- Civility & Rhetoric (53) : Discourse, Persuasion, Respect
- Activism & Revolt (16) : Making Change
- Family (1) : The Family
- Government, Law, Politics (57)
- War & Peace (31) : War & Peacemaking
- Journalism (10) : All that's fit to print
- Education (15) : Scholarship and Pedagogy
- History (11) : History and Method
- In/Tolerance (20) : Living With Differences
- Church & State (37) : God & Country
"The Civilization of the Pluralist Society" in We Hold These Truths (Rowman & Littlefield: 2005), pp. 27-8.
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, but that there is a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence. We hold certain truths, therefore we can argue about them. It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached. In a basic sense the reverse is true. There can be no argument except on the premise, and within a context, of agreement. Mutatis mutandis, this is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological argument. It is no less true of political argument.
"Political Theory and the Postmodern Politics of Ambiguity" in Political Theory and Partisan Politics (SUNY Press: 2000), pp. 180-1.
I have argued that if the ambiguists mean to be subversive about anything, they need to be conservative about some things. They need to be steadfast supporters of the structures of openness and democracy: willing to say "no" to certain forms of contest; willing to set up clear limitations about acceptable behavior. To this, finally, I would add that if the ambiguists mean to stretch the boundaries of behavior — if they want to be revolutionary and disruptive in their skepticism and iconoclasm — they need first to be firm believers in something. Which is to say, again, they need to set clear limits about what they will and will not support, what they do and do not believe to be best. ... In other words, a refusal to judge among ideas and activities is, in the end, an endorsement of the status quo. To embrace everything is to be unable to embrace a particular plan of action, for to embrace a particular plan of action is to reject all others, at least for that moment. Moreover, as observed in our discussion of openness, to embrace everything is to embrace self-contradiction: to hold to both one's purposes and to that which defeats one's purposes — to tolerance and intolerance, open-mindedness and close-mindedness, democracy and tyranny.
Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (John Lane Company: 1909), p. 73-4.
The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a certain moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. ... In short, the sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. ... Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize "the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child." Our precedents "have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter." These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton: Feb 2008), p. ix, x.
There is a great gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil. This is particularly true when religion is the point at issue. Progressives cry out that fundamentalism is growing rapidly and nonbelief is stigmatized. They point out that politics has turned toward the right, supported by mega-churches and mobilized orthodox believers. Conservatives endlessly denounce what they see as an increasingly skeptical and relativistic society. Major universities, media companies, and elite institutions are heavily secular, they say, and they control the culture. ¶ Which is it? Is skepticism or faith on the ascendancy in the world today? The answer is Yes. The enemies are both right. Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well. ... In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time. There was once a confident belief that secular European countries were the harbingers for the rest of the world. Religion, it was thought, would thin out from its more robust, supernaturalist form or die out altogether. But the theory that technological advancements bring inevitable secularization is now being scrapped or radically rethought.
Sullivan in The American Class-Reader, George Wilson, ed. (Princeton University: 1840), pp. 273-5.
The well-being of society would be greatly promoted, if the nature and use of this Christian virtue were more generally known. We take this to be, in personal intercourse, the observance of the command, Do to others as you would that others should do to you. The most rapid glance at any community, shows this: That some of its members are brought into contact in matters of business, necessarily; others meet, incidentally, who have no particular connexion; others meet for social purposes, in various forms; and that there is a large proportion who know, of each other, very little beyond the fact, that they are of the same country; and perhaps, not even that. There must be a best rule of deportment for all these classes; and no one will deny, that if this rule were defined, and faithfully applied, there would be much more of every day comfort, and complacency in the world, than there is well known to be. If we rightly understand the meaning of civility, it is the manifestation of kind feelings, and of a desire to do all things which are to be done, under the influence of such feelings, in a becoming and agreeable manner.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Macmillan: 1909), p. 94
In the conduct of my newspaper I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Whenever I was solicited to insert anything of that kind and the writers pleaded, as they generally did, the liberty of the press — and that a newspaper was like a stage-coach, in which any one who would pay had a right to a place — my answer was that I would print the piece separately if desired, and the author might have as many copies as he pleased to distribute himself, but that I would not take upon me to spread his detraction, and that having contracted with my subscribers to furnish them with what might be either useful or entertaining, I could not fill their papers with private altercation, in which they had no concern, without doing them manifest injustice. Now many of our printers make no scruple of gratifying the malice of individuals by false accusations of the fairest characters among ourselves, augmenting animosity even to the producing of duels; and are, moreover, so indiscreet as to print scurrilous reflections on the government of neighboring States, and even on the conduct of our best national allies, which may be attended with the most pernicious consequences. These things I mention as a caution to young printers, and that they may be encouraged not to pollute their presses and disgrace their profession by such infamous practices, but refuse steadily; as they may see by my example that such a course of conduct will not on the whole be injurious to their interests.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Macmillan: 1909), pp. 88-89.
My list of virtues contained at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined to endeavor to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest; and I added humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word. ¶ I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I comprehend, or I imagine, a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but that in the present case there "appeared" or "seemed to me" some difference, etc. The conversation I engaged in went on more pleasantly; the modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
Thomas Carlyle on Irony said...
Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, in Three Books (AMS Library: 1969), pp. 104-105.
Often, notwithstanding, was I blamed for my so-called Hardness, my Indifferentism towards men; and the seemingly ironic tone I had adopted, as my favorite dialect in conversation. Alas, the panoply of Sarcasm was but a buckram case, wherein I had striven to envelope myself; that so my own poor Person might live safe there, and in all friendliness, being no longer exasperated by wounds. Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it. But how many individuals did I, in those days, provoke into some degree of hostility thereby! An ironic man, with his sly stillness, and ambuscading ways, more especially a young ironic man, from whom it is least expected, may be viewed as a pest to society.
George Washington in Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation: a Book of Etiquette (Beaver Press: 1971).
George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. To modern ears many of these rules may seem quaint and moralistic, overly aristocratic and deferential. But though they are primarily rules of a lost formality, I take good manners to be an outward expression of respect toward others, and there is a timeless wisdom in many of them. One of the prevailing undercurrents here at Afterall.net is a desire to be competent at speaking in love what one takes to be true and not trivial. The first article I wrote here was "Recipe for Conversation", borne out of frustration with my own failure in many cases to speak with as much kindness as conviction. It is not easy to disagree without being disagreeable. Fortunately, to our great benefit, there is a long conversation in Anglo-American discourse about this subject of "civility" or "civil discourse". Indeed, the American Experiment is in large measure an attempt to live well with differences. To that end, Washington's rules with respect to civil conversation are worth considering. If nothing else, they are a glimpse into another time. Not surprisingly, incessant talkers and interrupters, not to mention gabbing with a mouth full of food, were as gauche then as they are now. As an aside, I've also added a new category, Civility & Rhetoric, to begin to gather books, quotes, and papers on this subject in one place. ~ Nate
C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man (1943), chp 2.
Lewis continues his train of thought from "Men Without Chests", criticizing the project of subjectivizing value. Lewis thinks the stakes are as grave as they can be: "the destruction of the society which accepts it". But immediately, Lewis notes, such grave consequences do not make it false. And besides, there are "theoretical difficulties" as well. Those who advocate the subjectification of value, in this case the pseudonymous Gaius and Titius, presume some greater end even as they undercut traditional values. "In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough." But if Gaius and Titius have some ultimate ground for value in mind, which cannot be so debunked, what might that be? Lewis considers whether "instinct" can ground human value, but notes that instinct is itself contradictory and cannot warrant the leap from is to ought. One will be inexorably forced back to some objective law that presents itself to our conscience as self-evident and obligatory. "This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements." ~ Afterall
C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man (1943), chp 1.
Lewis takes as his subject the thesis presented by two unnamed schoolmasters in what he calls "The Green Book": that our value judgments refer only to our own sentiments and never to any intrinsic worth in the objects we judge. He is concerned as to what this will mean for the education of English children, and this essay constitutes one part of Lewis' Abolition of Man, subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools". In the authors' seemingly innocent and casual subjectification of value there is a subversive outcome: "I do not mean, of course, that [the schoolboy] will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is 'doing' his 'English prep' and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all." The Green Book's authors analyze a piece of banal and deceptive advertising. But, Lewis notes, the authors have effectively precluded any normative judgment of the ad, for a similiar judgment upon Johnson, Wordsworth, or Virgil could be no less an accurate description of a reader's sentiments, and there is no other quality to which to appeal. Lewis ends with this oft-cited poetic prose: "And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." His argument continues in "The Way". ~ Afterall
Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press: 2009), pp. 33-34.
Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an 'age of reason' emerging from and overthrowing an 'age of faith'. Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma. All was darkness. ¶ Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowing of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. ¶ This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, 'intellectual journalism,' and vulgar legend.
Isaiah 58:6-12, The Bible, New International Version (Biblica: 1984).
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? ... If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. » Give here or here.
"The Value of Historical Theology", in Sundoulos, Fall Issue, 2009 (Talbot: 2009), p. 7.
Leopold Von Ranke's famous maxim that the historian's task is to "tell it like it was" may be ridiculed by those who doubt the possibility or even the desirability of objective history, but I believe Von Ranke was fundamentally correct. In the case of intellectual history, this involves understanding a thinker on his or her own terms, in his or her own context. It is coming to grips with a document's meaning and penetrating what underlies the arguments being advanced. It is no about rehabilitating or castigating those long dead, but about grasping objectively what is being said and why. ¶ While objectivity is the historian's goal, this does not mean that the historian is void of personal commitments, or that he or she must remain neutral as to the truth or falsity of the positions under consideration. The point is simply that history qua history is not about passing such judgments but is merely about getting the story straight, however the chips may fall. It is only after the position has been understood on its own terms and without bias that the historian may turn to evaluation and employ the fruits of his or her discovery in polemical or other theological application. But at that point we've moved beyond the historical task simpliciter and into something else — something wonderfully valuable and necessary, perhaps, but something different nonetheless.
"Christianity's Despicable History" on the CPXtra blog at PublicChristianity.com (Oct 31, 2009).
Christians have to acknowledge just how serious is the complaint today that the church acted despicably throughout its history. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem, with their Crusades and Inquisitions. Protestants have their own dark history. Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, wrote the most awful things about European Jews in his 1543 tract “The Jews and Their Lies”. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition and one of my favourite theologians, was brutal in his treatment of heretics like Michael Servetus, whom he had executed in 1553. The case is serious. But there is also something wrong with most modern versions of the complaint. First, retellings of the evils of Christianity frequently involve gross exaggerations in popular discussion. This is the product of an unnoticed propaganda. ... [E]very new era retells the past in a way that elevates its own position as the great deliverer, the bringer of special freedoms; and that necessarily requires exaggerating, even lying, about the horrors of the past. We do this on a small scale when we talk about the moralism of the 1950s or the prudishness of Victorian England. It happened on a macro scale in the 18th-19th centuries ... when Enlightenment leaders popularised the expression 'Dark Ages'. Here was an attempt to describe the era of Christendom as an era of oppression, ignorance and violence, as opposed to the era of freedom and peace brought about by secular reason. No serious historian today could go along with this story. ... I ... ask readers to contemplate an important insight. Experts aside, most of us have picked up our knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other horrors of Christendom from sources other than respectable academic literature. Is it not possible that we have simply accepted mere propaganda as fact?
"The War Universe", taped conversation, first published in Grand Street, no. 37.
This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.
"Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Health Care" (Sep 9, 2009).
You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
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