Thursday, February 2, 2017

Do We Actually Seek to Know? Thoughts on Overcoming Partisanship

Watching the transition of a new Presidency reminds me of the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Regardless of party, partisans seem to have no problem praising something when their faction does it, and condemning it when the other faction does it. The behavior is obviously hypocritical, but partisans only see it when the other side is being hypocritical. The problem is, this sort of behavior doesn’t solve the problems. Things will not change until each person looks at their own behavior and recognizes their own wrongdoing and tries to change. Unfortunately, most people find it easier to focus on what others need to do to change. This was true before Trump became President, and it will be true after his successor takes office.

I’ve long agreed with Aristotle’s definition of truth: To say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not. I think all of us need to consider our comfortable preferences and see if they are actually true. If they are not true, we should stop repeating them or demanding others live by them. If they are true, we need to apply them to our own lives, regardless of whether our opponents do.

As a Catholic, I believe in God, and I believed God established a Church to guide us here on Earth. We need to listen to this Church to understand what is right and what is wrong. The Church teachings are not ipse dixit declarations, however. The Church offers reasoned explanations for what they hold, recognizing that it makes no sense to appeal to Scripture alone when talking to people who reject the authority of Scripture.

But it is difficult to refute the errors of each individual, for two reasons. First, because the sacrilegious assertions of each erring individual are not so well known to us, that we are able from what they say to find arguments to refute their errors. For the Doctors of old used this method in order to confute the errors of the heathens, whose opinions they were able to know, since either they had been heathens themselves, or had lived among heathens and were conversant with their teachings. Secondly, because some of them, like the Mohammedans and pagans, do not agree with us as to the authority of any Scripture whereby they may be convinced, in the same way as we are able to dispute with the Jews by means of the Old Testament, and with heretics by means of the New: whereas the former accept neither. Wherefore it is necessary to have recourse to natural reason, to which all are compelled to assent. 


Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1924), 4.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, reasoned argument is replaced by the genetic fallacy. The conservative rejects the liberal argument because it comes from a liberal. The liberal rejects the conservative argument because it comes from a conservative. Both sides consider themselves “principled” and the other side “operating under an agenda.” So long as this dualistic way of thinking exists, people will not consider whether something is true when it comes from “the other side.” Under such thinking, people think that their side has all the answers, and an ideal society will exist once the other side is vanquished so they can implement their policies without opposition. Of course since one side will never vanquish the other totally, whenever a policy fails, it is the fault of the other side. As long as the majority of people think this way, we’re not likely to see any meaningful reform regardless of who is elected.

I think we need to start by asking questions. Is what I hold to true? Why do I believe it is true? Is there any error in my assumptions that leads to a false conclusion? Do I reject other views because it goes against the truth, or because it goes against what I prefer? Sometimes, it means we will have to take a stand against the political positions we have comfortably staked out. It definitely means we need to investigate what a person says and not just “translate” it according to our political preferences (“he holds that because he is a fascist/communist”).

We might find our experience is similar to that of Socrates:

I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.


Plato, “The Apology of Socrates,” in The Harvard Classics 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917), 7–8.

That is to say, we might find out that a person we look to thinks they know the truth but does not. Since we realize we don’t know the truth, we are better off than the person who doesn’t know they are ignorant. We’re willing to keep searching. The other person has stopped looking for truth and has satisfied themselves with what is comfortable. That’s the ideal we have to strive for. But the partisan temptation exists here too. It’s easy to say, “People of that group are ignorant, but we’re not like them, because we don’t hold their views!” Actually, that’s exactly the behavior of the one who does not know but thinks they do.

Seeking truth has a twofold search:

  1. Understanding what a person intends to say (as opposed to what we think it means)
  2. Determining whether what he says is true or not

So, when someone misunderstands a position (sincerely or maliciously), they do not speak truthfully about what the person believes. So we have to make our best effort to understand what the person is saying, not just assumes the other person uses words and concepts in the way we assume it means. For example, many speak about doing good. But they don’t always mean the same thing by the term “good.”

Once we truly understand what a person is saying, we can assess it for truth. Does it correspond with reality? Does it properly guide us to do good and avoid evil? Many modern schools of philosophy have dropped the ball here. It’s no longer about finding what is true. It’s about justifying what we want to believe in the first place. When assessments of good and evil say we choose evil, we have a tendency to attack the person saying we do wrong.

Ultimately, modern thought decides that anyone from faction X can’t be right and must be ignorant or malicious to think that way. But truth is not a partisan affair. But that’s a textbook example of not knowing while thinking one knows. It’s only after one understands what another holds that one can properly assess it [Ω] and see of there is truth about it or not.

The Catholic has an advantage in knowing truth about reality, but this gives us a corresponding responsibility. As Vatican II put it, 

14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.


They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.


Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

Since we have the graces God provides for members of His Church, we have the responsibility to act on them. We can’t compartmentalize our faith and our politics so neither meet. Our politics must be formed by the truths of our faith. This may mean we may have to abandon political views which are incompatible with the truth the Church teaches. God is the Creator and Lord of all. What He wills is true and good because He is Truth and Goodness. His commands reflect this. Since we profess to know this, we have the obligation to ask whether our passions and opinions reflect God’s truth and goodness or whether they are governed by worldly desires.

All of us are sinners. All of us can be deceived through our desires. All of us can call evil, “Good” when it suits us. But our wanting a thing to be so does not make it so. We who profess to be Christians have to be open to God’s grace and mercy so we can respond and turn back to him where we chose wrong or were misled. We must do so by listening to God (John 14:15) and His Church (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17), realizing that rejecting what the Church teaches is not a mere quibble, but involves whether or not we are faithful to Christ Himself.

I believe the path to avoiding partisanship involves the following:

  • Realizing God is Truth and Goodness
  • Realizing that God established a Church that acts with His authority to bind and loose
  • Realizing that we can individually go wrong, and the groups we personally support can go wrong
  • Realizing that we determine whether we went wrong by asking whether our position is at odds with the Church led by the Pope
  • Realizing our personal interpretations on these matters is not the same thing as what the Church actually teaches
  • Realizing we have to investigate what is true and how we could have gone wrong
  • Humbly submitting to God and His Church and not putting our own desires and preferences above them.
If we can follow these steps (admittedly, not an easy thing to do), we can seek to God’s will and not replace Him with our own desires.


[Ω] This should not be interpreted as a relativistic “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” One can legitimately reject an immoral act without having participated in it first. Experiential knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment