Four Related Thoughts. Of the Self-Evident. Of Hermeneutics. Of the American Political Religions.

We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .

  1. No statement is eo ipso self-evident. A statement may be admitted as an axiom, but only inasmuch as one acknowledges that it has indeed been admitted—or rather, permitted. An axiom is a chosen means to an end.
  2. Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence exhibits this qualification: the self-evidence of his statements is not “found,” not “discovered,” not “revealed,” not even “known,” but “held.” If they were eo ipso self-evident, he would not need to “hold” them. Rather, they are submitted to the reader as premises: if the reader permits the statements in the abstract, then the reader should permit the conclusions in the concrete. Jefferson’s argument relies on an interpretation of the British king’s actions as tyrannical, so he begins with a series of axioms to facilitate such an interpretation.
  3. The Declaration of Independence furnishes a hermeneutic for defining tyranny. This hermeneutic is still in regular use today, applied to different particulars.
  4. American political discourse—no matter how secularized—often has a religious quality because of the application of various hermeneutics whose axioms are ideals separate from published laws.

A Passage. A Dialogue. Of Injustice. Of Tyranny.

Socrates: Therefore I was telling the truth when I said that it’s possible for a human being to do what seems good to him in a city without having great power and without doing what he wants.

Polus: Yeah, right, Socrates, as if you wouldn’t accept free rein to do what seemed good to you in the city rather than not, and wouldn’t be envious when you saw someone putting to death anyone that seemed good to him or seizing his property or locking him up.

Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?

Polus: Whichever way he might do it! Isn’t he someone to envy either way?

Socrates: Watch what you say, Polus.

Polus: Why’s that?

Socrates: Because one shouldn’t envy those who are unenviable or miserable, but pity them.

Polus: What? Is that the condition the people I’m talking about [i.e., tyrants, autocrats] seem to you to be in?

Socrates: How could it be any other way?

Polus: Then whoever puts to death anyone as it seems good to him, and puts him to death justly, seems to you to be miserable and pathetic?

Socrates: Not to me, but not enviable either.

Polus: Weren’t you claiming just now that he is miserable?

Socrates: The one who puts someone to death unjustly is, my comrade, and pathetic on top of it; the one who does so justly is not be envied.

Polus: I’d suppose it’s the one who’s put to death unjustly who’s pathetic and miserable.

Socrates: Less so than the one who puts him to death, Polus, and less so than someone who’s justly put to death.

Polus: How can that be, Socrates?

Socrates: In this way, that the greatest of evils is committing injustice.

Polus: That’s the greatest? Isn’t suffering injustice a greater one?

Socrates: That least of all.

Polus: So you’d rather suffer injustice than commit it?

Socrates: I wouldn’t want to do either one, but if it were necessary either to commit injustice or suffer it, I’d choose to suffer it rather than commit it.

—Plato, Gorgias 468E-469C
Translated by Joe Sachs

Two Counterarguments. Of “Christian Nations.”

  1. One argument against the claim that the United State of America was initially a “Christian nation” is the conspicuous absence of republicanism, or even of democracy in general, from the Bible. But let no one by this statement be deceived into thinking that the Bible recommends any form of civil government. The concept of nation makes a “Christian nation” mutually incompatible with the Church’s mission to gather and make disciples from all peoples.
  2. God himself has only one government—and it is a kingdom. There is only one holy city—and it will come out of heaven from God. For God’s chosen, every nation on this earth is in effect Babylon.

A Criticism. Of Contemporary Rhetoric.

In contemporary rhetoric, word choice is now paramount because no one can tolerate arguments that are more than a few sentences long. The rhetor relies on the power of connotation to match the prejudices of the audience. He has lost almost all hope of leading the audience stepwise to a conclusion that may seem strange or have no likeness to its favorite premises. He does not dare introduce a new premise unless it sounds and feels like the old one. His questions conform to the audience’s conclusions. The rhetor falls back on the feelings carried with words: with this audience he loves equality, with that one he loves freedom, with none does he point out how these two exclude and compete with each other.

We Americans cannot tolerate an attack on our prejudices long enough to be shown that our prejudices are unworthy; we must be duped into changing our minds by those who wait to see when we nod our heads.

A Famous Quote. Of Political Origins.

The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.

—Locke, Second Treatise IX.124

This, more than any appeal to Christian doctrine, seems to characterize the American eruption into political existence.

A Passage. Of Civilization.

Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man whilst he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep. A man labouring under the bane of civilization is like a dreaming man. What we usually read are the works of defenders of modern civilization, which undoubtedly claims among its votaries very brilliant and even some very good men. Their writings hypnotize us. And so, one by one, we are drawn into the vortex.

—Gandhi, Hind Swaraj VI

A Quote. Of Prosperity.

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.

Zechariah 8.4-5 (ESV)

An ancient picture of prosperity: the old remain in the polity and the new generation dwells in safety.