I was reading "The stranger" in which a person is guilty of a murder.

What is the meaning of the sentence:

But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice.

Below is my research

give way: to break or fall down

stern: serious and difficult

lofty: deserving praise because of its high moral quality

  • give way to = yield to
    – TimR
    Feb 7, 2017 at 21:25

2 Answers 2


If you want to go into the philosophical meaning of this phrase, that is outside of the realm of this exchange, and might be better on English, as this is a Camus novel and has so many layers to it.

In this specific case, he is saying that "Tolerance" must, "give way" to "Justice".

That means that in this case, it is more important for the murderer to be punished, than for us to feel sympathy for him, because of the societal consequences.

"Giving way" here means to "get out of the way". Imagine you come to a narrow corridor and someone is trying to get past you. If you let them past you are "giving way". So in this case it means that tolerance must get out of justice's way, as justice takes precedence.


"Sterner" can be simply understood as "meaner". It is pretty easy to see why "justice" is a less pleasant thing than tolerance. Tolerance is love and happiness, people getting on together. Justice is punishment, harshness, absolutes.


In classical literature, and in most Western societies, "Justice" is held in high esteem as a moral principle. Most people at this time would have considered it more important for a society to be "just" than "tolerant". In this case your definition is fine, as the character is indeed saying that Justice deserves more praise and esteem than Tolerance.



During Meursault's trial, the prosecutor uses social constructions to prove that Meursault is a danger to society. The prosecutor argues that Meursault's heartlessness is a threat to hide the true threat of his existential beliefs.

"We cannot complain that he lacks what it was not in his power to acquire. But here in this court the wholly negative virtue of tolerance must give way to the sterner but loftier virtue of justice. Especially when the emptiness of a man's heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society" (101).

The prosecutor uses this argument as an opening to his suggestion that the court give Meursault the death penalty. He initially claims that Meursault cannot be blamed for his supposed lack of a soul or morals. However, the prosecutor quickly adds that in extreme situations, justice is worth more than tolerance. He ranks the social construction of justice above tolerance to condemn Meursault and protect the image of the system.

Meursault supposedly died for justice for the Arab, but historically the French did not care about the native Arabs. Meursault had to die because he stepped outside of the system, which could have caused its collapse if others also realized that the "true" social constructions were illusions. The prosecutor was correct about Meursault being able to ruin the system. However, it was his refusal to embrace the illusions of the system that made him a threat rather than his lack of emotion or violent actions.

If you paste your sentence into Google search, there are other sites where this is discussed.

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