Truth and tolerance

I’ll try to say this as concisely as I can. Only at a college where people pursue the truth is tolerance both necessary and conceivable. Where people are indifferent to truth, or where they do not believe in truth at all outside of the narrow band of things that can be measured, there is no tolerance. In the fencing of fellow pursuers of truth, steel sharpens steel, and one man’s vision may correct my errors.

We sweat, we may mutter imprecations, and we may part with hard feelings, but when our heads clear, we are grateful for the other, or we adjust our thoughts, or we come up with a stronger argument. But where truth is not the aim, the god of politics assumes the throne, and that god delights in bloodshed. Under his bloated eyes, swords are used not for that honest striving. They are used instead for that beloved pastime of academe, slipping the steel between your enemy’s shoulder blades while he is busy poring over Germanic verb tenses or, more likely, compounding in a mortar a special spice for their lunch.

I have come out of the worst year of my life and ended in a school, Thomas More College, where everyone is a pursuer of the truth. We do not pretend to have it all. We also do not pretend that we have been granted none of it. We are not like Dickens’ Podsnap of contemptible memory, who would dismiss anything he did not like with a stiff arm and an upraised chin and the oracular pronouncement, “Not English!”

We are also not like the long-haired lounger in the groves of acedia, drawing on his favorite drug and saying, from the puddle of his profundity, that everyone has his own opinion, man. We are not politicians either, or spies, puritans without God, half-human and half-insect, extending our delicate antennae to detect the slightest deviation from right speaking and right thinking.

We are grateful for what we have been given, and that is considerable. We have the insights of philosophers, poets, statesmen, theologians, and artists, with names like Plato, Dante, Churchill, Newman, and Rembrandt; we don’t scoff and shrug, as so often happened at my former school. “You’re an English major? That’s a useless thing to be,” said a political science professor, bringing the freshman girl to tears. We have also the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. We are not so mercurial as to find in them what is not there; we submit to be taught by them. I will never again have to consider that what I do in my class will be undone in another, by contempt, ignorance, falsehood, and ridicule.

We do tolerate, and only such professors and students as we are have cause to tolerate. My students at that other school either did not care what Machiavelli said—to take the caustic old Florentine for an example—or they readily and carelessly agreed. In general, they had to pretend to an interest.

At Thomas More, I have to restrain the students from arguing him down, as we bear with his central mistake, and try to find where and how far what he says is true and cannot be ignored without peril. My students at that other school had to be persuaded to read. My students now will sometimes quarrel among themselves about just how much and how far someone who has got some things wrong and some things right ought to be pardoned: such was their reaction to the fascinating and frustrating Catholic novelist, Heinrich Böll.

Indifference is not tolerance. When the thought police come knocking on your door, never expect the indifferent to lift a finger to help you, though, being generally nice people, they may invite you in for tea after you have been beaten senseless. Failing that, they may invite the police; they don’t like to be on the outs with anybody.

The obverse of this indifference to truth is sheer bigotry, political fanaticism. The indifferent man does not care enough about truth because he does not care about anything. The fanatic does not care about truth, because the idol has devoured his soul. Only those who pursue truth have cause to bear with error and to forgive the erring while correcting him or resisting his pressure.

I will never again come home from work, thinking that what little I might do in one class would be unraveled in another. I wish to be shown where I am wrong. I do not wish to be reproved because I did not subscribe to a political program.

So, I am now making this appeal to our readers here. Why, in the name of all that is reasonable, why do you give a single dime to places where faith is ignored or scorned, and reason is reduced to a wraith, or repudiated as the instrument of political violence? Why waste your money on what gives no life? Why do you not give to schools where both truth and tolerance have a place, and where the latter is strictly ordered to the former?

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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