All the World is not Mile End: Content and Context of Locke’s Letters Concerning Toleration

  • Ann Talbot
Keywords: Locke, travel literature, theatre, Acosta, Proast


“All the world,” wrote John Locke in A Letter concerning Toleration, “is not Mile End.” It was an inversion of a line from a comedy by Francis Beaumont in which a young Londoner asks naively “Is not all the world Mile End, Mother?” When the play was first performed in 1607 London was a small urban space and Mile End was in the open countryside. By the time Locke published the Third Letter for Toleration in 1692 London had spread to become a node in a number of interlocking global trade networks. Locke could expect his riff on the Mile End line to be understood by a reading public whose horizons had widened beyond the confines of their city and parish. He was, by implication, sitting his opponent Proast among the staid citizens that the play had mocked. Yet Proast’s argument is often accepted as far more compelling than the case Locke made for religious toleration which has largely been replaced by twentieth century versions of Social Contract Theory and theories of rights based on the concept of the Westphalian System. These theories have coloured the way in which Locke’s letters on toleration are read and a significant element of their content and context elided. The key missing element missing is Locke’s reliance on travel literature which formed the basis of his theory of Natural Law. Locke followed his Mile End remark with a discussion of America largely drawn from José de Acosta whose works were part of a more philosophically sophisticated debate on toleration and coercion than that in Protestant Europe which is often seen as the sole tradition of toleration. A focus on the Mile End passage in Locke’s third letter on toleration makes it possible to explore this wider context of Locke’s case for toleration.