Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world.

Nationalism can lead to tribalism, as it might be doing in Putin’s Russia and as it did in Nazi Germany. (Popper describes Open Society, published in 1945, as his war effort.) Were he alive today, Popper would see the current radical Islamist political movement as a form of tribalism. And today’s China co-opted Marxism’s historicism and took it a step further to collectivism, which is a lot like tribalism. (Open Society describes how the Soviet Union did the same thing (8).)

The language of tribalism.

Although every modern tribal movement’s central myth is different, the myths have similarities, too. According to Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism, they all envision a kind of political heaven on earth that amounts to a return to an idealized past:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution. (Berman 49)

(Marxism itself, however, isn’t based on an idealized past, of course.) Popper agrees that myths always involve this notion of political and cultural perfection on earth:

This dream of unity and beauty and perfection, this æstheticism and holism and collectivism, is the product as well as the symptom of the lost group spirit of tribalism. (188)

Notice that both Berman and Popper find that tribalism aims for perfection, for what Plato expresses as an ideal form of government. Though Popper has little to say about John Locke, he adopts Locke’s implicit view, famously criticized by Leo Strauss, that societies should not try to create ideal governments but to “so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage” (115).

Tribalism: no individual identity.

The other big similarity among tribal societies is the elimination of the individual’s identity outside of his or her relation to the nation, class, or religion. This is the “collectivism” that Popper mentions. According to Popper, under tribalism, “the emphasis [is] on the supreme importance of the tribe without which the individual is nothing at all” (8). For Plato:

Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. It is ‘natural’ for the individual to subserve the whole, which is no mere assembly of individuals, but a ‘natural’ unit of a higher order. (76)

In a tribal society – in Plato’s ideal society – the individual does not exist outside of the state. An individual may become a hero, but only his actions in laying down his life or other closely held treasure in furtherance of the tribe or its interests would make him so.

Myths aren’t the only tools closed societies use to eliminate all but group identity. Even models and analogies that we may unthinkingly accept may compromise our connection with our true identity. One way to ease back into tribalism, for instance, is to analogize a government to a family. Patriarchalism, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century doctrine of the absolute monarch, compares government to a family. The danger here is the suggestion that the person exists only as a family member. Under the Patriarchal narrative, if a person finds himself a son, he never grows up to become a father. He stays in subjection to his father, the king, with no more rights than an un-emancipated son.

A similar tactic is to analogize a government to a human body. Plato as well as seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes use this analogy as part of their respective campaigns against more participative government and in favor of absolute rulers. Under this analogy, each of us is part of society (the body), and the government (the body’s head) lets us know what part we are. This analogy has two failings. First, the government may mislabel you or me. Using the analogy, it may call me a knee though I was designed to be a lung. As Popper points out, the analogy’s failing doesn’t account for the mobility among professions that an open society permits and fosters (Open Society 164 – 165).

The body analogy’s second failing comes from comparing me to a body part at all. At my essence, I am complete and not a part dependent on a superior person’s or group’s part. In my private, familial, and community life, I must learn to live out my essential metaphysical state.

Of course, Paul uses the same analogy to describe each saint’s relationship to the church, the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12). Three distinctions between Paul’s and Plato’s analogies come to mind. First, for Paul, Christ is the head, not a temporal ruler. Second, the church, in Paul’s view, is able to discern its members’ callings. An absolute ruler is not. Third, the New Testament church is made of children of God, and each child of God has a distinct relationship with that God (“he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit” – 1 Cor. 10:17). This essential independence allows for the proper interdependence Paul describes through his elucidation of the “body of Christ.”

The strain of modern society.

Popper understands the strain of modern society that makes tribalism appealing:

The lost group spirit of tribalism . . . is the expression of, and an ardent appeal to, the sentiments of those who suffer from the strain of civilization. (It is part of the strain that we are becoming more and more painfully aware of the gross imperfections in our life, of personal as well as of institutional imperfection; of avoidable suffering, of waste and of unnecessary ugliness; and at the same time of the fact that it is not impossible for us to do something about all this, but that such improvements would be just as hard to achieve as they are important. This awareness increases the strain of personal responsibility, of carrying the cross of being human.) (188)

The world outside of the tribe is a scary place. And then there are specific situations that make tribalism more appealing for particular groups – Germany’s humiliating peace after World War I, and the lesser role accorded to Islam in Western politics and culture over recent centuries, for instance.

There’s also a more personal strain that tribalism helps people avoid. Because tribal members define themselves only at a tribal level, they can avoid the sometimes-frightening path toward a fuller, individual identity. A joint University of Virginia and Harvard University study released this month found a national antipathy towards a fundamental prerequisite to a journey to one’s true self:

People, and especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain. In a study published in Science  Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company. (Feltman)

If most people don’t care to be alone with themselves, it’s not difficult to see how the ontological challenges of an open society would make the tribal societies’ myths a siren song in our age.

The balance between true identity and a collective life.

An open society isn’t healthy unless its members discover their true identities. However, they must also balance an individual identity with a collective experience. Popper describes an open society at one place as a “partially abstract society” (168). It is based on universal and abstract concepts like “equality” – like the abstract nouns stenciled on the walls of my school’s foyer. The abstraction comes also “by way of abstract relations, such as exchange or co-operation” (167). Popper points out that we balance these abstractions with some tribal tendencies, such as our social development from belonging to teams, clubs, churches, even to our country.

Judaism may have lent to Western civilization its balance between the individual and the collective, the universal and the national. Consider both tendencies in these verses from Psalm 33, translated by Robert Alter:

From the heavens the LORD looked down,
saw all the human creatures.
From His firm throne He surveyed
all who dwell on the earth.
He fashions their heart one and all.
He understands all their doings.

Alter writes of these lines: “The viewpoint of this poem manages to be at once national (‘the people He chose as estate for Him’) and universalist: The God of creation surveys the deeds of men and women throughout the world.” The universalist side of Judaism is expressed also in the rights afforded to the stranger in the law, in the stories of Rahab the Harlot and or Ruth, and perhaps most starkly in the brief dialog Joshua has with an unidentified warrior:

When Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua approached him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ The man replied, ‘Neither! I am here as captain of the army of the Lord.’ Joshua prostrated himself in homage. (Joshua 5:13 – 14, REB)

Here is the Lord’s representative in battle attire who claims to be neither for nor against Israel. The Jewish God is universal before he is national. This biblical balance between the universal and the national, enhanced perhaps by Christianity and by the direct examination of such issues in the Book of Acts, probably helped open societies to develop in the West.

The more critical aspect in this “partly abstract” open society, however, is not a citizen’s relationship to any group, including the nation, but her more fundamental individual identity.

Individual identity and self-government.

Self-government is founded on a universal and realistic, though admittedly generous, theory of human nature, on the one hand, and the individual qua individual (or to put it in religious terms, on a person’s fundamental relationship as God’s child), on the other. For the Founders, arguably, two metaphysical traits of human beings make up prerequisites for self-government. The first is the universal trait of reason. The second is what Socrates describes as a soul, a “divine spark,” within each person. By comparing John Locke with his fellow seventeenth-century English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, I will discuss reason and then begin a discussion concerning man’s soul.

Popper – for he is my chief guide to tribalism and the open society – mentions Locke and Hobbes only in passing. He attributes the return of tribalism in modern times to Hegel, who comes a century after Hobbes. Hobbes, though, anticipates Hegel’s preference for an absolute ruler and his downplay of human individuality (Pomerleau 321) though Hobbes’s and Hegel’s philosophical systems are very different.

Hobbes and Locke, on the other hand, have very similar philosophical systems. Both base their theories on metaphysical states of nature, and both describe the social compact as the basis for a ruler’s authority to govern. They end up in very different places, though, with Hobbes arguing for an absolute ruler and Locke arguing for anything but: a hereditary monarchy, an oligarchy, a democracy, an elective monarchy, or an unnamed “compounded and mixed form of government” that the community might approve. Whatever their means of succession, monarchies for Locke should be constitutional ones (Second Treatise 132).

These contrasting government structures are the result of a contrast between conceptions of a state of nature, which is a means of describing man’s metaphysical state before government. In Hobbes’s state of nature as described in his magnum opus on government, Leviathan, all men are created with a natural right to everyone else’s property and persons (I. 14). In Locke’s state of nature, all men are created equal and, based on that equality, have natural rights to their life and liberty. Locke’s state of nature becomes a state of war if someone violates someone else’s natural rights. But Hobbes’s state of nature is, by definition, a state of war. Locke’s state of nature leads to the creation of society out of necessity and to government also, assuming that society alone cannot adjudicate between citizens’ claims. But Hobbes’s state of nature necessitates strong government. One can see from this summary of their views on the state of nature how the two philosophers would diverge on the question of which forms of government are legitimate and necessary.

Reason: an essential element of human nature.

But we haven’t dug down deep enough. First, the two philosophers’ differing views of the state of nature parallel their differing views of man’s ability to reason. Hobbes introduces Leviathan with the claim that “life is but a motion of limbs” (Intro. 1). The book’s fifth chapter defines reason narrowly, giving it application to chiefly mathematics, science, and logic, and it claims that man is not born with reason but develops it by industriously proceeding from definitions to syllogisms (1. 5). But for Locke, unlike Hobbes, “we are born rational” (61). However, despite Locke’s greater emphasis on man’s essential rationality, Hobbes and Locke both acknowledge natural law (a form of God-given moral law that isn’t posited, i.e., not written down), and they both acknowledge reason’s role in binding man to it.

While Hobbes uses reason to elucidate particular laws, he does not adopt the notion, found in the natural law tradition, that reason is, first and foremost, law itself. Cicero, the famous Roman lawyer and philosopher, equates law and reason:

True law is Reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfill their obligations and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is immutable and eternal. (Cicero, book 1, section 33)

Hobbes is more inclined to agree with Louis XIV – “L’État, c’est moi” – than with Cicero.

Along with his refusal to equate law and reason, Hobbes deviates from natural law tradition in two other major respects. First, he believes that natural law holds no superior role to a king’s positive law. Second, he believes that natural laws don’t exist outside of government (26.8). The government’s sovereign is always the final authority of what natural law is. While everyone is bound to natural law because of their ability to reason, the sovereign’s ability to reason is de facto superior to his subjects’ (26.22). These two aspects of Hobbes’s treatment of natural law mean that no one can cite natural law to justify civil disobedience. Hobbes, then, would disagree with Antigone’s reasoning that she is free to disobey Creon because his decree violated natural law. He would disagree with Martin Luther King’s reasoning that he and his fellow protesters were free to disobey Jim Crow laws because they violated natural law.

Hobbes would disagree also, then, that the thirteen American colonies had any natural right to rebel against King George III. In fact, Hobbes denies the right of revolution acknowledged by Thomas Aquinas and developed by John Locke. Because Hobbes does not equate reason with law, what he sees as man’s gradual acquisition of reason cannot permit him to overrule what is always law for Hobbes – the will of the sovereign.

Hobbes’s view of reason and natural law, then, prevents him from finding that man can govern himself, a fundamental requirement of an open society. In this respect, Hobbes resembles the sixteenth century English Calvinists who believed that, because of the Fall of Adam, self-government was impossible.

Hobbes has an even more fundamental view of human nature that aligns him with Plato and the adherents of a closed society. Hobbes does not attribute to man an immaterial soul (Duncan). Hobbes, like Locke, asserts that all men are created equal. But Hobbes does not base that equality on man’s essence, as the Founders and their philosophical forebears do.

Self-evident truth and man’s divine spark.

The ancient, early modern, and Enlightenment philosophers who most influenced the Founders reasoned syllogistically from moral truths to government. The difficulty with this project of mostly deductive reasoning is agreeing on the axioms to proceed from. These “essentialist” thinkers, as Popper terms them, include Socrates, Aristotle, the sixteenth-century Anglican priest and philosopher Richard Hooker, the seventeenth-century Swiss jurist Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, the seventeenth-century German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf, and John Locke. Aristotle called such axioms “first principles” while the Founders called them “self-evident truths.”

The content of these axioms and the claimed need for any axioms in a political theory in the first place have come into question since the nation’s founding. Essentialists defending their existence have often admitted that these axioms are ultimately matters of faith. They often defend the axioms, however, through appeals to the Bible, particularly earlier in the United States’ history, and to the axiom’s universal applicability.

The axioms concern the nature of man. The primary self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence, for instance, is man’s essential equality. (I use the term “essential equality” to carve out man’s metaphysical or natural-law equality from a broader notion of equality that would also include equality of talent or income.)

Equality: the political term for true identity.

Equality is the political term for the true self. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has established, the Declaration’s expression of mankind’s essential equality presupposes a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. Or as Jesus put it:

But you must not be called “rabbi,” for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:8 – 9, REB)

Because we have a common Father and Rabbi, we “are all brothers.” To say that we are equal, then, is to say that God is our Father. It is to say that we are children of God, that each of us is a child of God, and that I am a child of God. It is individual identity. Many, of course, express their essential selves in less religious terms or in different religious terms. No matter how it’s expressed, it describes a universal identity that transcends tribal identity.

Our status as God’s children made equality Locke’s central premise. As Jeremy Waldron observes, “Locke accorded basic equality the strongest grounding that a principle could have: it was an axiom of theology, understood as perhaps the most important truth about God’s way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person.”  (Waldron 6)

Where faith and politics must mix.

Modern writers have often attacked Locke’s inability to logically defend this “axiom of theology.” But Locke’s theological works, in this respect, are at the heart of his philosophical works. In books such as his The Reasonableness of Christianity, As Delivered in the Scriptures and his Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible, Locke’s exploration moves from the philosophical to the purely theological. Locke’s chief portal between these two realms of inquiry is man’s essential equality along with the personal identity this equality implies.

Twentieth century philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr develops the same nexus of political philosophy and theology at precisely the same point as Locke – the individual’s essence. In his book The Irony of American History, he examines the force of claims society makes on us and the tension those claims create with our essential selves. He describes the effect on the soul of something like tribalism’s claim that collectively we can create a political heaven on hearth:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history. (6)

The tension Niebuhr finds in modern society is exacerbated in a society where the individual is subsumed in the collective.

Like Popper, Niebuhr finds the chief tension in human existence between the differing claims of the individual, who is oriented to a true but unique identity, on the one hand, and her society on the other, with its soul-denying claims threatening to disorient her from her true identity.

Niebuhr insists on this tension – this escape from the easy path of accepting only a collective identity – by asking his readers to simply accept on faith his basic premise, what he calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness” (8). Niebuhr, in his insistence on essential identity as well as his acknowledgement that the identity is ultimately not available by proof, follows the same path as Locke.

The Declaration of Independence’s spiritual core.

Niebuhr’s “mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness” is the true identity at the heart of the Declaration’s Equality Clause. This is the “apple of gold” – the core truth among the other truths – that Lincoln found worth protecting by means of the Constitution’s “pictures of silver,” to use Lincoln’s analogy to the Bible’s famous proverb.

The relationship between each person’s individual identity and her most fundamental rights is worth exploring briefly. In his book The Philosophy of the American Revolution, political philosopher Morton White describes Burlamaqui’s influence on Jefferson and his chain “which begins with man’s God-created essence,” then moves to God’s ends for man, then man’s duties, and then man’s rights, rights expressed in the declaration as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The language of the Declaration of Independence’s first draft makes clear that these famous trio of rights is modeled after Burlamaqui’s thinking and based on “man’s God-created essence”:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty & the pursuit of happiness . . . [emphasis mine]

Burlamaqui starts with three relationships each man has, first with God his creator, then with himself, and then with mankind. These rights stem from self-evident truths or “states,” all of them ontological in nature:

First of all, man is a creature of God, from whom he has received his life, his reason, and all the advantages he enjoys. Secondly, his is a being composed of body and soul who naturally loves himself and desires his own felicity. And, thirdly, he is a member of a species, all of whose members live with him on earth and in society.

For Burlamaqui, then, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are based not on a theory of government but on man’s essential identity: “man is a creature of God.”

Alexander Hamilton, like Burlamaqui and Jefferson, bases government on man’s most fundamental rights, and he bases man’s most fundamental right on his “one common nature”:

All men have one common original: they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right. (White 78 – 79)

Hamilton makes the same connection in more poetic language here:

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. (80)

Hamilton’s divine essence in human nature –  Socrates’ “divine spark” – is the basis for mankind’s “sacred rights” found in the Declaration.

Meeting the demand of our essence: step 1 – proper theory.

How can each of us live in the tension between her true, individual identity and the claims of nationalism and tribal identity? From an existential standpoint, the first job may be to discover our true identity. To understand it theoretically – to look up and see it written in abstract terms, as I do at work each day – is only the first step.

Meeting the demand of our essence: step 2 – a second conversion.

The second step is personal conversion, which may or may not mean religious conversion. Maybe it’s a conversion from religion, in a sense; it was for Peter, anyway. At the Last Supper, Jesus refers to Peter’s future conversion (“when you are converted, strengthen your brethren”), one that would transform him from a hero (“though everyone else forsakes you, I will never forsake you”) to just another member of the human race. (Popper makes a distinction between tribalism’s heroic man, one that gives up himself for the group identity, and the open society’s reasoning man (284).) Later that night, Peter denies Christ. After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is agitated by Jesus’ reminders of Peter’s earlier rash claims. Jesus motions to Peter’s fellows and asks, “Do you love me more than these [do]?” But Peter, now anchored with an individual identity that can accept others as his equals, can finally “strengthen his brethren.”

Our essential equality as brothers without any heroic pretensions to our superiority over them is the fruit of conversion and the discovery of our true identity. Like Peter, Thomas Merton experiences it long after his initial conversion to Christianity. It happens “in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district”:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. (345)

Merton compares the realization to news that he “holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake” (346). This kind of realization can bring the Equality Clause to life. This is a conversion that delivers us up to one another, and it whispers to us that politics can become meaningful again.

Meeting the demand of our essence: step 3 – living out the incongruity.

Once we have begun to experience life with a truer sense of ourselves, the final step may be to live a life issuing from our true identity in a culture that would deny its existence. Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society” (62). A person lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology, such as one that amounts to a form of tribalism, to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it” (63).

Achieving serenity while operating out of our true identity in a culture that tends to deny it is the political way of expressing the biblical notion of operating as mature sons of God. And I don’t think it’s easy.

In a world of increasing tribalism, just to focus (as I have) on one of many soul-crushing societal forces, we take on a great deal of spiritual and practical work just to become human again. To learn to operate out of one’s true identity is a worthy, lifelong undertaking.

The future of the open society.

When one begins to take on the personal challenges inherent in the Equality Clause and then begins to consider our open society as a whole, she may wonder how so seemingly abstract and fragile a notion as equality continues to survive.

To find a way of preserving an open society against the challenges of tribalism and nationalism, we may consult Lincoln. His Gettysburg Address is a mature expression of what he earlier calls “political religion.” The address is the closest thing to a myth for an open society. It contains elements of a tribal myth, such as the idealization of a desired past “fourscore and seven years ago.” But it employs universal principles, too: the United States is dedicated not to a national god but to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” The entire, brief address blends notions of nationalism and universalism, with universalism the clear favorite. It’s much like what Alter discovers in Psalm 33 and what Joshua learns from the Lord’s captain.

But as the Gettysburg Address warns, a commitment to equality requires a consecration, one befitting the “sacred and undeniable” essential identity embedded in the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Those living out such a consecration may find themselves at odds with their fellow citizens, as the soldiers whom Lincoln honored at Gettysburg found themselves. But there’s no hope for our open society unless its founding abstractions are accepted as challenges that can alter our society as well as our selves.

All politics is identity politics. The chief political question, then, is not Plato’s “Who should rule?” Instead, it is “Who are you?”


Works Cited.

Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.

Duncan, Stewart. “Thomas Hobbes.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 11 Mar. 2009. Web. 11 July 2014.

Feltman, Rachel. “Most Men Would Rather Shock Themselves than Be Alone with Their Thoughts.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 3 July 2014. Web. 12 July 2014.

Merton, Thomas. A Thomas Merton Reader. Ed. Thomas P. McDonnell. New York: Image, 1989. Print.

Pomerleau, Wayne P. Twelve Great Philosophers: A Historical Introduction to Human Nature. Rowman, 1997. Google Books. Web. 13 July 2014.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Rosenbush, Steve. “The Morning Download: Nationalization of Internet Continues as Germany Hangs Up on Verizon.” The CIO Report RSS. The Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2014. Web. 13 July 2014.

White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford U.P., 1978. Print.


  1. I have to pause and wonder if I would like to spend more time with myself or stick a fork in the filaments of a toaster. I’ve learned from you as a male I am more likely than Kerry (my wife) to go for the toaster. What stops me from jamming a steak knife into an electrical socket is your Thomas Merton quote. I once loved reading Merton (and perhaps thanks to you I will resurrect that love) and find it ironic that Merton was electrocuted by a faulty fan. Had it been an accident as was reported – or did Merton grow tired of being within himself so much? As always – you make me think.

  2. That’s where you and I differ, Al. I’d much rather spend more time with you than stick a fork in a toaster. You’re so crazy about people, I think you’re living Merton’s quote already. In fact, you out-Merton Merton.

  3. We must collaborate on something next year. A one act play in three acts? Your erudite form factor is Olympian. Plus your funny. I still remember those spoofs you did. Who knows what directives we will receive, but if there’s a demand for cross curicula collaboration I think you and I and Merton would be a team to consider. If I miss the meeting when we choose sides – pick me, pick me!

Comments are closed.