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You Can Argue with a Progressive: Reason, Natural Law, and the University

twelve-tasks-hercules Sarcophagus depicting the Labors of Hercules. Cropped photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch.

I sometimes find myself resonating with Leontius’s failed attempt, as reported in Plato’s Republic, to avoid looking at a mound of corpses. At first, knowing the indecency of the spectacle, he covers his face until, overpowered, he “opened his eyes wide, ran toward the corpses and said: ‘Look, you damned wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.’”

Now, I find no allure in expired bodies but admit the thrill of moribund ideas, particularly worldviews suffering fate at their own hands (or under the crushing weight of their own illogic, as it may be). And of all such temptations, I’m especially mesmerized by the contradiction of universities fearing free speech and inquiry, including the recent account of a campus that offers space “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies” for students “feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints” challenging their “dearly and closely held beliefs.” As spectacle, Leontius’s corpses has nothing on videos of frolicking puppies for discomforted college students.

Given such distressing anecdotes, which seem increasingly aggressive and illiberal, it’s easy to see why so many conservatives conclude that progressives simply cannot be reasoned with. As they depend on emotion, moral posturing, and utopian fixations rather than good sense, evidence, and reality, there’s just not a good way to engage them, especially if they’ve rejected the first principles of metaphysics or logic in favor of the will to power, identity politics, and postmodern cant.

However comforting, I’m not at all persuaded by this despair, and I find conservative nihilism as distasteful as other variants, and any attempt to disqualify opponents from the stage of reasonable engagement strikes me as unseemly self-congratulatory, uncharitable, and profoundly nonconservative. As John Courtney Murray argued, decent society requires us to breathe the same breath (conspire) with each other, locked together in argument, and we ought not abandon the task because we find others recalcitrant, unreasonable, or even pig-headed.

As I understand it, in rejecting utopianism the conservative spirit accepts and welcomes reality as a starting point, and reality includes people in all their dispositions and types, including both saints and sinners. People are not perfectly virtuous or fair and tend to use power to their advantage; OK, consider the rule of law and the separation of powers. People are frail, needy, and sometimes without self-control; OK, perhaps the family as an ordering principle of sexual energy throughout a lifelong commitment. Some people are greedy, others indolent, and human intelligence just doesn’t seem up to the challenge of understanding each and every variable of distributing material goods; fine, let’s try the market rather than centralized planning. Conservatives, in their various types, should realize that many of their deepest commitments and values are not abstract ideals so much as prudent acknowledgements of human nature based on long experience, and skeptical of any technique promising salvation from ourselves.

No one should be surprised, then, to discover the presence of irrationality in political speech. In fact, Plato’s genius in using the dramatic form of the dialogue allowed him to portray the person of Socrates—symbol of the reasonable man—confronting characters so existentially disordered as to loathe reason, friendship, and truthfulness. Polus, Callicles, Meno, Alcibiades, Euthyphro, Cephalus, and Thrasymachus, for example, do not merely hold false beliefs; they do not live as persons seeking truth. And if conversation breaks down with them, it is not because of some intractable difference in judgment about this or that disputed question, but because they are not friends of wisdom, not philosophers.

But even then, Socrates does not simply pronounce them unreasonable, defunct as conversation partners, and walk away. Instead, he engages them, attempting to turn them into friends of the truth, and thus his friends, with his usual ironical declarations of ignorance followed by question upon question. He resolutely avoids speeches or any wordy attempts to escape question and answer, and while not every interlocutor becomes his friend, even some of his most trenchant critics become locked in mutual inquiry and its shared quest for an adequate explanation.


It’s all in that little question, for when we ask “Why?” we commit ourselves to the logic and intentionality inherent to the question, namely, for an adequate cause or explanation, and in so doing performatively reject sophistry. The person asking “Why?” wants to know and is committed to the trajectory of the question as it seeks what is—the real truth of things. Or, as Aristotle might put it, since “all men by nature desire to know,” so asking the question commits us to our nature as rational beings, accepts the universe as intelligibly ordered and somehow fitting the structure of our intellects, and recognizes the same nature and the same goods as proper to the intellects of all others who ask. In other words, a community ordered toward our nature’s fulfillment, no matter how fractious, incomplete, or nascent, is formed whenever we ask “Why?” of each other. This is the natural law foundation for conversation.

While there are many very capable scholars who defend natural law in vigorous metaphysical and reasonable forms, mine is a modest version of natural law, one that engages our contemporaries where they find themselves: as persons capable of asking questions, of wondering, of inquiring, and they prove this whenever they ask “Why?” Deeply operative within us, perhaps even as a partly defining attribute of the human person, is an orientation to understand, to see how things hang together, to find the principle, the root, the cause. We can, and do, disagree about the answers to those questions, but prior to every answer is the question. Not just any random or occasional question, but the basic question, the questioning spirit from which all particular queries emerge. This is an inner law of our subjectivity, we experience ourselves beholden to it, obligated to our own sensed need for authenticity and integrity, and it is this natural law that governs and moves us to act, or to refrain from acting, as we follow the demands of our own intelligent nature.

Which is why, in part, conservatives should seek friendship more than tallying cheap points, and why we should demonstrate a commitment to human dignity and value insofar as we engage others. To ask “Why?” of another is a mark of deep respect, an acknowledgement of equality and that the good of truth is shared in common.

So before we argue with progressives—which really can be done and ought to be done—we should first ask with progressives, for in so doing they commit themselves to the natural law, and then we’re on our way to friendship.


Cropped photo courtesy of Mary Harrsch, March 18, 2009. 


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