Western Eyes

Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty quotes (himself) writing:

Until the Enlightenment, wherever an official tolerance existed, it was almost always a particular and revocable license to practice one specific minority religion, and to do so only under highly restrictive conditions. In a sense, these were merely truces in the fighting, often agreed to simply because it was impossible to eradicate the religious minority. These early and frankly misnamed “tolerances” were in no sense predicated on the notion that an individual has a moral obligation to seek the truth for himself, unconstrained by the civil authority.
This last is what we now expect, and until the late seventeenth century, nothing even close to it could be found in Europe.

The great reformers — Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox — all urged fire and the sword. The thinkers of the Enlightenment — Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Hume — agreed that on these terms religion was at best a sham and at worst a profound cruelty. We owe religious tolerance not to the Reformation, but to a humane and cosmopolitan reaction against the Reformation.

The notion that religious toleration began and is owed to the Enlightenment … well our current notions of the same might have come from those sources (where they got it is another matter). Recently, I’ve been studying the Byzantine/Eastern history some for reasons not exactly related to toleration. But while religious toleration wasn’t by any means a common or constant feature of the Byantine Empire it did arise in the texts I’ve been reading more than once or twice. Below the fold, I examine some of those instances and remark on what that might say in the light of the remarks above.

From John Julian Norwich trilogy on Byzantium:

The Roman Empire of the East was founded by Constantine the Great on Monday, 11 May 330, it came to an end on Tuesday, 39 May 1453. During those one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years and eighteen days, eighty-eight men and women occupied the imperial throne, excluding the seven who usurped it during the Latin occupation. Of those eighty-eight a few — Constantine himself, Justinian, Heraclius, the two Basils, Alexius Commenus — possessed true greatness, a few — Phocas, Michael III, Zoe and the Angeli — were contemptible, the vast majority were brave, upright, God-fearing, unimaginative men who did their best, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Byantium may not have lived up to hits highest ideals — what does? — but it certainly did not deserve the reuptation which, thanks largely to Edward Gibbon, it acquired in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England: that of an Empire constituting, ‘without exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed’. So grotesque a view ignores the fact that the Byzantines were a deeply religious society in which illiteracy — at least among the middle and upper classes — was virtually unknown, and in which one Emperor after another was renowned for his scholarship; a society which had with difficulty concealed its scorn for the leaders of the Crusades, who called themselves noblemen but could hardly write their own names. It ignores, too, the immeasurable cultural debt taht the Western world owes to a civilization which alone preserved much of the heritage of Greek and Latin antiquity, during these dark centuries when the lights of learning in the West were almost extinguished.

On religious toleration, in the early period, Norwich recounts that Constantine decreed with Licinius Augustus:

When, I, Constantine Augustus, and I Licinius Augustus, had come under happy auspices to Milan, and conferred together on all matters that concerned the public dvantage and welfare … we resolved to make such decrees as should secure respect and reverence for the Deity, namely to grant both to the Christians and to all others the right freely to follow whatever form of worship that might please them, to the intent that whatsoever Divinity dwells in heaven might be favourable to us and to all those living under our authority.

70 years later, on Theodosius (called the Great), Mr Norwich in a recap of his tenure in purple:

In his civil legislation he showed, again and again, a consideration for the humblest of his subjects that was rare indeed among rulers of the fourth century. What other prince would have decreed that any criminal sentenced to execution, imprisonment, or exile, must first be allowed thirty days grace to put his affairs in order?Or that a specified part of his worldly goods must go to his children, upon whom their father’s crimes must on no account be visited? Or that no farmer should be obliged to sell his produce to the State at a price lower than he would receive on the open market?


This steadily increasing religious intolerance has not, over the years, increased Theodosius’s reputation. But we must remember that he was fighting, every moment of his reign, to keep the Empire strong and united against barbarian menace; and that in those anxious times, when religion was as constant a preoccupation in men’s lives as politics might be today, it could prove a uniquely powerful force for unification or division. And even Theodosius never attempted to change his subjects convictions: never were they required to recant, or to abjure their faith. Nor did he ever sink to persecution.

The point is, religious toleration might not have spring as Athena from Zeus’ skull. These were not the only instances of religious toleration in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The roots of the toleration might very well not be in the Reformation, but instead in that part of Christendom which never had a Reformation. Vladimir Lossky writes that our notions of personhood derive from theological thought of the Cappadocian fathers (specifically from their understanding of the Trinity and what “person” mean in the consubstantial three-in-one). Just as there however, religious toleration might be owed to an earlier source than the Enlightenment as well.

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  1. Uh, yeah. Luther wasn’t exactly the most tolerant guy in the world. The man was an appalling anti-semite.

    Martin Luther: The Jews and Their Lies

  2. Mark says:

    Sorry, I my formatting didn’t make it clear that the paragraph on the Reformers, on which I don’t have any particular disagreement, although I’d have to double check references on the Reformation to decide whether I fully agree or not with it.

    My thesis here is that we owe our religious toleration to the Byzantines.

  3. […] Olson presents Western Eyes posted at Pseudo-Polymath. Religious toleration, a artifact of the Enlightenment, or might it not […]