The Liberal Archipelago
It is a commonplace of contemporary discussions that liberalism has its roots in the wars of religion fought among the western European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was a period of military struggle for political mastery, but it was also a time of struggle for religious liberty. In England it culminated in the Glorious Revolution—which saw the overthrow of James II in politics, and the emergence of the modern theory of toleration and constitutional government, notably in Locke's Two Treatises of Government and also his Letter concerning toleration. In France these times produced Pierre Bayle, whose doctrine of toleration surpassed Locke's in its willingness to defend religious liberty for all, including those who repudiated religion altogether. These thinkers, and those who followed in their footsteps, confronted the problem of what to do in the face of conflict and disagreement, over religious questions in particular. They attempted to answer two distinct but related questions: who had claim to political authority? (or what was the basis of authority?); and what was the role of such authority? (or what were its limits?). Although the answers offered differed in detail, and to an extent on certain fundamentals, they all accepted the fact that the deep conflicts and disagreements that marked social life needed to be resolved. But unlike some later thinkers, notably Rousseau and Marx, these 'liberal' thinkers did not consider that such conflict could be eliminated. Conflict was an ineradicable feature of the human condition. Any kind of deep unity or harmony was unlikely; and this condition could only be palliated but not cured.
Liberalism from these beginnings has been a response to the problem of diversity and difference. Since everyone will not, and cannot be made to, see the world in the same way, or share the same convictions, or live by the same ideals, political institutions are needed—but only to enable such diverse persons to coexist. Yet such is the depth of disagreement in human society that even the idea that the solution is to allow different ways to coexist under institutions of toleration is disputed.