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  • Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration by Teresa M. Bejan
  • Paul Downes (bio)
Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration teresa m. bejan Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017 272 pp.

Mere Civility's thoroughly researched and eloquently argued central chapters describe three seventeenth-century approaches to religious toleration and the regulation of public speech. Teresa M. Bejan, who teaches political theory at Oxford, scrutinizes the writings of Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke with a view to advancing a historically informed response to what she calls "our recent crisis of civility," which is to say, "the increasingly partisan and polarized tenor of democratic debate" around issues of "religion, education and areas of broad social and cultural concern" (1–2). What "standard of conversation and conduct," asks Bejan, should be applied to help manage the growing "conflict" (played out on college campuses and beyond) "between free speech, on the one hand, and the demands of diversity and inclusion, on the other"? (7). Surprisingly, she suggests, it is the "mere civility" of the maverick Roger Williams that will help us to articulate the most effective theory of toleration in the twenty-first century.

In making her case, Bejan seeks to differentiate herself from the broad swath of contemporary thinkers who claim John Locke as the patron saint of liberal toleration. Tracking Locke's career, Bejan suggests that his toleration "became more radical and expansive" (136) as he became more cosmopolitan in his outlook. But in the process, she argues, Locke developed a far more extensive and restrictive set of extrapolitical ethical demands. It is true, Bejan argues, that both Locke and Williams sought a way to protect religious discourse and practice from political interference, but Locke [End Page 586] increasingly sought the answer to a tolerant yet peaceful society in the distinctly human capacity to achieve a correspondence of inner "sincerity" with outer expression or communication (136–37). Locke sought a "vinculum societatis of mutual trust" that would even (perhaps especially) come into being through the "very practice of disagreement itself" (137). Locke's civility appealed to a set of "fundamental principles," which, as Bejan explains, included "the existence of God, the Duty of Toleration, and the Golden Rule, which Locke described as 'such a fundamental truth for the regulation of human society' that by it alone 'one might without difficulty determine all the cases and doubts in social morality'" (138). This is much more than "tolerantia," Bejan continues; "[i]nstead of a negative idea of permission without approval, Locke offered a positive vision of a tolerant society as a community bound together by mutual trust, wherein the difficulties of disagreement would be assuaged through true and sincere civility" (139).

For Bejan, however, this robust Lockean civility, reliant as it is upon a shared set of fundamentals, remains far too restrictive. Roger Williams, on the other hand, proposed a "mere" civility that, in its very weakness, testified to the strength of Williams's conviction and, Bejan argues, continues to offer a promising model of sustainable religious and ideological diversity. For Williams, the space of toleration was important not as an arena for the exercise and development of mutual trust, but as an open field for the ongoing work of evangelical persuasion. In this respect, Williams's conceptual civic space was wilder and more dangerous than Locke's, and it is possible to detect a certain admiration, on Bejan's part, for this aspect of Williams's difference from both Locke and Hobbes. "Whereas Hobbes and Locke learned about civility in the drawing room," she writes, "Williams experienced it on the frontier" (153). Locke's "demanding" set of ethical requirements for acceptance into the gentleman's club of free and open debate imposes what Bejan calls an "unabashedly elite and elitist standard" compared to Williams's "mere civility." Moreover, Locke's toleration harbors its own form of insincerity: unlike Williams, Locke fails to explicitly defend the rigorous Protestant ideals he nevertheless tries to sneak in under the guise of a rational and cosmopolitan language of mutual trustworthiness. Williams's faith is strong and unabashed, and seeks only enough civic space in which to openly practice its evangelical...


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pp. 586-590
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