Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.

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Two Cases for the Public Consensus

Fact or Need

PREVIOUS CHAPTERS HAVE RAISED the issue of the American consensus, or, what comes to the same thing, the public philosophy of America. (I shall use the terms pretty much synonymously, though there is a nuance of meaning. The term "public philosophy" emphasizes an objectivity of content; the term "consensus" emphasizes a subjectivity of persuasion.) There is no doubt that the issue is today alive in the American mind, in itself and in its relation to broad public problems, notably that of the "national purpose." However, from some experience on lecture platforms and in conversations I have found that the very notion of an American consensus or public philosophy meets considerable opposition.

There are two possible approaches to the subject. First, one can raise the question, does the United States have a public philosophy, or not? When the question is put in this way, it has been my experience that the argument tends to run out in futility. I am therefore inclined to think that the form of the question should be altered. One should ask, whether the United States needs a public philosophy or not. If the question is asked in this way, there may be the possibility of constructive argument.

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The affirmative case on the question, as put in its first form, can be made in four steps. I shall run through them briefly, since some of the materials of argument have been stated already. The starting point, as I have indicated, is the forthright statement of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths. . . . That is to say, we have a public philosophy; as a people, we have come to a consensus. This philosophy is the foundation of our public life; by coming to this consensus we have come to be a people, possessed of an identity.

The truths we hold, as a people, belong to the order of philosophical and political truth. (Here I presume that God Himself belongs to the order of reason, in the sense that His existence and sovereignty as the Author of the universe are not inaccessible to human reason.) The truths are the product of reason reflecting on human experience. They are not simply a codification or registration of experience; they are reached by an act of abstraction from experience, which carries the mind of man above the level of experience. Hence the affirmation of these truths pretends to and possesses a certain universal validity. Not only do we hold these truths; they are human truths of a sort that man as such is bound to hold.

The second step is to explain the three-fold function of the ensemble of truths that make up the public consensus or philosophy. The first function is to determine the broad purposes of our nation, as a political unity organized for action in history. This determination of purposes is, as always, a moral act. Second, the public philosophy furnishes the standards according to which judgment is to be passed on the means that the nation adopts to further its purposes. These means, in general, are what is called policy. Third, the consensus or public philosophy furnishes the basis of communication between government and the people and among the people

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themselves. It furnishes a common universe of discourse in which public issues can be intelligibly stated and intelligently argued.

The third step would be to indicate the ideas that form the object of the consensus, the content of the public philosophy. Since the consensus is constitutional, its focal concept is the idea of law. We hold in common a concept of the nature of law and its relationships to reason and to will, to social fact and to political purpose. We understand the complex relationship between law and freedom. We have an idea of the relation between the order of law and the order of morals. We also have an idea of the uses of force in support of law. We have criteria of good law, norms of jurisprudence that judge the necessity of law and determine the limits of its usefulness. We have an idea of justice, which is at once the basis of law and its goal. We have an ideal of social equality and of social unity and of the value of law for the achievement of both. We believe in the principle of consent, in terms of which the order of coercive law makes contact with the freedom of the public conscience. We distinguish between state and society, between the relatively narrow order of law as such and the wider order of the total public good. We understand the relation between law and social progress; we grasp the notion of law as a force for orderly change as well as for social stability. We understand the value of law as a means of educating the public conscience to higher viewpoints on matters of public morality. All these ideas, and others too, of which there will be question in a later chapter, form the essential contents of the consensus.

The argument here should be made to include the notion that the whole consensus has its ultimate root in the idea of the sacredness of man, res sacra homo. Man has a sacredness of personal dignity which commands the respect of society in all its laws and institutions. His sacredness guarantees him certain immunities and it also endows him with certain empowerments. He may make certain demands upon society and the state which require action in their support, and he may also utter certain prohibitions in the face of

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society and state. He may validly claim assistance, and with equal validity he may claim to be let alone.

In its fourth step the case reaches the question of dissent from the consensus. Here the essential point is that the consensus does not "exterminate" dissent, in the ancient sense of the word, scil., by putting dissent or the dissenter beyond the pale of social or civil rights. On the contrary, the consensus supposes and implies dissent. But it remains the function of the consensus to identify dissent as dissent. As for dissent, its function is not to destroy or undermine the consensus but to solidify it and make it more conscious and articulate. This has always been the historical function of error, to contribute to the development of truth. Dissent from the public philosophy serves to stimulate public argument about the philosophy and thus keep the philosophy alive, bring it to refinement, and maintain it in its vital contact with new questions that are always arising under the pressure of constant social change.

These then are the four essential points I should develop in making the affirmative case on the question: Is there or is there not an American consensus, a public philosophy on which the whole order of the Republic rests? The case is only outlined here; these bones would need to be clothed with flesh. And the full case would have to be made both by philosophical and by historical argument.

I have tried to take this affirmative case on more than one public occasion. What is usually the result? Briefly, when the result is not simply a blank stare, it is emphatic negation. The sort of thing that happens may be indicated as follows.

Someone is sure to rise with this question: Sir, you refer to "these truths" as the product of reason; the question is, whose reason? I reply that it is not a question of whose reason but of right reason. But, says the questioner, whose reason is right? And with that question the whole footing is cut from under any discussion of the public philosophy. For the implication is that there can be no philosophy which is public. Philosophy, like religion, is a purely private affair.

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Indeed, there is no philosophy; there are only philosophies, or better, philosophers. And for all anyone knows or could possibly tell, any of them may be right, or none of them.

Someone else then rises to say that all talk of a public philosophy in America is idle and irrelevant. The argument is that ours is an industrial and technological society; it acknowledges only one value in the end; that value is success; and success in this society can only be defined and measured in material terms. Therefore let there be no talk of philosophy. Such problems as confront us were created by technology, and they are to be solved by technology, either by more technology or by less. The business of America is business, and philosophy has nothing to do with it.

Then a more sophisticated form of resistance is manifested. There are truths and we hold them? Well, yes, says the positivist, provided you understand clearly what "truth" is and how it is to be "held." There is no other truth but scientific truth, reached by the methods of science, whether classical or statistical. And one holds truths only tentatively; one is never committed to them. Such commitment spells the death of the free mind. Your public philosophy—it may be myth or fancy, poetry or symbol; but, as described, it cannot pretend to be permanent truth.

The pragmatist will also join the argument. If there is to be talk of ideas, he says, you must remember that all ideas were bom free and equal; that all of them are to be thrown into the competition of the market place; that the ideas which are bought are true, or the ideas that work are true, or at least the ideas that survive are true. But the ideas in your public philosophy are no longer bought; they are no longer operative; they have not even survived. The forces of history have made a vacuum where once there was a public philosophy, if indeed there ever was a public philosophy. Why then bother to talk about it?

Since the word "morality" was used in making the affirmative case, another speaker will rise to say that there may indeed be an

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American morality, but it is hardly more than tribal, a matter of the national mores, having no greater warrant than custom or fashion or the necessity of convention and even hypocrisy in any manner of social life. If the speaker is a philosopher, his proposition will be that all morality is contextualistic. Or he may choose to say that all morality is existentialist, a situation-ethics, a problem of individual decisions in whose making no appeal may be made to a moral order, since there is no moral order. In a word, the argument about the public philosophy gets involved in all the confusions about the idea of morality that are today current (a subject to which I shall return in a later chapter).

In the end, someone will surely advance the view that the American consensus contains only one tenet—an agreement to disagree. With this agreement all agreement ends; and this agreement is hardly sufficient to constitute a philosophy.

Against these varied but converging lines of argument I customarily fall back on an historical point, that no society in history has ever achieved and maintained an identity and a vigor in action unless it has had some substance, unless it has been sustained and directed by some body of substantive beliefs. The rejoinder is that we are a new kind of society, a "free society," a democracy. And the consensus proper to this kind of 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.

My experience has been that the foregoing represents the general range of response that one gets to the affirmation that there is an

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American public philosophy. This sort of response is pitched on the intellectual level. There is, of course, a more heated response on the level of emotion. Usually, the outcry is raised: But this is orthodoxy! Thus the great word of anathema is hurled. The limits of tolerance have been reached. We will tolerate all kinds of ideas, however pernicious; but we will not tolerate the idea of an orthodoxy. That is, we refuse to say, as a people: There are truths, and we hold them, and these are the truths.

So the argument runs down and out. It ends in negation. On the question as put, is there an American public philosophy? the Noes will have it. I have about come to the conclusion that they do have it. Their negation of a public philosophy seems to be valid on the two levels on which the question itself is validly asked.

First, there is the level of the people at large. On this popular level the public philosophy would appear as a wisdom, possessed almost intuitively, in the form of a simple faith rather than an articulate philosophy. To this wisdom the people are heir by tradition; it is their patrimony. It gives them an identity as a people by relating them to their own history within which their identity was shaped. Even in simple form this wisdom would be adequate to its function, which is to enable the people to "judge, direct, and correct" the moral bearing of courses of government (I use the famous three words of medieval political theory). The ancient example from the field of religious faith is valid here. The simple people of Alexandria caught the resonances of heresy in the preaching of Arius before the the clerics caught them, entangled as these latter were in the subtleties of emanationist theory that confused the simple issue: The Word of God—is He God or not? Analogously, the body politic by reason of its patrimony of political wisdom should be able to sense in some instinctive fashion the basic errors in governmental policy, even when the politicians themselves get lost in their technical arguments and partisan feelings.

Second, there is the level of the "clerks," the intellectuals. I

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mean, of course, not only the academicians—the professional students of philosophy, politics, economics, history, etc.—but also the politicians, the writers, the journalists, the clergy, the whole range of men and women equipped by formal education and training to take an intelligent interest in public affairs, in the res publica. These are the people who are supposed to be in conscious possession of the public philosophy as a philosophy; for them it would be a personal acquisition and not simply a patrimony.

On both these levels I am inclined to think that the Noes have it. Say there is no public philosophy in America. By one cause or another it has been eroded. And the sign of the vacuum, especially on the intellectual level, is the futility of argument on the question as put in its first form, whether there is a public philosophy or not.


Nonetheless, I am unwilling to relinquish the argument. But the form of the question must be changed to read: Do we or do we not need a public philosophy? Can we or can we not achieve a successful conduct of our national affairs, foreign and domestic, in the absence of a consensus that will set our purposes, furnish a standard of judgment on policies, and establish the proper conditions for political dialogue?

To argue the question in this form I would recur to the truth that lies at the heart of the philosophical error of pragmatism. It is false to say that what works is true. But it is an altogether sound proposition that what is not true will somehow fail to work. I think it is possible to prove America's present need of a public philosophy by using this principle as the key to the method of demonstration. The demonstration would be concrete; the materials for it would be drawn from the facts concerning public affairs.

Briefly, the argument would be that, if public affairs today are going badly, the basic reason is the absence of a public philosophy.

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In other words, it is not true to say that America does not need a public philosophy, for the fundamental reason that this assertion will fail to work. It is failing to work; it is daily proving its own falsity. The further conclusion will be that there is today a need for a new moral act of purpose and a new act of intellectual affirmation, comparable to those which launched the American constitutional commonwealth, that will newly put us in possession of the public philosophy, the basic consensus that we need.

Obviously, this kind of demonstration cannot be undertaken here. But I might make a rapid statement of the lines along which it would proceed.

The starting point is the obvious fact that the United States is doing badly in this moment of historical crisis. I would myself accept the view of Mr. Max Ways, for instance, as stated in his book, Beyond Survival, that America today is more insecure than it has ever been in its history—more insecure than in the darkest days of the Civil War, more insecure than in the perilous time that followed Pearl Harbor. These were moments of crisis. But at least a goal was clear before us in both of them—a victory to be won, whose symbol would be the capture of a place, Richmond, Berlin, Tokyo. Today what is the goal, the victory to be won? Surely it has no such simple symbol. So baffling has the problem of our national purpose become that it is now the fashion to say that our purpose is simply "survival." The statement, I think, indicates the depth of our political bankruptcy. This is not a purpose worthy of the world's most powerful nation. It utterly fails to measure the meaning of the historical moment or to estimate the opportunities for greatness inherent in the moment. Worst of all, if we pursue only the small-souled purpose of survival, we shall not even achieve survival.

From this comment on our current insecurity I should go on to say that the reason for the insecurity is not Communism, whether as an external threat or (much less) as an internal threat. I would not be misunderstood. If the menace of Communism is properly

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understood, it would be almost impossible to exaggerate it, so massive is it, and so fundamental. Moreover, if the menace is not understood, it becomes all the greater. And this, I fear, is the current situation. However, postponing to a later chapter an analysis of the exact nature of the Communist challenge, I would here maintain that Communism is not the basic cause of our present confusions, uncertainties, insecurities, falterings and failures of purpose. I would go so far as to maintain that, if the Communist empire were to fall apart tomorrow, and if Communist ideology were to distintegrate with it, our problems would not be solved. In fact, they would be worse in many ways.

I can here suggest only one general reason for this assertion. Having finally, and much too slowly, reached a consensus that Communism is an evil thing, we have resolved to be "against" it. We reject the Communist idea of world order; we object to a Communist organization of the world. The trouble is that, after you have rejected the Communist order, you are still stuck with the sheer fact of the world's disorder. It is the fact of the century. Communism did not create the fact, though it exploits it. The disorder would persist, or be rendered even more chaotic, if Communist ideas and power vanished into thin air this very moment. Facing the massive fact of world disorder, the United States faces the question: What kind of order in the world do you want? What are its premises and principles? What is to be the form of its institutions—political, legal, economic? How do you propose to help organize this disorganized world? Or do you propose not to help? Or do you perhaps think an order of peace, freedom, justice, and prosperity will come about in the world simply by accident, or by sheer undirected technological progress, or by the power of prayer, or by what? Order is, by definition, the work of the wise man: sapientis est ordinare. It is the work of men and peoples who are able to say: There are truths and we hold them. Hence the disordered state of the world itself puts to America the question: What are your truths? With a decent respect

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to the opinions of a mankind that is groping for a civilized order, speak these truths.

It is, I think, the absence of any convinced and convincing answers to these questions, and others of the same tenor, that explains our present insecurity, the fact of it and the sense of it. The questions are not answered simply by saying that we are against Communism. I am pleased that the American people have agreed to be against Communism, though I could wish that the opposition to this enemy were more intelligent than it is. However, anti-Communism is not a public philosophy. This negative consensus is no firm guide to public policy. In fact, it has its dangers, since it can furnish a pseudo-justification for misguided policies. It can distort the issues in public debate. It can distract attention from issues that are less visible but no less urgent.

Having got the issue of Communism and anti-Communism in proper perspective, subordinate to the problem of our positive intentions with regard to the organization of the world, the next problem would be to examine the various areas of American policy to see whether the confusions and ineffectivenesses in them are not due to the absence of a public philosophy. I shall assume that our major problems are in the field of foreign, not domestic, policy. I shall further assume that foreign policy embraces two broad areas, military policy and economic policy.


On the matter of military policy I was impressed by the Rockefeller Report on International Security: The Military Aspect. (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1958.) Four broad problems were distinguished in an order of ascending importance. First, there are all the technological problems involved in our enormously spreading defense establishment. Second, there is the problem of the economic burden imposed on the people by the ne-

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cessities of national defense. Third, there is the problem of doctrine and strategy with regard to the military uses of the force at our command. Finally, there is the problem of the political and moral ends for which we are prepared to use force. This is the ultimate problem. It is an issue of political and moral judgment. It is finally determinative. We can quite literally do anything we want to do in the matter of creating and using force. The question is, what do we want to do?

This is the problem we have refused—the moral problem of the use of force as an instrument of justice and political order. What is worse, we seem to think that we have solved the problem. We have said that we shall never shoot first. That seems to be the first and the last thing we have to say about the morality of war. Having said it, we think that the moral issue is settled. This, of course, is sheer nonsense. Or else we say, as President Eisenhower said, that we are making weapons not to wage but to prevent war. Thus we think to have put a moral basis under the whole gigantic operation of Cape Canaveral, Los Alamos, the Livermore laboratory, etc., etc. We seem not to be aware that the unacknowledged half-falsity of this half-truth again represents a blindness to the complexity of the moral problem. The premise of the statement seems to be that the prevention of war through the creation of armaments is an exercise in morality, whereas the waging of war, if the preventive effort fails, is not an exercise in morality at all.

This premise is brought to view when the two controlling American policies are seen in their logical relation: We shall never shoot first, but if anybody shoots at us the answer will be "massive retaliation" by weapons of indiscriminate mass slaughter. These are, I take it, the two correlative policies, of the highest order, that embody the most profound thought about war that our government has been able to elaborate. I take it so, because as a member of the public, I have never been informed to the contrary. It seems to be the deepest conviction of American government and its people too that war and peace are two completely discontinuous universes, between which

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no moral connection exists. When you step out of the universe of peace, which is the universe of morality, you step into the universe of war, in which morality is irrelevant. The prevention of war is a moral effort. War itself is simply a problem in technology.

I think it fair to say that there is no consensus in America with regard to the answer to the fourth and climactic problem raised by the Rockefeller Report. It has been raised in other sources too. An example would be the chapter entitled, "The Need of Doctrine," in Henry Kissinger's book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957); this chapter most unfortunately has got overlooked in the course of the technical debates over Kissinger's concept of limited war. One should read, in contrast, Raymond L. Garthoff's book, Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age (New York: Praeger, 1958). The Soviet Union does not need a public philosophy with regard to the uses of force; as I shall later point out, it has one. The philosophy, you may say, is damnable. The trouble is that even a damnable philosophy is more effective than no philosophy at all.

The argument here does not stop with the fact that there is no American public philosophy with regard to the uses of force. The point is that we need such a philosophy. Otherwise there is no real solution to what are usually called the "practical problems" pointed to by the Rockefeller panel. The technological, economic and strategic aspects of the total problem are involved in enormous confusions because there is not available in a public philosophy, shared by government and people alike, a higher viewpoint from which ordered solutions might be seen. What is not true will somehow fail to work. And it is not true that America can intelligently construct, and morally put to use, a defense establishment in the absence of a public philosophy concerning the use of force as a moral and political act.

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It is along these lines, but with more complete analysis and detail, that an argument can be constructed to show the need of a public philosophy in order to "judge, direct, and correct" the structure, content and orientation of military policies.


The same sort of argument could be made with regard to foreign economic policy. This too is a problem of enormous technical difliculty; there are many aspects to it, and not all of them are purely economic. However, the argument would undertake to show that the prior and primatial problem regards the lack, and therefore the need, of a consensus with respect to the broad purposes of foreign economic aid. In other words, the technical problems cannot be successfully solved in a vacuum of philosophy with regard to this vital area of American action abroad.

The validity of this proposition might be illustrated, if not demonstrated, by a look at the classic argument for foreign economic aid since the inception of programs of aid in the post-war period. The classic argument, I take it, has asserted that foreign economic aid is necessary in order to counter the Communist threat, to stop the advance of Communism. There have been other arguments indeed; but this is the one that "comes through" to the public and seems to be decisive. Moreover, it is being made all the more insistently now that Communist imperialism is increasingly taking on an economic form. Hence I call the argument classic. I would not deny it some validity. The trouble is that this basic argument contains a basic fallacy, sc., the notion that it is the basic argument.

The fact is that the United States would confront a massive problem in foreign economic policy, even if there were no Communism around the lot. Even if no imperialist advances were being made from Moscow, the United States would have to have a world

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economic policy, of a rational kind, based on a coherent philosophy. The need for it is there, in the economic facts. Moscow did not create the need. It is simply trying to fill the need in its own way. We do not like the Communist idea of economic order, in itself and in its relation to political forms. But our dislike of the Communist solution does not cancel the problem itself. Nor can we sensibly say that our solution is to stop the Communist solution. This negativism of policy, evident in the classic argument, is no good, certainly not good enough. We have got to meet head on, with a policy whose intentions are positive, the disorderly situation that presently exists.

Its existence is not accounted for by Communism. More basic dynamism are at work. There is the economic dynamism that looks towards betterment of the material conditions of life. This dynamism is not sheerly materialist. It also has a political character; a prosperous economy is regarded as a means to political status. And this latter is the higher value in those regions now emerging from colonial status. Moreover, economic and political hopes and desires are now sharpened to the point of passion by the great vision that technology has created. Science and technology, in themselves and by the spectacle of their achievements both in the "capitalist" world and in the Communist world, have made it clear to the peoples of the world that it is now altogether possible for them to realize their hopes and desires. This is the new thing. It is no longer necessary to endure all that history has understood by poverty, in the way of wretched (or widely unequal) material conditions or in the way of political dependence. Regions and countries are "poor" only because they are "underdeveloped." But the means of development are within reach. And the world's peoples are determined to reach them.

These, I should think, are the underlying factors that are creating current economic, political, and social unrest—what is sometimes called the "revolution of rising expectations." In the face of these

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factors the classic argument for American foreign economic aid misses the main point. I cannot but believe that American policy makers realize that it misses the point. But, they may say, it is the only argument that finds an echo in the present negative American consensus, anti-Communism. The State Department knows the argument to be basically fallacious; but it has to use it in order to get appropriations through Congress. Congress too understands the fallacy; but the Congressman has his eye on his constituents who will approve his affirmative vote for foreign aid only because it is good for America, and it is good for America only because it is bad for the Communists. If this whole curious situation were further analyzed, the vacuum in public life would come into view. It is a vacuum of philosophy, a public philosophy with affirmative tenets that determine positive goals. The need is for this kind of philosophy, in government circles and among the people, in terms of which government and people could communicate with one another and consent intelligently to one another.

I know, of course, that there is something of a search for bases of foreign economic policy other than sheer anti-Communism. But the arguments for them tend to go out, as most public arguments today go out, in futility. Moral altruism, for instance, is advanced as a basis; economic aid is the generous duty of the rich nation. But this argument, usually made quite fuzzily and with soft sentimental overtones, awakes no resonance in the public mind. And it collides with the "tough" argument that self-interest is the final controlling factor of political or economic policy. This latter argument does not lack validity; and it certainly has popularity.

The search for other criteria of aid has no better issue. Is "the greatest need" to be the criterion? But it may be that aid will be put to least efficient use where most needed. Is foreign aid to be a reward or a bribe? But this is perilously close to trickery. Is it to be only an emergency program, or a permanent element in American policy? Others could trace these confusions better than I. The

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Report of Panel III of the Rockefeller Special Studies Project on Foreign Economic Policy in the Twentieth Century (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1958.) adverted to some of them. It firmly rejected the notion that our policy structure can or should be designed "merely to prevent an expansion of the Soviet's sphere." It added: "The free world confronts a deeper challenge than mere survival." It went on: "We should consider its efforts not as an act of benevolence but of partnership." A sensible remark, if one only knew what it meant. And it concluded: "The challenge therefore is to our sense of purpose and to our values." But there it concluded. It left the questions hanging: What is our purpose? And what are our values? These are the crucial questions. They are not being answered. They need to be answered.

Quod erat demonstrandum. That is, I set out to indicate the lines of an argument, whose materials would betaken from public affairs, whereby one might demonstrate America's need of a public philosophy, a consensus that could find utterance beginning with the words: There are truths and we hold them. Until we can make this utterance, public policies will continue to be projected out of a vacuum in the governmental mind into a vacuum in the popular mind. But it is not true that public policies can be so projected, and yet be successful.

I might add a final remark, even though it may bring these comments to a close on a "down beat." Until we can articulate an American consensus with regard to our truths, our purposes, and our values, it may be that there is much instinctive wisdom in raising the issue of survival. In the circumstances the issue is most real. It may possibly be true to say that an individual man can survive the tests of human life without religion; I mean, of course, the tests of terrestrial life, not the definitive tests put by ultimate truth, which are met in the internal forum of the mind and the moral conscience. In any case, it is not true to say that a nation can survive

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the tests of terrestrial life without a public philosophy, least of all in this our day when the very bases even of terrestrial life are being called into question. And what is not true will somehow fail to work. Hence one does well in America today to raise the issue of survival.

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