I’m intrigued by Anthony Esolen’s definition of tolerance in his article for Crisis Magazine ‘Toleration and Reciprocity‘. Anthony says:
Thomas Aquinas, practical fellow that he was, understood that not all bad things can feasibly be proscribed by human law. It isn’t because people disagree about what is bad, but rather that a well-governed polity should require few laws, easily promulgated and understood, broadly promoting the common good, wherein the lawgiver can attend to things that are obviously within his scope of competence. Custom and the ordinary interchanges between human beings must take care of the rest. Since human beings are wayward—since they suffer the ills of pride, envy, avarice, lust, and the other deadlies—we will always require the modest virtue of tolerance to get through a day without knocking one another about the head.
The root meaning of the word suggests what the virtue involves. The Latin tol- is related to a group of words having to do with carrying a burden: German dulden, to be patient, to endure; Old English tholian, to suffer; Latin tuli, I have borne. When we tolerate we bear with someone or something; we bear the existence of a wrong. We do so because, given the circumstances, to protest would invite a greater wrong. There is a time for public correction, and a time for quiet endurance and, if the opportunity arises, private correction.
I should like to distinguish tolerance from an even more modest virtue, one without a name; it is part civility, part equanimity, part humility. It is sometimes called “pluralism,” but that isn’t quite right. We acknowledge that no one person can ever grasp the whole of the human condition, or the common good in its fullness. We are fallible, first of all; but we are also endowed with a variety of interests and talents. So we welcome a certain freedom of action, within the bounds of common courtesy and the moral law. One man works on cars in his spare time, another plants grapevines, another reads philosophy. It is to our general benefit that this should be so. But in these cases there is nothing really to tolerate. Tolerance properly understood always suggests the bearing of some trouble, or even of moral wrong.
Anthony goes on to say that tolerance requires a civil response from the person whose behaviour is being tolerated – and then gives several examples from sexual morality and one from tax law.
Word meanings are tricky things. Humpty Dumpty’s path (‘When I usea word… it means just what I choose it to mean’) leads to confusion and nonsense. Fossilising the language doesn’t work either. Words change their meaning over time.
What do you mean when you use the word ‘tolerance’? And should it be a two-way street? If I tolerate you living with your lover without benefit of wedlock, should you tolerate me thinking that you’re imprudent, improvident, and possibly foolish?