Our world today is indebted to the past for its virtues as much as for its ideas and inventions. After the religious conflicts that fractured 16th-17th century Europe, there seemed to many no better way of harmonising disparate and antagonistic groups into something representing a cohesive society than to stress the need for everyone to get along: “Live and let live.” This sentiment is well-reflected in a common adage, falsely attributed to Augustine, but actually from the pen of Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624), himself a Catholic archbishop and scientist who attempted to navigate the rapids of ecclesial change during the post-Reformation period and was finally condemned as a heretic. He wrote: “Omnesque mutuam amplecteremur unitatem in necessariis, in non necessariis libertatem, in omnibus caritatem” (Book IV, De republica ecclesiastica libri X), which is loosely translated: “We should all embrace in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Accordingly, modern Western nations are built on tolerance, exemplified in the socio-political experiment that is the United States. Australia too has been shaped by this principle, and we don’t need to look far to see evidence of this, for instance, in the Australian Values Statement, that lists “tolerance” as one of the primary values of our country, alongside “mutual respect” and “equality”. Nor are Australian politicians shy to proclaim “tolerance” from the rooftops (irrespective of whether their actions match their rhetoric). Our schools have similarly taken up the gauntlet of intentionally teaching “tolerance”. In a 2015 article, a University of Melbourne Research Fellow, Anna Dabrowski, contended that a key role of schools is raise young people to be more tolerant of diversity (“Teaching Tolerance: The Role of Australian Schools,” https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/teaching-tolerance-the-role-of-australian-schools). Such is the “tolerant” state of this multicultural nation that one quickly becomes a pariah if accused of breaching its sacrosanct boundaries, labelled with the greatest insult among us contemporaries: “intolerant”; a descriptor often coupled with other deprecatory adjectives like “bigot” or “fanatic” (especially with regards to religious belief).

However, tolerance is not a virtue you find lauded among the ancients or medievals. Neither Plato’s dialogues, nor the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, nor indeed the Summa, focus much time or space on discussing and promoting it. Was this because they were parochial in their view of the world, unaware of the varied races, creeds and sexualities that we encounter in the 21st century? Hardly that. Rather, I believe, it was because tolerance was not needed; or more precisely, it was embedded within other, more important virtues that are lost to us today. When exercised in right proportion, the inculcated virtues of Western society were sufficient – if not superior – to do the “job” of tolerance.

Consider the cardinal virtues. A man who is just or prudent does not attack someone who has peculiar views or an abnormal character simply because such things are different. The Roman Empire demonstrates this clearly for even with its significant flaws, it was able to allow and – to some degree, incorporate and help flourish – varieties of culture and religion. When difference was not tolerated it was because such difference mattered. An easy example is heresy. Secular Australians might see punishing heresy as the pinnacle of intolerance, yet it is anything but that. To permit heresy to survive was both imprudent and unjust: imprudent because it undermined the unifying fabric of society (the faith) and led to increased disorder (a condition, I’m sure we can agree on, we do not suffer from at all in the modern world); and unjust because it potentially condemned souls to eternal separation from God. In the latter case, it was worse than murder, which could only destroy the body but not the soul (Matt 10:28). Would we call it intolerance to pursue murderers and put an end to their killing sprees?

Or else, how about a woman who has fortitude and temperance? Such a person is neither easily incited or offended by someone suggesting or living a contrary worldview, nor would she fly off the handle, being able to control her emotions. We are evidently lacking in such virtues when schools, universities and workplaces provide “safe spaces” where people can be protected from different viewpoints or media broadcasts constantly preface segments with “trigger” warnings to viewers.

The theological virtues are equally significant in harbouring within them a natural and rightly ordered tolerance. Faith builds into a person the understanding that, in this world, things happen that we don’t approve of, principally, sin. As such, one does not expect everything to go one’s way, which requires the toleration of evil. Even God, because of His faithfulness to us, tolerates a certain level of evil in the world. This then connects with hope, which points to the possibility of such things being rectified by God. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19), and so our intolerance need not lash out as an exterminating angel against those we disagree with. Lastly, love – the supreme theological virtue – ensures that we act for the good of the other; again, this inherently involves tolerating certain aspects that are not harmful to people we love. Paul, for instance, advised Christians to put up with eating habits they might not agree with so as not to scandalise a weak brother or sister (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; Col 2:16). But this “Christian love” is the seat of intolerance, some might argue. Is it really? Do we tolerate cancers in the bodies of those we love? Do we tolerate their drug addictions? Do we tolerate their laziness or wastefulness of life? Certainly, we do not. We never tolerate in others who we love that which we consider detrimental to them, body and soul.

Following the evacuation of the cardinal and theological virtues, moreover, of the Christian religion, our culture has nothing much left but to deify tolerance. It appears like the only way to bind people to goodness towards their fellow man. Still, it is failing because it is a weak virtue. What Australia, and all the West, requires are strong virtues, fighting virtues, that are capable of combating the sins of our contemporary world. As Chesterton noted in a prescient essay in the Illustrated London News (23 October 1909): “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” Tolerance as the signature virtue of contemporary Australian society is, sadly, the sign of the diminishing of our society.