Toleration and the Need for Historical Understanding in Philosophy
Mario Ricciardi, University of Milan 26 June 2014

Of course the English word ‘toleration’ has been around for quite a while, as its cognate words in other modern languages. They can boast of a distinguished ancestry going back to Latin. Yet, to mention just one among several examples, the meaning of the French word ‘tolérance’ – which is the very same word Voltaire uses in his Traité, one of the founding documents of the history of tolerance as a political principle in Europe – had still, in the eighteenth century, a pejorative sense in common parlance, meaning “a lax complacency towards evil”. This was the same sense one finds in Latin authors like Augustine or Ambrose of Milan. Far from being unquestionably a virtue, toleration for these early Christians was highly suspect, and even more so when a tolerant attitude towards different creeds and religious practices was advocated by pagans. Strange as it might sound to our post-Christian ears, one should bear in mind that – as the historian of ancient thought J.J. O’Donnell aptly wrote – “paganism is not a religion, but an attitude towards religion, and a particularly tolerant at that”.

As O’Donnell’s remark shows, practices of toleration have a history, which goes back far beyond the conventional boundaries of the modern age. They emerge in social surroundings where diversity – of customs, rituals, beliefs – “is such as to give rise to disapproval, dislike, or disgust”. In such situations those who have power or resources can easily fall pray to the temptation to use them to influence, bully, or force the diverse, the alien, he or she who doesn’t conform to their idea of proper behaviour. It is in “circumstances of toleration” such as these that tolerant practices might emerge. After the great European religious wars some people realised that the only way to stop the massacre was to find some kind of Modus Vivendi among the different Christian Churches. The end of the fight fostered new sensibilities – more open, sometimes even sceptical, towards religion. In the Age of Enlightenment a reflective attitude with respect to tolerance as a practice lead to principled argument: enters toleration as a moral and political ideal.

The compressed, and indeed oversimplified, history of toleration as a political and moral value that I have sketched so far is of course too thin to bear the full weight of Williams’s thesis on the need for historical understanding of political and moral concepts. However, I hope that these introductory remarks will suggest to our readers the right perspective to look at the three contributions to this conference. Susan Mendus is a philosopher who has written an influential book on toleration. Roberta Sala, a researcher in political philosophy at the University Vita Salute San Raffaele in Milan, published many brilliant works on toleration, moral pluralism and public ethics. Alain Touraine is one of the most distinguished European sociologists. Together they display the kind of sensibility Williams was calling for.



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