In preparing for a lecture on the Enlightenment, I was reminded of a little known work that “Changed Europe.” (from the title of the book: The Book that Changed Europe) What makes Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations (1723) so special is its attempt to present all the world’s religions in an objective and fair way in a world that still largely believed that tolerance was a sin.
It was also a major intellectual achievement. It was written by the Huguenot (French Protestant) refugee in the relatively tolerant Dutch Republic. The project comprised seven volumes with more than 200 illustrations. The images rival the text as an intellectual achievement in its own right. (see two of the images below) Another Huguenot, Bernard Picart, designed all of the book’s illustrations.
It was a major victory for tolerance!
“David Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history, told the Daily Telegraph schools were ‘papering over’ past disunity on the continent to further integration under the European Union.” If true, this would unlikely lead to the desired results. The best way to promote unity is to honestly confront the past. It was not pretty and most people would not want to repeat it. Let students learn from that past. Repressing the past as a way to build unity has not been successful. This was tried and failed in the former Yugoslavia.
I am happy to see a renewed interest in Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration. Although the worst of religious violence in Europe had waned by the time of Voltaire was born, he witnessed plenty of religious oppression and discrimination. We need to relearn the lessons that Enlightenment thinkers learned from the religious violence that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation and Voltaire’s book is a great place to start. Unfortunately, those who most need to learn these lessons are probably not the ones reading Voltaire.
Voltaire: “It does not require great art, or magnificently trained eloquence, to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”