I have been publishing on Pandaemonium a series of ‘lost pages’ from The Quest for a Moral Compass, my forthcoming book on the history of moral thought. In completing the book,  I had to cut the original manuscript quite considerably. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. Previous excerpts were on MachiavelliDescartes and Greek cynics, atomists, skeptics and relativists. This extract is about John Locke and the Glorious Revolution, parts of which I have already published on Pandaemonium. The book itself will be published early next year.

William Miller Prince of Orange

On 5 November 1688, a huge flotilla of ships, four times the size of the Spanish Armada that had tried to invade England a century earlier, made land at Torbay, in Devon, on the south coast of England. It was the beginning of the Glorious Revolution, when the Catholic James II of England was overthrown by the Protestant Dutch prince William of Orange whose wife Mary was James’ daughter but also a Protestant.

The Glorious Revolution has come to be seen, in the English liberal tradition at least, as a bloodless event, a watershed in British history which established the supremacy of parliament over the crown, and set Britain on the path towards constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. In truth, it was not bloodless, hardly a revolution and its glory was stained.  William’s march through England may have shed relatively little blood, but in Scotland and Ireland conflict was vicious and brutal. William’s triumph was less the product of a revolution than of a conspiracy to effect a foreign invasion. Alarmed not just by James’ Catholicism, but also his attempts to suspend penal laws against Catholics and to grant toleration to some Protestant dissenters, a number of leading English peers including the earls of Danby and Halifax, and Henry Compton, Bishop of London, invited William to usurp the throne. William was only too glad to oblige.

In the 1670s and 1680s, the decades following the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy, England was still convulsed by political, economic and religious conflict. The religious confrontation between Protestants and Catholics was but the outward expression of deeper political and class conflict, of the power struggle between Parliament and the King, and between the King, the aristocracy, the nascent middle class, and the artisans, tenant farmers and the landless. The liberal defence of Parliament over the monarch was interwoven with illiberal hostility towards Catholics. The Whigs, the party of parliamentary democracy, the party from which the English liberal tradition developed, were also the party of anti-Catholic bigotry. Before the Revolution the Whigs sought to exclude James from the English throne because of his Catholicism. After the Revolution, a battery of laws that were created specifically to harass, humiliate and oppress Catholics.  Catholics were excluded from most public offices, could not stand for parliament and were denied the vote; no Catholic could become the monarch, or even marry one, a prohibition that has only just been expunged from the statute books; they were forced out of many professions from teaching to the law; they were barred from English universities, but barred also from studying abroad; they were forbidden from holding firearms, from serving in the armed forces and even from owning a horse valued at over £5; they could not inherit Protestant land and could not buy land with a lease of more than 31 years; Protestants were banned from converting to Catholicism, and Catholics banned from marrying Protestants.  The events of 1688 may have been ‘glorious’ in the sense that they helped constrain the power of the monarchy and pave the way for parliamentary democracy; but its inglorious legacy was the institutionalization of anti-Catholic bigotry and the marginalizing of the more radical democratic voices.

A few weeks after William had touched down in Torbay and marched into London, the Dutch royal yacht arrived in London, bringing with it William’s wife Mary. On board also was the English philosopher John Locke, who had spent five years in exile in the Netherlands. Locke’s royal return seemed to enthrone him as the philosopher of 1688, the man whose ideas gave intellectual bottom to the policies of constitutional monarchy, individual liberty and religious tolerance. He has come to be regarded, and not just in Britain, as the philosopher who laid the foundations of liberalism, and of liberal democracy. From Thomas Jefferson to Voltaire, Locke’s liberalism provided inspiration for eighteenth century mainstream Enlightenment thinkers. Locke’s philosophical outlook helped create an intellectual climate that, as historian Norman Hampson has noted, fostered ‘toleration’, ‘the acceptance of the potential equality of man’ and ‘the assumption that society, by the regulation of material conditions, could promote the moral improvement of its members.’ Yet, against the background of the ferment created by the early Enlightenment, Locke’s philosophy can sometimes appear as ambiguous as the Glorious Revolution itself, and nowhere more so than in his discussion of ‘tolerance’.


John Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, to Puritan parents of modest means. His father was a country lawyer who served in a Puritan cavalry company in the Civil War. With the patronage of Alexander Popham, his father’s military commander, Locke gained a place at the prestigious Westminster School in London, and then at Christ Church, Oxford, where his friends included Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. After leaving Oxford, Locke became physician and secretary to the moral philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, one of the richest and most powerful political figures in England. A founder of the Whig movement, Shaftesbury was at the heart of many of the battles and intrigues of the age, and expressed the full gamut of Whig political ambiguities. He supported the rights of Parliament over the monarch, and advocated religious freedom for Protestant dissenters, but was also deeply and unpleasantly anti-Catholic, leading the campaign to exclude James, and all ‘popists’, from the English throne.  As these struggles played themselves out in the years before the Glorious Revolution, so Shaftesbury’s fortunes, and those of his friend Locke, waxed and waned.  In 1676, and again five years later, Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was eventually forced to flee to the Netherlands, where he was shortly afterwards followed by Locke.

While in exile Locke published anonymously, and in Latin, his Epistola de Tolerentia, later translated into English as A Letter Concerning Toleration. It is an immensely powerful argument in defence of religious tolerance. It is also an immensely restricted argument in defence of religious tolerance.

Locke’s starting point is the insistence that it is the duty of every individual to seek his own salvation. The means to do so are his religious belief and the ability openly to worship.  The power of human political authority cannot, therefore, rightfully extend over either sphere. The proper concern of a magistrate or civil government is the protection of life, liberty, health and property. The magistrate can use force and violence where this is necessary to preserve civil interests against attack. This is the central function of the state. One’s religious concerns with salvation, however, are not within the domain of civil interests, and so lie outside of the legitimate concern of the magistrate or the civil government. In effect, Locke adds an additional right to the natural rights of life, liberty, health and property -  the right to choose one’s own road to salvation.

The only power that the state possesses is the use of force. Religion consists of genuine inward persuasion of the mind. The power of the state cannot, therefore, genuinely alter people’s religious beliefs, nor show them the path to true religion. Nor, Locke insisted, would it necessarily be a good thing if force could change people’s minds. Many of the magistrates of the world believe in religions that are false. Accepting faith as defined by a government or a magistrate would not always, or even often, guide people to the true religion.


Locke’s was a brave and controversial argument, particularly at a time when the whole of Europe was rent by tempestuous religious strife, and when intolerance and persecution were the norm. But Locke’s concept of liberty was also exceedingly narrow. ‘Locke’s toleration’, as Jonathan Israel observes, ‘revolves primarily around freedom of worship and theological discussion, placing little emphasis on freedom of thought, speech and persuasion beyond what relates to freedom of conscience.’ Because it is a theological conception, ‘Locke’s toleration is grudging, on doctrinal grounds, in according toleration to some groups and emphatic in denying toleration to others.’

‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society’ Locke insisted, ‘are to be tolerated by the magistrate’.  This led him at best to equivocate about Catholics, at worst to be openly intolerant. Catholics owed their primary allegiance to Rome, not to London, and so could not expect tolerance or protection. It is a claim few make these days about Catholics, but many continue to do so about Jews and Muslims. And those ‘who deny the being of a God’, Locke maintained, are ‘not at all to be tolerated’. Atheism, for Locke, undermined all morality and therefore was a threat to the very foundations of society. ‘The taking away of God, though but even in thought’, he wrote, ‘dissolves all’ because ‘Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.’ In any case, ‘those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.’ In other words, since tolerance was only tolerance of religious freedom, those without religion did not have a claim upon such tolerance.

There is a striking contrast between Locke’s conception of tolerance and that of Baruch Spinoza, whose starting point is not the salvation of the soul but promotion of individual liberty. ‘The less freedom of judgment is granted to men’, he believed,  ‘the further are they removed from the most natural state and consequently the more repressive the regime’. All attempts to curb free expression not only curtail legitimate freedom but are futile. ‘If no man, then, can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts, it follows that utter failure will attend any attempt in a state to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinion.’  Spinoza’s real fear was not that dissenting views might undermine the power of faith, but that ecclesiastical power might undermine individual liberty. Hence he advocated the use of the state to limit the size and power of religious congregations. To our age, in which state and church are separated in most liberal democracies, and in which the power of the church has diminished while that of the state has grown, this might seem as illiberal an attitude as Locke’s refusal to tolerate Catholics or atheists. Yet in an age in which state and church were fused, and ecclesiastic power was immense, and often an obstacle to individual liberty, Spinoza’s argument was truly radical. ‘The right of the sovereign, both in the religious and secular spheres’, he wrote at the close of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ‘should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he wishes and say what he thinks’.  It is a view that seems startling even today.

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  1. bruce madeiros

    At moment I am waiting in Orlando airport,USA, for a plane that will eventually take me back to the UK. Technology is amazing that I type this and it will be landing on your computer in the UK
    For me Locke is the father of modern liberalism and human rights and he didn’t reject Christianity but simply reinterpretating it . As I understand it , Locke attempted to redefine Christianity in terms of ” true religion” and by implication false religion. For he considered that the new tolerant interpretation of Christianity was the true version whilst the current intolerant interpretation of England at that time was the false version.
    Furthermore he said that if only his fellow citizens had a proper understanding of “true “Christianity then England and the rest of Christendom would not be engulfed in turmoil . I’m sure his view is relevant today.
    He considered toleration as the chief characteristic “Mark of the True Church”. For Locke,a so-called Christian who boast of “Antiquities of Places and Names” are much like Marks of Men striving for power and Empire over one another rather than the Church of Christ.
    He went on to say that if a man pursues these narrow and self serving ends in the name of religion yet is simultaneously destitute of love, meekness and good will towards all men, even those who are not Christians he is yet short of being a true Christian. He said that no man can be a Christian, without love and without Faith with works not by Force but by Love. He reckon that most people have lost their focus when it comes to religion. They have misdirected their anger away from identifying the real social problems afflicting English society.
    I wonder what Looke would say today ?

  2. This view on the Glorious Revolution and Locke’s religious (in)tolerance made me rethink about “Wigh history of the world”. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Great work, Kenan. This reminded me that Locke’s essay on toleration has been sitting on a bookshelf for too long. I will definitely follow and look forward to reading more.

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