nussbaum on roger williams


When we consider the current uproar over Muslim immigration, particularly in Europe, we can see that the allegedly enlightened societies of the West still have a lot of learning to do. Instead of seeing ourselves as fighting on the side of the angels in a great “clash of civilizations,” we should see each nation, Western and non-Western, as fighting its own internal “clash” between people who are prepared to live with others on terms of mutual respect and people who seek the protection of religious (and cultural) homogeneity. At a deeper level, each of us is always engaged, within ourselves, in an internal “clash of civilizations,” as narcissistic fear contends with our capacities for concern and respect.

In this struggle, it helps to have philosophical friends. Locke, ubiquitously invoked in this connection, is a good enough friend, but somewhat lacking in psychological insight. The history of the North American colonies, however, shows us another friend, an even better one–a hero, really–whose writings, now virtually unknown, can help us greatly as we grapple with problems that are not unlike those he confronted in the seventeenth century. He is Roger Williams. Williams wrote many books, including two lengthy philosophical treatises that are among the major works on religious toleration in the history of Western thought. Prolix, diffuse, and ill-organized, their thousand pages are hardly ever consulted, while Locke’s succinct A Letter Concerning Toleration is taught in countless college classrooms. Even Williams’s American contemporaries did not have much knowledge of his books, which were published in England.

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