Four Years of Special Memories: Racists Use This Fake Quote From Aristotle

“Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society”

The character of this quotation is alien to Aristotle and ancient Greek ideas including using “tolerance” in this way and “dying society” (see the quora discussion). I poked around a bit through Aristotle, changing some of the ideas (an ancient Greek might think of “sick” or “corrupt” society”) but there is nothing close to this.

While searching, I found the variation “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society” attributed to Dr. James Kennedy (an Evangelical preacher) and then Hutton Gibson (father of Mel Gibson and Holocaust Denier). Some of the mis-translations and fake translations can be found in quote books from the 19th century. This one does not appear in any books older than a decade or so and mostly in self-published racist texts whose titles and authors I will not print.

One need only a little familiarity with the discourse of modern politics to hear echoes of right-wing alarmism here. As a Reddit commenter notes, this one seems used to target multiculturalism and support a supremacist world view. And, as Curtis Dozier shows in Pharos, this fake-quotation is alive and well in modern xenophobia.

Don’t google this to see how people use it, because it will be upsetting. A reddit user did point to the Loeb translation of Politics:

“Also difference of race is a cause of faction, until harmony of spirit is reached; for just as any chance multitude of people does not form a state, so a state is not formed in any chance period of time. ” (Politics Book 5 section 1303a)

Aristotle, Politics 1303a27-30

“Not being of the same tribe is a cause of strife until they “breathe in sync” [breathe together? Sumpneusê], for just as a state does not develop from an accidental mob, so too it does not come together at an accidental time.”

στασιωτικὸν δὲ καὶ τὸ μὴ ὁμόφυλον, ἕως ἂν συμπνεύσῃ· ὥσπερ γὰρ οὐδ᾿ ἐκ τοῦ τυχόντος πλήθους πόλις γίγνεται, οὕτως οὐδ᾿ ἐν τῷ τυχόντι χρόνῳ. διὸ ὅσοι ἤδη συνοίκους ἐδέξαντο ἢ ἐποίκους οἱ πλεῖστοι ἐστασίασαν

It is easy to take this passage as supporting a racist point of view; I think that it probably is kind of racist, but it connects more with the Greek political idea of homophrosune or homonoia, that a unifying feature of a multiple people must be shared beliefs or aims. Also, rather than focusing on the first clause (the same tribe thing) note the trouble focus on “accident”: states cannot just happen. They need planning, work and a reason to be.

(Also, homonoia is not unproblematic, but at least it leaves open the idea that people who look different can join together in common cause. Maybe that is a pretty low bar, but it is as far from the texts using this fake quote as Olympos is from Tartaros.)

But, don’t fear, I am not going to defend Aristotle here. He can be plenty hateful. The point is, he did not say this stupid thing. And, further, there’s plenty of material he actually did say which is reprehensible. So, why be so lazy and recycle some nonsense from an American preacher?

LSJ Supneu

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