Tuesday, August 3, 2010


What is it?
We need to clarify our ideas concerning this important subject. What is tolerance? The word “tolerance” derives from the Latin verb tolare, which means to bear, to endure, to put up with. The object of tolerance, that which is borne or endured or put up with, is invariably something negative. We speak, for example, of people who have a low tolerance for distractions, meaning that they are easily distracted. Or, to cite another example, the physiologists tell us that women, on average, have a higher tolerance for physical pain than do men, meaning that they can put up with pain better than can men.

Now, the thing to note about tolerance is that, just as such, it has no immediate moral dimension to it. The inability to tolerate distractions may be simply a matter of natural temperament, and the ability to tolerate pain can be explained in terms of one’s physical make-up, things over which a person has no direct control. Whether or not tolerance takes on a virtuous character very much depends on its being an attitude which is deliberately assumed.

To the best of my knowledge, St. Thomas never regards tolerance, just as such, as a moral virtue. It would seem that the actual moral virtue that tolerance comes closest to is patience. The virtue of patience, unlike tolerance, is not the mere enduring of something difficult or painful, but it is doing so for a higher end. Saint Thomas teaches that patience represents a conscious, willed effort to preserve a rational good in the face of sorrow. The patient person puts up with difficulties for the sake of a good that transcends those difficulties. So, we take note of the fact that the saints are always patient, because they bear all the crosses that are sent to them for the supreme good which is the love of God.

Is it ever permissible to tolerate things which are not merely negative but positively evil? Not only is it permissible, sometimes it is unavoidable. There are certain circumstances in which particular evils must be put up with, and this is because any attempt to get rid of them would very likely only give rise to yet greater evils, and our second state will be worse than the first. But such circumstances should be considered exceptional, and the salient point to stress here is that to tolerate evil in such circumstances does not at all mean to approve of it. The evil is simply “put up with,” borne, as a painful presence which, if it were possible to do so, one would promptly take action to get rid of it.

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