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A Historical Glimpse of Tolerance in the West

  • Aaron Tyler
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Abstract

Whether religious, linguistic, political, or cultural, difference is not a recent phenomenon of Western civilization. In fact, a persistent characteristic of the Occident has been diversity. The strategic and often violent interactions between Rome and the Germanic tribes of the European continent in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries; the enclosing proximity of an imposing Islamic civilization beginning in the seventh century; the capricious coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain and the Mediterranean from the eighth to fifteenth century, as well as the synchronous brutality and intolerance that resulted from numerous wars between Christian and Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula; the potent lure of transcultural commerce across the Mediterranean and Maghreb; the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the incessant geopolitical threat of the powerful Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries; and the West’s distressing conquests in the sixteenth century of the indigenous peoples of the New World are only a few of the many Western encounters with the religious and cultural Other. And it was from various historical encounters with otherness that theories and policies of tolerance, as well as intolerance, were conceived.

Keywords

Western Civilization Sixteenth Century Fourth Century Christian Faith Religious Plurality 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Michael Gervers and James M. Powell, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance: Social Conflict in the Age of the Crusades (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001), xvii.Google Scholar
  2. See also John Christian Laursen and Cary J. Nederman, eds., Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration Before the Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 1–10.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
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  4. John Christian Laursen and Cary J. Nederman, eds., Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. Other works include John Christian Laursen, ed., Religious Toleration: “The Variety of Rites” from Cyrus to Defoe (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999);Google Scholar
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    Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 7–9. “For almost a thousand years,” writes Lewis, “from the first Moorish landing in Spain to the second Turkish siege of Vienna, Europe was under constant threat from Islam.” It was a “double threat” in the first few centuries, he continues, “not only of invasion and conquest, but also of conversion and assimilation.” Ibid., 13.Google Scholar
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    See Peter Abelard, Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian, trans. Pierre J. Payer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1979). Peter Abelard experienced persecution and intolerance as a heretic. He was castrated in 1117 and charged with heresy twice, first at the Council of Soissons in 1121 and then by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1140 at the Council of Sens. See Constant J. Mews, “Peter Abelard and the Enigma of Dialogue,” in Beyond the Persecuting Society, 25. Mews highlights a major difference between Abelard’s dialogue and the popular philosophical dialogues of Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) a century earlier (Se vertate, De casu diaboli, De libertate arbitrio) and Anselm’s pupil Gilbert of Crispin (Disputatio Iudei et Christiani). Rather than using the philosopher for the sole purpose of demonstrating Christianity’s inherent logic (“the rightness of one’s point of view”), Abelard’s dialogue avoided religious dogmatism and, instead, endeavored to understand competing viewpoints (that of a philosopher, Jew, and Christian) and emphasize a common agenda of reaching the supreme good. Abelard, of course, agreed that the Christian faith was superior and demonstrable through reason, but was unique for his criticism of Christendom’s authoritarian intolerance of those beyond the Christian worldview. Ibid., 39–40. In a morally instructive poem, the Carmen ad Astralabium, addressed to his son, Abelard raises the issue of lasting human difference: “The world is divided among so many sects that what may be the path of life is hardly clear. Because the world harbors so many conflicting dogmas, each makes his own, by way of his own background. In the end, no one dares rely on reason in these things, while he wants to live in some kind of peace with himself. Each person sins only by having contempt for God—only contempt can make this person guilty.” Quoted in Mew, 44. Thus, as Mew concludes, for Abelard, “only contempt of God, not ignorance, is truly sinful.” Ibid. His open-ended dialogue was an original argument for tolerating disagreement and difference while raising the edifying nature of inter-religious discussion.Google Scholar
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    See Anthony Bonner’s “Historical Background,” in Selected Works of Ramon Llull (1232–1316), vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 10.Google Scholar
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    Llull was successful at the end of his life in influencing the Council of Vienne in 1311 to support his goal of establishing a school of oriental languages. Canon 11 of the Council sanctioned the instruction of Arabic, “Chaldean,” and Hebrew at Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, Bologna, and the Papal Courts to those being trained as missionaries. See Doctor Illuminatus: A Ramon Llull Reader, trans. and ed. Anthony Bonner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 41.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in George Sanderlin, ed., Witness: Writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas, foreword by Gustavo Gutiérrez (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), xiii–xiv.Google Scholar
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    Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians, trans. and ed. Safford Poole (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 41.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Bartolomé de Las Casas, The Only Way, trans. Francis Patrick Sullivan, S.J., ed. Helen Rand Parish (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1992), 96.Google Scholar
  31. 90.
    Ibid. The famous debate in Valladolid (1550–51) between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Las Casas offers another scintillating resource for demonstrating how one of the most significant writers on tolerance in the sixteenth century challenged the spiritual-temporal dichotomies of Western civilization. For an insightful and concise article on the role of tolerance in this famous debate, see Gerardo López Sastre, “National Prejudice and Religion in the Toleration Debate between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda,” in Religious Toleration: “The Variety of Rites” from Cyrus to Defoe, ed. John Christian Laursen (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999). In addition, for a thoughtful study on Las Casas’s use of dominium, as it had been systematized in the theology of Aquinas, see Paul J. Cornish, “Spanish Thomism and the American Indians: Vitoria and Las Casas on the Toleration of Cultural Difference,” in Difference and Dissent.Google Scholar
  32. See also Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1959).Google Scholar
  33. 97.
    Henry Kamen is one of several scholars to make this suggestion. See Henry Kamen, The Rise of Toleration (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 8.Google Scholar
  34. 102.
    See Marion Leathers Daniels Kuntz’s introduction to Jean Bodin’s, Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, trans. Marion Leathers Daniels Kuntz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), xv–xxviii.Google Scholar
  35. 106.
    Ingrid Creppell, Toleration and Identity: Foundations in Early Modern Thought (New York: Routledge, 2003), 40–49.Google Scholar
  36. 109.
    Jean Bodin, Colloqium, trans. Marion Leathers Daniels Kuntz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 147.Google Scholar
  37. 111.
    Ibid., 151. Bodin selects the Muslim participant, Octavius, to introduce the moral dilemma of the erring conscience. Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation, 2:182. Octavius quotes Thomas Aquinas’ well-known statement: “When errant reason has established something as a precept of God, then it is the same thing to scorn the dictate of reason and the commands of God.” Bodin, 157–58. In other words, one is compelled to follow his conscience. The purity of spirit and inviolable conscience that Aquinas and Scholasticism had applied to moral issues Octavius, to the chagrin of the Colloquium’ more conservative participants, now “extends to religion at large.” Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation, 2:182. In his Six livres de la république (Six Books of a Commonweal, 1576), Bodin also illustrated the Ottoman’s anachronistic level of communal tolerance: “The great emperor of the Turks doth with as great devotion as any prince in the world honor and observe the religion of others; but to the contrary permitteth every man to live according to his conscience, yea and that more is, near unto his palace at Pera, suffereth four diverse religions, viz, that of the Jews, that of the Christians, that of the Grecians, and that of the Mahometans … the people of ancient time were persuaded, as were the Turks, all sorts of religions which proceed from a pure mind, to be accountable to God.” Bodin, Six Books of the Commonweal), trans. Kenneth D. McRae, ed. Kenneth D. McRae (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), IV, 7, 537–38; also quoted in Creppell, 47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Aaron Tyler 2008

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