The Virtue of Intolerance

“If intellectual order is ever to supervene over present chaos, it will arise, not out of easygoing tolerance and the indifference of a genial give-and-take, but out of a good clean fight.”

One of my friends, by temperament always a somewhat belated adherent of already waning enthusiasms, has just built a spacious sleeping-porch on his hitherto comfortable suburban house, and now discourses warmly on the frigid healthfulness of outdoor sleeping, though the north wind blow never so keenly. Very scornful he waxes over the exploded superstition that some strange noxiousness lurks in ‘night air.’ I have no quarrel with him on that score. Though I cling to a comfortable bed in a comfortable room, I comply with the age so far as to throw wide the windows—to the great scandal of the kindly French family on whom I was billeted in the December of a year ago. But my friend is not content with the virtues of night air; all day long he keeps ‘open house,’ so that a visit under his otherwise hospitable roof stores the mind with many shivering memories.

Save for the acknowledged invalid, the open-air life is already on the decline; one hears on every hand the cry of back to sense and comfort. Very much indeed can be said for the snug fireside, for a roof and stout inclosing walls. Whatever may be true of our merely pulmonary life, it is at any rate clear that our mental life transacts itself better indoors than out. Concentration of mind is easier at a study desk than on a breezy piazza. Keeping open house—figuratively or literally—is not the nearest way to wisdom.

Of a much subtler character, though not wholly unrelated, is that idea of widest currency that a man must at all costs keep an open mind. He may build himself a house of brick and stone, he may lock his front door and even shut tight his windows; but his mind must be open as a sleeping-porch to every wind of doctrine and every breath of a new idea, under penalty of intellectual quick consumption. The idea has, of course, its quantum of truth. The catch-phrase is but the quintessence of a broad generalization, and as such is an inextricable weave of truth and falsehood. The mind impervious to new ideas, the mind hermetically sealed, will find no advocate and needs no prosecuting attorney; one may be no fresh-air enthusiast and yet value good ventilation. For a tubercular or atrophied mind one may well prescribe a regimen of open air; but the healthy mind needs its inclosing walls and its fireside, where it may be at home. It will slowly extend its walls, open new windows to the east, build itself new watch-towers; it will from time to time issue forth on travels of high adventure, and bring back the wealth of Asia, or sail to new Americas; but, weary of wandering through eternity, it will, unless it be a mere ‘hobo’ of a mind, seek back to its fireside and its four walls. There it lives, there it does its fruitful work. The little mind builds itself walls of prejudice; the greater mind fashions them out of convictions. The truly open mind can have neither the one nor the other. Better walls of prejudice than an ineffectual homelessness.

With the ideal of the open mind, or as merely another phrasing of it, goes the ideal of broad tolerance. Have I not a right to my own opinion? and if so, mere generosity must accord the same right to my neighbor. It is an interesting case of casuistry, this supposed right to one’s own opinion. I suspect that its loudest asserters seldom stop to ask what sort of a right they are talking about. If they mean legal right, the answer is simple. The most ruthless minions of the most despotic government cannot keep me from holding what opinion I please, so long as I also hold my tongue; the law can challenge only the utterance of opinion. And here my legal right varies according as I am in Bolshevist Russia or the United States. It varies also with peace and war. I am told that here at home there was, during the war, a rather considerable curtailment of our accustomed liberty of speech; certain it is that, as a member of the army, I found a double watch set on tongue and pen. Even in peaceful ‘free’ America there are limits to our freedom. A man is legally free to believe that the President—or shall we say a carefully chosen group of senators—should be assassinated; but the public utterance of this belief will entail the penitentiary or the madhouse. I may hold what opinion I will of my neighbor’s character, and of his wife’s; but the expression of it carries unpleasant possibilities of criminal libel. It is but poor compensation that I may freely declare the opinion that this is a geocentric universe, or that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare and heaven knows how much of Marlowe, Spenser, and Milton. Who cares a fig for matters like these?

If by ‘right’ one means not legal but absolute right, as established by abstract Justice in the high court of Truth, the liberty of private judgment is not so wide. One can have no absolute right to any opinion except a true opinion; one can have no right to believe that two and two make five, or even four and a half. In matters of a less demonstrable finality, the right to my own opinion presupposes that I have taken into account all the evidence, that I have the requisite skill to sift it and the knowledge to weigh it. Many people go through life without the right to form their own opinion on any matter of more weight than the probable formula of a salad-dressing or a new cocktail—and this latter opinion is now becoming a question of merely scholastic abstraction! The only man with the right to an opinion is the expert; and in any matter that we consider really important, we seek his opinion, and acknowledge its superior worth by paying roundly for it. Sensible people quietly abdicate the right to their own opinion when it is a question of estimating the strain of a cantilever span or of ordering a capital operation. They prefer to exercise their ‘right’ only in matters of less serious moment, such as the League of Nations or the immortality of the soul.

What men demand, after all, is not so much the recognition of a right as a toleration of their idiosyncrasies, if not respectful, at least kindly and good-natured. And toleration within certain limits we are all ready to grant; even the Grand Inquisition could be tolerant in non-essentials. Society will tolerate almost any opinion which does not seem to imply important consequences in the way of action. It will tolerate a sufficiently theoretical attack on the institution of private property, or of marriage—particularly if the attack sparkles with good Shavian wit; it has not tolerated, up to this time, open advocacy of burglary and promiscuous love. Tolerance presupposes indifference, and precludes any eagerness of love or hate. It is not in human nature to be tolerant when we are deeply in earnest. A man is not tolerant when his wife or his sister is slandered; he is not tolerant when his honor is at stake. We were not tolerant of Mr. Hohenzollern and his system, or of such of our misguided countrymen as would, however indirectly, lend him aid and comfort; we are not tolerant to-day of Mr. Lenin and his Bolsheviki. An army organized on principles of kindly tolerance, where each officer and man had a right to his own opinion, would not have driven the invader out of France. Tolerance is a plant which thrives best during a protracted peace, when the public conscience is blunted by much dipping in the flesh-pots of prosperity and ease; but even in times of peace a successful business man is not tolerant of dishonesty or inefficiency among the men whom he employs. We are in earnest about these things, we have settled standards, we have established judgment in our gates; and we guard the establishment with complete intolerance. Tolerance in non-essentials, yes; but we must not forget that some things are essential.

We reserve our tolerance for those things of the mind which seem divorced from practical affairs, the things about which we do not really care: religion, philosophy, and rival schools of art. Our attitude finds complete expression in the trite formula: ‘It doesn’t make any difference what a man believes, as long as he lives right.’ As if real action could ever be divorced from belief! Mere habit and polite conversationality may take one through a humdrum day; but in every crisis action springs from a genuine belief in some abstraction, in some theory of life, though never, perhaps, phrased into the formality of a creed. The beliefs systematically propagated in the German mind for forty years have made some serious difference to the world. The organized campaigns of propaganda let loose upon us from every side would seem to indicate that it does make some difference what men believe. Anarchy of thought must ultimately issue in anarchy of action.

We still have a few generally accepted standards of conduct; for our more abstract thought we have next to none. Intellectually our modern world is an anarchy. It is not a case of sharply drawn conflict between two standards of thought struggling for the mastery. Such struggles the world has had in plenty, and has survived them with profit; they are always a sign of life, if not of health. There is in our modern world conflict of a sort, but without battle-cries and without leaders, like the battle of embryo atoms in Milton’s Chaos, mixed confusedly: —

To whom these most adhere, he rules a moment.

To this dim battle of the mists can come no decision which will not more embroil the fray; for, if it has any discoverable trend, it is toward the conclusion that there is no such thing as a decision, that one opinion is as good as and no better than the next. There may come an armistice, but no peace. Meanwhile, we stagger to and fro like drunken men, and startle the night with our cries of ‘Progress,’ forgetting that progress implies a measurement, and that measurement implies standards.

It is surely in no spirit of cowardice that one sighs for the earlier, simpler days when the fight was pitched in ranged battalions; when Romanticist went out to slay Classicist because he knew he was right; when Nominalist and Realist closed in deadly grapple; when Humanist met Scholastic with bitter scorn and beat him about the head with a stout cudgel cut on the mountain-slopes of Hellas; when every other sentence did not limp in on a ‘probably’ or a ‘perhaps.’

Yet there are better days than those of battle. If war gives a certain stimulus, it is rather in an ardent peace that man works most productively. There have been periods of human history, brief but glorious, when a whole nation, a whole civilization, had made up its mind about the important things of philosophy and art, and all men could work together in generous rivalry, or with, at most, a disagreement over the detailed application of established principles. Those have been the periods of great achievement. The age of Pericles was one; thirteenth-century France was another; and, on a lower plane, the France of the Great Monarque. The great churches at Bourges and Amiens, the ruined glory of Rheims, are but the supreme monuments of an age when all builders were agreed that the only architecture worth a tinker’s damn was that which we know as Gothic. In accordance with its canons they build cathedral and parish church, castle and farmhouse and granary.

When Sir Christopher Wren lifted the dome of St. Paul’s over the ashes of the great fire, all of London was being rebuilt in the same school. No one had an ‘open mind’ in which to entertain the rival claims of a despised Gothic. What is the dominant architecture of present-day New York, or London, or Buenos Aires? The Greek temple, affected by our modern money-changers, jostles a Romanesque clubhouse or a French château; a severely Georgian portico endures stolidly the exuberance of florid Gothic just across the way. Who shall arbitrate? To every man his taste. Yet out of the confusion rises no supreme triumph of the builder’s art.

When Milton composed his great epic, all literary Europe was agreed that the heroic poem was the one thing supremely worth writing. From the critical chaos of the present there emerges no great master in any of our discordant manners. If one poetic form more than another expresses our corporate soul, it is the anarchy of vers libre. The one established canon of painting is the denial of all established canons. Who shall chart the quagmire of our philosophy and religion, its spiritualisms, its pragmatisms, the revamped Manichæism of Mr. H. G. Wells, ‘Ethical Culture’ and ‘New’ Thought, the thousand struggling sects of protestant Christianity—struggling not for final dominance, but for bare survival? And so in all affairs of the spirit we tolerantly spread our sails to every wind of doctrine, and, doubtful every wind of doctrine, and, doubtful to which harbor we should steer, conclude that there is no such thing as a harbor anywhere in all our barren sea.

To this indictment of general anarchy there is one striking exception. The realm of intellectual activity which we call science is no region of vague liberalism and kindly tolerance. Scientists may reach discordant results, though the scoffer is prone to exaggerate the discords; in the fundamentals they are in absolute agreement. There is perfect uniformity in the articles of their creed: the invariability of natural laws, the conservation of energy and indestructability of matter, the continuity of organic life. Whoever should deny these articles of faith is branded heretic, and read out of the communion with bell, book, and electric light. There is, also, an established procedure which we call scientific method. Whoever departs from it in any essential is a quack and a charlatan; and the canons of this method are so sharply defined that the charlatan can be convicted of charlatanry with due reason shown. No scientist recognizes the charlatan’s right to his own opinion. ‘Of course, I may be wrong’ is not a favorite prefatory phrase with the scientist; it is his business to be right, and demonstrably right, with the smallest possible margin of error. The scientist has established judgment in the gates of his laboratory; he ahs built for himself a house instead of a wind-swept sleeping-porch; he is notorious for his intolerance, for the narrowness of his mind; and traveling a strait and narrow path, he has reached his goal. The most fruitful and enduring intellectual achievements of our age are beyond question those of the scientist.

I would not have all the world turn scientist. Heaven forbid! Philosophy and the humane arts may yet contribute as much to human happiness as can the most exact knowledge of the reproductive processes of unicellular organisms. But I should be glad to see in the professors of these arts some of the fine intolerance of the scientist; for that would argue seriousness of conviction. We have no academy to establish canons for our thought and practice—or to lend real zest to heresy and revolt; since there is no orthodoxy, there can be no heresies. ‘Of course, you may be right; but I prefer to think this way.’ That makes but a muddy, drab world of it the wine of the spirit is prohibited, along with the more obvious varieties that come in bottles. And so by the average man in the marketplace this drab and bone-dry world of the Seven Arts is not accorded the compliment of a passing glance. Even the college undergraduate, who spends four casual years in its outskirts, too often finds it but a world of shadows. Tolerance, which is a growth of indifference, begets a deeper indifference of its won. I remember with what growing tedium I heard in my own undergraduate days from lecturer after lecturer that ‘the truth lies somewhere between this extreme view and that.’ I hoped, in vain, that I should some day sit under a professor who would, as one having authority, boldly defend one extreme or the other, or who would at least define sharply the intermediate ‘somewhere.’ Since then I have become a professor myself, and better realize the lure of Laodicea; it is rarely possible to establish truth of fact with sharp-cut definition. But truth of principle must always be three parts faith; and what is faith unless it burn with a clear flame?

It seems unlikely that our own generation will attain any substantial unity of faith, any body of accepted principles in art and letters, in philosophy or religion. Very well, then; if no king is crowned, no bishop mitred over us, to enlist loyal service, — or provoke bold rebellion, we must make the most of sect and faction; at least, we can be stout partisans. Having, after due study and meditation, chosen allegiance, — and without such choice creative thought is impossible, — let us maintain this allegiance tooth and nail, without ‘if’ or ‘perhaps,’ until we have established it beyond dispute, or are battered out of it by the superior weight of opposing evidence. If intellectual order is ever to supervene over present chaos, it will arise, not out of easygoing tolerance and the indifference of a genial give-and-take, but out of a good clean fight.

The intolerance I would advocate does not mean persecution; it is directed, not at the mistaken individual, but at the wrong idea; not at the heretic, but at the heresy. It does not involve burning people at the stake or shutting them up in prison; that is a stupid and futile way to combat error—though I sometimes wish people were enough in earnest to find these courses tempting. No, I can smoke a pipe of tobacco in all friendliness with a man whose opinions I abhor and detest. I can even understand those damnable heresies of his, while still detesting; for an intolerant mind need not be a narrow mind. Indeed, a narrow mind cannot in the best sense of the word be intolerant at all. To fight an enemy, one has to reconnoitre his positions and form a just estimate of his strength; one must have the imagination to see the situation as he sees it. Intolerance militant must organize its service of intelligence. Broad-minded intolerance, moreover, will discriminate its hostilities. It will carry no dogmatic chip on its shoulder, nor seek a quarrel over every trifle. Where the broad mind is intolerant, the narrow mind will achieve nothing but bigotry; and bigotry—obstinate, unreasonable, unenlightened—is but a base caricature of fine intolerance. It is bigotry, not intolerance, that draws the sword of persecution, or scornfully declines the pleasant dinner-party at the house of publican and sinner. The bigot may in his blind and stubborn fashion hold fast that which is good; he is forever incapable of obeying the other half of the apostolic counsel, — to make trial of all things, — because he has quenched the light of his own spirit.

They tell a story of two army chaplains, a Roman Catholic and a Methodist, who were assigned to the same regiment. The two soon became inseparable cronies; they were quartered together in one partitioned-off cubicle of an Adrian barracks; they were unwearied in good works and spiritual ministrations to the regiment, each after his kind, and shared, with never a trace of friction, the limited facilities which the camp offered for their work. The chief recreation of their rare leisure was theological discussion, hotly urged on either side, but resulting in no diminution of good-fellowship.

Then one day came orders transferring the Methodist to another unit, and he sought out his Roman colleague to bid him good-bye.

‘It has been a real privilege,’ he said, ‘to be associated with you. I have never before been thrown much with preachers of your church. In spite of all our arguments, I want you to know that I honor and respect you, and that I believe you are serving God in your way, just as I am trying to serve Him in his way.’

There you have the spirit of true intolerance—abundant charity, but no compromise.

* * *

Yes, one can smoke a friendly pipe of tobacco with the most heterodox of one’s acquaintance. I can even spend a pleasant week-end, when the weather is not too raw, with my friend of the sleeping porches and the wide-flung windows. But he has been hinting recently that before another winter he may decide to inclose those wind-swept porches, toward the north, at any rate, with good window-glass. There is something to be said for window-glass. It admits the sunlight, and without obstructing the view, affords at least a brittle shelter from the ever-shifting wind.

But then, with a house of window-glass, one can’t enjoy the fun of throwing stones.