Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration

By (author) Gary Remer

Paperback - £24.95

Publication date:

15 April 1996

Length of book:

328 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271028118

Religious toleration is much discussed these days. But where did the Western notion of toleration come from? In this thought-provoking book Gary Remer traces arguments for religious toleration back to the Renaissance, demonstrating how humanist thinkers initiated an intellectual tradition that has persisted even to our present day. Although toleration has long been recognized as an important theme in Renaissance humanist thinking, many scholars have mistakenly portrayed the humanists as proto-Englightenment rationalists and nascent liberals.

Remer, however, offers the surprising conclusion that humanist thinking on toleration was actually founded on the classical tradition of rhetoric. It was the rhetorician's commitment to decorum, the ability to argue both sides of an issue, and the search for an acceptable epistemological standard in probability and consensus that grounded humanist arguments for toleration. Remer also finds that the primary humanist model for a full-fledged theory of toleration was the Ciceronian rhetorical category of sermo (conversation).

The historical scope of this book is wide-ranging. Remer begins by focusing on the works of four humanists: Desiderius Erasmus, Jacobus Acontius, William Chillingworth, and Jean Bodin. Then he considers the challenge posed to the humanist defense of toleration by Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Bayle. Finally, he shows how humanist ideas have continued to influence arguments for toleration even after the passing of humanism—from John Locke to contemporary American discussions of freedom of speech.

“This is a fascinating and well-researched study of how numerous European writers from Erasmus to John Locke used the classical concept of decorum and the genre of ‘sermo’ or ‘conversation’ as opposed to ‘contentio’ or ‘argumentation’ in order to persuade their contemporaries that it was reasonable to tolerate those who practiced other religions, especially Christian religions.”

—Edmund J. Campion, IJCT Offprints