Mere Civility: Tolerating Disagreement in Early Modern England and America

Thursday Lecture Series

"Mere Civility: Tolerating Disagreement in Early Modern England and America," was based on the introduction to Bejan's book project with the same title. It offered an examination of widespread calls for "civility" today in light of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration. Many of the pressing questions facing modern liberal democracies -- such as what the proper scope of religious liberty should be or how to handle partisanship and hate speech -- closely recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration and the dangers posed by sectarianism, evangelical expression, and so-called "persecution of the tongue." Then as a now, political thinkers and leaders called for more "civility" as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement. Yet determining what this conversational virtue requires can be complicated. While some restraint on expression is surely necessary to make disagreement tolerable, accusations of incivility can easily become pretexts for persecution, as early Quakers, Catholics, and American Indians soon discovered.

A close consideration of the competing conceptions of civility and incivility offered by early modern thinkers -- including influential early theorists of toleration like Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke -- can help bring this tension into focus. Doing so reveals that appeals to civility are not just superficial calls for politeness. Rather, they are efforts to think through what coexistence under conditions of deep disagreement requires. At the same time, they highlight the essential disagreeableness of disagreement and a fundamental tension between religious freedom and free speech that continue to perplex liberal political theory and practice today.