Tuesday 22 August 2000

Tolerance (1930)

From The Philosopher, Volume. VIII, 1930



By Richard Rowe

2003 - the Editor adds:

Richard S. Rowe was a contributor to the Philosopher in the inter-war period, whose interests included commenting on Classical Greece, and deriving the nature of 'inspiration'. But of all his contributions this one seems to have stood the test of time best, with his diagnosis of the problems of that epoch continuing to sound a warning to us today. 'It is idle to denounce war, as though it were the deliberate invention of degenerate man", he writes, yet we may have "become so accustomed to the domination of force that some of us fail to see its latent dangers.'


It is always difficult to analyse the intellectual and moral tendencies of oneís own time. What seems all important at the moment of its happening may prove, when viewed in the truer perspective of history, to have been an ephemeral incident: while on the other hand the beginnings of some movement, destined to revolutionize the world of thought, may have been so slight or subtle as to have escaped contemporary attention altogether.

Probably no period has been without its idealists who beheld visions of a Golden Age yet to be attained. Probably no period has been without its mournful forth-tellers of doom who could see in impending change nothing but catastrophe. Probably no period has been entirely bereft of the 'sanctified common sense' which avoids extremes and tries 'to see life steadily and see it whole.'

We need to be reminded that if the past is indeed strewn with the wreckage wrought by man's selfishness and lack of imagination, we have no guarantee that the children's children of the wreckers will be capable of any greater appreciation of values. By the same token we should take heart of grace and refrain from the sprinkling of ashes and the putting on of sackcloth when some cherished phase of 'the old order changeth giving place to new.' Cosmos has been evolved from chaos. But there were doubtless periods in the transition so picturesque that any change in the kaleidoscope seemed as if it must inevitably be a change for the worse. Yet changes came, and unsuspected beauties were revealed.

Such is the gospel of the idealists. But it is also true that cosmos has sometimes degenerated into chaos. It is futile to rush with a fire brand through the priceless architecture of an ancient civilization chanting 'Excelsior' as each tower topples and each temple is destroy The mere efflux of time is not synonymous with progress: alteration is not necessarily repair; change may as easily connote decay as its opposite.

Perhaps nothing worthy would ever have been accomplished in this little world of ours if there had been no enthusiasts. The pity is that the enthusiast was so often the victim of an obsession, and so seldom had any sympathy with the other enthusiasts whose obsession took forms different from his own. So the game of 'in' and 'out' has been continued in Politics, in Religion, in Art, in Science. The Tory by his immobility has goaded moderate men into Radicalism. The Radical by his arrogant destructiveness has driven them back into Toryism. Art fluctuates between a photographic slavishness that paints its portraits 'warts and all,' and an 'impressionism~ which leaves the plain man with only the impression of a blur. Science, as taught by its second-rate exponents at any rate, is in one generation a self-satisfied dogmatist and in the next its chief aim seems to be the dissemination of philosophic doubt.

Insensibly the attitude of the individual to his fellow is affected by the prevailing tendency of his time. Feudalism, in which, though the serf was a chattel of his master, the master could not entirely repudiate his responsibility, gave way eventually to the callous laissez faire o! the Manchester School, and that in time yielded to a solicitude for other people's business which shows signs of passing through the stages of fussiness and irritation into downright tyranny.

If, then, one may venture upon the diagnosis of a current disease, it would appear that the world for the time being has lost its love of liberty, and that tolerance - which is simply 'sweet reasonableness' in action--is sick unto death.

The Great War has devastated other areas than those of France and Belgium: it has been-malignant in the realm of thought. It is idle to denounce war, as though it were the deliberate invention of degenerate man. Warfare of one sort or another is writ large, not merely on the pages of human history, but on the records of physical science as well. The tides are making war upon our coast line day by day; and the silting up of river-mouths and harbours is the retaliation of the land forces upon the opposite front. In the veins and viscera of every healthy animal warfare is going on, and when resistance to evil weakens the result is not peace, but death.

And yet the moral and intellectual effect of the Great War seems to be in many respects deplorable. They who ever taken the sword have perished by the sword. The taking of the sword may have been inevitable, but that does not make the sequel less disastrous, although it may possibly justify the sanguine in the belief tha:

'Somehow good
Shall be the final goal of ill.' 

We are a long way from that goal. What has at present emerged from the waste and welter of the conflict is weariness. Many people only know that they are weary, and they are too tired to enquire whether even their exhaustion is not worthwhile as the price of an effort which it would have been shameful not to have made.

'The tumult and the shouting' of the armistice celebrations are dead. In their place, in certain quarters, has arisen a pseudo-tolerance which is no tolerance at all. There is a sham broadmindedness which ignores the very essence of the problem, and, for the sake of a specious syllogism, stultifies its premises and naturally arrives at a wrong conclusion.

It is here that we seem to come into contact with one of the symptoms of the prevailing mental and moral disease -- the loss of the love of liberty. If we only calculate the cost of the war in terms of increased Income Tax and decreased employment, and ignore the tremendous moral credit entry, we shall drift into a dreary materialism from which we cannot expect and perhaps should not deserve to be saved. But if, while frankly admitting the parlous condition into which we have been brought and, it may be, acknowledging that on the material plane needless expenses have been incurred through folly and incompetence, we realise that the moral principle for which we fought was right and that our spiritual prestige has been enhanced, we shall see that the conflict was worthwhile: we 'could no other.' We shall keep before our eyes that love of liberty which is the very breath of life of every truly great people, and the loss of which is the prelude to decay and death.

We have become so accustomed to the domination of force that some of us fail to see its latent dangers. During the war Force reigned supreme. For the sake of the larger liberty, the lesser liberties were cheerfully and rightly sacrificed. The Lares and Penates of a million homes were pooled and defended, not by their respective owners but by a conscript army. The Englishman's home was no longer his castle. He must darken his window at night. He must only eat as much bread and butter as some official quite unknown to him, might permit. All that, too, was worthwhile. The ready sacrifice of the individual's convenience for the common good was one of the causes of victory and was in itself a moral triumph of no small importance. But when the necessity for interference no longer existed, did we resume our pre-war ways of thought and action? Is there not on the one hand a slavish readiness to submit to arbitrary officialdom; and on the other a pernicious willingness to adopt ourselves the Jack-in-office attitude towards anyone too stupid or too cowardly to resist?

It is not suggested that the aftermath of war is exclusively responsible for what may be described as violations of the altar of liberty. But it is responsible for much of the apathy with which such violations are regarded. It is the attitude that a people adopts with regard to the circumstances in which it lives that perhaps indicates the moral trend of that people more clearly than the sporadic attempts of its legislators.

There is a curious paradox in the fact that intolerance often assumes its most hateful forms among the very classes that have suffered most from the intolerance of others; and that those who are most eloquent in demanding freedom for their own views and practices, are the first to deny freedom of thought or action to their neighbours. What were the ideals of the pioneers of the Trade Unions movement? What was the policy for which the Chartists were prepared to suffer? Surely not the right of permanent officials to drive workers into unwilling idleness; nor the compulsory contribution towards the expenses of political candidates with whose views the contributors had no sympathy. Of course, the subject is beset with difficulties. In our little world and as long as we are subject to the limitations of a human body, the absolute -- even absolute tolerance -- may be unattainable, and we must be satisfied with the relative, with the nearest approximation to our ideal of which we are capable.

It would be absurd to tolerate a virulent intolerance which threatened our own extermination. There may even be times -- but they should not be prolonged one moment more than is necessary -- when the benevolent autocrat must bear sway. The autocrat, however, would be well advised to depend upon some opinion other than his own as to whether he is really benevolent after all.

In conclusion, tolerance does not simply mean mass indifference. It does not mean that one refuses to take part in the match, but it does mean that one plays the game. It might be possible to throw vitriol into the bowler's eyes, or to stab the goalkeeper in the back but what would victory under such circumstances be worth?

If both sides stick to the rules and the referees are unbribable, the best side will win, and that should be what each side desires.

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