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  • Religious Toleration, Freedom of Conscience, and Russian Liberalism
  • Randall A. Poole (bio)

In 2008, Martha Nussbaum published Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality. She believes that tradition to be under threat, not only from Christian fundamentalists but also from "new atheist" public intellectuals like Daniel Dennett.1 To defend our tradition of religious freedom and pluralism, a tradition she esteems, Nussbaum begins her book with a chapter on perhaps the most important founder of that tradition, Roger Williams, who established the colony of Rhode Island on the principle of unlimited religious liberty. In works such as his 1644 book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, Williams anticipates and goes deeper than John Locke's more famous treatise of 1689, A Letter concerning Toleration. Nussbaum argues that Williams is concerned not only, or even primarily, with civil peace but also with the nature of human personhood, dignity, and equality. He found their source in conscience, which for him meant the capacity for moral choice and aspiration, or for self-determination. In this, Nussbaum notes, he was influenced by Stoic natural-law doctrine. She also points to the striking similarity with Kant's later ideas of human autonomy and dignity. The link between this natural-law tradition of philosophical anthropology, with its emphasis on conscience as the source of human dignity, and freedom of conscience in the specific sense of religious liberty, is that individuals must be permitted and encouraged to seek God or ultimate meaning in their own way.2 [End Page 611]

In the first years of the 20th century, Roger Williams was known by Russian liberals, who appreciated him for the same reasons Martha Nussbaum does today. In 1901, Petr Struve, the leader of the Russian Liberation Movement that would culminate in the Russian revolution of 1905, published an important essay, "What Is True Nationalism?" which lays out his liberal theory.3 Struve calls Williams the first apostle of the idea of the inalienable rights of man, beginning with freedom of conscience—the "first word of liberalism," in Struve's phrase. He refers in this connection to the work of his Russian colleague, Pavel Novgorodtsev, who devoted a few pages of his History of the Philosophy of Law to Williams.4 Struve and Novgorodtsev were then organizing Problems of Idealism, conceived as a defense of liberty of conscience and of its importance in liberalism.5 By the time it was published in November 1902 as a type of philosophical companion to Struve's famous émigré newspaper Osvobozhdenie, the Russian Liberation Movement was well under way. Freedom of conscience was its common platform. "The desire for religious freedom in the empire had ... accomplished what seemed beyond the capacity of all other public issues," writes John Basil in one recent study. "It drew together for one purpose all but a handful of Russians."6 That purpose seemed to be achieved when Nicholas II issued the Manifesto of 17 October 1905, though, as Paul Werth and others [End Page 612] have recently shown, the October Manifesto granted freedom of conscience more as a promise that was to be implemented through future legislation—legislation that was in fact never enacted.7

Before 1905, the autocracy generally described its policy toward non-Orthodox religions in the empire as "religious toleration," which meant something different from freedom of conscience. The nature of this difference is one of the main themes of this forum. Toleration in imperial Russia was a revocable privilege or concession granted by the state to recognized religious groups, while freedom of conscience is an inalienable individual right. Freedom of conscience, because it specifies an intrinsic and inviolable entitlement or right, is incompatible in principle with autocratic state power—and for that reason the tsarist regime resisted recognizing it as long as possible. This is also why, as Werth indicates in his article here, scholars have tended to treat it (naturally) as a problem in the history of Russian liberalism, which aimed to transform autocratic Russia into a constitutional regime under the rule of law. Russian liberal philosophers, as I shall try to show, understood freedom of conscience as more than one natural right among others: for them...


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