Editor’s Note: It is always pleasing to see one’s words touch the right nerves such that folks’ responses are more eloquent, powerful, and well-thought-out than anything you yourself could’ve written! Such is what I saw in the Braver Angels Media inbox in the days after my semi-heresy against American writ, Are Any Truths Self-Evident? went out as the Braver Angels weekend newsletter last Sunday June 13th. Various grassroots members of Braver Angels responded to my skepticism with insightful commentaries on the practical utility and moral prudence of accepting certain truths as self-evident in American political life, and, while I am not yet fully convinced, it has gotten me thinking!
So we have decided to republish some of the best of those responses here, to further leaven the conversation at Braver Angels Media. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and format. We hope you enjoy!
On that note: Please always feel free to write back to us at [email protected], and to me and Monica personally at [email protected], and [email protected] if you ever have a response to the arguments we put forth in newsletters, essays, podcasts, videos and other media. Please even feel free even to write us with your experiences in workshops and debates and more! We cannot guarantee that we will publish every single such message submitted, but, we will always consider them, in our continuing mission to demonstrate a true chorus of the union here on Braver Angels Media.
Not Agreement, But Understanding
I was taken aback by your objection to the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, and am wondering if you may be misreading the clause “we hold these truths to be self-evident…”
The purpose of the document in its entirety was to make a case for independence from rule by Great Britain. In any such document, you need to start by stating the premises or axioms upon which your argument is based. The very definition of a premise or an axiom is something that is stated and assumed to be true without proof. In other words the condition of beliefs upon which the case is being made.
The Declaration of Independence is making the case for the 13 colonies to separate from Great Britain and govern themselves. In making the case, they start by stating their core principles, those beliefs upon which their argument for independence is based. Thus they are stating what they believe to be true without proof. These truths are as follows:
All men are created equal.
All men are endowed with certain unalienable rights.
A subset of these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (they did not try to imply that their list was complete.)
Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
People have the right to abolish any form of government that becomes destructive.
This should not be done lightly (i.e. changing government for light or transient causes, but only after a long train of abuses and usurpations.)
They start this list, the second paragraph of the Declaration, with the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” They are listing their beliefs that form the basis of their argument for independence. They are not saying “Everyone holds these truths to be self-evident…” They are only speaking for themselves.
Another important point is that these are pretty basic principles: equality, life, liberty, consent of the governed…. They could be looked at as the basis for conversation, the context upon which a conversation about what you list as the great controversies of our time can be discussed. They leave open for discussion how well we have lived up to these aspirations. There is even room for discussion as to the meaning of these truths. What does the statement “all men are created equal” mean? We are certainly different from each other. Do we mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?
I guess I’m saying that starting out with an enumeration of your core premise is actually a help in having a productive conversation, rather than an impediment. I firmly ascribe to those statements made in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. I recognize them as aspirations. I cannot “prove” them or rationally derive them from first principles. I think of them as being first principles. They are a great basis on which to have meaningful conversations about the great controversies of our time.
The “self-evident truths” that we each hold are important and we need to know what they are. Often we don’t understand them, or cannot articulate them. We tend to feel them in our heart, rather than analyze them in our brain. Yet, they are the basis on which we build our worldview. They are that bottom-most point beyond which it becomes “turtles all the way down.” Any good conversation about a controversy (i.e. the pandemic, lockdowns, impeachment, protest, etc.) will include an effort to dig and discover the basic principles upon which our opinions are based. This is what can lead to understanding. Not agreement, but understanding.
-George Brenckle, Braver Angels Member
The Basis for Equality
Re: self-evident truths. Yes, they do need explication. Their origin, however, based on material I read (before I had Evernote, so no references available,) points directly to the French philosophers (and a Polish philosopher) of the 18th century writing on the basis for democratic society. This analysis was based on letters between the core authors of the Declaration.
The reasoning was this: what is the basis of authority? The Church (and after the Reformation, Churches) ceded power to those appointed by God (as determined by those in power, of course). If there was to be democracy, contrasted with monarchical rule, what was its basis? The self-evident truths are that basis. If, in our own times, there is a basis for not ceding power to those with the most financial clout, it is those same self-evident truths.
Those pesky self-evident truths were the basis of conflict between those who wanted to maintain the power of those with wealth and those who wanted to ensure that the self-evident truths were the basis of our democracy. That conflict of interests, in the face of external threats from foreign powers, required us to pull together “now” in order to survive as a country, resulting in the compromises of the Philadelphia Convention that yielded our Constitution.
The “truths” are common sense when all the conceptual details are explained. And—how many of us are moved by concepts? (Answer: few.)
When I talk with my neighbors, I talk about how we need to help every person make use of their abilities, and that some need more or different help than others. I give examples relevant to them. I point out that for our country to be strong, we need everyone living up to their potential. And then I add—we have to do this in baby steps. As a programmer, I know that if I were programming a drone to deliver a message to the mayor in city hall, I would not set just one direction. I would be making constant course corrections, so my message got there. To be strong, we have to lift every person up to their potential. To get there, we need to take small steps and make course corrections as we go.
What I describe here works with every type of person I know, whether my PhD neighbors or my working-class neighbors. Learning how to talk by personal examples is the most important part of pulling our country together. Everyone I have talked with when talking by example immediately sees the sense in helping every person, because that makes our country more productive and strong, working for and with each other instead of against others. It’s just common sense. And that common sense finds one short but eloquent articulation in the self-evident truths.
-Hank Fay, Braver Angels Member, Berea, Kentucky
A Gigantic, Glorious, Unprecedented Act that Changed the World
The words in the Declaration are actually very subtle. They don’t say “These truths are self-evident.” They say “We HOLD these truths to be self-evident.” That is, they say that in the game we want to play, the ideas of equality, etc., are to be taken as given— or rather, that ASSUMING their self-evidence is to be a qualification for the game that WE are playing. It’s a play between empirical fact—humans are empirically equal—and performative speech act, like “with this ring I thee wed”, or “OK, red threes are wild” or “three no-trumps” or signing a check.
So in some ways it’s not necessarily accepting the metaphysical and unverifiable idea that humans are equal (which might require divine revelation and thus require an establishment of religion,) but offering a better game for humans than the disastrous games of the past in which it was self-evident that humans are not equal, and saying “Let’s play this amazing new game in which we assume that it’s obvious that humans are equal.” It’s a gigantic, glorious, and unprecedented act that changed the world—a fiction within which we all live or pretend to live in.
It’s a sentence of staggering genius.
-Frederick Turner, poet and retired professor, Richardson, Texas
Everyone Thinks It’s True—And What’s Wrong With That?
Mr. Phillips—I don’t know whether you get emails at this address, so I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can. I found your brief essay quite interesting, but I think you are mistaken in your views about the meaning of Jefferson’s “self-evident truths.” His use of the phrase was, in my opinion, quite brilliant, and I don’t think it makes our common life together more difficult—quite the opposite.
The Declaration was intended to tell the world what we were doing—breaking away from the UK—and why we were doing it. He begins with: WE HOLD these truths to be self-evident – that, e.g., governments derive their JUST powers from the consent of the governed.
These are our starting-points; we believe that their truth is self-evident, and so he won’t spend any time trying to persuade the reader that that are true; we assume that they are true, and he proceeds from there to explain how the King had violated those truths, and why we felt the need to do something about that.
It’s a pretty brilliant rhetorical stroke, in my opinion. He’s not even saying “these things are true.” Jefferson was well-aware that there were many people who believed that governments derive their just powers from God. But he was saying: I’m not going to try to persuade you that you’re wrong; I’m just going to explain OUR reasons for doing what we’re doing, and OUR reasons start from these particular principles.
“If a widely-held and comprehensive opinion on something like, I don’t know, the integrity of our electoral system, or the role of science in policy making, or the limits of tolerance, or the definition of diversity, or the justice of social unrest, or foreign meddling in our politics, or something else of direct relevance to my personal life and our common life, is self-evident, why should I even have to argue for it?”
But “the integrity of our electoral system” and the “definition of diversity” and “the role of science in policy making” are NOT “self-evident truths”—that’s kind of the point. It’s not clear to me why you think they might be.
One could, I suppose, transform them into something like: The integrity of our electoral system is of grave importance for our way of governing ourselves. And I suppose that could well be a self-evident truth—indeed, I don’t think anyone in the current discussion about “electoral reform,” on the right or the left, would disagree with that proposition. Everyone thinks it’s true.
And what’s wrong with that? We don’t have to argue with one another about that. It takes something off the table, because we all agree about it. It doesn’t, of course, get you very far at all—all of the disagreements and the debates and discussion concern subsidiary questions, like what “integrity” means and what “election fraud” looks like and all the rest. But I don’t think it harms the collective discussion to declare that THAT proposition is something on which all parties to the debate agree, and to move on to try to find the stuff on which people DON’T disagree and focus attention there.
And just to add a historical note… declaring not only that “all men are created equal,” but that we held that to be self-evidently true—foundational and not subject to argument—was of profound importance for the fight against slavery, in the U.S. and elsewhere. It did not, unfortunately, end slavery right then and there; the pen is mightier than the sword, but not THAT much mightier.
But it did mean that from that date forward, slavery could no longer be justified on the grounds that Africans were a lower order of being, deserving of being subjugated because they, like animals, were not in possession of the right to liberty. Many people still believed that at the time, and many people continued to believe it after 1776—but it was no longer part of the public debate over slavery; it became illegitimate to make that argument because it contradicted something that was self-evidently true. If slavery was to continue, it had to be justified on other grounds. And that was a very important step forward in hastening slavery’s ultimate destruction.
-David G. Post, Braver Angels Member, Washington D.C.
The Restoration of That Virtue
Your message ”Are any truths self-evident?” got my attention. I’m a big fan of our Founding Documents, and I want to offer some texture to some of your points in that email:
The introduction and preamble of the Declaration of Independence declares the intent of the Founders to recognize Natural Law—that is, law that supersedes the Law of man. “Self-evident” is a forthright declaration that we derive the grounds for our independence as a sovereign nation from Natural Law, superseding that of the King or the eventual Government that would take his place in America. At the founding, ours was an entirely untested form of Government. The assumption of Natural Law with its inalienable, inherent rights is the *very* foundation supporting our system. That system was purposely designed to recognize plurality, allowing us all to continue living unpolarized together, pursuing our individual happinesses as communities and States, managing the enumerated few common, national affairs together, but largely managing our own communities and States according to our individual needs and desires. Our polarization problem right now is rooted in competing civic projects to undermine processes necessary for Continental Harmony—competing civic projects the Founders dedicated our system specifically to thwart. Some will say that the Declaration is an antiquity. To that, I say most of its genius is rooted in its timelessness. It’s not that complicated.
The Founders didn’t have to be told there is no way to resolve settle continental arguments in a free Republic. It takes virtue to resist the temptation to even aspire to the force needed to make everyone follow a singular set of rules. It is the restoration of that virtue we seek as Braver Angels.
Forsaking that very foundation—that rejection of a plane higher than ourselves that brings with it the humility necessary to let others pursue their happiness—that’s exactly why we’re polarized. People who offer the refrains you quote—”This time it’s different…”, “I care about People’s lives, no civility…” are completely missing the point of the Declaration of Independence and the Truths of Natural Law. They’re not meant to bind us. They are meant to make us work for our Liberty—together. That’s why self-evident truths are wholly relevant now, perhaps more so than ever.
Liberty commands effort, humility, understanding, and virtue. It’s supposed to be hard, because it’s “the hard that makes it great!” (Skip to 1:30 to see the reference in the clip). I get chills every time I see it… There are never easy solutions, and no one person has all the answers.
In our context, “The Hard” is the virtue the Founders all recognized was necessary to maintain our Republic. This link shows a whole list of quotes from the Founders making that point—the same people who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence. None of them questioned self-evident truths because they had the virtue to understand them as common sense and to assert them on our behalf. Without virtue, there simply is no civil discourse.
So sure, ask the question, why should we have to explain “those things…” Natural Law is a guiding, abstract construct. We have to apply it to all of our civic debates, and that takes effort because Natural Law short-circuits the instant, ephemeral gratification borne of true democracy, and the illusions that we get from the notion that we have all the answers. The limitations self-evident truths place on authority command us to recognize that we must solve our own problems together, as Americans, in and for our local communities, and not “outsource” those aspirations to a National Authoritarian Government—which is what both sides actually desire—which is an argument with no solution, which is why Braver Angels exists at all.
As an IT professional we have a saying we like to offer in jest when users ask us questions that have easily attainable answers:
Americans need to read the manual, and use the Law the way it was intended, and for its purpose instead of the what we imagine it can be. Because it’s the single path to maintaining liberty and peace.
-Jeffrey from Ohio, Braver Angels Member