On keeping the conversation going…

It seems ever more difficult for us to talk with one another, harder and harder to hear our neighbors and to find words that really are words for a conversation. Our people, more than any other, is a people in conversation: stop the conversation, and destroy the people.

ld debates

No power external to us is capable of silencing us: the danger is within us; we shall never be silenced, but we might shout each other down, or refuse to recognize each other as apt partners for what Milton has described as a “meet and happy conversation”, for him a model and a metaphor for polity.

Is such a conversation really possible, especially among interlocutors who are not even sure they inhabit the same moral universe?

In short, under the name of America, the possibility of there being words between worlds is in question. Now, “to have words with somebody” means, in English usage, to quarrel with him. The having of “words between worlds” therefore suggests the presence of a communicative flow between persons whose understandings of the constitution of reality are somehow at odds with each other. In such a situation, i.e., one of querulousness—and especially just such querulousness—the conditions of discourse are precarious, for the slightest misunderstanding, any misstatement of a disagreement could lead to an interruption of the communicative flow. This dangerous potential in, or power of human speech, has been a question for philosophy at least since the writing of the Euthyphro, when Socrates names his interlocutor, “friend,” and asks him what kind of disagreement causes hatred and anger—though this kind of case illustrates only one particular way in which words may fail, or one particular mode of our failing our words. This power is but one intimation of the infinite responsibility we have for our words, taken together with the endless ways in which our words, let us say our language, might fail to convey or to achieve our meaning, our purpose. Words establish our relations to people, and place us, and do many other things, as well, though how well they do the things we want them to do is not always, perhaps never, in our power to tell. If it helps, the harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has described the issue as one of, “Word[ing] the world.” The expression is awkward, perhaps, though by no means is it arcane. It recalls our sense of the world’s being given by language, and so at the same time our giving words to the world, or a world to words. if we allow “Word” to translate the Greek logos, then to word the world is to make it, to make the world (intelligible). In an old story, God gives sound to his breath, and speaks the being of the world: He gives us the power of speech, through which we can participate in (the intelligibility of) creation. Either we keep faith with the power that is bequeathed us, or we do not. To lose faith in the power is to despair of (knowing) the world. – The Soul of a Nation, 7

What to say, though, when armed rebels seize federal buildings, our fellow citizens are murdered with impunity by those who have sworn an oath to protect and serve them, and are ostensibly officers of the public peace? When innocent children are slaughtered by the dozen and we cannot muster more than impotent rage and paranoid machismo in reply?

America is either approachable, or it is not. As Cavell puts it in This New Yet Unapproachable America, “I cannot approach it alone; the eventual human community is between us, or it is nowhere.” If we take ourselves as somewhere, whether here or there, nevertheless always with something before us and behind us, then we are always quite literally, in between. This observation brings into view a thematic affinity between Voegelin and Cavell (and eventually among all three principal interlocutors). Voegelin characterizes the political space, the conceptual space of human existence as metaxy, the space between the beginning and the beyond. It will not be a stretch to hear this as being between what is before us and what is behind us. Coming into America will then be a matter of emigration from ourselves, as we are, and a coming into something that will be like a received mode of speech, a discovery of ourselves as participants in a conversation that we did not start and cannot finish, a conversation regarding precisely the question of who we are and where we find ourselves. This is at once conversio and conversatio, where this last is an outpouring of self into community of sense.

Friends, we must not disengage, we must not refuse each other fellowship, we must not retreat into silence and melancholy, nor refuse to listen carefully and patiently, and when it seems we cannot find the words, when it seems we cannot hear another word, when it seems we cannot find the way, we must not lose heart, not ever, no matter what.

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