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.