April 17, 2006,
We Hold These Truths
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review ran in the January 28, 1961, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR's archives anytime here).
We Hold These Truths, by John Courtney Murray
Wohn Courtney Murray, SJ, is one of those glamorous people you are always hearing about, and are left wanting to hear more. He is a dashing man, and an intimate of those among the high and mighty who are lucky enough to engross him and how hard a job that must be! Once he told a reporter from the New York Post that Henry Luce tends to talk too much after dinner (theirs is a non-confessional relationship). He spends occasional weekends in East Hampton; and when he is the guest of honor, the list is screened with special care. He was appointed visiting lecturer at Yale University for one year in 1951. through his stay he gave three public lectures. To everyone's astonishment, he filled the large Law School Auditorium to overflowing an unheard-of feat for a resident scholar, let alone a minister of God.
They say his enthusiasm for the uniquely American approach to Church and State, deemed inordinate, caused the Vatican to silence him for several years, a whisper that conjures up titillating visions of the Holy Father reading one of Fr. Murray's articles, and ringing for his censor. He is America magazine's ultima ratio. When last summer the Norman Vincent Peale Committee was organized,on the program that a vote for Kennedy was a vote to repeal the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Jesuits fired their Big Bertha, and Dr. Peale fled from the field, mortally wounded. Fr. Murray's extraordinary forensic performances, uniting systematic thought, a dazzling syntactical resourcefulness, and the rhythm of an actor, leave even the most urbane audience gasping for breath. And now finally a book, his first, actually an agglutination of pieces he has published before here and there, mostly in the scholarly journals, expertly stitched together by himself and, one gathers, editor Philip Scharper of Sheed and Ward.
What emerges? A man with commanding knowledge and piercing intuition who has probed silly and learned superstitions, and speaks to his fellow Catholics and/or fellow Americans from breathtaking heights whence he surveys the American and the world scene, creating thought and analysis which leave the reader stunned with admiration and pleasure, as only the contact with a great thinker and a fine writer can do.
What does he tell us of special interest to those who are accustomed to view the Western world as divided between liberals and conservatives? Enough to give true conservatives great nourishment, but not so much as to suggest he holds the liberals to be unredeemable that would be unpriestly. He is, clearly, uninterested in many of the problems that some of us consider, if not central, at least urgent. (I doubt if he ever heard of the income tax.) He knows the totalist nature of the Communist movement, and uses blunt words to describe what are, indeed, the "stupidities" his word of our leaders during the postwar years. He knows that we have much to fear from our "ambiguists" again his word, which he uses with zest, after apologizing for the "barbarism" whom he does not identify by name, but who are, in public life, unmistakably Adlai Stevenson and George Kennan, those fastidious anti-statesmen who are so caught up with definitions that they lose sight of the meaning of the whole Western endeavor.
But he is never so specific as to identify himself with any current movement, except of course the Christian movement, and many liberals will read his book with incomplete understanding, I like to feel, hovering over a few animadversions against right-wing stereotypes, and hastily drawing the conclusion that he is really on their side. (Some conservatives will do the inverse.) He has the priceless gift of knowing how to float an argument up and up, requiring those who would stay with him to shed all but their most cherished ideological encumbrances, just to keep up with him. It is worth the trip, for one listens there, in relative quiet, to the great force of his arguments. Many of his readers, back at their desks, will turn their exegetical energies to singling out and explaining how this piece of analysis, that paragraph, that phrase, gives aid and comfort to their own position. I shan't (unless I am challenged). I am content to say, Here is a noble statement that refreshes the imagination, to which I shall turn again and again, as is a great work's due.
Fr. Murray deals in his book with many questions, political and philosophical, ranging all over the lot, touching deeply on censorship, humanism, foreign policy, and other subjects. The first section, perhaps the most striking, is addressed to the recurring question: what does America stand for? WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS, he reminds an inattentive public who, alas, if they hold these truths, do not know they do. These truths, he says, are the patrimony of America. The Founders established a republic on the presumption of a natural law the rudiments of which are intelligible to all rational men (ut in pluribus), the refinements of which our Lords Spiritual (the learned and conscientious elite) must elaborate for us. Evil times have overtaken us. The natural law, which is indestructible, exists, but we do not acknowledge it, and hence fail to elaborate a public consensus based on it. The consensus is probably still there, in the interstices of our mind, and the natural law continues to govern our soundest instincts and emotions. But during the last century we got way behind, we were dazed by the shock troops of epistemological relativism and still are. The century is of Comte, Freud, Marx, and Dewey, and their industrious epigoni, who require such extensive educations to be so ignorant. We have failed to elaborate the consensus, admit its essential place in intelligible society, lavish upon it the kind of attention needed to rebuff the assault on the very idea of America. We are left with nothing substantive to believe in.
The consensus proper to American liberal society is purely procedural. It involves no agreement on the premises and purposes of political life and legal institutions; it is solely an agreement with regard to the method of making decisions and getting things done, whatever the things may be. The substance of American society is our "democratic institutions," conceived as purely formal categories. These institutions have no content; they are simply channels through which any kind of content may flow. In the end, the only life-or-death question for American society is that it should live or die under punctilious regard for correct democratic procedures.
That is not enough, obviously. And everyone appears to agree that is not enough, as witness the aching search for National Objectives. Every editor or foundation head in America worth his salt has during the past year commissioned his subordinates to find him a national objective, allowing, in the case of an opulent journal, as much as three months for the job. The need is patently there. It is a felt need, and that much is good. Fr. Murray wonders whether it will be found in time, and whether those who search for the public philosophy will turn, no doubt with anguished resignation, to the natural law: the neglected, tatterdemalion lode from which, if we set out to do it, we can mine a public philosophy which will bring the West out alive.