Two Sins Against Tolerance

IN a catechism which I used to study there was a classification of sins on the basis of virtues in the somewhat discouraging ratio of two to one. The path of godliness, it appeared, was beset with temptations on either side. One could have too much or too little of the quality of every virtue, but whether one sinned by way of excess or by way of deficiency, one was equally far from being in a state of grace. Thus it was said that the sins against. Hope were Presumption on the one hand and Despair on the other.

I hold no brief either for or against such a method of classification as a piece of abstract casuistry, but I am interested in its present application to the theory and practice of Tolerance, which is the newest and therefore the least generally understood of the cardinal virtues. Moreover, at the risk of seeming unduly dogmatic, I am willing to assert that the sins against Tolerance are Skepticism and Bigotry, and that, paradoxical as it may seem, we Americans are simultaneously in danger of becoming skeptics as a matter of philosophy and bigots as a matter of fact.


The roots of skepticism lie in the very general modern acceptance of what I have come to regard as one of the most pernicious heresies under the sun, namely, the doctrine that right and wrong are entirely relative matters which rest on nothing more enduring than personal opinion. I am not attacking the teachings of any formal school of philosophy. I am only trying to express the attitude of most of the people who think of themselves and speak of themselves as liberals. Go into any church which calls itself liberal, or advanced, and you will be told in substance that it is not necessary to be right but only to think you are right.

This is not only a very soft doctrine, but it is softer than the facts. Upon the very fabric of life is stamped the sterm command that you must be right at your peril. Not for nothing was it written that it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh. To say that polygamy is a meritorious practice for Mormons because they honestly believe in it is to say that the world was flat before Columbus proved that it was round. To say that Republicans and Democrats are equally patriotic is to state a perfectly evident fact, but to say that they are equally right, is to state an absurdity. Moreover, it is an absurdity which no one is so foolish as to commit in practical affairs. No one for a moment supposes that a clear conscience will heat a cold room or turn a bad meal into a good one. We live our lives subject to rigorous physical laws, and when we violate them we take the consequences. What we are to cat and how we are to live are questions which we are bound to answer at our own risk. If we fail to answer them correctly, mere goodness of intention will not help us a whit.

Much good work has been done in recent years in the field of prison reform, but some of it has been marred by a failure to remember that a prisoner is, after all, a man who has committed a crime. It is utterly beside the point to answer that, if we knew all, we would forgive all. There is respectable authority for the proposition that it is our duty to forgive all whether we knowall or not. God alone can measure the length and breadth of human sin in the light of his infinite mercy. But neither our knowledge nor our forgiveness is any reason, so far as I can see, for supposing that a murderer is any the less a murderer because he has added unwritten amendments to the text of the Ten Commandments. It is precisely the case of the man who is out of step with the regiment. As a piece of pure logic, it is possible (though unlikely) that the man and the regiment, are both out of step with the music. But it is unthinkable that they are both in step with it, and at the same time out of step with each other.

Nor do I think that any more can be said on behalf of this particular kind of liberalism if we pass altogether outside the domain of individual ethics. It is generally conceded, for instance, that the Civil War was the most tremendous domestic crisis through which America has passed up to the present time. The cause of the North triumphed, and, after the lapse of half a century, most Americans are agreed that its triumph was righteous. Every mind indignantly rejects the idea that sin can in any wise be imputed to the men who faced each other on the battlefields of that war. We are humbly conscious rather that their conduct was equally above all praise. And yet it is a mockery, which they would be the first to resent, to suggest that they, or the principles for which they fought, were, in any sense of the word, equally right.

Another national crisis is upon us to-day. As I write these words, a battle is being waged, behind the rights and wrongs of puzzling specific instances, between those who are seeking to destroy and those who are seeking to fulfil the social and political hopes and aspirations to which the American Commonwealth was dedicated. In the issue thus joined it is altogether likely that each side honestly believes in the justice and wisdom of its cause. It is certain, however, that one side or the other is mistaken, and neither idealism, however unselfish, nor loyalty, however devoted, can abate the awful consequences of that certainty. Let our citizens look to it, for on one side or the other fights the invisible ally whose ‘truth is marching on.’

It must be admitted, of course, that truth is one thing and our idea of it another; but this is only the tacit admission behind every human affirmation. If we never spoke except upon certain knowledge, we should always be silent. ‘A decent respect to the opinions of mankind’ bids us beware of a wayward cocksureness; but pure skepticism implies an indecent disrespect to our own opinions, which is one of the clearest of the stigmata of decadence. It was the disciples of Pyrrho and not of Socrates who doubted whether they doubted. Our forefathers professed ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,’ but they nevertheless had no scruples about pitching several thousand pounds of tea into Boston harbor. They also hanged witches at Salem, and did many other fierce and wrong acts; but they never committed the sin of Pontius Pilate, whose name has been detestable for two thousand years, because, at a stupendous crisis, he could do no better than to ask, ‘What is truth?’

I have a friend, a lawyer, who has frequently had occasion to examine two medical experts as witnesses on his side of various important cases. The physicians in question are in all respects equally distinguished practitioners, but my friend considers one of them a much safer witness than the other. He bases this belief on the answer which each is accustomed to make to a usual question in the course of cross-examination. This question is whether the witness may not be mistaken in his opinion. The first doctor always says, ‘ Certainly,’ without more. The second replies, ‘I may be mistaken, but I think not ’; and my friend is satisfied that the emphasis on the added words carries great weight with juries.

Logically, the second answer is a piece of tautology, because in stating any opinion one necessarily expresses a belief in its correctness; but the tautology springs from unfairness inherent in the question itself. An admission of possible error is the unspoken preface of every speech. Fallibility is the inertia against which a man moves when he undertakes to speak at all. How positively he may be justified in speaking depends upon ‘an assemblage of probabilities’ of which he must be the judge. This ‘assemblage of probabilities’ may be so strong as to amount to a moral certainty, or so weak as to make the adherence to a judgment based upon it mere stubborness; but in either case tolerance certainly demands nothing so absurd as a concession that one opinion is as good as another because both may be wrong.

Now tolerance is a by-product of democracy, professing the same doctrine and subject to the same limitations. The essence of democracy is not equality, but equality before the law. The essence of tolerance is not doubt, but charity and a sense of fair play. The vice of the bigot and the despot is not certitude, but a refusal to hear both sides of the case. Freedom of thought no more implies an approval of heresy than freedom of action implies an approval of crime. Everyone has a right to a hearing, just as everyone has a right to a chance in the world; but truth and worth are, none the less, solemn and detached realities which nothing can controvert.

All this is, in a sense, a protest against a modern point of view. In another sense it is a personal profession of faith. The objective distinction between good and evil, and our fitness to make that distinction, seem to me first principles which increase in importance with our own perplexities. If the world is indeed a wilderness, it is both untrue and foolish to keep repeating that all paths lead straight to the broad highway; and it is equally foolish to follow only half-heartedly what seems to us the best path, for the reason that our neighbor may possibly have hit upon a better one. There is no way out of the labyrinth except to find the clue, and nothing will discharge our obligation to find it except performance. On such a theory, life is a perilous quest which may end in achievement. On any other, it is a meaningless nightmare without an end in view. It was Shakespeare who wrote, ’for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ But it is worth remembering that he put these words in the mouth of Hamlet, who was either a madman or a sane man successfully feigning madness, as the critics may prefer.


But if the sin of skepticism lies in a perversion of liberal thinking, the menace of bigotry is chiefly to be found in an equally dangerous perversion of conservative conduct and leadership. Every war brings with it a temporary curtailment of the sphere of individual liberty of which no citizen can justly complain. No sea-captain, even though we may conceive him to have been placed in authority by the free choice of his crew, can afford to debate questions of navigation in the midst of a storm. At such a time the blindest obedience becomes the part, not only of duty but of self-interest, and there is no choice but to put mutineers, irrespective of their motives, in irons. But with the return of fair weather, the stars swing once more in their accustomed places. It is time to bring the mutineers up from the hold for whatever hearing ‘the law of the land’ accords them.

The American people are just now confronted with the wave of social unrest which is sweeping over the world in the wake of the world-war. It is, I suppose, impossible to approach the questions which are now before us for consideration without some mental predisposition one way or the other. I know that my own predisposition, both innately and as a matter of training, is what is generally called conservative. I really believe, for instance, that a representative republic such as ours is a better and, rightly considered, a more progressive form of government than a social democracy. I am as far as possible from being a Bolshevist or an anarchist. I do not believe in governmental ownership of public utilities in any form or under any disguise. I opposed both the constitutional amendment providing for the popular election of United States senators and the amendment enacting national prohibition, and since their adoption I have had no occasion to change my opinion about either of them.

These are simply my own conclusions, which may be quite incorrect as a matter of fact, though, like my friend’s witness, I think not. But, so far as my fellow citizens are concerned, my conclusions are, in a certain sense, at least, entirely irrevelant. They are part of a composite judgment, nothing more, and they are entitled to only so much weight as their own intrinsic worth, backed by the weight of my personal authority, be that much or little, is able to win for them. ‘All power,’ says the Constitution of my own state, in words which fairly express the political philosophy underlying the Constitution of the United States as well, ‘is inherent in the people and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.’

But the right thus stated is, in the United States, happily more than the abstract product of any paper constitution. It is a perfectly practical fact, and every American knows it. Whenever a substantial majority of our fellow citizens, having soberly considered both sides of the case, desires to adopt the social and political theories of Lenin and Trotsky, it not only has a theoretical right so to do, but it has, by means of constitutional amendments, the actual power to accomplish such a result. Precisely because this is the case, every right-minded American must have viewed with satisfaction the recent conviction and sentence in New York of two aliens who had advocated the overthrow by force of our present form of government. The crime for which they were indicted is defined by a special statute and is known as ‘criminal anarchy,’ but logically it is treason—not treason against the United States in the technical sense, but treason against the basic principle of democracy, which is that the will of the whole people (necessarily determined in practice by the will of the majority) is paramount to the will of any part of the people.

Now, if it be true that the people have a right ‘to alter, reform or abolish ’ their government at will, — and we Americans should be the last to dispute it, — and, further, if it be true that it is here and now treason against democracy and tolerance for a radical minority to seek to blow up with bombs the leaders and representatives of a political organization with which they happen to disagree, it is equally — and for the same reasons — treason against democracy and tolerance for a conservative majority forcibly to prevent a full and free discussion of the views of political thinkers with whom they happen to disagree. Indeed, one proposition necessarily depends on the other. Revolution by force is a crime only when revolution by argument and persuasion is an ever-present possibility. Free speech is not merely one of the results of democracy: it is likewise one of the continuing causes of democracy. When free speech ceases, public opinion ceases; and when the rule of public opinion ceases, despotism begins. The American tradition affirms that the forcible overthrow of despotism is not base but noble.

Some months ago a well-known clergyman and educator delivered a public lecture in the city in which I live. In the course of his remarks he said that if he were President of the United States he would order the arrest of every Socialist and anarchist in the country, would have them taken to New York harbor, and thence ‘on a ship of stone with sails of lead ’ would ‘ start them straight for the closest port of Hell.’ The speaker was an educated native-born citizen, and was speaking in a small and thoroughly American inland city, but one seldom hears more seditious language on the lips of an illiterate immigrant haranguing foreigners in the heart of one of our great centres of population. In principle such an utterance is quite as bad as that for which the New York anarchists were sent (as I think rightly) to jail, and in practice it is a great deal more sinister and alarming. The number of radical agitators in the United States is said to be about twenty thousand. The number of influential conservatives is many times as great. It is, therefore, chiefly upon the temperance and fortitude of conservative leadership that the safety of America depends.

I have said that I have faith in our political institutions. I have faith in our people as well. ‘ It is not uninteresting to the world,’ said Thomas Jefferson, ‘that an experiment should be fairly and fully made whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth.’ We find ourselves in the midst of this experiment, and I for one am willing to debate the apostles of Bolshevism, not only because tolerance entitles both sides to a hearing, but because I believe I have a better case than they have and because I have confidence in the court and jury.

The Constitution of the United States can claim for itself none of the sacred character which the Hebrews attributed to the laws of Moses. It was devised by wise and patriotic men after a score of compromises. It was adopted after the most unrestricted consideration in the forum of public opinion. It stands vindicated in the record of nearly a century and a half of progress and development without a parallel in the history of civilization. If, then, the form of government which the Constitution set up cannot now win for itself vindication as a working success from the same tribunal which approved it as a mere experiment over a century ago, the obvious conclusion would seem to be that our government is not really so good as I think it is — in other words, that my own conclusion on this point is quite wrong; and in that case we ought by all means to avail ourselves of the first opportunity to replace our present political structure by a better one.

Finally, and as a mere matter of conservative expediency, it will do no good in any event to tie down the safetyvalve. Most of the undesirable agitators in the country are, as everybody knows, of foreign birth, and most of them were born in countries where there has already been too much tying down of the safety-valve. The unthinking conservative first of all begets the unthinking radical. However much we may wish that the soap-box orator had chosen to set up his soap-box, as Diogenes set up his tub, in the land of his nativity, he has in fact done no such thing. The soap-box is at our street corners, and we are confronted by the necessity of letting it remain there, so long as its occupant confines his attention to pointing out the supposed advantages of substituting another form of government for the one under which we are now living, or of repudiating the very principles which form the most significant part of America’s contribution to the world’s heritage of freedom.

There is only one other possible point of view, and that is that the people are incompetent to select their own form of government. If that is true, then democracy has failed; and if democracy has failed, then America has failed. Personally I have no fear on this point, but even if I had, — being an American and remembering the aspirations, the denial, the blood and tears, the anguish and longing that have gone into the making of America, — it seems to me that I would at least give democracy the benefit of the doubt, and continue, though with a waning faith, along the old paths, even as Peter, after he had denied his Lord, nevertheless ‘ followed afar off . . . to see the end.’