‘The True Sage of Woodstock’

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How can reasonable men and women reclaim equality over and above egalitarianism? The first principled step is to get right with our compromised Declaration of Independence. This Declaration both affirms equality in self-government and reconciles our deeply contrasting Lockeanism and Calvinist Christianity as the basis of our liberty. This is an American Thomism of sorts, a reconciliation of seemingly opposed principles on the head of deliberative republicanism. It’s probably our best hope.

We should, however, look even deeper into our compromising. In doing so, we can recover John Courtney Murray’s notion that “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” I offer Murray’s account to underscore his American Proposition. Its components are human dignity, constitutionalism, government limited by law as given to America by the common law tradition, self-government as faith in citizens to exercise the duties of moral judgment in basic political decisions, and the constitutional consensus that forms the Proposition and serves as the basis for rational argument and the compromises that it forges. This is the deep background that enables “the deliberate sense of the community” effectuated by our republican institutions to be reasonable.

Stressed by Murray is “the specifying note of political association” which differs from associations like the employer-employee relationship, voluntary associations, or married family life where “the forces of life itself” define the association more than reason. Rather, the essence of the political association “is its rational deliberative quality, its dependence for its permanent cohesiveness on argument among men.”[i] Murray’s position does not ignore the less than rational aspects that compose civilization. The “formative soil of history” and a society’s loyalties that are not necessarily logical, its “legends that go beyond the facts,” and, as such, are “vehicles of truth,” nor its “materialisms of property and interest,” all of these, Murray notes, are components of the political order. However, the form of the “civil multitude” its “distinctive bond” is in reason, “or more exactly, that exercise of reason which is argument.”[ii]

We might ask, though, argument about what exactly? Murray’s answer is threefold. First, citizens argue about those matters which are for the public advantage and require public decision and governmental action. Second, argument must also be about public affairs that fall in “decisive part” outside the scope of limited government. However, the effect of these affairs is that they come to shape the public order in a more foundational sense. Thus, the quintessential example for Murray is education in the primary school system and in higher education. Contained in Murray’s example is the notion that the contents of a political society’s various educations are part of its broader social and political goals and are a crucial means for realizing them.

The third element is the constitutional consensus whereby a people obtains its identity and self-knowledge and thus understands its purpose in history. The consensus is constitutional in that “its focus is the idea of law” that the people arrive at deliberatively by “reason reflecting on experience” and become a people in the process of coming to it. The consensus is “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.”[iii] Because of the constitutional consensus, Murray argues, America is not bereft of self understanding and self confidence, doomed to stumble madly around the world. The consensus is the premise “of the people’s action in history” that gives content to the “larger aims” of that action in domestic and foreign affairs.[iv]

The larger wisdom of Murray’s consensus is its challenge to the notion that agreement ends rational argument. Murray’s position is that the only disagreement worthwhile to political order is that which becomes possible because of prior agreement about the abiding consensus. Public argument, actually, is impossible without the consensus. If everything is an open question, if everything is in doubt for a political society, public argument cannot even begin, it is not possible. In that sense, rational dialogue is displaced in favor of the nominalist’s contention that words are weapons used to clear space and create power and extract benefits for the individual or the group.

How far can Murray take us with his account of men locked in rational, political argument as the formal principle of American political foundations? In an essay evaluating this question, “The True Sage of Woodstock,” Willmoore Kendall asserted that Murray’s account, even if questionable as to the actual origins of civil communities, perfectly accords with the “origins and original character of . . . American political society.” Was, Kendall asks, “American society formed by “men locked in argument”? Answer: One could not imagine a better description of the Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence, the Convention that produced the Constitution, the state conventions that ratified it, and the First Congress that produced our Bill of Rights.”[v]

Kendall also demonstrates other aspects of the Murray thesis that were realized at various points in these debates, arguments, and compromises of the Founding documents. “Cohesiveness” he argues was achieved as these were arguments that “got somewhere” and resolved disagreements. The record of the Philadelphia Convention demonstrates Kendall’s point well as framework plans for political order were presented, critiqued, compromised and synthesized by the delegates. On the purely rational character of the delegates’ arguments, Kendall answers in the negative, but Murray never claimed for political argument that it be purely rational. Kendall observes that loyalties, self-interest, passion and prejudice, and legends were operative in the Philadelphia Convention as should be expected. However, these non-rational aspects “were subordinated to a “distinctive bond” recognizably that of “the exercise of reason” which tied the delegates together.”[vi]

The final part of political argument for Murray is civic amity which is held together by a motivation for justice or that which the citizen can demand of the political order and the political order can demand of the citizen in his capacity to render to the political community. Kendall observes that justice for the Founders was an operative motivation but its content was complex. The Founders used terms like “natural rights,” and “happiness and prosperity of the people” interchangeably with the term justice and this usage is born out in the records of these debates. So “the delegates seem to have used these phrases . . . thus tacitly assuming that if natural rights were made safe, that would be justice.” Murray’s point was that the commitment of representatives to justice provided them with the motivation necessary to remain locked in argument until they arrived at a reasonable compromise. So reason is the definitive bond and the form of the political argument, but competing conceptions of justice provide the compelling force that ensures reasonable arguments find resolution.

More on this line of thinking to come. Can we go back to the future?


[i] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, 6.

[ii] Ibid, 7.

[iii] Ibid, 9.

[iv] Ibid, 10.

[v] Willmoore Kendall, Willmoore Kendall: Contra Mundum (University Press of America, 1994), “The True Sage of Woodstock,” 78.

[vi] Ibid., 78–79.