- Locke Ascending
In his cardinal work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke asserts that it is one thing to show a man that he is in error, but another to put him in possession of the truth. Scholars studying Locke have never been reluctant to argue over each other's errors. The great challenge seems to lie in demonstrating the truth. This is particularly the case with Locke's religious content, which is both emphatic and reticent. That enigmatic quality brought him both admiration and scorn from his contemporaries. Modern scholars, no less than Locke's friends and [End Page 482] foes, find the place of religion in Locke's corpus to be a source of inexhaustible interpretation and controversy.
These four recent monographs represent significant contributions to the debate. Marshall details the factions and arguments of the toleration debates, demonstrating how many of Locke's arguments were informed by those controversies. Yolton catalogs the often overlooked intersection of spiritual and physical worlds in Locke's aforementioned Essay. Parker discerns in Locke the roots of modern Biblical criticism and reexamines his use of Scripture in the Two Treatises. Forster, using an integrated study of Locke's major texts, ascribes to him a theistic liberal vision that addresses some of our contemporary social challenges. Composed by specialists in history, philosophy, religious studies, and political science respectively, these monographs demonstrate the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to Locke's corpus.
Marshall's new text on the toleration debates should become a standard overview of the broad historical background of Locke's writing—both the toleration debates and the rise of the "republic of letters." But this new book is really not so much about Locke as it is a broader narrative of the period's ideological and religious conflicts. Locke scholars hoping for something akin to Marshall's 1994 landmark book, John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility, which focused more directly on Locke, will be disappointed. (The focus of the new text is perhaps on Bayle or Jurieu, for example, as much as Locke.) But this is a testimony to Marshall's 1994 text, rather than a complaint against this most recent work. Novices will gain a firm orientation to debates of the period. Scholars will find departure points for further research. That research especially includes, among other things, the role of sex and libertinism in debates that were otherwise about religion and politics. This is a particularly provocative facet of Marshall's history.
It is a massive undertaking to outline the early Enlightenment, and Marshall readily admits that the scope of earlier manuscripts got away from him. But the final approach is prudent. Marshall subdivides his subjects in a way that will appeal to students of the period, and he often leaves the narrative to serve as its own analysis. We learn of both the arguments for and against toleration. The organizing principle of the narrative is usually geographical and denominational. Almost every church and religious movement was united in arguing for some kind of intolerance; every European government wrestled with the question as well. Even advocates for toleration were selectively intolerant. What divided them were the details of the persecution—who, when, and why. We also learn of unity and diversity in arguments for toleration.
One of the clear lessons from Marshall's work is that this period was not a contest between religion and radical secularity. Many of the arguments for toleration were articulated on religious grounds. Many early tolerationists, including Locke, were not simply prescribing a particular intersection of religion and politics, but were prescribing a particular interpretation of Christianity. Many tolerationists saw themselves as proponents of...