Almost four months ago I stopped making daily entries to this blog for what I thought would be a few days. The thing that stopped me was John Courtney Murray’s “We Hold These Truths” which I had never read before. It seemed clear to me that I could not really move ahead with the project of thinking through a Christian Democratic politics for America without confronting Murray.
Given his reputation for liberalism, I expected the confrontation might be a hostile one. (It’s true that I have renounced conservatism. But as Joyce once said in a similar context “sir I have lost my faith not my mind.”)
To my surprise, I found Murray’s core insight to be a much more articulate version of the raw impulse that moved me to launch this project in the first place. More than forty years ago, it was quite clear to Murray that the note that distinguished American secularists from believing American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, was that the secularists and the secularists alone rejected pluralism, even in principle.
Seeing that Murray had “got there first” and had gone on to develop the argument brilliantly, persuaded me the next topic for the blog would have to be a serious grapple with Murray, or at least a recounting of his argument, which might take a while. The word “serious” was fatal. I actually began to take notes and outline the piece—not really consistent with blogging. And then came Christmas and then some extra end of year tasks at work. And now I am back and Murray remains to be grappled with.
So I begin. I no longer pledge “serious” and I certainly don’t pledge “daily.” But here goes.
Murray’s Intro is titled “The Civilization of the Pluralist Society.” He opens by observing that it had become popular in his day to ask, rather skeptically, whether America is actually a free country. But he can’t engage that question immediately for the simple reason that the “norms of freedom seem to have got lost in a welter of confused controversy.”
That certainly has not changed. But this very inability to establish the terms of the discussion of freedom suggested to Murray another question.
We can, he said, “ask if American society is civil” because the basic standard of civility is not in doubt. He offers a simple but persuasive definition in a quote from a Benedictine Thomist, Thomas Gilby. “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.”
Expanding on Gilby, Murray argues that the “specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for permanent cohesiveness on argument among men” which makes it different “from all other forms of association found on earth.” The polis to be sure is not purely rational, for a political community is first a community, but its reliance on rational discourse is distinctive. Thus the climate of the city is cool and dry “with the coolness and dryness that characterize good argument among reformed and responsible men” It lacks the warmth of family or of passionate love or friendship.
But if civilization is men locked in argument, what is the argument about? Murray suggests three main themes.
1. Public affairs, the res publica, those things that are for the advantage of the public which call for public decision and action by the government.
2. The affairs of the commonwealth that go beyond the necessities of public order but bear upon the quality of the common life, which may or may not be reached by law but are certainly not exclusively addressed by the law. The pre-eminent affair is education.
3. The most important and difficult is the constitutional consensus whereby the people acquires its identity as a people and society is endowed with its vital form, its “sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”
Thus the “state of civility supposes a consensus that is constitutional …. This consensus is come to by the people; they become a people by coming to it.” They come to it “by the methods of reason, reflecting on experience.”
The consensus has a specific type of content “It is an ensemble of substantive truths, a structure of basic knowledge, an order of elementary affirmations that reflect realities inherent in the order of existence. It occupies an established position in society and excludes opinions alien or contrary to itself. This consensus is the institutional a priori of all the rationalities and technicalities of constitutional and statutory law. It furnishes the premises of the people’s actions in history…”
“The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt…. We hold these truths; therefore we can argue about them. …” Agreement is not the end of argument but its beginning. “There can be no argument except on the premise and within a context of agreement.”
The “public argument within the City and about the City’s affairs begins with the agreement that there is…a heritage of essential truth, a tradition of rational belief that sustains the structure of the City and furnishes the substance of civil life. It was to this patrimony that the Declaration of Independence referred….”
We hold these truths, he says, both because they are a patrimony and because they are true. But for both those reasons the consensus, though the condition of the public argument, is also dependent on the continuation of that argument. The argument must continue because it keeps the patrimony fresh in our minds. And the argument must continue because otherwise we will forget why we hold these truths to be true.
Thus to ask whether the US is a civil society is to ask what is the state of the argument? It is to ask do we have the consensus we need, the truths we must hold in common so that the argument can continue, and especially so that it will, as he argues later, be truly an argument and not just a thin cover for civil war.
You know, as in “culture war.” (Told you he was prescient.)
He then identifies two great enemies of the civil argument. The first is the barbarian, who rejects the possibility of rational argument altogether. I have quoted this bit before in quote of the day but it is too good not to give again:
“This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived, and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed.”
And then there is this bit, that sounds like nothing so much as the Holy Father at Regensburg: “The barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs.”
We all recognize the barbarian. But the second threat to the argument is even more insidious. And will be the subject of my next post.