[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
I’ve been reading Craig Nelson’s new Thomas Paine bio. So far it’s pretty good on the whole – a bit superficial philosophically and a bit too eager to entertain, but filled with lots of fascinating info I hadn’t known before.
Unfortunately, I’ve come across a major howler. And I fear that where there’s one there’s probably more.
Here’s the howler, from p. 264:
John Locke, surrounded by England’s religious tumult, would come to believe that “truly the Christian religion is the worst of all religions, and ought neither to be embraced by any particular person, nor tolerated by any commonwealth.”
Did John Locke, the great defender of religious toleration and author of The Reasonableness of Christianity, really say that Christianity was unreasonable and shouldn’t be tolerated? If true, this would be a surprising, startling fact that ought to prompt any writer even minimally familiar with the thought of the era to look more closely. But Nelson is evidently neither surprised nor startled.
So what did Locke actually write? Here’s the passage in its original context; judge for yourself whether it says what Nelson thinks it does:
I answer: Is this the fault of the Christian religion? If it be so, truly the Christian religion is the worst of all religions and ought neither to be embraced by any particular person, nor tolerated by any commonwealth. For if this be the genius, this the nature of the Christian religion, to be turbulent and destructive to the civil peace, that Church itself which the magistrate indulges will not always be innocent. But far be it from us to say any such thing of that religion which carries the greatest opposition to covetousness, ambition, discord, contention, and all manner of inordinate desires, and is the most modest and peaceable religion that ever was. We must, therefore, seek another cause of those evils that are charged upon religion.
So did Nelson read the lines he quotes in their original context? If so, how could he have misunderstood them so badly? Or did he read them already excerpted by somebody else? If so, why wasn’t he curious to check the context of such an unlikely quotation? (An endnote informs us that he read them in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. But the passage isn’t in the Two Treatises, it’s in the Essay on Toleration.)
Now if Nelson can make a mistake this big and this obvious, how likely is it that that’s the only one in the book? Not likely, alas; how many hard-to-catch errors are lurking behind this easy-to-catch one? In fact there’s another somewhat harder-to-catch error, albeit a more minor one, on the immediately following page, where Nelson conflates two different anecdotes about Alexander Hamilton. But are there other, less minor flubs I didn’t catch? That seems the way to bet.