Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In All Things, Charity

In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity. Richard Baxter

This seems a wise creed for a free society such as ours. Translated into a modern-day political context, we might apply the creed as follows:

Unity in war,

Liberty as to who you marry,

And, of course, charity toward our political opposites.


An enthymene is a syllogism, one leg of which is implicit. So if I say to you, "in necessary things unity," you are coming into the proposition media res: you assume what constitutes "necessary things" is agreed upon. Surely I, the speaker, have some conception of what things are necessary. And my goal with respect to you is to have you ratify the principle without setting parameters:

In necessary things, unity. Yay!

A is a necessary thing. Therefore: unity with respect to A. (Oh no, we didn't agree with that!)

Consider: What are the chances a pro-life advocate would classify partial birth abortion under "doubtful things", to which liberty must be extended? And what strange things would a galloping environmentalist place under the "necessary things" rubric? And so on.

Classifications can get very muddled when, for example, the Supreme Court uses the text or extrapolations of the text of the 14th amendment or the Bill of Rights to extend the category of "doubtful things" to which we must extend liberty, by in effect calling them necessary things, to enforce unity.

So it seems that to say, "In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; in all things charity" is to say, "In all things charity" when your audience is not sufficiently monolithic to inform, via the cake of custom, the terms "necessary things" and "doubtful things."

Therefore, and without meaning to play the role of cosmic killjoy, and while very happy that there are apparently many, many people in this country who felt for the first time in their lives Tuesday night that the promise of America was a promise to them, I offer my take on the message of "change:"

Change is value neutral; indeed content neutral. For example, I am currently sitting down typing this post. Should a malevolent MD rush into the room and force upon me a barium enema, I will experience change. I will even have forced upon me the hope for yet more change. As Frederick Douglass said, "all progress is change, but not all change is progress." (see enema example above).

President-Elect Obama has certainly brought change in two respects that I can indentify: the complexion and person of our chief executive and the perception millions (maybe billions) here and around the world have of America. Good news.

I agree with Charles Krauthammer that the President-Elect has both a first class intellect and a first class temperament. And I am counting on both of those faculties counseling moderation. The danger of course is that the message received from the victors is that the country (which does also include the 46% of Americans who voted for McCain) has voted for change, without limitation. The devil, as always, is in the details.

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