The value of tolerance in a Union based on the rule of law

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by Professor Alessandra Silveira, Editor
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For several weeks following the terrorist attacks in Paris, especially against Charlie Hebdo but somewhat also after Friday, November 13th, the “Treatise on Tolerance” (Voltaire, 1763) was the top best-selling book in France. The correlation between the terrorist attacks and the free exercise of religion is a fallacy to be tackled. Yet, the success of Voltaire´s book is explained by the currentness that the subject of tolerance has achieved. Due to the same reason, a new Portuguese edition of the book was published (Relógio d’Água publishers). Well, assuming the premise that the tolerance, as Voltaire contextually described, stands for a pre-juridical status of acceptance and recognition of the other, then we wonder. What would the present significance of the value of tolerance (article 2, Treaty on the European Union) be, given that alongside pluralism and non-discrimination (among others), it establishes the common axiological grounds upon which the European integration is founded?

In his “Treatise on Tolerance”, Voltaire calls out for the mutual leniency amongst Christians of that time. More precisely, he urges the Catholic France of middle 18th century to bear or to consent the right to profess the Protestant faith. It would be an absolute absurd to intend to lead every man into thinking under a uniform manner about metaphysical issues, he argues. Inspired by the barbarism, the eight judges of Toulouse’s Parliament ordered against the protestant Jean Calas (driven by fanaticism they ruled his torture), Voltaire questions the catholic majority if it would not be possible to tolerate and assimilate Calvinists, rather in the same conditions Catholics are tolerated in London, once the more factions there is, the smaller risk there will be because multiplicity weakens them. Voltaire claims that it becomes permitted to each citizen to practice their faith solely based on their own reason. Moreover, he writes, may each one think whatever this enlightened or misguided mind dictates, as long as public order is not disturbed. It is not a crime not to believe in the mainstream religion, he says, even though the Catholic Church is the “only religion made by God”, all others being “man-made”. Hence, Voltaire´s speech warns to the “terrible consequences of a right of intolerance”. It matters, however, that “men in order to deserve tolerance must begin by not being fanatics”. Fanaticism would be a case in which “intolerance seems acceptable”.

It is quite clear that, embedded in the spirit of Reasoning which was starting to shed its light spread, Voltaire’s 1763 work elementarily sows the substance that would be inserted in the Modern human rights charters as the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, either in the Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) or the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the Citizen (1779), just to mention two of the most significant human rights accomplishments of the constitutional age. Nonetheless, Voltaire´s reflections are infused and instilled in an indulgency/clemency/permission ideology-type built by the majoritarian religion. It was certainly an improvement for that time, a leap forward, but it is not as comprehensive as the recent fundamental rights theory in place. As said, tolerance, in the context Voltaire was observing, lived up to a “pre-juridical” status of acceptance and recognition of the other (therefore, prior to the modern conception of rule of law/Rechtsstaat). For it, that concept of tolerance cannot fit nowadays as an alternative to the fundamental rights protection systems, which theories are way more consistent, dense, profound and efficient in the role of safeguarding individual liberties, since they lay on the postulate of equal rights. According to the liberal revolutions subsequent to the core book, equal rights junctions in the human dignity itself. It assumes, first, that each one of us decides autonomously on one’s opinions and defines them by one’s own interests and, second, parity conditions of justice access by all citizens.

Then again what is it so up-to-date about Voltaire’s piece that can explain the sudden awareness of French and Portuguese readers succeeding the attacks in Paris? Voltaire sustained that the Christians should tolerate mutually, facing each other as brothers: “What? My brother, the Turkish? My brother, the Chinese? The Jewish? The Siamese? Yes, without hesitation; are we not all sons of the same father, and creatures of the same God?” Although Voltaire was establishing a dialogue mainly with those French Catholics, it is possible to bind certain complicity in the speech between his ideas and the recent Kantian rereadings which propose the intersubjective restoration of rationality (Habermas).  In other words, the ones that suggest we cast our understanding of the reason, the human, society upon new foundations and that we bond rationality not directly to the subject but to the intersubjectiveness. Or to the growing egocentric and ethnocentric decentralisation everyone holds for himself and the world (Piaget), from the speech confrontation with other´s positions on. All in all, the self-conscience comes exactly from the personal experience with the presence of an-other (Lévinas). Not so much because we share the world but because the cognition of ourselves depends on the cognition of what we are not, of what sets out boundaries, of what the Other is. It is not the Other who is questioned but our own selves through the Other (Gadamer).

None of this means that the philosophy of subjectiveness has become obsolete and shall be left behind. The importance of it as a necessary condition to the personal responsibility cannot be rejected. It just does not make sense to insist in the division between subjectiveness and intersubjectiveness when they both are in fact complementary. Neither to ignore that only if each part is willing to adopt the standpoint of the Other an agreement concerning a matter of equal interest to all can be reached. On that account, it is so very relevant to clarify the conditions for inter-understanding and to identify the clauses of intersubjective grounds in the intercultural Europe we live in, especially regarding the scope of protection of individual liberties: of religion, of expression, of arts, etc. Not only because the Law is culture – and produces culture (Peter Häberle) – but also because the definition of “interculture” highlights this essential idea: culture sharing or sharing ideas and ways of facing the world and the Others (Gomes Canotilho). The mere pluralisation of cultures does not entail interaction amongst them. The importance of the value of tolerance in contemporary democratic societies indicates that direction. And obviously it is listed as Europe´s identity values (corresponding to the common axiological grounds upon which the European construction is founded) in article 2 TEU, side by side with pluralism and non-discrimination, among others.

In this regard, tolerance means basically that the European societies are (and must be) likely open not only to ideas considered harmless or indifferent but also to those that shock/disturb/stress the State or a portion of the population. It is indeed this openness that identifies us as Europeans. It is how we know to be and want to be in world, for without its values, without its origins and cultural dignity, Europe is nothing (Ulrich Beck).

This text was originally published in Portuguese, Jornal de Letras, edition of April 29- May 12, 2015.

Picture credit: (detail) Voltaire Seated, c 1779. Plaster with metal supports (1741-1828) LA Country Museum – Jean-Antoine Houdon – by Rocor.

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