26 January 2006 - Thursday

Advantages of tolerance

Reading from a collection of the Marquis de Condorcet's writings this morning, I came across a letter he addressed to his daughter. Condorcet wrote this in 1794 while hiding from the Terror. (He was on the run after publicly criticizing the Jacobin constitution.) The letter is full of fatherly advice, the advice Condorcet wanted to leave his child but doubted he would be able to impart in person. I especially like his admonition to be nice and "indulgent" whenever possible:

My child ...

If you want society to give you more pleasure and comfort than sorrow or bitterness, be indulgent and guard against egoism as a poison which ruins all its pleasures.

By indulgence, I do not mean the ability, born of indifference or thoughtlessness, to pardon everything simply because you do not feel or notice anything. I mean the indulgence based on justice, on reason, on an awareness of your own weaknesses, and on our happy inclination to pity men rather than condemn them.

This will enable you to find happiness in the many good but weak people who are not tiresome though they have no shining qualities, who can distract you even if they cannot occupy you, whom you can meet with pleasure but leave without pain, and who do not count when we view our lives as a whole, but who can pass the time and fill a few empty moments. ...

Because of your duties, your main interests and the things you feel strongly about, you may not always be able to associate only with people you have chosen to have around you. And then, situations which would have cost you nothing if you had been more reasonable and more just, and had made indulgence a way of life, will require painful, daily sacrifices. Instead of a slight constraint, they will become a true source of unhappiness.

Iain McLean and Fiona Hewitt, trans. and eds., Condorcet: Foundations of Social Choice and Political Theory (Edward Elgar Publishing, 1994), 288-289.

It's a nicely practical argument, founded on self-interest as well as the concept of fairness. This is what you would hear if your father were an Enlightenment philosopher who wanted you to play nice. The essence of the advice: overlook irritations, be charitable to everyone, and be humble. I like that advice; it could already have saved me a lot of difficulty in my short life, had I followed it more often.

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