Essay / Culture

The Virtue of Tolerance

2-640x233A virtue, in order to live up to its lofty title, must contain within itself its own proper resources for opposing the vice unique to it. As Aristotle taught us, virtues rarely travel alone; typically they wander the streets accompanied by distorted versions of themselves; the vices that carry the virtue in one extreme direction or another. Love, for instance, can be abstracted and perverted into sympathy so strong as to cut off any genuine ability to do good for a person in need. Or a will for goodness so pure and abstract as to destroy anything in its path that is not itself perfectly good.

Attending to the Resources

But, for the moment I invite you to attend to the resources a virtue must have. The virtue is the thing itself—the real and strong power and force for good—while vices are in fact the weaker perversions of these great and noble goods. One of the requirements for a virtue is that it have its own proper resources, its own bag of tricks for defeating its attending vices. Not by reaching out to other virtues for help, not by cutting a deal with vice or even borrowing tricks of the trade from its darker cousins… no, I mean a set of tools unique and proper to itself that explain how it will oppose vice.

Take justice, for instance. As a virtue, justice is a virtue which cultivates justice and righteousness in the soul, body and society at large. It is a creative and life-giving motivation for order, due process and harmony among the parts of a composite being, whether that be a person, family or city. As such, it will endure beyond a life full of conflict and sin, for wherever there are composite being, beings or groups composed of many parts, those parts must operate in some form of harmony or order. And the proper name for this harmonic and ordered mode of living is justice, where each part plays its role to is own fulfillment, and for the fulfillment of the larger whole.

But how does justice fight against evil, against a part which refuses to play its proper role within the body, within society, but instead acts in such a way to damage both itself and the larger whole? First, justice seeks to remedy the situation, but teaching, cultivating or making the part play its proper role. In an inanimate composite object such as a bicycle, this may mean mending a bent part by forcing it back into its original shape with pair of pliers. In a person, this takes the shape of much more complex tools of logic, persuasion, dialog and empathy.

But what if that part proves utterly resistant? Justice is a virtue so powerful and compelling, and is so concerned with the ordered and proper functioning of a whole, that when a part is utterly unable or unwilling to play its role, thus harming itself and the larger whole, it uses its ordering energy to cut off that part. Such an action may be final, in the sense of removing and throwing away a broken bike pedal, or the death penalty for a murderer, or it may be a temporary measure, such as we see in imprisonment. This, of course, is not the primary delight of justice – it is but the way it acts in the face of direct and unremitting opposition. Its first and primary mode of action is a matter of cultivating harmony and order within the parts of a larger whole.

A Virtue of Tolerance?

Now what happens if we turn this logic to America’s virtue of tolerance – a virtue we hear much about in all kinds of discourse. Properly speaking, tolerance seems to be a matter of tolerating, or even embracing, diversity. While the word seems to have a certain negative connotation (you tolerate a screaming child, but enjoy being with a quiet cuddly one, all dressed up in her jammies before bed), but probably has its own proper constructive mode, a mode of appreciating, embracing and cultivating diversity. This is in fact a great virtue in our immensely diverse country, though it will be increasingly put to the test in years to come, as our country seems to be growing more and more polarized.

But what about intolerance? What resources does tolerance give us to combat intolerance?

Up to a point, tolerance seems to be a matter of giving room to those things we find difficult to tolerate. The whole point of tolerance is its relationship to the vice that attends it. But what about when intolerance sheds its gentle, comic or private posture, and becomes more aggressive? What happens when mobs form, political agendas are built around the ideologies of the minority, or someone’s position on a matter is not merely something that can coexist with my own position, but threatens to undermine it entirely?

For instance, what happens when someone’s religious view demands my compliance, or the law someone is trying to pass would force me to change my own behavior? What role does tolerance play in such a situation?

My sense is that tolerance has its limits. In other words, after a certain point, tolerance no longer has the resources to grapple with intolerance, and when intolerance of whatever form becomes aggressive, tolerance must either flee the scene, or militarize in its own form of intolerance. That is to say, tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance.

Tolerance hates and seeks to abolish intolerance. And this is quite understandable, for any virtue opposes and even hates the vice that attends it. Justice hates injustice, and wisdom hates folly. But can a virtue remain what it is, even while opposing its vice? Does wisdom need to become folly in order to fight folly? For the logic of tolerance and intolerance seems to demand that tolerance become intolerant in the face of intolerance, for to oppose, rather than tolerate, intolerance is to become intolerant of intolerance.

In other words, tolerance is not a virtue at all, for virtues have within themselves their own proper resources for opposing their attending vices.

But of tolerance is not in fact a virtue, and is only able to moonlight as one in certain happy contexts, the real question is: what is America’s virtue? For it cannot be tolerance. Tolerance, co-existence, pluralism… these are in fact great goods, and I am grateful for them every day. Something does not need to be a virtue to be a good thing. But let’s be clear – they are not virtues.

But this leaves us with a fascinating gap in our national self-understanding, for we think of ourselves, we think of our nation, as being guided by the virtue of tolerance, to a very large extent. What then, is the actual virtue, which drives our nation? And what ought to be the actual virtue(s) driving our nation? What we truly need is sustained reflection on the kinds of virtues which enable us not merely to embrace tolerance, but grapple with intolerance with love, honor and dignity. For one of the great dangers we face as Americans is the tendency of tolerance to become intolerant in the face of intolerance. Such a flimsy virtue will not be enough to sustain us.

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