Tolerance is usually regarded as “the quintessential liberal value.” This position is supported by a standard liberal history that views religious toleration as emerging from the post-Reformation wars of religion as the solution to the problem of religious violence. Requiring the separation of church from state, tolerance was secured by giving the state the sole authority to punish religious violence and to protect the individual freedoms of conscience and religion. This standard liberal history exerts a powerful hold on the modern imagination: it undergirds several important recent accounts of liberal tolerance and virtually every major study of tolerance in the ancient world. Nevertheless, this familiar narrative distorts our understanding of tolerance’s premodern origins, unduly restricts the language available to us to speak about tolerance, and impoverishes present-day debates. In the lecture, Professor Atkins will illustrate these claims by showing how the standard liberal history obscures tolerance’s origins in a North-African Christian tradition that derives accounts of political judgment and patience within pluralistic communities from theological reflection on God’s roles as a patient father and just judge. By recovering this forgotten tradition, we can better understand and assess the choices made by leading theorists of liberal tolerance and, as a result, think better about how to achieve peaceful coexistence in an increasingly polarized and violent world.
Jed W. Atkins is the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Duke University. He directs The Transformative Ideas Program as well as The Civil Discourse Project and chairs the Department of Classical Studies. A scholar of Greek, Roman, and early Christian moral and political philosophy, Atkins has published three books with Cambridge University Press: Cicero on Politics and the Limits of Reason, Roman Political Thought, and The Cambridge Companion to Cicero’s Philosophy (co-edited with Thomas Bénatouïl). His fourth book, The Christian Origins of Tolerance, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.