Tolerance is not a virtue

Because the Olympic Games are going on in London right now and because I have heard so much talk of “virtues” lately, I wanted to share something I read the other day:

Crantor, a Greek philosopher who lived about three hundred years before Christ, relates that one day the divinities Wealth, Pleasure, Honor, Health and Virtue, suddenly appeared before the throng at the Olympic games and asked the judges of the Areopagus to decide which of them most favorably influenced man’s happiness. Wealth dazzled for a moment the judges’ eyes, but Pleasure soon showed that he was only a means to her as an end. Honor claimed that Wealth and Pleasure were but things of a day unless linked to lasting renown, but then up rose Health and declared that without her all three were practically worthless. Virtue ended the dispute by making all the Greeks admit that even glory is but transitory, and that Wealth, Pleasure, Honor, and Health, without Virtue, become evils for those who do not know how to use them with discretion.

(From Anecdotes and Examples for the Catechism, by Rev. Francis Spirago. This book was originally published in 1903 and is available once more from Roman Catholic Books.)

So what is virtue? Or more to the point what are the virtues? And how has it come to be for millennia deemed necessary as an anecdote to vices and pleasures? For thousands of years there have been seven listed. The four considered to be the cardinal virtues are

  • Prudence (Wisdom)
  • Justice
  • Fortitude
  • Temperance

And three of them are considered the theological virtues:

  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Charity (Love)

The four cardinal virtues are considered the “human” virtues because they are moral virtues acquired through the human effort of doing morally good acts. They are “cardinal” because they are pivotal and foundational. The three theological virtues are called as such because they allow us to participate in the divine nature.

And lest you think that the cardinal virtues are a more recent Christian invention, guess again. They are found in various forms in the Old Testament of the Bible, and mentioned in various forms by Socrates. In fact they were derived initially from Plato, expanded by Cicero, and adapted by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo or hinge. The cardinal virtues are so called because they are hinges upon which the door of the moral life swings.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius in 410 AD even compiled a list of what he deemed the Seven Heavenly Virtues in opposition to the seven deadly sins.

  • Chastity (opposite of Lust)
  • Temperence (opposite of Gluttony)
  • Charity (opposite of Greed)
  • Diligence (opposite of Sloth)
  • Patience (opposite of Wrath)
  • Kindness (opposite of Envy)
  • Humility (opposite of Pride)

There is also a list of seven holy virtues:

  • Valor: the pursuit of knowledge
  • Generosity: the pursuit of charity
  • Liberality: the pursuit of will
  • Diligence: the pursuit of ethics
  • Patience: the pursuit of peace
  • Kindness: the pursuit of love
  • Humility: the pursuit of modesty

Overkill? Perhaps. But I wanted to be sure to present several lists. Please note what is missing from each of them. I like how Matt Warner puts it:

In a culture drunk on “tolerance,” it’s no wonder we’ve begun to mistake it as some type of supreme virtue at the expense of real virtue. And we’ve done so to the point that it doesn’t really matter what it is that we’re tolerating, as long as we’re tolerant.

In the process of numbing our guilt complex, instead of assisting in the practice of real virtues like justice and charity, tolerance has subjugated all else to it. And once we’ve reached such a point, there is no sin aside from intolerance of sins. For to call a sin a sin is too intolerant of the sin. And to be intolerant is sinful above all else. Or perhaps that’s a very intolerant thing to say.

“In a world that has lost a sense of sin, one sin remains: Thou shalt not make people feel guilty (except, of course, about making people feel guilty). In other words, the only sin today is to call something a sin.” – Christopher West

So what is “tolerance”?

In 1828 Webster’s defined tolerance as “the power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring.” One hundred eighty-four years later Webster’s includes the original definition as #1, but it has grown (one could say “evolved”) to include the following definitions:

  • 2a: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own
  • 2b: the act of allowing something
  • 3: the allowable deviation from a standard; especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece
  • 4a (1): the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure <developed a tolerance to painkillers>; also: the immunological state marked by unresponsiveness to a specific antigen (2): relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor
  • 4b: the maximum amount of a pesticide residue that may lawfully remain on or in food.

It is interesting to note that other “online dictionaries” have lowered the original definition to #3 or #4, and elevated the modern and more popular definition to the top spot. even defines what it it not, calling it a “freedom from bigotry.” What this definition does is effectively paint any differing viewpoint, or any adherence to the long-standing and perennially accepted definition of a virtue, as bigotry.

This is why I have a problem with the modern definition of tolerance and its elevation as a modern-day virtue. The classic virtues assume that one has an educated and well-formed conscience. The modern day virtue of tolerance assumes none of these things. It has been dumbed down so as to be devoid of meaning. One cannot disallow anything differing from the standard because there are no standards. Standards imply bigotry, and no one wants to be labeled as such.

Let me be clear about something. I believe in tolerance. I also am not advocating intolerance.

Herein lies the “tyranny of relativism” Pope Benedict has spoken frequently about. When a culture decides that there is no fundamental basis of truth the result is that there is no real basis for discussion or resolution of issues. Thus the winning argument is not based upon reason, but instead on who shouts the loudest and/or has the most power, money or political influence. Goodbye reason rooted in principle; hello tyranny rooted in opinion and power.

G.K. Chesterton said that “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” The classic virtues require us to make a choice, practice restraint, make a stand, to confront something, or to pass judgment based upon a standard. In short, to have a conviction. Tolerance allows none of these and instead asks us to ignore the virtues. Anything goes. There are no standards. You have a right only to agree with me. Everything is acceptable. Personal responsibility is non-existent. The only standard is that there are no standards. There is no discretion.

True virtues arise from the will, not the passions; from facts, and not feelings. Tolerance is a character trait we should aspire to have, but not at the expense of real virtue.

Tolerance is not a virtue.

And if you disagree with me or judge me wrong on this subject then by today’s definition of the word you are a an intolerant bigot. Funny how that works, huh?


For further reading on the virtues click here to read paragraphs 1803-1829 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


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