‘Live by the light of your own reason’

John Locke on why no one should blindly resign himself to the will of his rulers.

You still don’t have true freedom of thought? More than 320 years after I wrote my - and apologies for boasting - brilliant Letter Concerning Toleration? I’m disappointed. As I argued all that time ago, in 1689, in what was actually meant as a private letter to my friend Philipp van Limborch, who scandalously leaked it, ‘the care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself’. That is, individuals must be allowed to decide for themselves what is true, what is a good path in life, and ‘when all is done, they must be left to their own consciences’. To discover that, nearly four centuries later, the realm of the conscience is still policed, still stifled by the notion that some thoughts are just too foul to express, is a bit of a blow.

The basis of my letter was pretty simple: toleration is the best way to deal with the rise of worldviews - religious ones in my day - that do not tally with the worldview held and promoted by the rulers of society. As I put it, ‘The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light’.

My case for tolerance of dissenting views, even of what appears to some as heresy, was made for both practical and principled reasons. Practically, I pointed out that it just isn’t possible genuinely to transform a man’s entire belief system through ‘fire or sword’. Why? Because ‘all the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation.’ In other words, be true to yourself; speak and act according to your conscience. Those who would force or cajole you to bend the knee to an idea you don’t fully buy are inviting you to ditch your core convictions, your entire character in fact, in favour of going through the motions of conformism to what others have decreed to be true and right.

And on a principled level, I argued that the authorities have no business interfering in the affairs of men’s minds or hearts. In fact, my letter was a stab at ‘settl[ing] the bounds that lie between… the business of government and that of religion’. Officials should concern themselves only with ‘civil interests’, I said, assisting in the protection of people’s ‘life, liberty, health… and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like’. But as to inward things - our beliefs, our views of truth, the manner in which we worship - here, I argued, officialdom has no business. For the rulers of society to insist that people should stop thinking a certain way or stop expressing certain so-called heretical views is to ask the outrageous - that people should ‘quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly resign themselves up to the will of their governors’. As I said, ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person’. Your modern governments - forever churning out laws forbidding the questioning of historical events or the expression of what are judged to be hateful ideas; in short, ‘providing for the truth of opinions’ - should bear that in mind.

Fundamentally, in matters of faith and conviction men must enlighten themselves; they cannot be enlightened by others who claim to possess some kind of magical access to a greater truth. ‘Those things that every man ought sincerely to inquire into himself, and by meditation, study, search, and his own endeavours, attain the knowledge of, cannot be looked upon as the peculiar possession of any sort of men’, I said. ‘Neither the right nor the art of ruling does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things, and least of all true religion.’ So just because someone is a prince, or a politician, or an expert of some sort, that doesn’t mean he can instruct you on what to believe or shape your mind and soul as he sees fit. You must do that for yourself, by your own endeavours, and according to what your conscience tells you.

Ah, the conscience policers of then and now say - what if an idea is really heretical, totally twisted? Should even those ways of thought be tolerated? Yes, they must. Because if you invite officialdom to police and punish certain thoughts, you are giving it dominion over all thought - including, potentially, yours one day. As I put it, ‘It may be said, “What if a Church be idolatrous? Is that also to be tolerated by the magistrate?” I answer: What power can be given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous Church, which may not in time and place be made use of to the ruin of an orthodox one…? The religion of every prince is orthodox to himself.’ A distinction must be made, I argued, between a man’s thoughts and his actions. Conscience and belief must remain free, because even when such things are misguided or wrong or offensive, unlike actions they cannot harm others. An individual ‘does not violate the right of another by his erroneous opinions and undue manner of worship, nor is his perdition any prejudice to another man’s affairs’. I do wish those who today describe words as harmful, even as a form of violence, would need those words.

Some people, I’m sad to say, have misunderstood the great ideal of tolerance that I put the case for. They seem to think it means accepting all ideas as equally valid, never being critical, just sitting back and nodding along as individuals or groups speak their minds. Not a bit of it. The tolerant have a duty both to protect from punishment and censorship all belief systems and to submit those belief systems to thorough public debate. I was not, I was clear to say, condemning ‘all charitable admonition and affectionate endeavours to reduce men from errors’. In fact, ‘Anyone may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man’s salvation’. It is only ‘force and compulsion’ that are to be ‘foreborne’, I said. ‘Nothing is to be done imperiously.’ That is, change minds and hearts through discussion, through questioning, through marshalling reason or persuasion to try to ‘reduce errors’. Just do not call ‘the magistrate’s authority to the aid of [your] eloquence or learning’, because those who do so ‘pretend love for the truth’ but actually reveal their ‘intemperate zeal, breathing nothing but fire and sword’. That’s a message that your era’s suers for defamation, legislators against certain forms of speech and mobs for the enforcement of correct thinking would do well to remember, as their imperiousness shows that they aren’t remotely interested in real truth but rather are ‘zealots, who condemn all things that are not of their mode’.

But if we allow a free-for-all, the expression of even erroneous and wicked views, how can we be sure that good and true ideas won’t get buried?, many have asked, and still do. I say: have more faith in public discourse. As I put it all those years ago, ‘The truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself’. In fact, I said the truth has ‘seldom received and, I fear, never will receive much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known and more rarely welcomed. She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men. If truth makes not her way into the understanding by her own light, she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force violence can add to her.’

In short? Truth is discovered, not enforced; and it is discovered through tolerating the free exercise of conscience and permitting the interplay of beliefs. My message today would be the same as it was then: have trust in your conscience, and trust in public life.

As told to Brendan O’Neill.

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