Teaching the Renaissance of Tolerance

David Randall

I never had time to teach anything properly to college freshmen when I raced through a History of Europe course. If this is Tuesday it must be the Reformation and Thursday it’s on to the Spanish Armada. The same was true when I taught a Western Civilization course that focused on just reading snippets of important books. I hopped from Luther’s Bondage of the Will to Milton’s Areopagitica, and that was it for the Reformation. I couldn’t cover everything that ought to be taught, and what I did teach, I taught shallowly. I was so frustrated, I tore out my hair.

I couldn’t teach any of the history of liberty’s ideals and institutions as much as I wanted to. What time I could spare for liberty I had to divide between tolerance, republicanism, representative institutions, and everything else. Still, I worked hard to carve out minutes of class time for the history of tolerance—and I was able to make it part of the course. I didn’t think I could teach the history of Western Civilization properly without teaching about tolerance—tolerance on principle and not from mere indifference, tolerance the positive belief that other people have a right to think and say things I disbelieve, dislike with a passion, and believe conduce to evil. Tolerance most memorably expressed by Oliver Cromwell: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Why did I think that I had to teach about tolerance? I didn’t articulate it properly to myself when I was in the classroom, and it’s been a few years since I threw chalk at a student. But the way to answer the question is to think about why we teach any history. We want to learn about the nature of the past, we want to use what we learn from the past to make ourselves and our students into better people, we want to apply its lessons to guide us as we act as citizens and statesmen in the present, and we use its example to help formulate the ideals that guide us as we try to shape our country’s future. We want to teach the history of tolerance for all those reasons.

That list of reasons has a nice chronological order, but I think the most pressing reason in 2018 to learn the history of tolerance is our country’s clear and present need to relearn what tolerance is and why it is a virtue. These last few years the self-righteously intolerant have exercised far too much power in America. The locus modernus is the mob of student bigots at Middlebury, who enforced with violence their chant “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away.” Student mobs riot to keep speakers they don’t like off campus, professors build elaborate theoretical justifications for intolerance on principle, and schoolteachers instruct our children they are harmed when they listen to something they don’t like.

To counter this mob of would-be tyrants, we must teach our fellow Americans—and American teachers and students above all—why we should tolerate people we disagree with, and the virtues of a tolerant character. To do this most effectively, we must teach the history of tolerance. That history tells us what political institutions and social practices tolerance requires. It also tells us how much constant care tolerance needs to flourish—how slowly Europeans and Americans constructed the idea of tolerance, how laboriously they made its practice an everyday habit. We learn finally from the history of tolerance that it is our history, our birthright, and we learn to take pride in it as an achievement of our ancestors. When we teach the history of tolerance, we teach our students to prize it for its rarity and to love because it is their birthright. We teach them to build a future on the ideal of tolerance not least because it is their inheritance from the past.

The reason we should take pride in our unique inheritance of tolerance is also the reason that any teacher of Western civilization, even the proverbial Martian steeped in Rankean objectivity, should devote substantial classroom time to the history of tolerance. It isn’t just that most of the history of tolerance took place within the history of the West. It’s also that the history of tolerance uniquely characterizes Western civilization. You can’t understand what Western civilization is, or how it differs from its peers, without knowing about the history of tolerance.

Now you might think that’s a polemic against cultural relativists, multiculturalists, and so on—and it is. But more importantly, it’s a polemic by an early modernist against classicists, medievalists, modernists, and other riff-raff. I say Western Civilization ain’t just Athens and Jerusalem, it ain’t just Aquinas and Chretien de Troyes, and it ain’t just an antechamber to Kant and Mill. The history of tolerance illustrates what Western Civilization really is—a complex whole, whose Renaissance humanist hinge reconfigured the classical and medieval past and made possible the Enlightenment. Western Civilization is the tolerant Montaigne, whose conversation with the ancients gave birth to the quintessentially modern form of the introspective essay, self-revealing and self-creating. To teach the history of tolerance is to teach the long history of Western Civilization properly, with the Renaissance at the center.

That is to say: the Renaissance meditation on tolerance drew on the skeptical thought of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho. The medieval complex of thought and practice retained limited toleration of Jews and Muslims, even if medieval Christian thinkers did not overwhelmingly prize tolerance. But it is to the thinkers of the Renaissance that we centrally owe the idea that we should tolerate on principle, even on so polarizing a ground as religion—to Erasmus and Montaigne, to Bodin and Milton. Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Kant transformed these principles into systematic philosophies, but they generalized a Renaissance insight.

It is to the more practical politicians of early modern Europe and the Enlightenment that we owe the transformation of tolerance into an ever-deepening political practice—in England’s Act of Toleration, in the foundation of Pennsylvania, and in France’s and America’s revolutionary enactments of tolerance in their written constitutions. Artistic meditations on toleration created plays such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and novels such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, while the 1695 lapse of the licensing act in England gave birth to an ever-more tolerant print culture. Cheek-by-jowl tolerance emerged in the society of the cities as an ever-thicker strand of everyday life. Every ship of any size perforce tolerated a cosmopolitan crew; every harbor was a forcing ground of tolerance.

You also have to know the history of tolerance to understand much of the later development of Western Civilization—linked ideals, such as freedom of the press or freedom of religion, and new intellectual disciplines rooted in a tolerant viewpoint, such as anthropology and comparative religious studies. The very structure of Western intellectual inquiry formed itself around institutions constituted by tolerance, such as the Republic of Letters and the modern university.

Now, tolerance is only part of the West’s history. Cromwell thought Congregationalists and Presbyterians should tolerate one another and he butchered Catholics at Drogheda. The Act of Tolerance served not only principle but also the self-interest of the English aristocracy and merchant classes. London was a notably tolerant city by 1780—and then the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots burst out to underscore that tolerance is fragile at the best of times. These complications should be taught too—although not to deny the importance and the distinctiveness of the history of tolerance in Western Civilization.

That’s a potted history for you—partly to underscore that there’s certainly enough material you can use in Western history to teach tolerance to students, whether in high school classes, college surveys, or undergraduate and graduate seminars. You can teach it as intellectual history, religious history, cultural history, political history, or social history. You can link it to the American founding and the underpinnings of our own republic, and you can incorporate it into a cynically Machiavellian analysis of the sinews of Britain’s imperial power. You can use it for civilizational comparisons between the West and the Rest. Different teachers with different interests can teach tolerance in all sorts of ways.

How, precisely? Well, there’s no point in being too prescriptive about the details. Each teacher will teach the concept a different way, to suit his own strengths and interests. When I taught the History of Europe freshman survey, I included an essay from Montaigne. When I taught Modern Britain, I began with the Act of Toleration and the Bill of Rights. When I taught Modern Europe, I assigned Isaac Bashevis Singer’s In My Father’s Court, not least so students could see how rough-and-tumble tolerance and intolerance between Polish Christians and Jews played out in Warsaw’s slums a century ago. I hoped those texts would be good for teeing up class discussion, and I think the discussions didn’t turn out badly. I even tried to give some space to the better arguments for intolerance—that tolerance leads to civil war, that tolerance leads to sin—since students ought to learn both sides to that question too. Keep the history of tolerance as one of your organizing frameworks, and you can come up with a lot of possibilities.

But tolerance has to be one of the organizing frameworks. Treat tolerance as a secondary topic and it’ll just get crowded out and forgotten—in a history curriculum and in real life. That’s a lesson that applies more broadly. You have to teach the history of liberty as organizing framework, the history of representative government, the history of all the unique virtues of Western civilization—or they all get crowded out and forgotten, one with Nineveh and Tyre.

One thing more. There’s no point in teaching any part of Western Civilization as a bloodless abstraction, where flesh-and-blood people don’t appear. That’s true of tolerance as well. To understand tolerance properly—to teach it as a lesson in character to our students—we need to study tolerant people, read their actual words, learn how they put tolerance into practice in their lives. Next time I teach a Western Civilization course, I think I’ll spend a class on what it was like to live in Pennsylvania in 1720, Quaker merchant and Mennonite miller and Ulster hill-farmer all learning how to live in a land that took pride that people tolerated one another.

And I’ll take the time to quote George Fox. “Let him be Jew, or papist, or Turk, or heathen, or protestant, or whatever sort; or such as worship sun, or moon, or stocks, or stones; let them have liberty where everyone may bring forth his strength, and have free liberty to speak forth his mind and judgment.”

Tell me, class. What do you think about that?

Image Credit: Lin Kristensen

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