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Can the Boundaries of Tolerance be Settled
Without Reference to Public Opinion?

Public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.

George Orwell

I am in Holland not only because Dutch painting is a visible expression of the revolution that replaced Divine Authority by experience, experiment and observation, but because Holland—economically and intellectually—was the first country to profit from the change. When one begins to ask the question, ‘does it work?’ or even, ‘does it pay?’ instead of, ‘is it God’s will?’ one gets a new set of answers, and one of the first of them is this: that to try to suppress opinions which one doesn’t share is much less profitable than to tolerate them. This conclusion should have been reached during the Reformation—it was implicit in the writings of Erasmus who was, of course, a Dutchman. Alas, a belief in the divine authority of our own opinions afflicted the Protestants just as much as the Catholics—even in Holland. They continued to persecute each other right up to the middle of the seventeenth century . . . And the Jews, who in Amsterdam were at last exempt from persecution by the Christians, began to persecute each other. Trials of witches positively increased in this age of reason. It seemed as if the spirit of persecution was like some kind of poison that couldn’t be cured by the new philosophy, and had to work itself out of the system. Still, when all this is said, the spirit of Holland in the early seventeenth century was remarkably tolerant; and one proof is that nearly all the great books which revolutionized thought were first printed in Holland.

Sir Kenneth Clark (from Civilisation, 1969)

Tolerance is a tremendous virtue, but the immediate neighbours of tolerance are weakness and apathy.

James Goldsmith

It is not by any means self-evident upon the face of it that an institution like the liberty of speech is right or just. It is not natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which you believe to be bad for mankind any more than it is natural or obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half a town with typhoid fever. The theory of free speech, that truth is so much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it is very much better at all costs to hear every one’s account of it, is a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but which remains a very daring and even a very surprising theory. It is really one of the great discoveries of the modern time; but once admitted, it is a principle that does not merely affect politics, but philosophy, ethics, and finally, poetry.

G. K. Chesterton (from Robert Browning, 1906)

Every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions. But no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.

Bernard Baruch

George Woodcock, himself a partisan of animal welfare, called animal rights activists “self-righteous and egotistical to an extreme.” The inner logic of these crusaders goes like this. (1) The social change I am advocating will have beneficial results. (2) Therefore it is a righteous cause. (3) Therefore I am a righteous person. (4) Therefore anyone who opposes me is a bad person.

Philip Marchand

Intolerance is the besetting sin of moral fervour.

Alfred North Whitehead

I remember arguing . . . with a Spanish ecclesiastic who insisted that error has no rights against the truth—an odd remark for a trained theologian to make, for he must have known that neither truth nor error has rights, since rights can only be predicated of men and not of abstractions. Men in error have very definite rights, civic rights among them, and Catholics equally have a definite obligation to respect the consciences of men in error.

Arnold Lunn

Tolerance applies to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error.

Fulton Sheen

In the Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas poses the question of whether heretics can be endured, tolerated. And his answer is that heretics can not be tolerated. If it was just to condemn counterfeiters to death, then surely it was necessary to put to death those who had committed the far worse crime of counterfeiting the faith.

Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age.

Henry David Thoreau

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.

George Orwell (from The Prevention of Literature, 1946)

You can say with complete certainty that, if you meet anyone who claims not to believe in evolution, he is either ignorant, stupid or crazy (or evil, but I would prefer not to consider that possibility).

Richard Dawkins

When a subject is highly controversial one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Virginia Woolf

The simple realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing what they are is a big step. The final achievement is understanding why they are held.

Thoughts about Tolerance & Intolerance

A large part of mankind is angry not with the sins, but with the sinners.


There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.

Erich Fromm

Compromise is odious to passionate natures because it seems a surrender; and to intellectual natures because it seems confusion.

George Santayana

Intellectuals are the most intolerant of all people.

Paul Duncun

Even in my innermost thoughts, I am far from thinking that those who believe differently than I have poorer judgment or from forgetting in how fragile and contingent a manner a man’s opinions are formed.

Jean Rostand

We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem that is threatened.

James Harvey Robinson

Generally speaking, human beings are extremely tolerant of nonsense.

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

William James

God is tolerant, man is not tolerant; Omniscience pardons, frailty is inexorable.

Sidney Smith

To understand everything makes one very tolerant.

Madame de StaŽl

My view of literature is that a man appreciates what he can, and should keep his appreciation supple by not conceiving fanatical hates and loves, and also by not straining it where it doesn’t arise naturally. Writers who don’t appeal to me I don’t bother about but I don’t mind my friends liking them.

Hugh Kingsmill

Intolerance respecting other people’s religion is toleration itself in comparison with intolerance respecting other people’s art [or taste].

Wallace Stevens

Political correctness. . .engenders a coercive culture of ritualized insincere approval. . . the majority can feel that it is being compelled to accord moral approval to practices that, at best, it only tolerates.

Michael Ignatieff

Is it essentially intolerant to demand that people should renounce their whole world view in the interests of tolerance?

The man who says “Believe as I do or God will damn you,” will soon be saying, “Believe as I do or I will kill you.”


Intolerance, judiciously applied, is a virtue.

Charles Davenport

The peak of tolerance is most readily achieved by those who are not burdened with convictions.

Alexander Chase

The real test of tolerance only comes after one is deeply committed to certain ideas, and deeply intolerant (by logical necessity) of the opposing ideas. To be able to show tolerance towards human beings who disagree with our passionate convictions is the vindication of tolerance.

There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances.

George Orwell

Moderation is an conspicuous proof of our strength of character.

La Rochefoucauld

To tolerate everything is to teach nothing.

F. J. Kinsman

It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.

G. K. Chesterton

Tolerance in excess is as much a vice as any other virtue in excess.

Malcolm Muggeridge

Tolerance leads to acceptance, which in turn leads to approval.

Tolerance is the child of security; and English tolerance has its roots in our long immunity from invasion. Intolerance, on the other hand, is the product of insecurity and fear.

Arnold Lunn

It is very important to distinguish between intellectual intolerance and emotional intolerance.

We all have sharp likes and dislikes. We hand out praise and condemnation with equal ease.

Jean Vanier

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or blame than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value.

C. S. Lewis

Why is it . . . that in the broad spectrum of humanity writers should be the meanest, the pettiest, the most jealous, mudslinging, backstabbing, self-centered, conceited people who ever lived?

Ian Frazier

Success makes us intolerant of failure, and failure makes us intolerant of success.

William Feather

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