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The Renewal of the American Conversation

Of all the handy descriptions of America that one may find, the one that fits best and goes the farthest in capturing the essence of our people is “the talking nation.” While other nations have placed requirements of soil or station on their membership, America has ever required only that anyone who would take her name be able to prove himself capable of joining her conversation—that he is zõon politikón—which was, if you recall, Aristotle’s way of saying “Man.”

All of our greatest national debates have turned on the question of how broadly to extend the terms of her conversation and how quickly and critically to accommodate vocabularies, terminologies, and idioms, that had hitherto been unfamiliar. America’s success at managing the tensions inherent in the conversational project that constitutes her has never been perfect. Americans have always recognized that the success of their civilizational project ultimately depends on their refusal to disengage from the common conversation in which they find themselves.

At present, the most pervasive and pernicious threat to our ability to be a people together is posed by our seeming inability to talk with one another. This inability variously manifests itself as explicit exclusion (whether on grounds of right or of special circumstance), or implicit disqualification, from the constitutive conversation. Usually, this exclusion accomplishes itself by means of a more-or-less active and express refusal to treat one’s erstwhile interlocutor with the bare minimum of fairness and decency, let alone as an equal partner in dialogue.

Said simply and directly: We have become slothful and proud.

We tell ourselves that so-and-so does not deserve to be taken seriously because he is X (where X is anything from radically pro- or anti-abortion to radically pro- or anti-designated hitter—both apparently “settled” matters that continue to generate divisive debate at every level of society), when really we cannot be bothered to give his arguments the consideration that they are due.

We allow ourselves to substitute dispassionate discourse with vitriolic dismissal; reasonable probing of possible positions with an improbable rhetoric of morally facile pseudo-remonstration; decent expressions of legitimate concern over matters of formulation, implication, or direction with deliriously absolute denunciations. We treat ourselves to the facile delight of insult and cajoling, and we compound our sin by painting our indulgence with the color of high polemic. In short: We prefer base pleasure of browbeating to the rare joy of argument.

While the best among us is not immune to these destructive temptations, there is nevertheless a threefold remedy—at once curative and preventive—available, which consists in the assiduous practice of the following:

1) Remembering that our interlocutors have their reasons, and make good points—and so in studying their contributions to our conversation until we discover what they are, and acknowledge them frankly;

2) Having patience in our study of our interlocutors’ positions, so that we are quite sure we understand whether we really have a disagreement, where it is located, and what kind of disagreement it is and how serious, all before we attempt to raise a point of contention;

3) Being careful in our conduct of the disagreements we shall inevitably have, so that we neither give reason to our interlocutors to suspect bad faith in us, nor unduly suspect it in our interlocutors, and so that we always make allowance for misunderstanding, imperfect construction, unfortunate diction, asymmetry of terms, poor examples, incomplete or even erroneous rehearsals and presentations of facts, and all the like, of which we can and will be guilty—every one of us—despite our best efforts.

All of this is more easily said than done, though saying that it needs to be done will be a genuine beginning in the necessary work of recovering that climate of civility, that measure of sympathy, without which public discourse cannot hope to be conducive to the upbuilding of the public thing.

Nor is there any guarantee that we shall be successful in the work of recovery. Indeed, the question whether we are really able to be free together is not a new one in America:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind (Federalist # 1).

The terms in which the question is couched and debated have changed, though they are still recognizable in the original formulation, which was—quite pertinently, as we shall see—explicitly and consciously anthropological:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another (Federalist #55).

It is necessary, now as yesterday, that all citizens, and in this hour, Catholic citizens especially, should behave in a way that proves us to be capable of the liberty that we claim as a right.

The stakes at present are as high as they ever have been, for the perennially present enemies of the Church militant have begun, once again and now all but explicitly, to attack the Church and our political liberty simultaneously: first by insinuating, then suggesting, and now all but openly asserting, in essence, that the Christian religion is not capable of sustaining the morals of a republic.

St. Augustine of Hippo gave us history’s first systematic response to the assertion that Christian religion is not suitable to the morals of a republic, arguing instead that Pagan religion cannot (nor could it ever) sustain the morals of the Roman republic (by which he meant also the vast empire accrued to the city through the centuries), and that Christianity could do so for Rome or any republic worth sustaining, insofar as it is verus cultus veri Dei, the true worship of the true God.

Whatever one may think of his arguments in the concrete (all twenty-two books-full of them), Augustine seems to have convinced enough people of the contrary to make the next thousand years (at least) of history in the West an effort to order society according to his vision. Perhaps more often than not, this effort took the concrete form of adapting the vision to social circumstances without warping either the vision or the concrete society into something unrecognizable. Augustine, in other words, gave us something between an artist’s impression of and a blueprint for what came to be called Western Civilization, the principal unit of which was the res publica christiana—an intellectual, cultic, and spiritual union of the Christian principalities in the world.

In later centuries, wherever cultural notions of catholicity, i.e. ideas of universal validity and transcendently grounded and ordered authority, continued to exist, the anthropological elements of the res publica christiana survived and even thrived, even as its institutional political trappings withered. Eric Voegelin has written:

The corrosion of Western civilization … is a slow process extending over a thousand years. The several Western political societies, now, have a different relation to this slow process according to the time at which their national revolutions occurred … The American Revolution, though its debate was already strongly affected by the psychology of enlightenment, also had the good fortune of coming to its close within the institutional and Christian climate of the ancien régime. Western society as a whole … is a deeply stratified civilization in which the American and English democracies represent the oldest, most firmly consolidated stratum of civilizational tradition (The New Science of Politics: An Introduction).

In the United States of America, we are perpetually at risk of losing sight of the older anthropological vision out of which our particular political institutions grew and that they were peculiarly built to suit. We tend in this day to think that we derive our freedom from our institutions, and we forget that those institutions were given for a certain kind of men—men such as those whom we just heard Publius describe—or at least, men who share the allonymous authors’ esteem of human nature. The passages from the Federalist serve to show that there was—built into our very foundation, as it were—a general discussion of “the human character” underway in America.

In other words, while the Founding Fathers had not miraculously arrived at the gangway of St. Peter’s Barque, the very writing of the Federalist  papers (i.e. that those arguments—their general thrust—in favor of the proposed Constitution were plausible) shows that the experience of life in America from the time of the first colonization to the time of the ratification debate, had effected what John Adams called “a change in the religious sentiments of the people,” from a doctrinaire Calvinist one of total depravity to one that, though certainly not Catholic in the confessional sense, was (at least) not prima facie inimical to the Catholic understanding of human nature.

This change in sentiment was “religious” in the old, etymological sense of the word. It was a change in the consciousness of concord regarding the principles of society, that is, a change in the understanding of the experiences that bound Americans together in society. We are once again joined at a point wherein we shall have to recover the principles that have bound us together for two centuries and more, or leave them as lost forever.

Though this challenge falls to us all together, it is one that Catholic citizens have an especial duty to embrace—and I believe that we Catholic laity are capable of meeting the challenge. I welcome the marvelous new spirit of militancy that has taken our bishops of late. Nevertheless, our own ability to reason has not become so truncated, nor our quintessentially Catholic confidence in reason so attenuated, that we require pronouncements from purpled highness in order to know how to act in the public square. We need only to think, and speak: It has fallen to us to discover whether there is still an America of which to speak.


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  • Thanks for bringing this up, Mr. Altieri. The problem of civility or lack thereof is partly a problem of the one-way media. Shrillness, cruelty, and unmitigated condemnation, seem to be facilitated and rewarded. To counter this, I decided to adopt a couple of rules of thumb:

    1. Dispose of revisionist history… this is just re-fighting old battles, re-opening wounds and/or questioning someone’s foregone victory, back in a different day which we can never recover, to serve an “I told you so” logic to try and re-frame issues but instead, just placing blame on your ideological opposite(s) and launching heated disagreements over nothing constructive at all! (For example, Dr. Reno at First Things just printed an issue extensively reparsing the sexual revolution…. no minds were changed left of center, I am certain.)

    2. Stop referring to, “both sides of (the issue)”. No issue is simple enough to define by two sides, if you think so, you must be missing some sort of nuance… Try instead, “all sides of (the issue)”… this will help you to think about it, too! And (of course) stop referring to (and thinking in terms of) “right” and “left”!….

    P.S. Just found an excellent pdf about this, from a Christian college:

    • Bill Maniotis

      Yes–truth is “whole”…and yet, we need to be careful when we dismiss “binaries” as unnecessary. We can’t avoid thinking in them, even when we are trying to grasp the “wholeness” of truth. Binaries are the simplicity that lurks on the far side of complexity. Either we live in a sacred order, or we do not. So yes, we should avoid “mere” binaries while discussing/debating “issues” with our interlocutors. We should not, however, fail to point out that binary thinking can be just as “whole”–in the end–as any other kind of thinking, at least on this side of the veil…

      • You make a great point– there is one supreme binary, indeed. The best part about inserting your point into any list about civil discourse, is that you are necessarily bringing God back into the conversation!