Sami-Juhani Savonius-Wroth

 savonius-wroth-s-j Sami-Juhani Savonius-Wroth, Post-doctoral researcher
Love of truth and the Protestant ethics of belief, 1572-1706

‘Love of Truth and the Protestant Ethics of Belief’, the proposed research project, explores the intellectual history of religious recognition and the philosophical presuppositions underlying tolerationist ideologies from the late Renaissance to the early Enlightenment. This project will challenge the perspectives in which tolerationist thought is usually understood—by historians who present, all too straightforwardly, an unbroken progress of toleration, or focus, all too narrowly, on questions of tolerationist politics—and redirect scholars towards a cluster of questions at the intersection of epistemology, theology, and civil philosophy. It will provide the first major account of a powerful ethics of belief which swept western Europe after the Reformation: an ethics which radiated from the core ideal of personal and inward commitment to truth, or ‘love of truth’. The project will bring into focus the puzzle which the ethics of love of truth posed: in a Europe where Christians could not agree about what is the truth, and where dissenters were persecuted in the name of truth, how was a lover of truth to shape his beliefs, his life, and his society? Was he obligated to wage a holy war on those who rejected his understanding of truth—or, perhaps, to recognize dissenters as fellow ‘lovers of truth’ and be willing to enter into dialogue with them?

A distinctive hypothesis of my inquiry is that the Protestant account of love of truth which rose to prominence after 1572, the year of the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, was essentialist. This hegemonic account entailed a duty to unite believers, and to shape society, around the absolute truth. It is at this point that menacing implications begin to come to view. As I shall seek to show, the ethics of love of truth could result in a narrowing of the spectrum of acceptable conduct in belief and action, as well as in a holy crusade against the ‘enemies of God and his truth’, advocated, for example, by Pierre Jurieu. While Jurieu’s strand of Calvinism was devoted to aligning the epistemic authority of ‘lovers of truth’ with the military and juridical apparatus of the state, the rival strand of Arminians, Socinians, and ‘Pajonist’ Calvinists—who all put a premium on a rational understanding of truth—was devoted to assailing the philosophical unsoundness and spiritual queasiness of attempting anything of the kind. Some of the greatest interpreters of the individual believer’s commitment to the truth—such as Pufendorf and Locke—plainly felt the full force of each viewpoint. But, as I shall seek to argue, it was the intellectual enterprise of their contemporary Pierre Bayle which transmuted the Protestant ethics of belief: Bayle eliminated any essentialist notion of the absolute truth and emphasized the agent’s disposition so much that even atheists could be recognized as ‘lovers of truth’. By his death in 1706, he had laid the philosophical groundwork for subsequent liberal theorising. Still, in today’s circumstances, ‘Baylean liberalism’ seems a feeble response to the increasing level of religious contention and vilification of the ‘other’. By recovering the trajectory from 1572 to 1706, I hope to help us understand how its philosophical weakness has arisen.