universal reason,” in which order and natural law or based. He also notes that I Ching resembles binary calculus, underlining its civilizational potential. In others’ cultures or beliefs, we encounter similarities with our own, as long as we are able to step outside of ourselves, via an “epistemological de-centering,” as noted by Carlos Theibaut [3][3] Thiebaut, C. (1999). De la tolerancia [On tolerance], La balsa de la medusa. Visor..


Tolerance, relativism and conciliation

Introducing the concept of tolerance in modernity [4][4] To read further on the complexity of the contributions to tolerance and its origins, see Villaverde, M. y Laursen, J.C. (Eds.). (2011). Forjadores de la tolerancia [Builders of tolerance]. Tecnos. undoubtably created the secular bent of Western societies, although we note that the balance in these normative spaces have proven themselves unstable and dependent on dominant religions, or rather on the appropriate religious behavior. Examples include the Northern Irish conflict (the Troubles between nationalists and republicans that ended in 1998 with a distribution of power between Catholics and Protestants) or the recent wars in former Yugoslavia, where nationalist conflict took place after centuries of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians. Modern nation-states had assumed tolerance as a normative principle and a “moral duty” that demanded “respect” from others and a correlated human “dignity” as an “end in itself” that must be reciprocal, general and horizontal (between equals), as Kant wrote. How did this enlightened tolerance evolve throughout centuries of colonial policies carried out by the great powers on other continents—India, Africa, the Philippines, and not least the Americas? The egalitarian approach and recognition in Leibniz’s proposal of “universal harmony” between different cultures, between East and West, vanishes with the very concept of colonization, in which colonizers exercise superiority and oppression over occupied territories. The limitations of scope do not allow for further elaboration on the practices of tolerance and intolerance that were brought by purportedly enlightened thought to the “new” lands, and the paradoxes this occasioned. [5][5] See Laursen, J.C. y Villaverde, M. (Eds.). (2012). Paradoxes of Religious Toleration in Early Modern Political Thought. Lexington Books. Still, an example—Montesquieu believed that if a religion was intolerant, but already embedded within a country, there was no choice but to tolerate it. However, if new sects could easily be eradicated, tolerating them was not justified.

In reality, tolerance from its very beginning was a dialogical attitude, with both limits and rules of reasoning: nothing would be further from tolerance than indifference or the absolute relativism of “anything goes.”
I would emphasize here that from its very origins, the concept of tolerance was colored with ambiguities and paradoxes, as it attempted to obscure other interests behind the premise of differing religions. Different political powers have sought armed conflict via religions, or rather religious powers and institutions. This is something that many believers resist, as they see that in so-called post-secular societies—now established in Western societies—such arguments are issued spuriously.

In reality, tolerance from its very beginning was a dialogical attitude, with both limits and rules of reasoning: nothing would be further from tolerance than indifference or the absolute relativism of “anything goes.” [6][6] This is where Karl Popper’s Paradox of tolerance (1945) would enter. He argues that if society is unlimitedly tolerant, its capacity to be tolerant will eventually be reduced or destroyed by the intolerant. Adopting the other’s point of view does not consist of abandoning our beliefs, or our critical capacity to judge others. In other words, we must respect freedom of thought, but not abandon it. We must criticize, even harshly, harmful ideas and their propagation, because if the idea of tolerance has any methodological function, it is to gradually introduce light and order into the dark labyrinths of human complexity. In the current climate, this applies to hoaxes or fake news that prevent the development of “healthy rationality,” where knowledge exchange creates dynamism leading to scientific improvement and progress. [7][7] This is something we are seeing very clearly with the COVID-19 pandemic. See Wagner, A. Coronabulos, conspiranoia e infodemia: claves para sobrevivir a la posverdad. [Coronabulos, conspiranoia and infodemia: keys to survive the post-truth]. The Converstaion. https://theconversation.com/coronabulos-conspiranoia-e-infodemia-claves-para-sobrevivir-a-la-posverdad-139504

Genuine tolerance cannot defend either relativism, the construction of a single truth, or thought that is the sum of other truths. It defends neither syncretic religion nor a culture, composed of many different ones. Each religion and each culture seeks to remain one and identical with itself, because, in taking inspiration once again from Leibniz, the abandonment of one’s own belief can result in the possibility of true conciliation between divergent perspectives, in an expression of agreed truths that reach beyond a mere liberal political principle. The uncritical acceptance and recognition of all cultures, rituals and practices (i.e., female genital mutilation), or advocating for cultural relativism, collides with the universality of human rights and defending the integrity and autonomy of persons.


By way of conclusion: towards a new, situated rationality

In light of this argument, an idea of positive or active tolerance would consist of being open and receptive to the other, respecting plurality and diversity of approaches when it is impossible to determine what is true or good, but stopping short of superstition and fanaticism. These latter two cannot be positioned in a public space on equal footing with other reasonable opinions. This begs the question, should tolerance have its limits? Paraphrasing what Christian Laursen has described as “blind spots” in classical theories about tolerance, [8][8] See Forjadores de la tolerancia [Builders of tolerance] pp. 25-41 which seem incorrect to us today, I would like to remind us of how many mistakes we make, believing ourselves to be tolerant. We are not always tolerant or uncritically adopting intolerable issues or practices, precisely because by definition we do not know what these blind spots are. According to Laursen, many of us move in academic circles described largely as “progressive,” rejecting fundamentalist, colonialist, sexist, racist and homophobic behavior. Are we intolerant, or is our intolerance justified? If there are no positive values in these aforementioned behaviors, then it is a question of unraveling the foundations of these ideologies we characterize as harmful, without forfeiting a tolerant attitude towards those that defend them.

In conclusion, and to better contextualize what I have been analyzing, I would like to place the concept of tolerance within the original attitude, and not in the conclusions obtained, which can always be subject to revision. In other words, tolerance is not a way to conclude disputes, but is rather the condition to allow for rational debate. It is a method by which negotiators reformulate their positions until reaching a maximum of common principles, allowing them to locate the points of divergence and agreement. Tolerance is an attitude that needs to free itself from the idea of a single absolute truth in order to develop. It requires a new rationality: flexible, gradual, and hermeneutically imperfect.

Knowing “the other” from other times undoubtably contributes to our awareness that nowadays, not everyone (either in their countries, migratory exile or as stateless persons) has been afforded the minimum tolerance that we advocate for in our globalized, multicultural Western societies. Perhaps this invites us to ask ourselves how we can step outside of our comfort zone and take charge of such situations that are at times dangerous, and always unfair.