The Pagan Origins of the Idea of Religious Toleration in Enlightenment Literature

Variant title

Le origini pagane dell’idea di tolleranza religiosa nella pubblicistica dell’Illuminismo


By attempting to put an end to religious war between Catholics and Protestants, which since two centuries were perturbing the European continent, proto-Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinkers introduced and spread the idea of religious toleration in Europe and America. This research proves that the idea of toleration has been recovered by modern thinkers from Classic literature and the customs of Greeks and Romans. The rediscovery of Pagan values by Enlightenment philosophers explains the process of secularization much better than the theory of the slow evolution of Christian evangelic ideas, or the theory of secularization as an absolutely novel phenomenon. An entirely different matter is whether the Illuminists were right in presenting the ancient Romans as the champions of religious toleration. This thesis is supported by a large part of contemporary historiography, but—as is well known—Christian apologetics has proposed a completely different narrative, emphasizing persecutions such as those promoted by Nero and Diocletian. However it is beyond the scope of this research to decide who is ultimately right in this debate. Here the goal is only to prove that some fundamental Enlightenment theses have been elaborated thanks to the intentional revitalization of Pagan ideas, regardless of the degree to which they were actually propagated in the Ancient World.




Italian (it)


Riccardo CampaJagiellonian University in Krakow


Orbis Idearum Volume 2, Issue 1 (2014), pp. 19–60
Toleration and Tolerance