Leibniz’s doctrine of toleration: philosophical, theological and pragmatic reasons

In J. Parkin & T. Stanton (eds.), Natural Law and Toleration in the Early Enlightenment. Oxford University Press. pp. 139-164 (2013)
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Leibniz is not commonly numbered amongst canonical writers on toleration. One obvious reason is that, unlike Locke, he wrote no treatise specifically devoted to that doctrine. Another is the enormous amount of energy which he famously devoted to ecclesiastical reunification. Promoting the reunification of Christian churches is an objective quite different from promoting the toleration of different religious faiths – so different, in fact, that they are sometimes even construed as mutually exclusive. Ecclesiastical reunification aims to find agreement at least on the most important doctrines. Religious toleration involves accepting and respecting disagreement even on the most important doctrines. If one regards these two projects as alternative rather than complementary strategies for dealing with religious diversity, Leibniz might more readily be characterised as an ecumenist rather than a tolerationist. Such appears to be the conclusion, at any rate, implicit in the balance of critical literature on these topics: whereas a steady stream of studies has discussed Leibniz’s project of ecclesiastical reunification, only a meager trickle has been devoted to his views on toleration; and some of these studies go so far as to conclude that Leibniz had no doctrine of toleration at all. This paper will attempt to show, on the contrary, that a robust, many-layered, and unusually inclusive doctrine of toleration can be gleaned from Leibniz’s writings. This doctrine operated at least at three different levels: philosophical, theological, and pragmatic. As this implies, the doctrine of religious toleration, rather than being in collision with Leibniz’s core project of ecclesiastical reunification, was an essential element of that very project: it should be seen, in other words, not as a competing goal, but as a necessary first step toward ecclesiastical reunification. Yet at the same time it will also emerge that Leibniz’s doctrine of toleration was no mere function of this intra-Christian project of reunification: rather it was a still more fundamental principle which extended beyond the ecumenical project as well. It had the resources for accepting and respecting irreducible religious diversity and disagreement on points of importance not only between Christian communities, but also between Christians and non-Christians, including, in principle, even the atheists. These points will emerge from a discussion of statements on the philosophical, theological, and pragmatic justifications of religious toleration scattered throughout Leibniz’s sprawling corpus of writings.
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