Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Joseph Streeter on Ancient Concepts of Tolerance

by contributing editor Pranav Jain

Joseph Streeter is a historian of late antiquity with a side interest in the anthropology of religion. He is the co-editor, with Michael Whitby, of a collection of G.E.M. de Se. Croix’s essays entitled Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy for Oxford University Press, and of the essay “Should we worry about belief?” for the journal Anthropological Theory.

Streeter spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about his essay “Conceptions of Tolerance in Antiquity and Late Antiquity,” which was published in the current issue of the JHI (82.3) and is currently available open access. 


Pranav Jain: In your article, you sometimes use the words tolerance and toleration interchangeably. In early modern history and historiography, the two are often treated as distinct. Toleration is about belief whereas tolerance is more about daily practices. Even if Locke or Bayle believed in a particular form of religious toleration, the lived reality was, of course, more complex. Can one make a similar distinction when discussing Antiquity? 

Joseph Streeter: I doubt that there is a clear distinction between tolerance and toleration, whether in ordinary language or in the historiography of toleration, and historians who distinguish between the terms often do so in different ways (and they tend not to maintain the distinction consistently throughout their work). So, for example, Benjamin Kaplan stipulates a definition of toleration as a practice of “peaceful coexistence with others who adhered to a different religion” and I think implicitly identifies tolerance with something more principled, while Stuart Schwartz distinguishes “the history of religious toleration, by which is usually meant state or community policy” from the history of religious tolerance, which he describes as a history of “attitudes or sentiments.”  

For my part, I modify a distinction drawn by Jeremy Waldron and distinguish the disposition of tolerance from the political principle of toleration and suggest that people in antiquity could conceive of the former but not the latter. I focus on ‘tolerance’ because the term seems to me to have a broader and less exclusively normative use in ordinary English than ‘toleration.’ We can talk of someone as having a ‘tolerance’ for spicy food or pain or alcohol, and it does not seem right to me to think that the word has a different sense in these contexts from its sense in, say, talk of religious tolerance (in defining ‘tolerance’ as a ‘personal virtue,’ Waldron gives the concept an ethical content that it does not really have). So it is conceptions of, and attitudes toward, tolerance in the broad and not necessarily moral sense of ‘putting up with’ something that I have in mind in the article.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I suspect that the distinction you describe, which is one between tolerance/toleration understood as an informal and not necessarily principled practice of ‘getting along’ or coexisting, and tolerance/toleration understood as a more principled stance toward normatively objectionable views or practices, does not map in any settled way onto a distinction between tolerance and toleration. As such, any iteration of this distinction will be more or less stipulative in respect of the use of the terms ‘tolerance’ and ‘toleration.’

The distinction itself is certainly important and relevant to the study of late antiquity, although the notion of ‘practices of toleration’ or of toleration/tolerance as a practice is a difficult one to pin down. Often what historians are trying to explain by recourse to these terms is why we do not see more inter-religious or inter-confessional violence, given the radically exclusionary terms that religious ideologues use in articulating their differences with others. And what they look at are practices or contexts of social interaction in which religious differences do not, for whatever reason, ‘show up’ or are not salient, or where some other set of norms governs behavior. Some of the most important work on this subject in the historiography of late antiquity is Peter Brown’s discussions of the norms of conduct inculcated in elite education (paideia), which cut across religious differences and, he suggests, to some degree mitigated the effects of the more strident rhetoric that we see in our sources (especially Christian ones). And from ancient letter collections and elsewhere we see how elite ties can cut across religious differences. So while I doubt that there can be coherent late antique conceptions of religious toleration, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing that we can call religious toleration in the period.  

PJ: You effectively show how early modern writers sometimes misread ancient thinkers in their search for arguments that supported their own positions. Naturally, one can also argue that 20th-century historians did something similar to early modern thinkers. Though this leads to distortions and misinterpretations, is there something that we can still learn from such misreadings? 

JS: I am not sure that they tell us anything about intellectual life in late antiquity, at least not directly. But we can learn a great deal from thinking about them, both about late antiquity itself in coming to see that they are misreadings, and about the ideological forces that shape our own ways of thinking about late antiquity in understanding why they arise. For they are expressions of deep ideological forces, and not just errors. 

To generalize, I think the modern intellectual historiography of late antique religious toleration has a strongly anachronistic character, both in respect of its central claims and its methods. This is manifested most obviously in the sometimes wildly anachronistic language used to characterize the late antique arguments: consider Hubert Cancik and Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier’s talk of the emperor Jovian’s “liberale Religionspolitik” and of Themistius’ “demand for state neutrality in matters of religion” (“die Forderung des Themistios nach Neutralität des Staates in Religionsangelegenheiten”). It is also, I think, manifested in the repeated claims that a given late antique thinker has ‘anticipated’ some doctrine commonly associated with the enlightenment or with the work of a 19th-century liberal. Quentin Skinner’s strictures against such talk may have been too strong, but I think he was right to regard it as fishy. At least, it seems to me implausible on its face that Tertullian anticipated Constant or the enlightenment, or that a piece of propaganda by Themistius may have shared ‘something of the spirit’ of a treatise by Mill, especially when we consider the radical differences between the social, political, and intellectual contexts in which these texts were produced. 

There are also subtler anachronisms. Thus historians have tended to treat as clear certain familiar-looking expressions or claims which, if read in relation to their contemporary linguistic contexts, are anything but. In the article I use the example of Tertullian’s expression libertas religionis, and more can be said about the way scholars have read and excerpted the passage in which this expression occurs. But I could equally have used his claim, at Ad Scapulam 2.2, that “the religio of one neither hinders nor profits another” (nec alii obest aut prodest alterius religio).  If we translate this as “the religion of one neither hinders nor profits another” it may look unexceptionable, and this is how historians routinely take it. But Tertullian’s claim is about religio, and it looks extremely strange when read against earlier and subsequent usage of that term (including by Christians). Yet it has received little attention, even though Tertullian does not appear able to maintain it within the text itself. For later in Ad Scapulam—which is a short text—he boasts about the benefits to the empire as a whole from the fasts and prayers of Christians.        

The question, then, is why the historiography of late antique religious toleration should have this character. My own view, which I hope to develop more fully soon, is that this historiography has been shaped by, and is therefore in a sense part of, two related ideological projects. The broadest we may call the project of liberal self-definition. There has been some interesting work on the history of definitions of the liberal tradition, especially by avowed liberals—I’m thinking particularly of Duncan Bell’s 2014 article “What is liberalism?,” but also of the discussion of liberalism in Raymond Geuss’s History and Illusion in Politics. As both authors argue, these definitions are almost inevitably pieces of advocacy, which seek to incorporate as part of the liberal tradition as many established or attractive principles or concepts as possible. Another way to put this is to say that there is a strong tendency toward anachronism in liberal definitions of the liberal tradition. Bell’s interest is in how thinkers like Locke came to be classified as liberals, but it should not surprise us that late antique thinkers also came to be treated as, in effect, proto liberals, especially when we remember that quite prominent liberal thinkers have themselves contributed to the historiography of late antique religious toleration (I cite Ernest Barker in the text, but one might note also that the Italian liberal and later prime minister Luigi Luzzatti claimed that Themistius’ defence of ‘libertà di coscienza e dei culti’ was superior to the arguments for toleration in the work of Montaigne, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Vinet, and Mill).  

The second and earlier ideological project is that of the first proponents of freedom of conscience, and later of religious toleration. The now standard canon of late antique tolerationist texts—Tertullian’s Apology 24.5-6 and Ad Scapulam 2, Lactantius’s Divine Institutes 5.19, Themistius’s Fifth Oration, and Symmachus’s Third Relatio—is the creation of these thinkers/political actors. The methods they employed in creating this canon were not the holistic and contextualist methods that guide modern historical scholarship, but were more akin to what is now sometimes called ‘quote-mining’: the opportunistic excerption of superficially familiar and useful pieces of text, with little consideration for the linguistic and textual contexts that gives these textual units their sense (at least as historical texts). Of course, none of this would matter if modern scholars had shown that these texts advocate freedom of conscience/religious toleration/freedom of religion using modern historical methods. But it seems to me that they have not done this, and that scholarship on late antique religious toleration tends to recapitulate the methods of early modern scholarship as well as the themes. Discussions tend to focus very narrowly on the standard passages, with little consideration for their textual and linguistic contexts. My suspicion is that modern historians confront these texts ‘knowing’ that they contain arguments for freedom of conscience/religious toleration/freedom of religion—it is not uncommon to see this treated as a settled piece of historical knowledge. But the circumstances under which it became settled should give us pause, and it seems to me that when we read these texts historically, it becomes both much less clear what the authors are arguing—this is true particularly of Tertullian and Lactantius—and much less clear how we should describe what the authors were doing in making their arguments. To say that Themistius and Symmachus ‘argued for’ freedom of religion or ‘advocated’ freedom of religion seems to me to imply that that notion already had a place within contemporary thought, and I think that is not right. 

So we can learn a lot by attending to these misreadings, above all in becoming aware of the historical and ideological forces that, often unbeknownst to us, shape our sense of particular texts and of the positions that people could take in these texts. And I suspect this is as true for early modern scholars as for scholars of late antiquity. 

PJ: You dwell a great deal on the notion of insult. It is not one that scholars of early modern religious toleration talk about a lot. What can they learn from it? In other words, can we read someone like Locke differently if we think more about insult and social status?

JS: I must preface my response to this question by emphasizing that I am not an early modernist, but a historian of late antiquity with an interest in early modern intellectual and cultural history. What I say here therefore is just what seemed striking to me as a fairly well-informed outsider to the field—I do not claim for it anything more than that.

I came to the subject of insult through the subject of tolerance. The genesis of this article lay in a study of the ancient vocabulary that is somewhere in the semantic neighborhood of our term ‘tolerance,’ terms or expressions which involve some notion of putting up with something uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant (one of the terms—anexikakia, or ‘putting up with bad things’—seems to me a pretty good synonym for ‘tolerance’). That is, I wanted to look at the contexts in which ancient authors talked of something like ‘tolerance,’ and to see what might count as an object of tolerance for them—rather than starting from our own conceptions of religious tolerance/toleration and seeing what (if anything) the ancients might have to say about these. And it quickly became apparent that insult, and the question of how to respond to insult, was extensively thematized in ancient and late antique literature. In particular it was a locus around which people articulated their conceptions of honor, as well as the transcendence of the ethics of honor (in the case of the Stoics) or the overturning and redefinition of the ethics of honor (in the Christian case).

With respect to Locke in particular, the focus on insult perhaps helps us to see what he leaves out. One of the consequences of the Christian conception of slavery to God that I discuss is that it tends to make discourse about God highly personal: it is, in a sense, discourse about oneself, insofar as one is a slave of God, or at least it is discourse to which one has a fundamentally interested relationship, since one’s standing is wholly bound up with and dependent upon God. One of the things that is very striking about reading Locke after reading anything by a late antique Christian, is the disinterestedness of his attitude toward what had hitherto been central doctrinal issues. As Locke treats them, theological claims about, say, the trinity are just expressions of opinion, whereas in the late antique context they were expressions of belief and much more—expressions of praise, contempt, etc.—and they are apprehended first under these more emotive terms, and only after some abstraction as expressions of belief.  My suspicion is that it is Locke’s framing of the question of tolerance that allows him to adopt this attitude much more than any argument that he makes, that the—to us innocuous—phrase “mutua inter Christianos tolerantia” is doing a lot of work, and that excluding God from the question of tolerance makes it much easier for him to make his case. That he is in some way gerrymandering the question of tolerance seems especially apparent if we look at, say, heresiological texts from the mid-17th century, which seem much closer to late antique authors like Ambrose and Chrysostom than they do to Locke, insofar as they draw very close connections between heresy and blasphemy, or offenses against God (this is clear from only a brief look at a work like Thomas Edward’s Gangraena). For the authors of these works, God is very much within the social context in which questions of tolerance arise.   

As I said, these observations may or may not be pertinent. But one issue I would like to think about more, and about which early modernists are much better qualified than me to examine, is how the framings of the human relationship to God current in early modern Europe shaped the possibilities for tolerance. In the translation of the Letter to the Romans in The King James Bible, Paul introduces himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ,” whereas in the Greek New Testament he is a ‘slave,’ a doulos. Now I assume that to be a servant in early 17th century England was to have a much less degraded status than a doulos in the early Roman Empire (and by implication, that to be a master in that context is to have a much less exalted status). What are a servant’s obligations to his master? Presumably they are not as binding or all-consuming as those of a doulos to his master.       

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: William Blake, “The Blasphemer,” ca. 1800. Courtesy of Tate.

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