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Liberty, Community, and Toleration: Freedom and Function in Medieval Political

Cary J. Nederman

In his famous little essay entitled “What is Enlightenment?” Kant presses the case
for liberty of conscience in the following terms:
A prince who… holds it to be his duty to prescribe nothing to men in
religious matters but to give them complete freedom while renouncing the
haughty name of tolerance, is himself enlightened and deserves to be
esteemed by the grateful world and posterity as the first, at least from the
side of government, who divested the human race of its tutelage and left
each man free to make use of his reason in matters of conscience.1

Kant’s distinction is one familiar to liberal political theorists today, not only in
addressing matters of religion but also in connection with more general questions of
freedom on thought and expression.2 According to Kant and his current exponents,
tolerance is merely a privilege, granted by some superior authority and presumably
revocable at its will. Toleration promotes a policy (to express the matter in
contemporary usage) of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”: one’s beliefs, practices, and rituals are
one’s own business so long as they are kept out of sight.
By contrast, liberty of conscience is said to be grounded independently of the ability of
a power to interfere with its legitimate expression. The basis for the liberty is
presumably something like a natural right or an autonomous moral will. Moreover,
liberty in matters of conscience permits the public expression of one’s views – Kant’s
notion of a realm of public reason– “provided that their manifestation does not trouble
public order as established by law”, in the words of Article 10 of the “Declaration of the
Rights of Man and Citizen.”3
Accompanying the conceptual distinction between tolerance and liberty is
ordinarily a historical judgment: the doctrine of liberty of conscience, especially in
matters of religion, arose in the context of the Reformation and its aftermath, and it is a

Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (New
York: Macmillan, 1990), p. 88.
A modern exponent of a similar view is Gordon J. Schochet, “John Locke and Religious Toleration,” in
Lois Schwoerer, ed., The Revolution of 1688-1689: Changing Perspectives (Cambridge University Press,
1992), pp. 148-51.
“Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” in Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French
Revolution (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 222.
strictly a product of the modern world.4 The assumption, most recently articulated by
John Rawls in his introduction to Political Liberalism, is that the medieval world was
too “authoritarian” in its religious and social values to permit a workable notion of
liberty.5 Liberty of conscience and freedom of thought were historically dependent on
an ineradicable religious pluralism that owed its development to the successes of
Luther, Calvin, and their followers.
Although flattering to liberalism and seductive to the untutored, the conceit of the
modern liberal discovery of liberty of conscience is both conceptually simplistic and
historically misleading. It is conceptually simplistic because it assumes, but does not
defend, the view that liberty and toleration are inherently antithetical. This dualism
already takes for granted the basic principles of the liberalism that it sets out to defend.
It is historically misleading because it fails to consider the very real strides that were
made during the Latin Middle Ages to construct theories of political life that embraced
liberty of thought and expressions as a necessity rather than a privilege or an
expediency. The image of medieval life and thought as monolithic is a pernicious myth.
If anything, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the problematic of the Middle Age
was constituted not by the unity of a single form of life but by the sheer multiplicity and
diversity of such forms.6 Consequently, any systematic conception of political and even
ecclesiastical life had to contend with what Constantin Fasolt describes as “a plethora
of actors jostling side by side to assert their particular ideas of the highest good”.7
Perhaps the most straightforward way to dispel the liberal mythology about the
uniquely modern origins of individual liberty of thought and expression would be to
demonstrate the acceptance during the Middle Ages of a natural or subjective right
undergirding such freedom. It is true that recent scholars have detected in a range of
medieval writings the articulation of such personal rights, usually with respect to
private property.8 Unfortunately, no evidence thus far uncovered suggests that natural
rights were extended during the Middle Ages to include liberty of conscience. Indeed,
for many of the thinkers to whom a theory of subjective rights has been attributed (such
as the canonists), the idea that their teachings might be used to justify doctrinal on
See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p xxiv.
Rawls, Political Liberalism, p.xxiii.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (London: Duckworth, 1981), p 165.
Constantin Fasolt, Council and Hierarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p.103. Fasolt is
writing in the context of the competing claims of kings, popes, bishops, and secular lords in early
fourteenth-century provincial France, but his remark is a propos to most of Europe during the Latin
Middle Ages.
Current discussion…
intellectual diversity would no doubt have come as an extreme shock. Rather, the
everyday medieval understanding of rights tended to be subsumed under issues of
group identity and functional status, as James Muldoon has emphasized. 9 Consequently,
individual liberty was often filtered through intermediary identities organized according
to particular tasks and duties performed within the context of the communal totality.
Still, a functional conception of social order could itself prove remarkably
powerful in defending the liberty of individuals to think and speak as they saw fit. 10 In
the present chapter, I argue that one of the most characteristic modes of medieval
political discourse –sometimes termed “organic”,11 but which I have elsewhere more
precisely labeled “communal functionalism”12– was used by certain authors to generate
a robust and highly principled defense of a public requirement to respect personal
liberty in a wide range of matters. Broadly speaking, the communal functionalist theory
conceives of community as an arrangement of functionally distinct parts, each of which
is necessary for the well-being of the whole and all the others. Consequently, communal
functionalism rejects elitist or specialist arguments for political rule, since the common
good is the product of the intercommunication of parts, not of the task of any particular
segment of the community in isolation. Rather, the common good can only be identified
and applied by the joint participation of all the members of society. Any attempt to
exclude functional members from public life damages the realization of the common
good itself: interdependence entails inclusion. Thus, each segment of society has two
roles that are crucial to the common welfare: the specialized performance of its
functional activity and more general concern with how that task fits into the overall
communal scheme. If certain segments of society are not permitted to play the latter
role– to express their views regarding the common good and their contribution to it–
then the community will be guided by only a partial set of interests and will be
impaired in its functioning. Cooperation among the parts is the key to healthy civil
body. And cooperation entails that all of the members must have a say and be listened

James B. Muldoon, “The Development of Group Rights,” in Jay A. Sigler, Minority Rights: A
Comparative Analysis (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983), pp. 34-39.
This has lately been argued in a somewhat different way (and contrary to the Rawlsian account of the
genesis of Toleration) by Will Kymlicka, “Two Models of Pluralism and Tolerance,” in David Heyd, ed.,
Toleration: An Elusive Virtue (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 81-105. Kymlicka’s
model is the “hypercommunitarianism” of the Ottoman Empire.
See Ewart Lewis, “Organic Tendencies in Medieval Political Thought,” American Political Science
Review 32 (1938): 849-76; and Tilman Struve, Die Entwicklung der organologischen Staatsaufassung in
Mittelalter (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1978).
Cary J. Nederman, “Freedom, Community and Function: Communitarian Lessons of Medieval Political
Thought,” American Political Science Review 86 (December 1992), pp. 997-86.
to; that is, the must be at liberty to state their interpretation of the common good from
their distinct perspective, and this expression must be tolerated–indeed, carefully
respected and considered–by the other segments of society. In broad outline, this
constitutes the communal functionalist case for a doctrine of liberty of conscience,
grounded not outside of the public realm but justified by the very continued health and
well-being of the community.
Although “communal functionalism” as stated is a kind of ideal typology, one can
find throughout the Latin Middle Ages political authors who, in their conceptions of
ecclesiastical as well as secular government, embrace the essentials of the theory. Thus,
John of Salisbury in the twelfth century, employing what we may term a “moral”
concept of freedom and his famous organic metaphor, argues that the liberty to speak
out about the ills of society and the wrongs of one’s superiors must be tolerated and
encouraged by the well-ordered community. Almost two centuries later, Marsiglio of
Padua, employing a richer and more sophisticated political language, asserts that
healthy civic body depends on the assurance to each of its citizens of the personal
freedom to judge and speak openly in matters of public concern. Although wide
variation exists in the specifics of these two defenses of liberty, both thinkers begin
with strikingly similar premises, derived from the model of communal functionalism.