There are many roads to liberalism, and not all liberalisms are about the deepest questions.
Incivility runs rampant. Disagreements seem harder than ever to overcome, concerning as they do matters of identity-shaping significance. Differences increasingly breed personal animosity, rather than mutual respect. Meanwhile, information technologies foist these squabbles onto the reading public at a rate hitherto unimaginable. The result? Popular discontent, factionalism, and a growing distrust of institutions and hierarchies as well as the coarsening of our public debates. The possibility of even minimal consensus in political and social life — to say nothing of civic friendship — seems to have receded into an unreachable, if not-too-distant, past.
Such was the turbulence of post-schismatic Europe, as Teresa Bejan describes it in Mere Civility, when political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Roger Williams began formulating concepts, such as free speech and religious freedom, foundational to modern political liberalism. It was a world in which the theological and political differences between Quakers, Puritans, Anglicans, and Catholics — which few today could identify, much less take as casus belli — could give rise to prolonged warfare.
From our twenty-first-century vantage point, these religious differences, if they persist at all, appear to blur together as elements of our shared “civil religion” or as variants of an imperializing European tradition (depending on one’s ideology). Both perspectives are historically blinkered, blind to the peculiarities of our political patrimony and its vicissitudes. Bejan reminds us that these divisions, though primarily between Christians, were profound — the stuff of violent persecution and revolution — concerning matters of life, death, and eternal salvation. Vestiges persist in the “religious labels (literally, denominations),” we still use, such as Protestant, Lutheran, Baptist, Puritan, or Quaker. While these “appear entirely uncontroversial to us today,” they “actually began in this period as pejoratives capable of deeply wounding a believer’s ‘tender conscience’” (5).
It was to seek a way out of this impasse — and to stave off the live possibility of bloodshed — that Hobbes, Locke, and Williams claimed “civility” as a means of recovering a shared vision of social and political life. Civility offered a technique for living together peaceably, in the absence of the common religion that had united pre-Reformation Europe, by engaging our fellow citizens through rational debate and persuasion.
But what, exactly, is civility? According to Bejan, Hobbes, Locke, and Williams offer competing accounts, and the contest between them foreshadows our own debates about free speech, tolerance, and civility.
Bejan argues that this “appeal to history” is necessary if we are to “move beyond the impasse in popular and scholarly debates about civility.” Contemporary commentators who see civility as the cure for our ailing body politic too often fail to appreciate their debts to these earlier thinkers, especially Hobbes and Locke, and so risk unwittingly reproducing their philosophical and political errors. In so doing, they overlook Williams’s altogether different conception of civility, which, Bejan suggests, underwrites America’s “First Amendment Faith” at its best — and remains choice worthy in itself.
In championing civility, Hobbes, Locke, and Williams sought to refasten the vinculum societatis — or “bond of society” — that bound citizens together prior to the Reformation. They thus recapitulated and transformed arguments made a generation earlier by Reformation-era intellectuals. Whence Mere Civility’s thesis: that it was in the crucible of this schismatic context that the modern concepts of civility, tolerance, religious liberty, and freedom speech were first forged.
Faced with the reality of schism, Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus sought to distinguish between precepts universally shared by Christians — the fundamenta of faith — and the “superficial” beliefs — or adiaphora — separating them. Diverse Christians could thereby agree at least on fundamentals, securing something like the concordia that once characterized Christendom. But how? Erasmus’ answer was dialogue or colloquy, rather than “coercive uniformity” (33, 22). Such dialogue was impossible, though, while religious insults were being hurled in every direction. The problem was not merely a matter of manners — or even a betrayal of Christian charity — but stemmed from a legitimate fear that “persecution of the tongue” could lead to persecution of the sword. To foster genuine dialogue, both swords and tongues would have to be controlled. It was thus necessary, to “civiliz[e] men’s disagreements through legislation” (22).
Here already in nuce we can discern the differing approaches to civility later set forth by Hobbes and Locke.
Safety in Silence
Hobbes was unequivocal: Disagreement about religious fundamentals could not be allowed in the public sphere. Like modern-day advocates of civility and “safe space” culture, Hobbes emphasized words’ potential to harm. “The mere act of disagreement is offensive” (12). This was especially true in the aftermath of religious warfare, when divisions were magnified and sensitivities heightened. Better to outlaw offensive speech than have disagreements end in bloodshed. “Hobbes was so concerned about the harm in hate speech,” according to Bejan, “that he made ‘contumely’ a violation of a fundamental natural law” (12).
So Hobbsean civility requires suppressing substantive disagreements. “A tolerant society would thus require a civil silence on controversial questions, so that individuals might differ in religion but never disagree about it” (12). This was to be accomplished in two ways. First, by cultivating the virtues necessary for civil society, including “complaisance” or agreeableness and “discretion.” These would provide the ethical basis for a tolerant culture. Discretion, in particular “became,” in “Hobbes’s hands … a virtue of self-restraint regulating the boundary between the inward realm of opinion and the outward realm of speech” (98). Controversies over religious fundamentals were thus consigned to the private sphere, with public disagreements limited to superficial topics. Here Hobbes repurposes Erasmus’s distinction between fundamenta and adiaphora (itself a repurposing of a classical distinction of the Stoics), relegating the latter to the domain of subjective opinion.
But morality was insufficient. “For the Lawes of Nature … of themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural Passions” (cited in Bejan 102). Hence “the sovereign should do his utmost to restrict expressions of hatred, contempt, and dishonor so as to eliminate contumely altogether” (102). The effect was to police the boundaries of civility in the public sphere and to punish those who transgressed them.
Unlike Erasmus, Hobbes did not appeal to Christian charity, nor did he share the humanist’s hope that colloquy could cure social division. But he did believe it was necessary to prevent persecution of the tongue from devolving into persecution of the sword and was unafraid to use legislation to do so. Hobbes proposed civility as the means to attain peaceful coexistence — a form of civility that required abstention from substantive disagreement and the cultivation of certain virtues backed up by force of law. In Hobbes’s political theory, speech restrictions are, to use a contemporary colloquialism, a feature, not a bug.
The result is what Bejan calls “difference without disagreement.” The public sphere is silent rather than civil. Silenced, in particular, are precisely those religious believers — for instance, Catholics or evangelical Protestants — for whom it is essential not to hide their religious beliefs when they enter into the public square. So there is no room in Hobbes’ scheme for believers who do not consider their disagreements with, say, Anglicanism to be mere “adiaphora” or matters of private opinion. “Hobbesian civility was not a means to disagreement, but an end to it, its corresponding toleration a hollow simulacrum of Concordia with the heart and tongue cut out” (108).
Locke, initially swayed by Hobbes’s approach, came to disavow legal coercion as a mechanism for guaranteeing civility for both practical and principled reasons. In his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke asserted that disagreement could not and should not be eliminated or suppressed. What was required, instead, was a more capacious concept of civility, grounded in the principle of charity, enabling those who disagree to live together peaceably through dialogue. Prima facie, Locke’s would appear to be the more “liberal” account of civility.
Yet Locke did not defend tolerance so that each of us might go about our own business, as many modern civilitarians dismissively assume (138). Locke was not a liberal in this sense. On the contrary, he was, like Hobbes, “deeply concerned about wars of words and persecution of the tongue as obstacles to the peaceful accommodation of religious difference.” (114). And like Erasmus, he looked to charity — hardly a libertarian virtue — and colloquy as the necessary means for recovering social cohesion in the face of intransigent difference. As Bejan puts it, Locke “came to present civility as a form of sincere civil charity toward others and their beliefs,” and “in this,” his “vision of toleration as a form of Concordia ultimately revived the eirencists’ demand for a fundamental concuss in light of which all religious disagreements could be downplayed as ‘indifferent’ or dissolved.” (12–13). Here we meet again that Reformation-era distinction between fundamenta and adiaphora. But there is at least one essential difference with the Christian humanists: like Hobbes, Locke affirmed the secular virtue of civility itself — a virtue albeit laden with Christian overtones — rather than mere Christianity as a unifying principle.
Given Locke’s preoccupation with the “persecution of the tongue,” it’s no surprise that he, like Erasmus and Hobbes, was tempted to “[ban]… religious insult outright” (115). He eventually abandoned this idea in favor of a more “radical form of toleration,” calling for both “the separation of church and state and the repeal … of penal laws against dissent” (115). For this view Locke is — rightly — best remembered. But it is important to note, Bejan insists, that Locke’s shift toward a more expansive view of tolerance was not driven by a sudden desire to give disagreement and religious insult free reign; rather, Lockean tolerance opened up space for — and depended upon — a “highly demanding ethos of civility from individuals to maintain the vinculum of mutual trust.” (115).
If uniformity was essential to Hobbesian civility, for Locke it was “trust, not uniformity” that was “the true ‘Bond of Society’” (122). A central question thus becomes what are the conditions of trustworthiness. As Bejan puts it:
Civility in disagreement was not a demand of the Duty of Toleration simply because it made edifying conversations more pleasant; rather, as an expression of good faith and sincerity it would continually create and reinforce the vinculum societatis of mutual trust through the very practice of disagreement itself (137).
The problem is that not all are trustworthy. “No Opinions contrary to human Society, or those moral Rules which are necessary to the preservation of Civil Society, are to be Tolerated,” wrote Locke (in Bejan 137). Thus atheism could not be tolerated because “belief in God was a necessary condition for trust” (137). But belief in God was not sufficient. Catholics, e.g., could not be tolerated either because their dual allegiance to both nation and the “Mufti of Constantinople” meant that they were not obligated to keep promises to “those who differ from them in Religion” (in Bejan 137).
Like Hobbesian civility, Lockean civility thus winds up exclusionary, albeit for different reasons. It is worth recalling here that the new Christian sects then sweeping parts of the West were not “the ecumenical mainliners of modern experience but rather righteous schismatics and enthusiastic evangelicals who were unwilling—or in conscience unable—to hold their tongues or keep their peace” (17). Many called for aggressive and socially disruptive forms of evangelization — including, in the case of Quakers, “going naked in public ‘for a sign,’ as well as interrupting others’ worship by banging pots and pans or shouting down the minister” (70–71). To enforce (if only through social pressure) civil norms that preclude such behavior was thus to exclude not only those who have not been socialized into those norms but also religious minorities.
Ultimately, then, for both Locke and Hobbes, what is intended as a purely procedural matter — how to interact with one’s fellow citizens in the public square — turns out to be a matter of substantive disagreement. The demands for certain civil “behaviors” passes surreptitiously into a demand for “shared beliefs” (143). For Locke, however, the result is not difference without disagreement but “disagreement without difference” — disagreement, that is, among only those with whom we substantially agree.
Civility Amidst Disrespect
Williams’s approach to civility is at once more radically liberal than either Hobbes or Locke and hostile to the liberal pieties of civilitarianism. An ardent Puritan and founder of Rhode Island, Williams embraces the inevitable offense unrestrained speech may engender as a necessary byproduct of religious pluralism. “For Williams, as for many other religious radicals, the ongoing war of words was not a form of persecution but rather the essence of toleration” (12). True tolerance must countenance injurious speech.
Hobbes and Locke are right that disagreement about what matters most to us, such as religious belief, is itself disagreeable — precisely because it threatens our most deeply held convictions and self-conceptions. It would be naïve to pretend otherwise. Where these two err is in trying to eradicate such offense by suppressing disagreement or difference. Coexistence within a diverse society tends not to produce harmony; we must accept that some speech will inevitably offend some. Offense is the price we pay for genuine difference — a small price when faced with the live alternative of persecution and bloodshed.
So Williams agrees that civility provides the vinculum societatis. But civility is “compatible with negative judgments, deep disapproval, and disgust.” (80). Such “meer civility” requires neither silence nor substantive agreement on religious matters, fundamenta or other, much less civil charity. “The best way to maintain the vinculum of civility in a tolerant society,” Williams thought, “was to liberate men’s tongues” (79). Civility for Williams is a social practice — a modus vivendi — requiring only peaceful, not to say harmonious, coexistence. “Its virtue,” writes Bejan, “lay in the way in which the rules of ‘respectful behavior’ could be observed and maintained even—and especially—in the absence of sincere respect” (80).
Although Williams’s concept of civility traces its roots to Reformation-era Europe, it is quintessentially American, at home not in the European salon so much as the frontier of seventeenth–century Rhode Island. Here Mainline Protestants, evangelical Christians, Catholics (“Anti-Christians,” as Williams called them) “Jewes,” Muslims (or “Turkes”), and American Indians (“Pagans Divell worshippers”) were all engaged in an extended experiment of “‘unmurderous coexistence” (21). Tellingly, though Williams used offensive epithets to describe others, he alone among these early theorists of civility extended religious freedom to all of them, even the “Divell worshippers” and “Anti-Christians.”
Williams’s approach to civility is not a “live-and-let-live” libertarianism, avant la lettre. Although he welcomed unrestricted speech and advocated a “wall” between church and state, in his famous phrase, he did not envision a public square bereft of religion nor a sharp separation between public and private. Rather, he welcomed religious debates in the public square and precisely because they concerned matters of cosmological significance, not mere private opinion. Williams would permit injurious speech in the context of peaceful coexistence both to prevent the majority from mistaking its moral particularism for universalism — and thereby imposing it onto the minority — and to make room in the public sphere for the type of impassioned evangelical persuasion that Williams himself, as an evangelical Christian, thought necessary for flourishing religious life here on earth and eternal life hereafter.
Far from being agnostic, much less relativistic, about the religious convictions of his fellows, Williams believed most of them were damned, and said so. But he also believed his religious duty was to save them. “Next to the saving of your own souls … your taske (as Christians) is to save the Soules … of others,” be they “Jewes, Turkes, Antichristians, Pagans” (in Bejan 65). Thus Williams’ “‘meer’ civility as the bond of tolerant societies went hand in hand with an unapologetically cacophonous and evangelical approach to tolerance” (12). The Reformation taught us we cannot expect too much from the City of Man, but we must nevertheless make room within its precincts for the type of evangelism necessary to help our fellow citizens make it into the City of God. “All must be tolerated because all were potential converts” (65).
Note: Part 2 of this review can be found here.