Locke’s Doctrine of Toleration: A Contract with Nothingness (Part III)

by Jeffrey Bond

Today we present the third and final installment of an essay on John Locke’s doctrine of toleration.  The first part can be found here, and the second here.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in A Letter from the Romans, the Newsletter of the Roman Forum and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute, February, 1999, No. 4.


Although Locke initially attempted to identify toleration with the Christian virtue of charity, his doctrine of dogmatic toleration actually rests upon his conviction that human knowledge concerning eternal salvation is wholly subjective. Although Locke’s epistemology is somewhat concealed in his Letter, we know from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding[1] that he is an empiricist. That is to say, Locke denies that man has any innate speculative or practical notions; rather, man depends solely upon sense perception and internal reflection to obtain knowledge. Accordingly, Locke defines knowledge as “the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our Ideas” (p. 525). He asserts that his definition of knowledge is sound because it “is evident that the Mind knows not things immediately, but only by the intervention of the Ideas it has of them” (p. 563). Hence, Locke rejects the realistic epistemology of the ancients and the medievals who understood truth as the mind’s conformity to things. For Locke, reason has no intuitive capacity, no immediate grasp of the reality outside of itself; knowledge is therefore merely discursive. Indeed, Locke defines knowledge by the discursive act of the knower rather than by the object known. Man can know the operations of his own mind, but he cannot objectively know things outside of his mind. As a result, man is restricted to engaging in hypothetical explanations of the object before him by means of sense perception and introspection, for man cannot truly know the object itself.

We can understand, then, why Locke belittles the value of speculative knowledge at the beginning of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Since man cannot really grasp things as they are in themselves, he ought to turn his attention to matters that directly affect his life and conduct here and now. After all, Locke believes that the empirical phenomena that the mind encounters through the senses are in themselves worth little or nothing; it is the mind’s activity, according to Locke, which gives meaning to the otherwise meaningless phenomena. Here we see a perfect correspondence between Locke’s epistemology and his famous labor theory of value. In the Second Treatise, Locke stresses again and again that man’s labor gives value to nature which, prior to the addition of human effort, is relatively worthless. Since man can perceive no definite purpose or end in the empirical phenomena of nature, it is his labor, physical or mental, which artificially creates value where there was none before. In the physical realm, man’s labor transforms the meager material of nature into whatever his desires lead him to value; and in the mental realm, the activity of man’s mind brings organization and structure to the phenomena that he cannot really know in themselves. Therefore, just as physical labor is the source and value of real property, so too mental labor creates meaning by transforming the worthless raw materials of the empirical world into man’s own intellectual property, namely, his ideas.

Locke’s doctrine of toleration is a supreme example of man’s creative power with respect to intellectual property. Like the invention of money, which he identifies as the artificial creation most responsible for lifting man out of the poverty of the state of nature, Locke’s doctrine of toleration has no objective ground in the nature of things; and yet this doctrine, once it has been conventionally accepted by others, is capable of transforming the entire world in accordance with his personal vision. For Locke, even the law of non-contradiction, which the ancients and medievals identified as the first principle of the speculative intellect, has no intrinsic worth due to its speculative truth; the only value of the law of non-contradiction, or any other idea, is the labor put into formulating it, and its subsequent acceptance as valuable by others, much as men once agreed to make gold or silver the medium of exchange. Locke himself recognizes that his doctrine of toleration has no intrinsic value; but if men subjectively believe this doctrine to be true or valuable, much as they believe in money, then the doctrine becomes true and valuable for them. Although Locke rejects the possibility of a self-evident truth that can be grasped immediately by the mind, he is willing to operate as if his doctrine of toleration is self-evidently true. Simply put, the power to affect human behavior is more important to Locke than theoretical reasonableness, because man cannot really know whether or not his ideas actually conform to reality. Locke believes that man’s relation to the universe can only be defined in terms of man’s awareness of the ideas of order he constructs in his own mind, for each individual creates for himself the meaning of all empirical phenomena.

Locke’s position would seem to be as follows: since man cannot really obtain objective knowledge of a divine order outside of himself, it makes no sense to attempt to impose or even urge religious uniformity on men, for there is no standpoint outside of ourselves from which religious and political disputes can be settled. Consequently, it would be irrational to impose religious ceremonies and doctrines where man possesses mere opinions, and no real knowledge. For Locke, even the very idea of God is the product of the mind’s activity. In fact, the mind that conceives of God is really God himself. This radical subjectivism, however, is not directly taught by Locke, who apparently wished to avoid the anarchy to which this view would lead if widely embraced. Consider what Locke writes in his Two Tracts on Government about the destructive practical consequences of the collapse of all law: “all authority will vanish from the earth and, the seemly order of affairs being convulsed and the frame of government dissolved, each would be his own Lawmaker and his own God.”[2] While Locke’s view does in effect make each man the measure of all things—his own Lawmaker and his own God—Locke is at pains to conceal the full implications of his doctrine of dogmatic toleration. And yet, because he denies that there are any innate speculative or practical notions, Locke cannot really say that peace and order are objectively preferable to anarchy. He seems to grant implicitly that peace and order are self-evident goods for man, yet his own subjectivism undermines his arbitrary preference for a comfortable life rather than a violent death. Locke can really only say that he himself prefers peace and order to anarchy, although what he means by “peace” and “order” is of course wholly subjective. Apparently Locke spoke his real mind when he asserted at the beginning of the Letter that all claims of orthodoxy are disguised quest for power, for this assertion rightly applies to his own attempt to establish a new orthodoxy, i.e., to remake the world in his own image.

Despite first appearances, the doctrine of toleration is, ironically, an attempt to impose religious uniformity on the world. Locke’s claim to orthodoxy is hidden by his emphasis on toleration, but the toleration Locke preaches is dogmatic, not practical. Thus Locke gives the appearance of neutrality with respect to religious belief, but his position is anything but neutral. Real neutrality would have to allow men to consider every position, including the position that said it was the one and only true position. But this position, which is that of the Catholic Church, cannot be permitted because it directly questions the truth and authority of Locke’s dogmatic toleration. The Catholic Church, then, is the greatest impediment to Locke’s quest for power because the Church embraces dogmatic intolerance. Locke’s plan is to impose religious uniformity on the world by eliminating any real choice with respect to religion. The plan is as follows: as long as each religious group subordinates its doctrine and practices to the one supreme doctrine of toleration, these religious groups are free to differ all they want in their self-confessed subjective beliefs. And despite all their apparent disagreements, they will nevertheless belong to Locke’s universal church of toleration. The Catholic Church will then be eliminated by consensus, for all the other churches will be united against the Catholic Church for rejecting the one supreme dogma. Toleration will then become the ultimate religious good.

If the implications of Locke’s doctrine of toleration appear to be frightening, that is because they are. To see the real meaning of Locke’s doctrine is to see the internal logic of the modern enterprise. Although Locke repeatedly asserts, as do all contemporary Lockeans, that each individual is the measure for himself of religious truth, nevertheless Locke sets forth this very doctrine as somehow true for all men, namely, that God only requires each man to perform those actions and hold those beliefs that he subjectively believes God requires of him. But how, given Locke’s subjectivism, can he claim to know that the Catholic position—which says that each individual is not the measure of religious truth—is wrong? On Locke’s own terms, he must admit that an individual Catholic, who subjectively believes that the Catholic position is true, is as right in his belief as Locke is in his own. The reason Locke hates the Catholic position is that the individual Catholic claims that Catholic beliefs are objectively true and necessary for himself and others. Locke cannot say that the Catholic position is wrong, unless he claims that objectivity in religious matters is in fact possible after all. But because Locke begins by denying that men can resolve political and religious disputes on the basis of the objective merits of the conflicting positions, the best he can do is to try to achieve power over the Catholic position by convincing the world that the doctrine of toleration is in each man’s best interests. In this way, Locke works to create a universal consensus that the doctrine of toleration is sacrosanct. This, of course, requires the absolute suppression of true Catholic doctrine, or the transformation of Catholicism into a subjective sect like every other religious sect.

Recall that Locke said that only those who teach the duty of tolerating all men will be granted the right to toleration by the magistrate. Note that what is prior for Locke is the duty to tolerate others. Only those who will accept the duty of toleration are granted the civil right to be tolerated themselves. This priority that Locke gives to the duty of toleration is mirrored in the way in which men enter into the Lockean social contract. In fact, it is now clear that Locke’s doctrine of toleration is not an addition to the social contract, but the very essence of it. Each man must first renounce his natural right to denounce and punish evil in others before he is granted the civil right to have his life, liberty, and property protected by the magistrate. We can see, then, in the very origin of the social contract, the “logic” of our contemporary situation where our duty to tolerate evil has increasingly eclipsed individual rights, even understood in Lockean terms. When a man enters into a Lockean social contract and accepts the duty to tolerate the subjective opinions and practices of all other men, that man thereby renounces his right to make objective judgments. The apparently irresistible allure of this contract is that those who accept the duty of toleration will likewise have the right to have their own subjective views tolerated by others, as long as these view do not violate the doctrine of toleration which holds the entire contract together. Clearly modern man has not been able to resist Locke’s flattering assumption that each man’s subjective views are sufficient for his happiness as long as he does not insist on their absolute objectivity. Like his forebears in Eden, modern man seems unable to resist the promise of being a God unto himself, even at the price of being a communion of one.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Locke’s doctrine of toleration is that it is wholly negative and without objective content. Like Protestantism, which gave birth to this monster, Locke’s doctrine is only intelligible insofar as it is a rejection of Catholicism. Since an individual’s religious interests cannot be established objectively, the interests of each individual are determined by his freedom to choose those doctrines which he believes will advance his interests. But no one is really free to choose other than Locke’s position. The situation is much like that of the communist elections we were repeatedly told about in grade school: there are many candidates to choose from, but they are all communists. American elections in Lockeland are no different. By convincing men to embrace subjectivity as the pseudo-objective truth, Locke seemingly satisfies the soul’s desire for objective truth while simultaneously emptying that truth of any real content. Thus, man is left adrift in the sea of constantly shifting, subjectively determined interests of all parties to the social contract. Life is reduced to vector forces, and to the vectors go the spoils. In Lockland, objective claims about right and wrong will be rarely made, and even more rarely understood. Since there is no objective knowledge to which men can refer to resolve disputes, there is no real boundary to the magistrate’s authority, or rather, power over men. Thus does the so-called order established by Lockean law become an end in itself. Unlike the ancients and medievals, who understood law to be a means to promote other ends, such as virtue and the salvation of souls, Locke sees only the power of the law, not its reasonableness. And there is no standard external to the magistrate’s will that man can evaluate with his reason. Therefore, the obligation to obey does not depend upon knowledge, but upon power; and the sole foundation of the magistrate’s power is the need to avoid the consequences of anarchy. But one man’s anarchy is another man’s order. Hence, the will of the magistrate becomes the supreme temporal and spiritual power in Lockean society, and in Locke’s church there are conveniently no clergy from whom the magistrate must wrest power.

Although Locke’s imposition of a universal church is achieved indirectly rather than directly, it is all the more powerful for having entered, as it were, through the back door. And because Locke’s doctrine of toleration instills in men a subjectivist habit of mind, it renders them inhuman by eroding their ability and desire to make objective judgments about good and evil. Thus, Locke’s doctrine not only undermines the specifically human act of moral judgment, but it also destroys rationality itself. It is difficult to imagine a doctrine better suited to prepare minds for the reign of the Anti-Christ, the anti-Logos. Certainly Locke’s doctrine, which is contrary to reason, is grounded upon faith alone, where “faith” is understood in the most subjective sense of the word. In fact, Locke’s universal church seeks to replace the three supernatural virtues as follows: faith is reduced to an irrational belief in the social contract, which is really a contract with nothingness; hope is reduced to the vain expectation of endless material comfort; and charity is reduced to the supreme duty of toleration, the practice of which leads to the eternal loss of our very selves.


[1] All quotations from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding are from Nidditch, P., ed., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford University, 1979).

[2] Abrams, P., ed., John Locke: Two Tracts on Government (Cambridge University, 1967), p. 45.

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