Yours, Mine, and Ours: Confessing a Philosophical Theft

In a post today, my longtime friend Leigh Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution and appropriating her idea of “friendly fire” in my response to Noma Arplay and Joseph Trullinger. In this post, I want to acknowledge my error and say a few things about the difference between our two conceptions of “friendly fire.”

To be clear: the phrase is hers, and I credit her for it. But I failed to link to her blog in my post: I linked to my old post, which itself links to her post. Most readers will not follow those links, and so most readers would not see the larger context. In cases like those, it’s important to link explicitly (like this and this) if only to produce trackbacks. Johnson is actually a champion at this particular practice (as you can see in the post in question but really all the time), and I needed to emulate her.

Additionally, I’ve appropriated the term for a different idea, and erased her usage in the process. The ideal that I articulated under that name is distinct from Johnson’s. In brief, I believe she has a basically “Aristotelian” conception and I have an “Arendtian” one. So I was using “friendly fire” to name a concept that I believe is Hannah Arendt’s by way of Lessing. That’s important to me, because I articulated that ideal in my dissertation long before I had a disagreement with Johnson about moral realism. I stole material in my dissertation to write that post and I want to be clear which parts are Johnson’s and which parts mine.

Here is what I take to be Johnson’s idea of “friendly fire:”

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my “true” friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to “live together.”

For Johnson, “friendly fire” is when disagreements happen between people of conviction, commitment, and engagement. Since (on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendships should not be dissolved by disagreement, but (also on Aristotle’s terms) perfect friendship should involve shared judgments of pleasure and pain, Johnson argues that among her “true” friends, arguing with conviction is not a sign of a lack of shared judgments, taking pleasure and pain in different things. Rather, having and valuing commitments is what gives all such friends pleasure (and lacking them gives pain.)Among her perfect friends, disagreement is evidence that we are like-minded by virtue of having convictions worth disagreeing over.

I say that this is all “on Aristotle’s terms” but Johnson’s reading of those passages against each other goes beyond the text and deserves to be called “Johnsonian.” What she ultimately shares with true friends is commitment-as-such rather than specific commitments: this makes volleys of friendly fire the source of friendship rather than an impediment to it. (And I’ll note that she’s displaying that sort of friendship here, for which I am grateful.)

The conception of “friendly fire” I used back in 2009 was always intended to be a distinct one from Johnson’s, while intending to preserve credit for the phrase Johnson used and to be inspired by her Aristotle-inflected account. It is derived from a reading of the truth/fact distinction described by Arendt, both in the way it plays out in her Lessing prize address, and in the way she develops it in her essays on truth and lying in politics. It played a crucial role in the first chapter of my dissertation, which was finished years before my exchange with Johnson. In the subsequent years, I’ve used that phrase “friendly fire” and the ideal it describes on many occasions, always linking back to the 2009 post. So in that sense, Johnson’s distinct conception of the term really has been elided: I stole it to refer to something about Arendt for which I didn’t have a good name.

I’ve also conflated this conception of disagreeable friendship with Maurice Blanchot’s Infinite Conversationeven though Blanchot’s actual conception of the phrase “infinite conversation” is radically different than Arendt’s, than Lessing’s, and than Johnson’s. It’s really just the title phrase “infinite conversation” I like: the idea of taking a position just for the sake of disagreement among friends who savor argument; to Johnson’s “principled” and “engaged” disagreement, I contrasted Arendt’s pluralism: disagreement for its own sake, to extend the conversation.

Johnson charges me with erasing her contribution: I didn’t link to her at all, throughout the most recent post. I mentioned her name at the start, but by the end she had dropped out. Now, Johnson calls this erasure, and I think she’s right. I erased her name, and added a different one, and I erased her concept, and added a different one. I kept the term as my own, and I really have spent the last seven years thinking in terms of “friendly fire” quite often without also thinking of my friend Leigh Johnson. So Johnson is right here:

I suppose someone might argue (maybe even Miller himself) that the insertion of “Arendtian” distinguishes what he calls “my ideal” and my (Johnson’s) idea of “friendly fire.” No reader could make that argument, though, because the actual content of my idea of “friendly fire” was erased from the get-go.

I agree: I actually did erase the content of her idea. I did it from the “get-go” in my most recent post. And that will tend to lead to confusion about what belongs to whom, and since the term is hers I really should get my own or use one of Arendt’s. Johnson has always had a gift for pithiness, and I appropriated it. Mea culpa: it is my fault, and I apologize.

So that is the “yours” and the “mine.” Let me say a bit about the “ours.” Leigh Johnson has been my fiery friend for more than twelve years; we’ve basically always found each other disagreeable in the friendliest ways. So the content of my conception of “friendly fire” was always about our friendship–especially our frequent disagreements on the blogs–no matter which philosophers were referenced. For her role in helping me develop my thoughts on Arendt in practice, I owed her much more than she received in the last post.

And it gets worse: I must confess to a further crime. Good citation practices should really have required me to refer to Johnson’s essay (with Ed Kazarian) on tone policing. For a lot of us in this little group of fiery-friendly professional philosophers, that post was a major influence on how we’ve thought and talked about tone and tenor in philosophy for the last couple of years. Now, the position I take at the end of my last piece, spelling out desiderata for a (third? fourth?) conception of friendship, is a bit more conciliatory and so is not really fully compatible with Johnson’s and Kazarian’s critique of civility and collegiality. I do try to spell out a disposition for all practitioners that is not combative. But it’s important to cite and work through relevant prior work on a topic: it’s a good scholarly practice, and this is ultimately a scholarly blog.

I’ve also now learned that the conception of “taking pleasure in being proven wrong” may be itself owed to another friend. Kate Norlock’s published article on the ideal of receptivity captures much of what excited me in Sam’s comment. An excerpt should tempt you to read the rest:

Generally, philosophers provide arenas for argumentation to advance understanding or ascertain the truth; if one is engaged in a community whose members hold that truth is best tested by some rigorous argumentation designed to experiment with whether a counterargument succeeds or fails, then adversariality of a sort is a receptive practice.

This means that how or whether one goes about the adversarial project depends upon which philosophical community provides the opportunities for argumentation. One with the explicit goal of ascertaining through analytical methods whether an argument is nearer or further from the truth will require a different sort of rigorous inspection from an organization dedicated to investigating the historical accuracy of a translation, or a workshop exploring the interconnections between new scholars’ related research for an anthology. I frequent feminist conferences in communities that have quite publicly committed to a reduction of adversariality and offered alternative models of engagement. There, what receptivity demands of me is different. This picture of the philosophical aims of communities is complicated when one enters general gatherings populated by people with different commitments, some of whom value adversarial methods highly and some of whom deplore the same methods. Although one’s task in such plural communities is more difficult, it is not a reason to discount receptivity. Sometimes the golden mean is hard to hit. We should still try.

That’s good, right? Norlock has really worked out–using Nel Nodding’s conception of care–an account of receptivity that Sam’s comment and perhaps also the fiery friendship that Joseph Trullinger is developing.

One last thing: Johnson charges me with a kind of unintentional misogyny. This is a difficult charge to evaluate internally, and is best judged by others, especially Johnson. I think everything she says on this point is true in general, but I am tempted to argue that substituting one woman’s ideas (Arendt’s) for another’s (Johnson’s) in response to a third female scholar (Arpaly) and using others (Kristie Dotson and Maria Lugones) to make the point doesn’t feel quite like a good exemplar of the true, pervasive, and general problem Johnson points out.

Yet at the same time, there is ample evidence that women must be much more qualified than men to receive the same esteem and citation, so that substituting more famous woman for a less famous one will tend to contribute to that trend. So there, too, more care was and is warranted, and I owed it to my friend–more than I owed it to the subject of my dissertation–to make sure she got credit

Friendly Fire and Fiery Friendship: Noma Arpaly, Joseph Trullinger, and the Tenor of Philosophy Conversation

I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!

Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I’ve often used it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.

Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?

I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms, without distinguishing them: we are frequently rude, and we frequently engage in disagreement and correction. Among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues.

Yet Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism–not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations–killing civilians and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.

Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.

That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.

It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.

Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong

On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:

Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.

What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.

This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook for responding gladly to their behavior. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.

But describing an attack (of the “What if I slap you?” variety) is rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that disembodied philosophers never would do what they say. But this goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. It’s not that we must sometimes violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.

Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.

We must, we must be friends!

For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

We wrestle with hard questions–take detours into difficulty–because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal–to think what we are doing, for instance, or prevent nuclear war–but its true function is to give we disagreeable ones an excuse to reach out to friends like ourselves (alike in the virtues of agreeable disagreement.) It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.

My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:

Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig. The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.

TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia

Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”

It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.

Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.

Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality

In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that the rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a move civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “Well actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.

Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play–and certainly many women and other diverse practitioners can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot–but what would it mean to make it welcoming and inclusive?

Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.

I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or a nurse’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.

Some desiderata: fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive–not just to correction but–to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.

Human Rights as Democratic Conversation Starters

Omri Boehm has written a troubling op-ed in the Stone summarizing the failure of human rights discourses to actuate political institutions, entitled “Can Refugees Have Human Rights?” Boehm worries the answer is “No.” Citing the most famous lines from Hannah Arendt’s discussion of refugees ( “If we should start telling the truth that we are nothing but Jews, it would mean that we expose ourselves to the fate of human beings who … are nothing but human beings.”) Boehm diagnoses a failure of modernity to find a metaphysical grounding for human rights, and suggests that this metaphysical failure is the blame for the institutional failure to protect refugees:

The truth is that we have never managed to vouch for human rights in sensible modern terms. One common strategy has been to appeal to nature rather than to God — on this view, human beings have inalienable natural rights — but in order to accept this alternative one must ascribe to nature qualities that science tells us it doesn’t have. […]

Modern political thinkers can meaningfully speak of the state as an instrument for defending the interests of its citizens. When they speak of the state as defending justice, or universal human rights, they are missing the necessary concepts.

This is a common refrain, and indeed it seems to have motivated more than its fair share of philosophical articles and monographs arguing for a return to metaphysical foundations long since rejected. But as I read Boehm, he does not mean to call for such a return. Rather, the failure of political theory in this regard has led to the failure of rhetoric and action. Indeed Boehm seems to regret that these categories can find no purchase among human beings who understand themselves to be the result of evolution, that there is no political theology worthy of the grand gestures of institutional inclusion declared as universal human rights. Call this tragic naturalism: after millennia of supernatural universalism, we can no longer delude ourselves. But we’ll probably always pine for the good old days.

Responding to Boehm, Eric Schliesser argues that the human rights tradition has offered itself as an alternative to democratic politics, calling human rights “political conversation stoppers.” He goes on to explain:

“Once they are invoked matters of principle are settled, and put aside, and all that remains is the technocratic discussion of solving the means by which to implement them. That is, while we often claim that rights generate duties, politically they are designed to generate obedience.”

On Schliessers’ view, human rights (unlike ordinary political rights) are meant to be uncontestable barriers to further inquiry; we must not quibble about slavery or bodily inviolability, but instead get busy abolishing slavery and securing bodily inviolability. Whereas ordinary political rights are constantly the subject of contestation and no entitlement is absolute.

This seems wrong to me. On my view, human rights aren’t political conversation stoppers, they’re a prerequisite for certain kinds of political conversations at all. Indeed, human rights are so foundational to certain kinds of political conversations that many people lay claim to them even where they don’t exist so as to begin or continue a difficult political conversation.

Let’s return to Arendt for a moment: in her analysis of the origins of totalitarianism, she spots a fervor for nation-states the was supported in part by the conviction that “people
 without
 their
 own
 national
 government
 were
 deprived
 of
 human
 rights.” If the only would-be “human” rights that exist are actually national rights, justiciable in one or another courtroom, then every human being needs a nation-state to protect her. “Human” rights sound nice, but they’re not the sorts of things that a lawyer can win a case on, and when you’re fighting the political head-winds of populist anti-migrant rhetoric, you need the courts.

So human rights are metaphysically ungrounded and politically ineffective. Too often we’re only able to give them salience retrospectively, in the context of historical genocide. Worst of all, just where you need them most, like when you belong to a group that has lost its political power–and must seek recognition for your vulnerability and powerlessness–you will find that no one is listening.

Now, it’s not at all clear why philosophers bemoan the metaphysics in situations like this. No one believes that the lack of a metaphysical ground is causing the political inefficacy of human rights. In the hypothetical world where a God exists to supply normative justification for a divine moral law that demands refugees be fed, sheltered, and protected, we would still have a Syrian refugee crisis. We would still have collective action problems, and states trying to avoid their fair share of supporting their burden of stateless persons, and budget limitations, and the fundamental fact that we only half-heartedly want to do the thing God demands. “Make me a humanitarian, Lord, but not yet! (And not before you make my economic competitors humanitarians, too.)” And we would still have difficulty determining which rights God intended to write into the structure of reality and who was charged to protect them.

Meanwhile, tragic naturalism may have some glimmers of hope. For one thing, it draws our attention to the ways in which many rights-claims start off ungrounded and develop institutional and political efficacy over time and through effort. The rights-claims in the Declaration of Independence are rhetorically grounded by God’s creation, certainly, but they were just as obviously not rights that any group of Christians has been able to find the normative purchase on previously.

It has become common, then, to point out that most rights-claims are self-founding. It’s the rights-claim that grounds the right. Of course, this suggests that human rights-claims are not actually universal  or human rights but instead political rights-claims that seek to sidestep the claimant’s lack of the appropriate codified legal status. But it’s not clear why we’d reach for politics (and its “rights of citizens”) in those instances, since most who require the protection of a scheme of universal human rights are equally well barred from political participation.

Ayten Gündoğdu gives an excellent account of this in her recent book Rightlessness in an Age of Rights. Human rights have always had an aspirational quality, as we have seen among the Sans Papier movement in France where those designated economic migrants (and thus ineligible for refugee-status) continue to demand documentation and regularization. The movement has all the signs of a successful set of ungrounded rights: it is a political movement whose very existence assumes the capacity to engage in politics is not simply a matter for citizens.  It is an illegitimate demand that seeks to legitimate itself and the demanders. In this sense, human rights-claimants are always engaged in a kind of political foundation, creating the institutional basis for their own eventual juridical protection.

Of course, such efforts at political foundation often fail. This isn’t a triumphalist account of human rights, as if the problem was resolved in 1948 and need not be revisited. We shouldn’t ignore that the refugee who points to her own vulnerability to justify her rights-claims (while failing somehow to qualify as an asylum-seeker) currently lacks institutional grounding, and that the migrancy crisis will only grow: 232 million people belonged to that category in 2013, and an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their home since the beginning of the crisis.

When stateless migrants interrupt previous metaphysical and institutional conceptions of human rights by making unrecognized human rights-claims, this interruption does not stop a democratic conversation but start one. If what we want out of human rights is a way to bend democratic polities to some “higher law,” we’ll be disappointed. There never was a real conflict between democracy and human rights, and this goes back to the reason naturalism seems tragic: we’re disillusioned because the story was better than reality could ever be. But there’s no tragedy if we treat human rights as an opportunity to exchange reasons (including ungrounded reasons!) with our fellow-citizens (documented and undocumented) and engage in powerful acts of institutional co-creation with our vulnerable neighbors.

When not to Forgive: Lessons from the Donatists

As I have repeatedly argued, we ought to reject the obligation to forgive (or compromise) because it undermines the exercise of judgment. If we have neither a categorical nor a conditional duty, then deciding when to forgive–and when not to forgive–is neither a subject to a precise calculation nor a random act of willing. Yet here we find little guidance in political theory: we do not know what we should do or how we will know when to forgive. I don’t think it can be a simple matter of determining when the benefits of forgiveness or compromise outweigh the costs.

So I propose a perhaps-unexpected and undoubtedly too-long example of when not to forgive: the Donatist controversy within the North African Catholic Church. The Donatist controversy exemplifies the tension between situated values and global consensus-seeking in the resistance of local North African congregations to the newfound solidarity between Roman imperial domination and theological authority.  This tension continues to plague political philosophers under many different guises: federalism and subsidiarity, globalization and nationalism, imperialism and home-rule.

Throughout the fourth century, North Africa was the center of intense theological debates about the scope and doctrines of Christianity. These arguments were not simply abstract: partisans for both sides clashed violently. One particular group that gained particular notoriety was a movement that called itself the Agonistici, “warriors for God.” They are depicted by non-Catholic historians as a part of a larger egalitarian social movement bent on harassing landlords who oppressed North African peasants and engaging in redistributive banditry. However, they were dubbed “Circumcellionsby the Catholic Church “because they roved about among the peasants, living on those they sought to indoctrinate.” (Chapman 1911, “Agonistici”) After they were suppressed, the group was accused of terrorism against property-owners and nobility in the region, and of initiating violence designed to lead to martyrdom. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers one famous account of their behavior:

A number of these fanatics, fattened like pheasants, met a young man and offered him a drawn sword to smite them with, threatening to murder him if he refused. He pretended to fear that when he had killed a few, the rest might change their minds and avenge the deaths of their fellows; and he insisted that they must all be bound. They agreed to this; when they were defenseless, the young man gave each of them a beating and went his way. (Chapman 1911, “Donatism”)

As depicted by the Catholics, the Agonistici were an early variety of suicide attackers, seeking martyrdom by provoking others or simply by throwing themselves into the sea. Yet many Protestant Christians have attempted to salvage the image of the Circumcellions as a social justice movement opposed to imperial economic domination and control of matters of conscience.[i] Because few records survive other than the arguments of the partisans (which carry what appears to be propagandistic rhetoric) there is little evidence or contemporary source material upon which to base our estimation of the movement.

We do know that the Agnostici were members of what has come to be called the Donatist sect, which originated from a schismatic response to religious persecution under the Romans. At the start of the fourth century, Christians throughout the Roman Empire were persecuted under edicts demanding that their churches be destroyed, their sacred texts burnt, and their clergy forced to renounce the faith or face death. Though this persecution lasted only two years, from 303 to 305 CE, it left Christians in North African congregations in disarray, as some who had given their scriptures to the Roman officials to be burnt were declared surrenderers, literally traitors,traditor’ from the Latin transditio, “to give over.” Those who refused to give up their copies of the sacred scriptures risked martyrdom, and many were executed while others were imprisoned, tortured, or lived as fugitives. When the surrenderers returned to their churches after the persecutions ceased, those who refused to recant expressed their disappointment in their fellows’ betrayal by excommunicating them:

“Even to alter a single letter of the Scriptures was a crime, but contemptuously to destroy the whole at the command of pagan magistrates was to merit eternal punishment in Hell.” (Frend 2000, 10)

As Roman rule shifted from persecution to patronage for Church officials under Constantine, the incentives for challenging the legitimacy of a potential nominee’s credentials grew.

However, this issue came to a head eight years later when Pope Miltiades declared that Donatus of Cassae Nigrae was guilty of schism for rebaptizing lapsed clergy.[ii] The theological dispute has been framed since then in terms of the distinction of office and officer: the Catholics held that even a corrupt or sinful officer can perform the duties of his office legitimately if the formal conditions of ordination are met, while Donatus seemed to believe that a clergyman’s baptism could only be authoritative if it was performed by an officer whose own “credentials” were in order, which was not the case for clergy baptized by the excommunicated traitors. Put another way, the Donatists agreed that a schism had occurred, but believed it existed between those whose loyalty to the Roman Empire trumped their participation in the Christian communion. They refused to forgive their fellows for this choice and this doctrinal division became the basis for a generalized opposition to Roman authority projected across the Mediterranean through military, economic, and theological domination.

North African Christians of the time faced a series of interrelated conflicts between the congregations at Numidia and Carthage, among secular authorities loyal to Rome and those who sought political and economic independence, and among the traditores and fanatical rigorists who had opted for martyrdom but survived the persecutions. Rigorism and fanaticism were especially popular among the poor, for whom the promise of a blessed afterlife was undoubtedly tempting in the face of imperial economic domination. Sound familiar?

Provincial rivalry between city and country, anti-imperial fervor, and class-based religious zealotry combined to create a schism in which the clergy of Carthage unfairly elected a Primate of Africa without the participation of the Numidian clergy or the support of the Carthaginian people. Enraged by what they perceived as a power grab, the Numidians went to Carthage and challenged the election with the support of the Carthaginian poor. The Carthaginian choice, Caecilian, had been consecrated by three bishops, and one of these bishops, Felix of Apthungi, was accused of surrendering, of betraying the faith, and though he was declared innocent in 315, the damage was done.

Since the Primate controlled the Church’s wealth in North Africa, there were obvious political and economic motivations for this theological challenge. The Donatists maintained that lapses like surrendering the scriptures required penance and forgiveness before a traditor could rejoin the Church: “unfruitful branches are to be cut off and cast aside… unless they are reconciled through penance with wailing acknowledgment [of their fault.]” (Frend 2000, 20) This is the charitable version of the doctrine, since the more radical members of the sect suggested that penance would be achieved when they were able to “break Caecillian’s head.” (Frend 2000, 19)  They further held that it was the martyrs who must absolve and readmit the traitor, that forgiveness was theirs to give, not the sinner’s to earn. Thus, by consecrating Caecilian without first having been absolved, he accepted communion with someone who did not deserve it. Though he may not have known Felix of Apthungi’s failings at the time of the consecration, the Donatists held that on learning of them he ought to have denounced Felix and moved to seek a valid sacrament of consecration with the approval of the Numidian bishops.

Though this argument was self-serving, it was also consistent with African practice, which preferred rebaptism as a symbolic and actual penance, and emphasized a rigorous definition of the community of believers that shunned sinners and lapses. Though they were at odds with the Pope in Rome, the rigorist followers of Donatus, who refused to be in communion with anyone who did not denounce the traitors, quickly grew to be a majority. When Augustine of Hippo became the Roman Church’s public face in opposition to this doctrine a century later, his success in the ecclesiastical court was not matched in public opinion. Donatism remained the preferred blend of Christianity in North Africa until the eighth century, when Donatist Christianity largely gave way to Islam.

The theological issues at the heart of the Donatist controversy are the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion, but there is a dispute about forgiveness and community underlying these doctrinal matters, with implications for judgment. The budding imperial hopes of Roman Catholicism under Constantine claimed the power to unite all human beings under a single ecclesiastical authority, where agreement on the divinity of Christ could ground a transnational political authority. Ultimately, even these basic agreements were insufficient for suppressing intercommunity rivalry or the daily indignities of class and their attendant resentments, which arose in complex procedural and doctrinal differentiation which became the basis for principled disagreements and righteous violence.

However, it is here that the Donatist controversy becomes more than a historical example. Augustine’s North African theological opponents also rejected his defense of the public and political implications of Christian charity. Their skandalon was symbolic: the original traditors were only guilty of ‘rendering unto Cesear what is God’s.’ They felt no obligation to forgive those who betrayed them, even though the original treason was a century old, but their refusal to forgive became the basis for a community organized primarily in resistance to imperial and economic domination. They became fixated on their grievances, adopting what has become known as a chosen trauma: “a large group’s unconsciously defining its identity by the transgenerational transmission of injured selves infused with the memory of the ancestor’s trauma.” (Volkan 1998, 48) In most chosen traumas, forgetting the grievance or forgoing identification with it would be sufficient to dissolve the bonds of the community. Certainly the Church fathers of Carthage cannot have forgotten that the Roman Empire had destroyed the city during the Punic Wars, but it was religious persecution that the North African congregations chose to protest.

In his 417 CE letter to Boniface on the controversy, Augustine reminds his readers why schism is sin: “An enemy of unity cannot share in God-given charity.” (Augustine 2001, 203) To have worked through the phenomenology of desire that leads to caritas is to have accepted that all humans share both an essence as sinners who must turn towards God and an origin as God’s creatures who inhabit a world that they have not created but that they must make habitable through love. Though that essence apparently points us away from each other and into isolation, it is coterminous with our shared origin, which points us towards each other and the world we must create and maintain in order to love each other. To refuse communion with another would-be-Christian is thus to refuse to share the world with him or her, to refuse the shared origin and thus–on Augustine’s view–to demonstrate that one has misunderstood the results of the phenomenology of desire. The evidence for caritas is to be found in our every gluttonous thought and urge for those willing to follow them to their conclusion, and only willful blindness could allow the Donatists to accept so much of Christian doctrine while refusing to see the principle of charity upon which it is based.

What responses did the Donatists offer to this logic? The arguments to which we observe Augustine respond are twofold: first, that a sinner must be forgiven and rebaptised before re-entering communion with his fellows Christians, and second, that the occupants of an office can tar that office if they are not exemplary officeholders. This second argument has come to be known more broadly because it encapsulates a legal principle: that the acts of an office are not tainted by the acts of the officeholder, because, in the Church at least, the office gains its authority from God and all human officeholders are likely sinners. The same thing goes for authority granted by a political constitution but granted to fallible and corrupt men. As Maureen Tilley explains, “The Donatists saw the Church not so much as a hypostatized institution, as Augustine did, but as the people who professed Christianity.” (Tilley 1991, 14)

Yet the Donatists had a third argument which the Catholics, including Augustine, refused to address head-on: that “the right to use the appellation ‘Catholic’ was a central issue of the Conference.” (Tilley 1991, 12) They could agree that schism is a sin while preserving their position if only they could show that it was the Roman Church which was in schism with North Africa, and not vice versa. By associating themselves with the same empire that had previously oppressed them, the Catholics had ceded their claim to be the universal representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ. Until they were forgiven by the Donatists, they could not claim to be representatives of the true Church.

The Donatists couched their concerns in terms of the specific doctrines of baptism and personhood upon which the conference at Carthage dwelled, but only because they and the Catholics both came to the conference as litigants, not interlocutors. Or, as Tilley describes the rhetorical contestation, they both sought to depict themselves as the defendant: “For these people being the true Church meant being the persecuted church. Therefore it would be unthinkable for them to make the first accusation.” (Tilley 1991, 12) The antagonistic framework of the conference forced that schism deeper.

As the debate evolved, Augustine would repeatedly assert that this question could be ignored in favor of the distinction between office and office-holder or in the distinction between confession and baptism. But in making this argument, he was effectively arguing that the Church was a political institution, with authority over both the souls and the lives of its congregants. In contrast, the Donatists argued that the Church is constituted by its members and has no independent life, and vice versa: that believers could not sustain their faith in isolation for their communion. As a result, the personal holiness of an individual is not purely the product of his or her own will, but rather dependent on his origins and the company he keeps. Throughout the dispute, the Donatists attempted to identify the lineage of each of their interlocutors, including Augustine, and show that they had been baptized or ordained by traditors.

Though Augustine treats their arguments as legalistic hairsplitting, and responds in kind by seeking contradictions and resisting charitable interpretation, the Donatists did have a point beyond their idiosyncratic concerns around rebaptism and the equation of office and office holder.

“In a legal context the examination of the persona would judge the fitness of the person to execute a contract or to appear in court in whatever capacity. In a religious sense, person indicated the moral character of an individual. Petilian exposed the double nature of the concept and its implications in an unequivocal manner. Bishops might gather to discuss a theological issue, but Christians, he said, do not go to civil court with one another. He demanded a resolution of the problem. The very option of resorting to civil law, especially on a religious matter, by any so-called Christian participant appeared in Petilian’s eyes as an abdication of the claim to be a Christian.” (Tilley 1991, 17)

By the Donatist way of reckoning, merely by seeking to enforce the authority of Rome, the Catholics were already sacrificing their authority as Catholics, i.e. as representatives of the true and universal Church. But Augustine’s response grants this, and this is why the dispute is not treated as a lawsuit but as a conference between fellow Bishops: rather than addressing the particularities of a criminal accusation, the interlocutors were to devote themselves to matters of doctrine and theology. Yet this was hardly a victory for the Donatists, because much of their claim to being the true Church depended on the particular acts of religious oppression that they had yet to forgive, by which they laid claim to the notion that that the Roman Church could not really be in communion with them as equal discussants regarding matters of faith until they were forgiven by those they had been trespassed against.

The Donatists preferred to have the abstract debate about the nature of the Church and the sacraments within the context of historical acts. In forcing them to choose between specific acts and ecclesiological principles, Augustine put his rhetorical and legal skills to the task of misunderstanding the Donatists’ concerns. Thus the Donatists complaints are treated as irrational, self-contradictory, or unintelligible, rather than as candidates for belief and affirmation. For Augustine, this uncharitable reading was in the name of the larger charity of unity. But in taking up that cause in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, he was never able to fully consider the question of which Church was “true,” of which Church had split from the other.

Augustine’s response seeks to enforce the duty to forgive. But he acted to advance the purposes of a political institution, not an onto-theo-logical affect of caritas. In this, he was helping to develop a model for the Church that could be both grounded in charity and granted a monopoly on legitimate violence, “because it was right that people should be forced to come to the banquet of everlasting security once the church was strong and sturdy in members….”(Augustine 2001, 158) Augustine’s failure is, at root, the failure to mobilize the ‘incongruities’ between human beings conceived simultanouesly as isolated mortals worldlessly focused on Being and neighborly creatures dwelling in a world they must make habitable.

The Donatists judged that reunion with the Catholics would entail a new domination by the crumbling Roman Empire. They refused to forgive, refused to share authority and a political world with Roman agents who claimed to want only peace but had historically engaged in political domination in the region. The question that Augustine’s letters present is this: could they forgo ‘sharing authority’ while preserving the charitable affect of dwelling in a shared world? Generally speaking charity does not demand agreement or the fusion of horizons, certainly not in the face of an unforgiveable scandal.

Hannah Arendt argues that judgment requires some withdrawal from perspective, some artificial suppression of pluralism through the embrace and enforcement of a “common sense” or homonoia. I believe the best explanation for this is that judging as withdrawal from personal perspective is predicated on loving the world, whose perspective we take when we abandon our own. In dialogue, we fashion a shared world with those who share our tradition, and we begin the process that will eventually be narrated as a shared history. Instead of a “view from nowhere” deliberative judging is the adoption of the plurality’s viewpoint, but that plurality is necessarily exclusive. The account of judging that would have emerged from an extension of Arendt’s reading of Augustine on the ‘love of the world,’ would be one which preserved this tension between homonoia and the enlarged mentality. Maximal tolerance still entails the intolerance of intolerance, and even Rawlsian pluralism excludes the irrational. Moreover, tolerance itself is not enough: the condition of world-sharing demands that we act and judge together. The love of the world becomes a love of the tradition, of the history that brings us to this moment and that authorizes us to work together. A shared history like that between Carthage and Rome could not be mediated by agents of Rome unless that agent was willing to charitably embrace the perspective that demanded division.

When, then, ought we to forgo forgiveness? Here’s one possibility: when forgiveness comes at the expense of homonoia, of the like-mindedness required for deliberative judgment. This is exactly the situation which confronted the Donatists. They did not oppose authority as such or unity as such: they merely hoped to control conditions under which authority or unity could be granted. They argued, and fought, to preserve a distinct and isonomic political community, in which matters of theology could be resolved by like-minded community members. They did not reject caritas by seeking to preserve their theological and political segregation, but they did seek to preserve theological pluralism even at the expense of a greater sensus communis between Carthage and Rome.

[i] See, for instance, (Gaddis 2005), (Tilley 1996), and (Von Heyking 2001).

[ii]My account here largely depends on that supplied by W. H. C. Frend in (Frend 2000) He relies on Opatus of Milevis’ De Schismate for the dating of the Pope’s verdict against Donatus.

Chapman, John. In The Catholic Encyclopaedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Gaddis, M. There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire: Univ of California Pr, 2005.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman Africa. New York: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Tilley, M. A. “Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: The Trial at the Conference of Carthage.” Church History (1991): 7-19.
———. Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa: Liverpool Univ Pr, 1996.

Von Heyking, J. Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World: Univ of Missouri Pr, 2001.

Margalit and Derrida on Forgiveness and the Skandalon

Avishai Margalit offers an interesting justification for the duty to forgive. The obligation to forgive the other’s crimes for one’s own sake “stems from not wanting to live with feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge.” (Margalit 2002, 207) Where Immanuel Kant holds that we owe it to ourselves as rational beings to be free from the pathological heteronomy of malice, Margalit associates this obligation to forgive with the obligation to preserve one’s own health: to fail to forgive is to imbibe “poisonous attitudes and states of mind.” (Margalit 2002, 207) In either case, the obligation to forgive is a special case of self-preservation and self-care.

Part of his reasoning is that Margalit wants to preserve the role of regret and to distinguish forgiveness from forgetting. His principle concern is memory and the obligation to remember past transgressions, so Margalit argues that we need to find a way to deal with past transgressions in a way that does not completely blot out their memory. As a religious practice, forgiveness models the divine absolution between the Creator and his creation and so requires two actors: the penitent, who remorsefully reports her crimes to the priest or to his Creator who already knows them, and the confessor, who judges her contrition and offers penance and the absolution of her sins. It is the transgressor’s act of remorse that ‘covers up’ her crimes. In undoing his past acts, the remorseful transgressor not only makes himself worthy of forgiveness, but creates a positive obligation in his victim. Quoting Maimonides, Margalit chides us that “it is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow oneself to be appeased.” (Margalit 2002, 194) But in converting the religious vocabulary of divine prohibition into a humanist dialect of ordinary duties and rights, he preserves the claim that forgiveness is a duty rather than supererogatory.

Focusing on the root ‘give,’ Margalit articulates the problem of an obligatory gift, but, pointing to the work of early anthropologists, concludes that some gifts are “intended to form or strengthen social ties between the original giver and the one who returns the gift.” (Margalit 2002, 195) On this reading, the original giver is the transgressor, who offers his remorse.

“I am claiming that the obligation to forgive, to the extent that such an obligation exists, is like the obligation not to reject a gift—an obligation not to reject the expression of remorse and the plea for forgiveness.”(Margalit 2002, 196)

To refuse to forgive is to refuse a gift, not an exorbitant gift, but an ordinary one, as when gifts are exchanged in what eventually appears as an economic transaction similar to any other commercial deal. The victim is obligated to respond in kind by granting forgiveness, in the name of “social ties.” Compare this to Hannah Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann: that no one, not even she, could be asked to “share the world” with him. For Margalit, the forgiver must exclude the forgiven act from all future judgments of her transgressor. The transgressor’s remorse covers over the past, but it still falls to the forgiver to resist peaking underneath the cover of forgiveness.

The metaphor of the palimpsest helps to illustrate this task: though the transgression is indelible and ineradicable, the forgiver nonetheless scratches it out. Forgiveness leaves an overwritten mark that can be deciphered, especially in light of further transgressions.

What does it mean to claim that such a pure gift is possible? To give remorse in expectation of forgiveness is like giving a gift in expectation of the return of a gift of equal or greater value. It is the economy of the gift, the obligatory mutuality of this “mutual release,” that troubles Arendt when she encounters it in Auden’s letter. My suspicion is that it cannot be obligated in the way that Margalit suggests: if forgiveness is to retain its capacity to begin anew, it cannot be subjected to this sort of calculation.

Margalit’s account mirrors that of another recent theorist of forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, who pushes this tension into a now-famous paradox to the debates on deliberation based on a similar paradox in the gift. (Bernstein 2006, Derrida, et al. 2001) Derrida juxtaposes obligatory forgiveness with what he calls impossible forgiveness. On the one hand, there are acts of forgiveness required by the regular and ordinary relations of friends or fellow citizens. We ask and expect forgiveness for lateness or when we brush past someone in a crowded space. To refuse to forgive in those situations appears as a provocation or an attack. When strangers deny each other this petty reconciliation, they are declaring hostility. When friends refuse to make allowance for each others’ foibles, they effectively dissolve the friendship. Insofar as we wish to avoid hostilities or preserve the friendship, we are obliged to trade remorse for this ordinary and expected gift of forgiveness. As such, ordinary reconciliation is hardly real forgiveness, just as an exchange of equally valuable goods isn’t really giving.

On the other hand, there is forgiveness that Derrida labels “impossible.” This is the skandalon, the unforgiveable act over which our efforts to forgive not only stumble but are absolutely incapable of making headway. Systematic injustices, massacres, torture, and acts of genocide all present themselves to us as candidates for forgiveness, but Derrida argues that these acts are not really within our jurisdiction to forgive.  Either because we cannot represent the dead victims or because the act itself is too unimaginably atrocious that it resists our efforts even to understand or the criminal’s efforts to encompass in meaningful remorse, forgiveness in these situations is impossible.

For Derrida, this is an aporia: forgiveness is impossible, because it is only really required when we face an unforgiveable transgression. Yet those unforgiveable transgressions are the only times when forgiveness is necessary. Anything less than the unforgiveable need not be forgiven, since such negligible acts can be simply reconciled, overlooked, or embraced as peccadilloes if friendship is to be possible at all. Since I must forgive minor transgressions, the only tests of forgiveness are precisely those acts that are beyond my capacity to forgive. Is it obligatory? Is it possible? We cannot know this a priori: we must wait and see.

As I see it, the limit of forgiveness is not within our voluntary power, an act of will, but rather in developing the capacity to imagine the act that we are trying to forgive. Thus the skandalon of forgiveness is an imaginative challenge, we stumble over it when acts are unimaginable, and we overleap it when our imagination succeeds. We make these imagined acts meaningful for others through poiesis: we create a world of meaning in which they are imaginable by marking exemplars, noting commonalities, and creating spaces of remembrance. The product of our work thus makes these meaningless deaths and thought-defying atrocities meaningful and thinkable. If you think about it from the perspective of un-consolable resentment, this is a crime akin to justification or exoneration.

This fundamentally creative act is ultimately what made Arendt’s work on Eichmann so troubling: not that she herself made him appealing or granted him mercy, but that by imagining the kind of character that could have helped commit genocide, it made that genocide forgiveable as it ought never to be. Whether Arendt forgave Eichmann or condemned him to die is then irrelevant: insofar as she created the conditions for forgiveness, she deserves repudiation and hatred. She used her imagination to make the impossible-to-forgive possible.