Orthodoxy, Oppression and Social Harmony

This week, we are looking briefly at Eastern Orthodoxy and the way it has been formed its unique political climate. The experience of Eastern Orthodoxy can be an important source of wisdom for the contemporary Western Church and Christians generally as they seek to adapt to the vast and sometimes revolutionary social change which Western society is experiencing as the Modern Age draws to a close. The task this week is to set the stage by looking at one single concept that was of historical importance to the Eastern Orthodox view of the relationship between government and the church.

Symphonia East and West

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine, the Christian faith had a special position within the Roman empire. It eventually became the established religion of the empire. Under these circumstances, a doctrine known as “Symphonia” developed. The root in Greek for symphonia means “to speak with” or “a harmony of sounds or voice” The Greek is the root from which we get our word “symphony,” an extended musical piece performed by an orchestra made up of many different instruments making an harmonious sound in unison.

Transposed into political thought, the idea is that the spiritual realm, made up of the Catholic Church, and the political realm, made up of the Roman Empire, as the two primary social institutions of the Empire, should work together to create and harmonious, peaceful, and just society. In the East and in the West, until the fall of Rome in the West and the triumph of Islam in the East, this doctrine of Symphonia was at the root of the relationship between the Roman emperor, the political establishment, and the church.

In the West, after the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian empires of Europe until the Modern Age, the fundamental unity of church and state with each function overlapping the other and complementing it retained its force until the Protestant Reformation, and even after the Reformation the nations of Europe sponsored established churches and the majority of their inhabitants belonged to the state church.

In the Eastern part of the Roman Empire things were different. Beginning in the 7th Century Eastern Orthodoxy (hereinafter “Orthodoxy”) found itself confronted by militant Islam and substantially within the boundaries of a growing Islamic empire. In the end, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire was defeated and became part of the Ottoman Empire by 1453. Within this empire, Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, was a restricted faith, subject to special taxes, economic disadvantages, and persecution. It had to apply Symphonia in a much different way in order to survive within the boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate. Naturally, the result was survival at the occasional cost of integrity.

The Russian Experience

In 998 AD, Orthodox Christianity came to Russia at the invitation of Prince Vladimir (980-1015) and became a central feature of Russian society and culture. Eventually, as the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, the center of Orthodoxy began to shift from Constantinople to Russia and Moscow. Even today, at least nominally, the largest Orthodox community is in Russia.

In Orthodox Russia, the Tsar and his family were intimately bound to the church, and the doctrine of Symphonia continued to be the foundation of political theology and of the practical relationship between the church and the state. Unfortunately, as one writer put it, by the time of Czar Nicholas II, the Russian nobility was corrupt and unable to take wise political steps and the Russian Orthodox Church was similarly incapacitated by its ossification as an institution. [1]

After the Russian revolution and for the next eighty years, the Russian church was faced with an historic crisis. It was attacked by the Soviets, persecuted, its properties taken over by the state, and its seminaries and monasteries closed. Many priests and others were martyred, as was the Romanov royal family. This created in crisis in Russian Orthodoxy that continued for most of the 20th. Russia exited the Soviet Communist era an economically, spiritually, morally, and politically bankrupt society. It is still in the process of recovery from its eighty-year detour into Communism, if indeed it will ever recover.

When the Communists came to power in Russia, Lenin and his successor Stalin, motivated by militant atheism and the desire to destroy any institution that might hinder the progress of their revolution, shut down many churches and monasteries, and sponsored atheist organizations such as the League of the Militant Godless to wage war on Christian faith. The Donskoi Monastery became the Moscow Antireligious Museum and the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) became the Museum of the History of Religion. In 1931, Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up in a public display for all the world to see. [2] Just as in the areas controlled by Islam, Orthodox Christians were a persecuted and disfavored minority. To one degree or another, this was true in Russia until the near the fall of Communism. [3]

Thus, unlike the West in which the Christian church had a privilege status in society, Eastern Orthodoxy was forced to live under the constraints of hostility, opposition, disenfranchisement,  and often corrupting political influence. This was true in both post-Byzantine Eastern Orthodoxy and in post-Revolutionary Russia. Under conditions of oppression, the doctrine of Symphonia could be construed to make collaboration the best (and only) means of preserving the Christian faith. Just occasionally, this collaboration resulted in the church taking self-destructive stands, and the church was much embarrassed by disclosures of its occasional collaboration with the Soviet State. On the other hand, one might ask, “What other course of action could they have taken?” In fact, had the Eastern Church not acted as it did, it would most likely have been extinguished.

Symphonia and Russia Today

This issue is of continuing importance today as the Patriarch of Moscow has leant some degree of support to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which may well in the long run at least somewhat discredit Russian Orthodoxy in Russia and certainly in the Ukraine and the West for some time to come. As the Washington Post recently observed:

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub. Because of this, Kirill, 75, has offered a full-throated endorsement of the war, doubling down even as the world recoils at widespread reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. His pro-war stance has angered other church leaders, in Ukraine and across the Orthodox faith, many of whom have condemned the war and urged Kirill to reconsider his support. [4]

Underlying difficulties caused by the activities of the Patriarch Krill and his alliance with Vladimir Putin is an historic difficulty involving the Russian and Ukrainian churches. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian church was under the patriarch of Moscow, a situation that changed only in 1990 after the fall of Communism and Ukrainian independence. Under Soviet Communism, the Ukrainian church had been a part of the Russian church without its own independent patriarch. Obviously, as a part of Putin’s desire to reunify the Soviet Union, the Russian Patriarch has a desire to unify the Russian Church to include the Ukrainian Orthodox Church once again. It is my guess that, even if Russia proves successful, the destruction and defacement of Ukrainian Churches by the Russian Army will result in hostility for years to come.

This incident illustrates a difficulty that plagues the notion of Symphonia, as applied in Orthodoxy as well as Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine as applied in Western Churches: There is a danger of the Church either becoming:

  1. Too spiritually intertwined with the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state with which it is intertwined (Symphonia danger); or
  2. Too spiritually separated from the politics of the secular state and therefore supportive of the state as a distinct power (Two Kingdom’s danger).

In either case there is a tendency for the church to be used by the state to achieve its own political purposes, tacitly support political behavior by the state that is unwise or violent, and in the end become discredited in the eyes of society. The experience of the Eastern Church in Russia and the Lutheran Church in World War II Germany are two vivid examples of the problem.

Reflections for Memorial Day

In America, contemporary Christians, liberal and conservative in leanings, sometimes adopt a form of subconscious Symphonia, where we expect the state and church to live in a kind of harmony with the values of Christian faith in some sense being body in society. Both are tempted to support and be used by a political regime that actually does not share their values. This way of thinking is inclined to view the success of the policies and political party they support as advancing the Kingdom of Heaven, and too often this way of thinking is used by politicians to manipulate their followers.

Following up on my blogs regarding Royce, it seems to me that a dialogical view of the relationship between Christianity and the state is a more productive way of viewing things. No state will ever embody the fullness of the kingdom of God to which Christians look forward as a transcendental ideal. Christians need to bring the specific tools and ideals of the Christian faith into a continual dialogue with the state in such a way as to promote a wise, caring, just, and harmonious society.

A Place for Symphonia?

The doctrine of Symphonia has fallen out of favor in recent years. In a later blog I hope to cover some contemporary voices in Orthodoxy and their contemporary views on political theology. For now, it is enough to indicate that there may be a place for a kind of “Reimagined Symphonia” in Christian thinking. In a pluralistic society, Christians are but one voice as are the voices of those of other religions and secular voices as well. On the analogy with a symphony orchestra, government, religious and other groups (what are sometimes called “mediating institutions”) are all instruments in the “orchestra” of our society and of creating the “music” of social harmony and a just and fair society. A plurality of voices is what makes our society dynamic and able to achieve peaceful and positive change.

All the voices that make up a diverse society need to be heard in the formation of public policy, and when they are heard, they should be seen as contributing to the health of the polity. (Of course, the voices should be wise, courteous and loving and not foolish, strident, and divisive. “Speaking the Truth in Love” is forever difficult to achieve) In our society, powerful forces want to silence religious voices, perhaps especially the voices of traditional Christian faith and morality. This is a mistake, as the eighty years of Soviet Communism proved. A better and wiser course is given in the notion that we should all work together to create a free, just, and wise social order. We will not always or even generally agree, but a wise government listens and serves as best it can all of the social components of society.


This is Memorial Day Weekend. It is an important and appropriate that Christians join with the rest of our nation recognizing the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf by past generations. The future will not be a rerun of the past, but those who with humility and wisdom appreciate the sacrifices of the past and attempt to learn from its successes and failures have the best chance of creating a society “Of the People, By the People, and For the People.” This means all the people, not just those in power and in a position to dominate society.

Copyright, 2022, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissents (New York: Sentinal Press, 2020), 22.

[2] Gene Sublovisch, “Russia’s Journey from Orthodoxy to Atheism, and Back Again” in Religion and Politics October 16, 2018 https://religionandpolitics.org/2018/10/16/russias-journey-from-orthodoxy-to-atheism-and-back-again/ )downloaded May 19, 2022). This is a review of Victoria Smolkin’s A Sacred Stace is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[3] This is a long and complex story. During World War II, Stalin, wanting as much social support for this military as possible, began the process of allowing greater religious freedom in Russia. Under Khrushchev, this progress was halted to some degree. In the late years of the Soviet Union, the process of allowing greater religious freedom continued. Nearly all religious Russians are Orthodox, though other Christian groups, Islam, and other religions are part of the Russian religious landscape.

[4] Erin Cunningham, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine is Dividing the Orthodox Christian World” Washington Post, April 24, 2022 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/24/russia-ukraine-orthodox-church/ (downloaded May 19, 2022). I think it is important to recognize that the Russian Orthodox Church stands almost alone in its support of Putin and this war.

Royce 4: From Loyalty to Beloved Community and Beyond

This is my final week on Josiah Royce and the early pragmatists. Peirce, James, Dewey, and Royce are important figures in American thought, and especially in the case of Dewey, have a continuing influence on American public policy. Each struggled with a problem at the root of American democracy: What is the proper way to coordinate between individual self-interest and the needs of the community? Dewey, in particular, subscribed to a form of socialist thinking. Peirce leaned towards incrementalism, inclined towards careful change in institutions after investigation and analysis. [1]James was an individualist and, as we saw, against largeness and oligarchic or imperialistic organizations generally.

Royce is important for a number of reasons, most importantly because  of his diligent attempt to reconcile individualism with community. It is Royce who conceived the term, “Beloved Community,” which inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of what ought to motivate Americans in overcoming the problems of race and economic inequality. His balanced approach was indicated by his support for the First World War, despite being inclined towards a pacifism. He was a proponent of social and organizational change, but also for preservation of the best of the past and of tradition. His work is supremely wise and balanced. If for no other reason than the last, Royce has a view that ought to be heard today.

From Communities to Individuals to Community

For Royce, the virtue of loyalty involves the willing devotion of a human person to a cause greater than oneself. [2] “Loyalty is the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of an individual to a cause.” [3]. Any cause results in a community, for a cause by definition is social in nature. In order for a cause to exist, it must be embodied in a community that advances the cause.

The implication of this for the relationship of individuals to community are many. First, loyalty means “willing devotion.” This implies that any human community is first and foremost the result of human decision and no true community can be created by force. In Royce’s thought, the voluntary societies which have such an important role in American society and politics are just that—voluntary. They cannot be commanded into existence. Second, loyalty to a cause is personal. It is the loyalty of a human person. For Royce, the incredible diversity of people and their different families, experiences, education, vocation, hobbies and the like mean that there will be many different kinds of persons and many different kinds of causes within American society. Finally, loyalty involves devotion to a cause greater than ourselves. In other words, loyalty draws us out of our isolated individuality into community.

Courtesy and Conflict Among Loyalists

Royce is aware that in a society such as America, with many different nationalities, faith communities, political parties and lobbying groups, the emergence of community can and does involve the reality of conflict. In a complex society, people will be loyal to many causes, some of which are opposed to one another and have difficulty communicating peacefully. This calls for the virtue of courtesy. Courtesy is an essential expression of loyalty. Thus:

The true value of courtesy in ordinary human intercourse lies in the fact that courtesy is one of the expression of loyalty to loyalty, and helps everyone who either receives or witnesses courtesy to assume himself a loyal attitude towards all the causes that are represented by the peaceful and reasonable dealings of men to men. [4]

There’s no aspect of loyalty more important for contemporary American political discourse than the insight that courtesy is essential in a free society in which people join together to support sometimes differing causes. We cannot truly be loyal to our own causes unless we can be courteous to those whose opinions differ. If a free society cannot inculcate this virtue in its citizens, it is doomed to unfaithful and unreasonable discourse. It only takes a moment’s reflection to recognize that much contemporary American discourse has this characteristic. A glance at social media is sufficient to see a great deal of vulgar discourtesy and unreasonable and unpeaceful commentary.

Practically speaking this virtue of courtesy is assisted by implementing a few simple rules:

  1. First, respect the loyalty that others have towards their causes even when we do not share the same enthusiasm for the cause or cause they support.
  2. Second, be more critical towards the causes to which you are loyal than to opposing causes and
  3. give the benefit of the doubt to those who are loyal to their own causes.

Life-enhancing and Life-denying Communities

In the beginning, Royce declines to discriminate among causes, preferring to begin his analysis with a definition that embraces all loyalty, misguided, evil, wise and good Although all communities involve the creation of social entities, since not all causes are good causes not all communities formed to support a cause or an equal footing. To give an obvious example, there’s a considerable difference between a church form to advance the gospel and a criminal organization formed to advance a criminal conspiracy. There is a difference between a political party formed to advance the best interest of a society and a political party formed for the purpose of enslaving the majority of the people for the benefit of the few. There’s a difference between a society formed to advance the cause of peace and one form to advance the cause of war. Communities formed for criminal, antisocial, or violent purposes are not on the same footing as communities form to advance some legitimate benefit of society.

A community may begin its life formed for the benefit of a society, it may become outdated, ineffective, unable to adapt to change, or corrupt and no longer be beneficial or work for the common good of society. History is filled with business and other organizations formed to advance a public benefit that became unable or unwilling to adapt to change in the society of which they were a part. History is filled with organizations that over time became ineffective in the way in which they addressed issues. Finally, any society may become corrupted and no longer work for the benefit of those society. History is filled with organizations that began well and ended corrupt.

An Individual Plan of Life

The need to avoid misguided loyalties requires that each individual develop for his or her self a “plan of life”. [5]The process of developing a plan of life is by no means easy, since our society and every society provides multiple encouragements to give loyalty to various causes. It’s important to recognize that there is a positive aspect to what might be called, “becoming socialized into a plan of life.” Every society either consciously or unconsciously steers its members into a plan for their lives.

In this vein, Royce demonstrates devotion to individual choice, while recognizing that we all need education and instruction into social norms. when he says’

I, and only I whenever I come to on my own, can morally justify to myself my own plan of life. No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty yet I, left myself can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. By nature I simply go on crying out in a sort of chaotic self – will, according as the momentary play of desire determines. [6]

Human beings need socialization, traditions, expectations, family instruction, and other socialization into the kinds of causes and communities that our society finds life-enhancing. However, there is a tension that has to be recognized and an interplay that needs to be supported: every individual has to own for themselves the precise causes and communities within a greater society to which they will belong and give their devotion. In fact, our moral self-consciousness and our capacity for healthy social engagement is a function of our social life. As Royce put it, “our moral self-consciousness is a product of our social life. This self is known to each one of us through its social contrasts with other selves, and with the will of the community.” [7]

In this view, the inevitable conflicts of social life are not negative; they are the means by which we human beings grown and develop our identity. As Royce so eloquently puts it:

In brief, it is our fellows who first startle us out of our natural unconsciousness about our own conduct; and who then, by an endless series of processes of setting us attractive but difficult models, and of socially interfering with our own doings, train us to higher and higher grades and to more and more complex types of self-consciousness regarding what we do and why we do it” [8]

Our self-awareness and identity as human persons are established as we interact with others, who may be critical of our plans, behavior, beliefs, customs, or other social aspects of our identity. They may even actively oppose certain of our most treasured ideas and behaviors. In this way, our fellow human beings train and shape us to transcend our current level of individualization. In our internal and external dialogue with opposing views, we refine our own identity and commitments. As solitary beings, achieve no social growth. It is only by entering into society and the inevitable conflicts and comparisons of that society that we become true individuals. [9]

Levels of Community

There is, however, a deeper issue to which loyalty must address itself: The danger that a particular cause or community may begin to become so ultimate to its members that it is unable to recognize the limits of their cause, turn inward, and become instrument of cultish isolation, intolerance, and even oppression. Here we see the root of what these blogs have often called the problem of “Moral Inversion.” Moral inversion is likely to occur when a particular individual or group of individuals make ultimate a cause that is not truly ultimate. For example, I may belong to a family and be so loyal to my family that I do not recognize my family’s responsibility to its neighborhood. I may become so loyal to my neighborhood that I cannot understand the value of loyalty to my town or city. I can become so loyal to my town or city that I cannot be loyal to my state or nation. In each of these cases my subordinate loyalty has become something negative. This problem is especially difficult where politics and the power of the state are involved.

To avoid this problem, Royce recognizes that there are levels of loyalty, and our loyalty to any given less than ultimate ideal cannot become ultimate without dangers to society. Royce finds this ultimate loyalty in our devotion to loyalty itself and into the gradual merger of our lesser loyalties into the ideal community of the Beloved Community, which is a kind of secular adaptation of the nature of the Christian Church, if indeed the Beloved Community can be separated from that heavenly vision that Christians have always celebrated as their transcendent ideal—the heavenly city come down from God. [10]

Higher forms of community create a spiritual transformation in our loyalties and a greater and deeper love of all of our communities, as they are relativized by what I will call the “Transcendent Community” of the ideal society. [11] I would argue, and I think that Royce would agree, that no merely human community, no existing cause can be healthily sustained without it being related to a higher ideal which relativizes and renders penultimate that loyalty. In our society, many people regard politics as ultimate and the achievement of what they conceived to be adjust economic and social order to be the ultimate good. Over the course of the 20th century great evils were done by search people, all devoted to cars that in itself wasn’t evil but which became so by becoming ultimate. I think we see in the West today the growing danger of another outbreak of the kind of fanaticism that created the holocaust and the great human suffering under Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pot Pol and other leaders of penultimate movements become ultimate to their followers. Each of our human causes and communities is important on its own level, but it is not ultimate.

The Morally Inverted Leader

The kind of moral inversion of which this series often speaks results from a kind of person who has been collectivistically socialized into a kind of revolutionary individualism that is actually anti-social and destructive of persons and society. Here is how Royce puts it:

For the highly trained modern agitator, or the plastic disciple of agitators, if both intelligent and reasonably orderly in habits, is intensely both an individualist and a man who needs the collective will, who in countless ways and cases bows to that will, and votes for it, and increases its power. The individualism of such a man wars with his own collectivism, while each, as I insist, tends to inflame the other. As an agitator, the typically restless child of our age often insists upon heaping up new burdens of social control, control that he indeed intends to have others feel rather than himself. As individualist, longing to escape, perhaps from his economic cares, perhaps from the marriage bond, such a highly intelligent agitator may speak rebelliously of all restrictions, declare Nietzsche to be his prophet, and set out to be a Superman as if he were no social animal at all. Wretched man, by reason of his divided will, he is; and he needs only a little reflection to observe the fact.[12]

I must end here only to mention that a study of the quote above and a deep internalization of its meaning will explain the behavior of many organizations that regularly create violence during our election and other seasons and the true motives of their misguided leaders. There is no area of our political life in which Royce’s views need to be heard more important than this one.


I find Royce a difficult but rewarding philosopher as regards the problems we face in our society today. When we reach the end of these blogs, and I begin to summarize what I have learned, his views will receive another look and place of honor.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs All Rights Reserved

[1] Of all the thinkers reviewed in this series, Peirce is the most difficult to locate. For an interesting take on his likely political thinking (and a most revealing and important review of his thinking about education for political leadership see, Yael Levin Hungerford, Charles S. Peirce’s Conservative Progressivism Boston College Electronic Thesis or Dissertation, 2016http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:107167 (downloaded May 19, 2022).

[2] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]), at 46. Hereinafter, “Loyalty.”

[3] Id, at 18.

[4] Id, at 69.

[5] Id, at 23ff.

[6] Id, at 23.

[7] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 1 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library) https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (downloaded May 17, 2022), “hereinafter, Problem of Christianity”.

[8] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (downloaded May 17, 2022).

[9] Id.

[10] (See, Revelation 21:1-4)

[11] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (Downloaded May 17, 2022). In several passages, Royce speaks of the spiritual warfare of modern society which creates an intolerable burden on the conscience of the individual which burden grows; and the moral individual cannot bear it, unless his whole type of self-consciousness is transformed by a new spiritual power which this type of cultivation can never of itself furnish.” I think that this and other passages which speak of the spiritual aspects of the kinds of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies that have dominated the past two centuries prevent moral wholeness in he individual.”

[12] Id, at https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-problem-of-christianity-volume-1-barnes/id1280398775 (Downloaded on May 17, 2022).


Royce 3: Truth and Loyalty

Three years ago, wandering through a church library, I discovered Josiah Royce and his interest in community. Royce coined the term “Beloved Community” which was important to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. He is an important, if often forgotten, American voice in making progress in both political and religious thought.

Josiah Royce was born in a small community in California, and his first work involved California. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1875, and then did a year of postgraduate study in Germany reading Kant and other German philosophers. In 1876, he entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Royce received his doctorate in 1878, taught in California, and then went to Harvard as lecturer in philosophy. In 1885, he was appointed as an Assistant Professor, and in 1892 a Full Professor. He continued at Harvard until his death in 1916. Royce was sympathetic to Christian faith, and one of his major works, The Problem of Christianity, is an attempt to create a philosophical basis for modern faith. This week examines his most popular work, “Loyalty,” which was first published in 1908. [1]

Pragmatic Idealism

Royce was a a friend and colleague of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, who encouraged him to seek a career in philosophy. Royce is often thought of as the last American idealist philosopher. In fact, Royce represents a merger of idealism and pragmatism, which resulted in his calling his mature philosophy both “Absolute Idealism” and “Absolute Pragmatism.”

For Royce, human knowledge arises from the pragmatic search for truth upon which we can resolve doubt in some area. Truth, in this view, is the view considered to be true at the end of a process of inquiry by the community devoted to such investigation. Truth is found when the community of inquirers of any particular inquiry has reached consenus. This constitutes the “Absolute Pragmatism” of Royce. It is absolute because the end of the inquiry occurs when all inquirers agree as to the solution of the problem.

One the other hand, Royce was impressed by the fact that truth discovered displays a remarkable coherence with reality itself, and so there must be some connection between human ideas and the external world. In his famous argument from error, Royce notices that even when our ideas are erroneous, we intend to find something we call “truth,” which indicates that the object of our search exists. This, in turn, indicates that truth must already exist in the world of ideas. This represents Royce’s “Absolute Idealism.” Royce believed that the universe is “constituted of these ideas, a kind of “noetic truth” that human beings seek and believe they will find at the end of a process. This is true in the area of religion, morals, and politics as much as in the area of science.

At this point it is worth asking the question, “Does reality itself give us some reason to believe that mind ‘goes all the way down?’” as a scientist would put it. In a qualified way, I think the answer is probably, “Yes.” I have several reasons for thinking that this might be true.

First, there is the mysterious nature of mathematics. Mathematics (at which I was never any good) has features that indicate that it has a noetic or mental reality. Most mathematicians, when they make mathematical discoveries, think that they have “found” something that was already there. This element of discovery seems to me a strong reason to believe in the noetic reality of mathematical truth.

Second, scientists are frequently amazed at the way their discoveries happen to explain relationships in the material world. New theoretical discoveries seem to ideally explain some relationship that exists between the constituent parts of the reality being investigated. Albert Einstein’s famous discovery of relativity theory expressed in the famous equation, E=MC2  is a case in point. As the existence of atomic energy indicates, energy does equal the mass of an object times the speed of light squared. The theory expressed in the equations of physics seems to express an existing, invisible, noetic relationship mirroring physical reality. There are many other examples. This intelligibility of the universe seems to “go all the way down” as it were, so that even at the subatomic level, where the distinction between matter and energy begins to disappear, the ability of science to uncover relationships that seem to have “always existed” is remarkable.

Third, and this is a feature of reality that quantum physics caused science to confront, our own minds appear to be part of the universe we human beings observe. My mind and I are not somehow “outside of the universe looking in” but a part of the flow of reality examining other parts of that flow. The universe must at least have some form of a “mental potential,” otherwise it is hard to explain the human mind’s ability to understand the flow of reality surrounding it in any way at all. As physicist and philosopher David Bohm put it, “The mind may have a structure similar to the universe.” [2]

Finally, and this is where we come to currently debated scientific matters, our universe is intelligible in some mysterious way because it is at least partially “made up of” information. Some physicists are of the view that reality is made up of information and the universe is something like a giant computer. In the words of Physicist John Wheeler, “the it is a bit.” [3]

One does not need to go as far as Wheeler and some current theorists to be of the view that intelligibility is fundamental to reality. The world as we know it is made up of matter, energy and intelligible relationships between them. This intelligibility seems to be an irreducible component of reality. Wherever one finds matter and energy, science  finds intelligible relationships (meaningful information) that illuminates some aspect of the reality constituted by that matter and energy

For these reasons, I think it is fair to propose that, at the end of the enterprise of human knowing, we will understand that, in some way, “mind” or “order” or “ideality” in the form of irreducible comprehensibility, is a fundamental aspect of our universe. In the words of physicist John Polkinghorne, we live in “a world of deep and beautiful order—a universe shot through with signs of mind.” [4]

Morality and Moral Theory

Royce is also of the view that there is an irreducible moral quality to reality. Royce examines this moral reality in his most read book,  Loyalty, where Royce sets out an ethical theory based on the fundamental virtue of loyalty. His theory has four basic components:

  1. The fundamental ethical imperative is “Be Loyal.”
  2. One cannot be loyal in the abstract, but must be loyal in specific, concrete chosen circumstances and causes.
  3. Each individual must choose for him or herself the specific causes to which they will remain loyal.
  4. Finally, in the end, each individual must be loyal to loyalty itself, an approach that will bring persons into an ever-expanding commitment to the virtue of loyalty. [5]

For Royce, loyalty is the willing devotion of an individual to a cause outside of themselves. [6] In other words, loyalty is essentially social and binds us to a community of other persons. If loyalty is a virtue of personal choice, it is inevitably a virtue of communal participation.

Loyalty and Individualism

This social aspect of loyalty, places Royce in opposition to all systems of virtue that celebrate and are founded on individual will and self-authentication. This puts Royce in immediate opposition to Nietzsche, who is the object of criticism in Loyalty. All purely individualistic ethical systems based on will are doomed to failure for a number of reasons. First power is always dependent upon good fortune and luck, and many who begin life in the search for power will end in failure. Secondly, one who seeks power will never be satisfied, for the desire for power is insatiable. Third, the one who seeks power puts him or herself at odds with the universe itself, which leads inevitably to a clash between the power seeker and reality itself. [7]

I might add that since we human beings are social by nature, the one who seeks a solely personal power in the end is doomed to isolation and a failure of true humanity. Think of a Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin all alone at the end with no friends, no allies, nothing. It is likely that this will be true of the next conqueror to visit human history. It is not just true of military conquerors, but also of those in business, law, religion, politics—in any human social endeavor. Since the time of Greek tragedy, wise people have  understood that Fate treats ill those who defy the Fates.

Loyalty on the other hand inevitably draws us out of our isolation into a community. Our loyalty to a cause inevitably involves joining with others who possess a similar loyalty. In addition, our loyalties draws us into contact with those who have different, and perhaps opposing loyalties. As we must confront these other loyalties, we are forced to adjust and negotiate our own loyalties to place them into a harmonious relationship with others. This inevitably involves the social skill of dialogue and discussion, of tolerance, of compromise, and of growth. These are virtues much needed today.

Only persons can exhibit loyalty, and so loyalty to be loyalty requires the free choice of each individual member of a cause. Because we are finite, we cannot possibly be loyal to all possible causes, we must follow those causes that come into our path and of which we are able to be a part. For example, I cannot be loyal citizen of France, but I can be a loyal citizen of the United States. I cannot be a loyal member of my neighbor’s family, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to each and every religion in the world, but I can be loyal to my own. I cannot be loyal to every company in the world, but I can be loyal to the one for which I work.

Limits of Loyalty and Loyalty to Loyalty

Here we come to the most frequent critique of Royce: There are a lot of bad causes to which people have in the past and will in the future give their loyalty. For example, members of organized crime organizations can be incredibly loyal to their group. Many members of the Nazi Party were loyal to the party even to death. Every teacher has seen youth cover for a cheating student out of a sense of loyalty to their classmates. The list of misplaced, negative, even evil loyalties goes on and on. The fact that we can have misguided loyalties is a strong argument against the primacy of loyalty as a virtue. [8]

There is a second phenomenon that we all observe in loyalists. Occasionally their loyalty is blind and unwise. For example, there is a certain kind of patriotism that is blind to the faults of the nation and willing to defend what is not defensible. Closer to home, there are parents who are loyal to their children, defending behavior that is not truly defensible. There are businessmen who exhibit loyal to their company or firm to the point that they cannot see or oppose unwise or immoral behavior. Blind or excessive loyalty is a constant threat to the true virtue of loyalty.

Interestingly, we can appreciate the value of this kind of misplaced or misguided loyalty even while denying its ultimate value. In response to these objections, Royce developed his notion of “loyalty to loyalty.” Loyalty to loyalty requires judgement. If one is to be loyal to loyalty, it is necessary to develop discrimination as to the kinds of causes to which one will be loyal and the limitations to any given loyalty. I should not be loyal to a political party that advocates killing innocent people. It can be difficult to determine the extent to which any given loyalty should be served. For example, I may be loyal to my nation but still called oppose a war that is unjust. I may support my employer but refuse to engage in illegal or immoral behavior. The virtue of loyalty must be exhibited with wisdom and discrimination.


Next week, I will finish with Royce with a blog on the way in which loyalty draws the loyal person into a series of constantly expanding and deepening loyalties and how the principle of dialogue functions in Royce to create a climate in which one can live peacefully and productively with those with different loyalties. There is no virtue more needed in our democracy than the virtue of recognizing and honoring other people and their loyalties, even when they are opposed to our own deepest convictions and loyalties. Only a hierarchy of loyalties can prevent my own loyalties from becoming idols or justifying in my mind fanatism with respect to my loyalties. This is a big topic which will be covered next week.

Copyright 2022, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Josiah Royce, Loyalty (Long Island, NY: Sophia/Omni Press, 1908 [2017]).

[2] David Bohm, “The Super Implicate Order” in The Essential David Bohm Lee Nichol ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2003), 157.

[3] Archibald Wheeler, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” in Proc. 3rd Int. Symp. Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, (Tokyo, Japan: 1989), pp.354-368. “It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2007), 8.

[5] Loyalty, at 86.

[6] Id, at 46.

[7] Id, at 44.

[8] In point of fact, while I appreciate Royce’s argument in Loyalty, I am personally persuaded that self-giving love (agape) and not loyalty is the fount of virtue. Love by its nature cannot tolerate injustice, unfairness, or violence against the other, and always whishes the best for the other. It seems to me that it is a much better foundation for ethical reflection than loyalty. This argument must await a future blog.

John Dewey: the Politics of Individualistic Pragmatism

John Dewey (1859-1952) was without doubt one of the most influential American thinkers of his day. His work as a philosopher included educational philosophy, political philosophy, and other important works. He also a popularized pragmatism as both a method and way of looking at the world. Dewey’s pragmatism, which he called, “experimentalism,” relied heavily on both Peirce, under whom he studied, and William James, who was also influential in this thought. Dewey’s experimentalism incorporates aspects of Peirce’s belief that philosophy ought to emulate science as a fallible enterprise of solving concrete theoretical problems, an enterprise in which defined, limited and provisional problems are solved in an experimental and scientific way.

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont. After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, Dewey earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under Charles S. Peirce. Thereafter, Dewey taught at the Universities of Minnesota, Michigan, and Chicago. After a dispute in Chicago, Dewey finished his career at Columbia University in New York City, where he chaired the philosophy department until. retirement. After his retirement, Dewey lived another twenty-two years and continued to write articles and books not only on philosophy and logic but on art, education, science, and social and political reform. Among his many books are Democracy and Education, Reconstruction in PhilosophyThe Public and Its Problems, and Freedom and Culture. [1]


Like his mentor William James, Dewey was a defender of a kind of individualism, that makes the individual, and his or her self-development, the supreme end of political thinking. This radical individualism translates into a kind of radical democratic theory in which the individual becomes that center of all political calculation. However, this individualism might be better termed a “communal individualism,” whereby the individual finds his or her full self-actualization as a part of a society. This individualism does not deny government the ability and even duty to plan and control a great deal of the activity of individuals, especially in the economic arena. [2]

For Dewey society is composed of individuals and it is the individual that sits at the foundation of any democratic society:

Society is composed of individuals: this obvious and basic fact no philosophy, whatever its pretensions to novelty, can question or alter. Hence these three alternatives: Society must exist for the sake of individuals; or individuals must have their ends and ways of living set for them by society; or else society and individuals are correlative, organic, to one another, society requiring the service and subordination of individuals and at the same time existing to serve them. Beyond these three views, none seems to be logically conceivable. (Emphasis added) [3]

For Dewey, both the individual and the social are fundamental to society and exist in a mutually beneficial, organic, and “correlative” relationship. [4] Individuals are not a kind of atomistic unit, but are formed by a society within families and a variety of social institutions. [5]

Pragmatic Communitarianism

One review of his thought locates Dewey’s philosophy as follows:

Dewey elaborates a version of the Idealist criticisms of classical liberal individualism. For this line of criticism, classical liberalism envisages the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals, and takes social and political life as a sphere in which this competitive pursuit of self-interest is coordinated. By contrast, the Idealists rejected this view of social and political life as the aggregation of inherently conflicting private interests. Instead, they sought to view individuals relationally: individuality could be sustained only where social life was understood as an organism in which the well-being of each part was tied to the well-being of the whole. Freedom in a positive sense consisted not merely in the absence of external constraints but the positive fact of participation in such an ethically desirable social order. [6]

One might say that there is a complementarian relationship between the individual and social institutions, with each relying upon the other for its full and healthy expression. Individuals cannot emerge without a sound society in which they can flourish, nor can society flourish without well-formed individuals.

Mediating Institutions

For Dewey, the modern bureaucratic and administrative nation-state with the kind of powers common in America and Europe is a relatively new institution in human history. It is the result of a long struggle of society to liberate itself from subservience to feudal and other orders. Now, it exists, at least in part, to give support and freedom to other social institutions:

As the work of integration and consolidation reaches its climax, the question arises, however, whether the national state, once it is firmly established and no longer struggling against strong foes, is not just an instrumentality for promoting and protecting other and more voluntary forms of association, rather than a supreme end in itself. Two actual phenomena may be pointed to in support of an affirmative answer. Along with the development of the larger, more inclusive and more unified organization of the state has gone the emancipation of individuals from restrictions and servitudes previously imposed by custom and class status. But the individuals freed from external and coercive bonds have not remained isolated. Social molecules have at once recombined in new associations and organizations. Compulsory associations have been replaced by voluntary ones; rigid organizations by those more amenable to human choice and purposes—more directly changeable at will. What upon one side looks like a movement toward individualism, turns out to be really a movement toward multiplying all kinds and varieties of associations: Political parties, industrial corporations, scientific and artistic organizations, trade unions, churches, schools, clubs and societies without number, for the cultivation of every conceivable interest that men have in common. As they develop in number and importance, the state tends to become more and more a regulator and adjuster among them; defining the limits of their actions, preventing and settling conflicts. [7]

It is extremely important to understand this statement. Because human beings are by nature social animals, the freedom that humans gained during the modern era, did not and will not change the fundamentally relational and communitarian nature of society. What changes is that instead of externally imposed social relationships the foundation of society are voluntary social relationships and societies through which human beings develop and express their individual capacities. Government’s responsibility is to secure the status and freedom of the many voluntary societies of which any given political unit is composed.

In other words, once a nation, like the United States of America has achieved its status as the supreme governing body over a territory, it becomes the duty and primary responsibility of that governing body to secure the freedom and security of the various persons and social groups of which it is composed. Governments should not be monopolists of either political or economic power, as they are under both communism and national socialism, but regulators and guarantors of freedom for all those persons and institutions within their boundaries. In essence, governments must learn to serve the social organs of which it is made up, and especially what we would call “Mediating Institutions.”

Society as a Process

One feature of Dewey is his steadfast commitment to Darwinism and a vision of nature and society as embedded in a process of continuous change and development. This involves a vision of human maturation and human society as unceasingly in a state of dynamic change:

The tendency to treat organization as an end in itself is responsible for all the exaggerated theories in which individuals are subordinated to some institution to which is given the noble name of society. Society is the process of associating in such ways that experiences, ideas, emotions, values are transmitted and made common. To this active process, both the individual and the institutionally organized may truly be said to be subordinate. The individual is subordinate because except in and through communication of experience from and to others, he remains dumb, merely sentient, a brute animal. Only in association with fellows does he become a conscious centre of experience. Organization, which is what traditional theory has generally meant by the term Society or State, is also subordinate because it becomes static, rigid, institutionalized whenever it is not employed to facilitate and enrich the contacts of human beings with one another. [8]

Individuals are embedded in society in such a way that ideas, emotions, values, and other features of a healthy culture are transmitted and made “common.” As human beings join together in cooperative enterprises, they free themselves from static, rigid conformity and are enriched in the process of social progress. “Freedom for an individual means growth, ready change when modification is required.” [9]

Democracy and Education

John Dewey was not only a political philosopher; he was also, perhaps even primarily, and educational philosopher. In fact, his best-known work is on education, Democracy and Education. [10]  The fundamental premise of the book is that the reality of personal death requires that societies have systems of education. One generation succeeds another, and any form of social progress involves the transmission of past experiences to a future generation:

The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education. On one hand, there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group—its future sole representatives—and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group. On the other hand, there is the necessity that these immature members be not merely physically preserved in adequate numbers, but that they be initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members: otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life. [11]

The necessity for education born of human finitude is true of even the simplest of societies, but grows as a society, such as ours, grows more complex. Any society continues only so long as it transmits its underlying values to a new generation of its members. This brute fact explains a great deal of the difficulties our society is having at the present time. There has been a massive failure by our educational systems to transmit the underlying an understanding of an appreciation for the values of our society to the next generations. A focus on what was wrong with the American experiment and American society has been taken to such an extreme that the succeeding generations do not have an understanding of the history, democratic tradition, personal and social skills, and other elements needed for our society to endure. The result is growing authoritarianism in political thought, debate, and action.

Human beings and human society are dependent upon the communication of the aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge, common understanding, and the like, so that a functional degree “like-mindedness” comes to exist among members of the society. [12] Communication of all types, between parents and children, between children and adults, between teachers and students, managers and workers, artists and admirers, etc is absolutely necessary for a society to continue and prosper. In placing communication at the center of society, Dewey is not merely talking about communication of information, but also communication of meaning and purpose, a communication of the heart of a society as well as raw information about that society, its institutions, and past accomplishments and failures.

While all persons and institutions in a society bear some responsibility for the communication of the past to the next generation, in a complex society, there must be formal education. Certain institutions must be formed and persons recruited to undertake the transmission of what is important for society to continue. A complex society has no alternative but to create a system or systems of formal education:

Without such formal education, it is not possible to transmit all the resources and achievements of a complex society. It also opens a way to a kind of experience which would not be accessible to the young, if they were left to pick up their training in informal association with others, since books and the symbols of knowledge are mastered. [13]


As sympathetic a reviewer as Bertrand Russell noted that, in the end, Dewey’s philosophy is about power, and in that sense, “Nietzschean,” though not as crudely Nietzschean as that of Nietzsche. [14] Dewey’s philosophy is essentially “modern” in that is dominated by a kind of materialistic application of Newtonian and Darwinian principles to society and education. The idealism of James, Peirce, and Royce is missing, as is the recognition of limits in political matters. His emphasis on process is important, and it will be the subject of the next set of essays as we look at Alfred North Whitehead and the Process Philosophers whose impact would be felt throughout the 20th Century in both philosophy and theology.

From Peirce and James, Dewey has a “scientific and instrumental” view of knowledge that always includes a kind of fallibilism that recognizes that our ideas, however well attested by reality and however comprehensively accepted, can always be wrong and in need of revision. This excludes any sympathy for totalitarian undertakings in philosophy, politics, education or any other field of inquiry. This part of Dewey’s philosophy is of increasing importance in our society in which there are so many loud voices, left and right, who are certain of the truth of their own opinions and contemptuous of the opinions of others

Finally, his emphasis on and interest in education is perhaps his most enduring contribution to American thought. It is for all of us to remember that the accomplishments of the past and present will be lost unless they and the characteristics that made them possible are transmitted to a new generation, for all of us will eventually pass away and with our passing our capacity to form the future of the world.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Scott London,  “Organic Democracy: Political Philosophy of John Dewey” https://scott.london/reports/dewey.html (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[2] See, John Dewey, Individualism Old and New (New York, NY: Capricorn Books, 1930. This is one of Dewey’s more popular books and more clearly than others sets out his political and social prejudices and beliefs.

[3] John Dewey, Reconstruction of Philosophy (New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company 1920), 187 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40089/40089-h/40089-h.htm#CHAPTER_VIII (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter referred to as “Reconstruction.”

[4] Id, at 188. The term “correlative” means  “related,” “reciprocal” or “corresponding” and is used to indicate that there is a relationship between individuals and community such that one cannot be found without the presence of the other.

[5] Id, at 200.

[6] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Dewey’s Political Philosophy” Wed Feb 9, 2005; substantive revision Thu Jul 26, 2018 at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-political/ (downloaded April 29, 2022).

[7] Reconstruction, at 202-203.

[8] Id, at 207.

[9] Id.

[10] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, transcribed by David Reed and David Widger (The Project Gutenberg EBook of Democracy and Education, by John Dewey https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm (downloaded April 29, 2022), hereinafter, Democracy and Education.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1945), 827.

William James: the Politics of Pragmatism, Humility, and Smallness

William James (1842-1910) is unquestionably the most famous American philosopher. While C. S. Peirce founded pragmatism movement, James was its most famous popularizer, and his influence was felt in philosophy, psychology, and a number of disciplines. Like his friend Peirce, James was a member of Chancy Wright’s circle of friends and participated in the famous group of which Oliver Wendall Holmes was a member for a short time. Unlike Peirce, James was likable and successful in navigating academic life.

James came from a prominent American family. family. His father, Henry, was independently wealthy, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau, and a writer. As a child, James traveled with his family and met Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Stuart Mill as well as others. His brother, Henry James, was a well-known novelist and literary critic. His sister was and is well-known as a diarist. Never healthy, James suffered from a number of ailments in his younger years, ailments that prevented him for serving in the American Civil War.

James was not primarily a political theorist. His influence has been felt in political thinking, but he never wrote a scholarly work devoted to the subject. His political philosophy, therefore, must be gleaned from his other writings, a task that is more appropriate for a professional philosopher than a retired pastor. [1] However, because of his importance, it is impossible to pass over his work.


James accepted Peirce’s famous definition of truth as related to the conceivable courses of action an idea might imply. James’ own view was that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the actions one might be willing to take or refrain from taking based upon the idea. He is famous for his sometimes criticised notion that the truth of an idea can be described as its “Cash Value,” by which he meant what work it can be put to in day-to-day life. In his lecture, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” James famously observed:

Pragmatism … asks, “Grant that an idea or belief may be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” [2]

In a letter to Bertrand Russell, James gave a technical definition:

In a nutshell my opinion is this: that instead of there being one universal relation sui generis called “truth” between any reality and an idea, there are a host of particular relations varying according to special circumstances and constituted by the manner of “working” or “leading” of the idea through the surrounding experiences of which both the reality and the idea are part. [3]

Fundamentally, James pragmatic philosophy was a method for making decisions, of testing ideas for their workability, and of eliminating useless speculation. Like Peirce, he viewed philosophy as filled with false questions, and saw pragmatism as a way to limit endless discussion over metaphysical and epistemological problems by relating them to the process of reaching concrete decisions in life. To be a true statement in some way that statement must be capable of verification and use in life.

Pragmatism, as much as anything is an attitude, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ and supposed necessities and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” [4] Finally, and important for political decision making, there is not to be found “One universal relation, one true solution to a problem, for the circumstances that surround a problem constitute an always evolving reality in which truth is arrived at and decisions must be made. The best solution to a problem at a particular moment in history may not be the best solution in any other moment.

It is easy to see why such a philosophy would appeal to practical people, and especially to Americans interested in building a “new nation” free of the constraints and limitations of European politics, economics, and social stratification. For the purposes of this blog and its interest in relational thinking, it is important to note that for James, truth is a relational concept, dependent upon relationships and context. This leads James to a philosophy of humility and a recognition of human frailty and fallibilism.

Individualism and the Importance of Individuals

James’ version of pragmatism was emphatically individualistic. In a celebrated essay, “The Importance of Individuals” James sets out his individualistic ideals and their importance in life:

…I for my part cannot but consider the talk of the contemporary sociological school about averages and general laws and predetermined tendencies, with its obligatory undervaluing of the importance of individual differences, as the most pernicious and immoral of fatalisms. Suppose there is a social equilibrium fated to be, whose is it to be,—that of your preference, or mine? There lies the question of questions, and it is one which no study of averages can decide. [5]

There is a tendency in Fascism, Marxism, Laisse-Faire Capitalism. and in any purely materialistic evolutionary philosophy to regard social forces as primary and individuals as secondary. [6] James, on the other hand, believed that all positive social change and improvement in the human condition are the result of individual decisions. These decisions may be partially motivated by environment, economics, physical geography, social conditions, and other factors, but the importance of the individual and the individual’s personal responsibility for his or her own decision-making remains important. [7]

In a particularly important passage says:

The mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the example of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, centres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose gifts, had they had free play, would have led society in another direction. [8]

In the end, it is individual human beings whose ideas, goals, aspirations, and dreams matter,

Preference for Smallness

A second characteristic of James pragmatist approach to politics is his dislike of bigness and defense of the small, particular, individual, and unique. In a private letter, James wrote:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.—You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself. [9]

This quote expresses James preference for small businesses, small organizations, families and individuals as opposed to “big business,” “big government,” “big empires,” and the like. Bigness is generally less human, less moral, and less connected to the deepest needs of the human heart that are small businesses, governments, political unites, bureaucracies and the like. Here is the way one commentator put James view:

The problem of empires, be they imperial national projects (such as the U.S.’s presumption to control the Philippines) or conceptual philosophical totalities (such as Hegel’s argument for the state form as the highest form of actualization), arises less from their content than from their size. The idea that any idea, polity, or system of meaning can encompass everything, everyone, and everywhere directly contradicts the aspirations of pragmatism, which is always provisional and partial. The politics of anti-greatness implies a turn away from totality, a theme with a special resonance in the contemporary political realm. [10]

Thus, James was interested in the smallest units and the elements that made up a complex system, such as a society or political organization, as well as the larger system itself. I would argue that one of the most important lessons contemporary Americans can learn from the pragmatic approach to politics is the importance of the small, of small steps to solve great problems, of small communities, such as families, small businesses, small social agencies and even small churches to human flourishing and social order. This requires restraint among political elites. As one writer put it:

James’s anti-imperialism was directly related to his fear of the effects of “bigness.” He argued forcefully against all concentrations of power, especially those between business, political, and military interests. He knew that such vested interests would grow larger and more difficult to control if America became an overseas empire. [11]

James would have agreed with the notion that “big things,” like nation states, cannot be stable unless the underlying smaller social units are healthy, nurtured, and allowed their own freedom. He was opposed to all forms of imperialistic advance to the detriment of families, local communities and smaller nations. In particular, he opposed Theodore Roosevelt in this intention to make of the United States an imperial power.


In one of his final essays, entitled, “The Moral Equivalent of War” published shortly before his death James takes an historical and pragmatic look at the institution of war. War is, James believed, a part of human history and flows from basic human agressive  instincts as they have developed over the ages. The competition of nation-states for people, land, power, wealth, and resources drives nations to war. (One might easily look at the current war in the Ukraine as an example of a war for land and resources.) Nevertheless, war is an expensive luxury the human race can ill afford:

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them. I see no reason why all this should not apply to yellow as well as to white countries, and I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples. [12]

One reason that James opposed the imperial ambitions of the Roosevelt administration was his clear realization that imperial ambitions almost inevitably lead to war.

Ideals and Action

Perhaps a good place to end this brief look at an important figure is to return to the subject of a pragmatic view of social life. In an essay entitled “What Makes Life Significant” James takes a look at the connection between our ideals and our actions. Not surprisingly, he is critical of ideals unaccompanied by action:

Of course, this is a somewhat vague conclusion. But in a question of significance, of worth, like this, conclusions can never be precise. The answer of appreciation, of sentiment, is always a more or a less, a balance struck by sympathy, insight, and good will. But it is an answer, all the same, a real conclusion. And, in the course of getting it, it seems to me that our eyes have been opened to many important things. Some of you are, perhaps, more livingly aware than you were an hour ago of the depths of worth that lie around you, hid in alien lives. And, when you ask how much sympathy you ought to bestow, although the amount is, truly enough, a matter of ideal on your own part, yet in this notion of the combination of ideals with active virtues you have a rough standard for shaping your decision. In any case, your imagination is extended. You divine in the world about you matter for a little more humility on your own part, and tolerance, reverence, and love for others; and you gain a certain inner joyfulness at the increased importance of our common life. Such joyfulness is a religious inspiration and an element of spiritual health, and worth more than large amounts of that sort of technical and accurate information which we professors are supposed to be able to impart. [13]

For James, the most important qualities of a human being is the kind of values that allow a person to act with humility, sympathy, empathy, and appreciation for others. His underlying pragmatism show up in his conclusion that mere sympathy or empathy without the willingness to act is an empty thing. It is only when we get out of our own individualistic self-seeking and engage in loving service to others do we find true emotional and spiritual health. The kind of person that can escape the endless drive of self-centered, self -seeking is characterized by tolerance, reverence, and love for others.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For an introduction, see Joshua I Miller, Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James (Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

[2] William James, “Lecture VI: Pragmatism’s Conception of the Truth” in William James, Writings 1902-1920 (Library of America, 1987), 573.

[3]  Letter to Bertrand Russell, (May 24. 1908).

[4] Id, at 510.

[5] William James, :The Importance of Individuals” (890) at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/The_Importance_of_Individuals (downloaded, April 23, 2022).

[6] This is one reason that Peirce felt “Agapism” was a necessary and important feature of his system.

[7] William James, “Great Men and their Environment” at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Will_to_Believe_and_Other_Essays_in_Popular_Philosophy/Great_Men_and_Their_Environment (Downloaded April 23, 2022).

[8] Id.

[9] William James, “Letter to Mrs. Henry (Elizabeth) Whitman, June 7, 1899.—The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, p. 90 (1926).

[10] See, “Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism” reviewed in

Contemporary Political Theory (2018) 17, S6–S8. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-017- 0103-5; published online 7 March 2017 (downloaded April 21, 2022)

[11] Zach Dorfman What e Talk About When We Talk About Isolation Dissent Magazine https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-isolationism (May 18, 2012, downloaded April 23, 2022)

[12] William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” in William James, Writings 1902-1920, at 1289.

[13] William James, What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jsignificant.html (Downloaded April 23, 2022)

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Social Darwinism on the Court

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) holds a special place in American jurisprudence. [1] He taught law at Harvard Law School, and practiced law privately in the area of admiralty, among others. In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced his famous dictum: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [2] He served on the United States Supreme court from 1902 until 1932—the longest tenure of any justice to date.

Brief Biography

Holmes was born into a famous American intellectual family. His father, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Sr., was a noted poet. His family situation meant that he was introduced to all the best families in Boston. He graduated from Harvard as an undergraduate in 1861 and immediately enlisted as a soldier in the Massachusetts militia, where he served with distinction. Holmes saw action as an officer in the Peninsula Campaign, the Wilderness Campaign, and was wounded during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. In the end, Holmes was breveted a Colonel in the Army, and returned home in 1864 weary and sick.

As a Bostonian from a prominent intellectual family, Holmes was well-acquainted with the early pragmatists. He was a close personal friend of William James. He attended a study group known as the “Metaphysical Club” with James, Charles Sanders Peirce another lawyer, Nicholas St. John Green, and Chauncy Wright. It is quite likely that Holmes was present when Peirce read his classic paper, “Fixation of Belief” in which he outlined his pragmatic theory of truth. Holmes attended some of Peirce’ s lectures, on science and inquiry, at the Lowell Institute in 1866.

It is my view that Holmes jurisprudence was substantially impacted by his experiences in the Civil War. His occasional ruthlessness and friendliness towards Social Darwinism evidence the impact of the “Great Crusade,” on his life and thought. A quote I ran across makes this point:

For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do—as the World War I would do for many Europeans 60 years later and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans 100 years later—the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.[3]

The author of this quote was speaking about Holmes and the other members of the Metaphysical Club of which he was a member and Chauncy Wright the leader. Holmes came out of the suffering and tragedy of Civil War an ardent materialist, a Darwinian evolutionist, and a religious and moral skeptic. He took these views with him to the United States Supreme court. [4]

In 1864, Holmes entered Harvard Law School. In those days, a three-year law degree and admittance to the bar by testing was not the norm. Holmes attended lectures for a year, read theoretical works extensively, and then clerked for a year in his cousin’s law office. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1866. After traveling to London to complete his education, he practiced law in Boston, where he was a commercial and admiralty lawyer. Holmes taught at Harvard Law School and was a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1899-1902, when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1902 until 1932.

Holmes as a Pragmatist

In 1881, Holmes published a series of lectures titled, The Common Law in which he announced an empirical theory of the law, saying:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics. [5]

Law as Experience-Based. In the quote from The Common Law, we see the empirical, pragmatic basis of Holmes thinking. The law is something that results from human experience. That experience included the felt necessities (or political pressures) of the day and time in which law is made, prevalent moral theories, political theories and ideas of public policy, all the ideas and prejudices that a given society has internalized over centuries of time. The judge is a kind of “legal scientist” who along with all other members of the bar are in a common activity examining the facts of cases, looking at the results of prior similar cases, examining the legal and public policy ideas and prejudices attempting to create a coherent and practically effective set of laws to guide society.

Law as a Communal Task. As such, the law is a tradition of inquiry, a common undertaking of lawyers, judges, legislatures, and officials, all of whom participate in the development of the law. The law grows over time as the participants in the legal community work together to apply existing law and adapt it to the demands of the day and time within which they live. In other words, law is a communal undertaking, much like the communal undertaking of a community of scientists, an ideal that Holmes would have heard from Peirce.

Law as Fallible. There is also in Holmes an element of Peirce’s fallibilism, for the law grows also by a process of trial and error, in which there can be doubt, conflict, and missteps that must be corrected over time. [6] Judges and courts can and do make mistakes, as do legislatures, administrations, and permanent bureaucracies. It is the willingness to hold one’s ideas firmly, but with a willingness to learn, change them, and adapt to new information and ideas that is the mark of a fallibilist. Only if courts and legislatures are aware of their limitations and tendency to err can a government be truly pragmatic.

Legal Realism

In a famous essay entitled, “The Path of the Law,” Holmes more clearly set out his notion of legal realism. [7] In this essay, which was originally a lecture, Holmes set out three views that characterize much of the legal realistism movement of his day:

  1. A “Predictive Theory” of justice;
  2. A “Bad Man” theory of law.
  3. An opposition to the conflation of law and morality; and

A Predictive Notion of Justice. Holmes begins his analysis by defining a legal duty as nothing but “a prediction that if a man does or omits certain things he will be made to suffer in this or that way by judgment of the court; and so of a legal right.” [8] In other words, law is a kind of prophetic activity by which lawyers advise clients as to what may or may not be the consequences of a particular course of action. Notice that ideas of natural law and justice disappear from view in this analysis. What is left is reflection on the power of the law as administered by the courts.

A “Bad Man” Theory of Law. Homes then goes on to introduce his Bad Man theory of law, which will be used to distinguish law and morality:

You can see very plainly that a bad man has as much reason as a good one for wishing to avoid an encounter with the public force, and therefore you can see the practical importance of the distinction between morality and law. A man who cares nothing for an ethical rule which is believed and practised by his neighbors is likely nevertheless to care a good deal to avoid being made to pay money, and will want to keep out of jail if he can. [9]

Here we see set out the basis of a distinction between morality and law. While good people want to abide by the law and act with justice towards others, bad people have no such moral impulse to be law abiding citizens. They do, however, want to avoid punishment and the expense of litigation and the payment of damages. Therefore, the law is of interest to all people, good and bad, but for different reasons. So far as it goes, both Christian and a natural law thinker can agree with Holmes on this point. The law is different from morality. Not everything that is moral is legal, and not everything that is immoral is illegal.

The law, as a practical occupation, must take the human race as it finds it. The law has to be constructed so that good people and bad people are both alike instructed in the behaviors that are permitted and for bidden by a society. Thus, Holmes notes:

I have just shown the practical reason for saying so. If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience. [10]

Note Holmes’ distinction: If what you want to know is the law and nothing else, look to that person who is unconstrained by morality. Good men act properly from broader motives than law, and have reasons for good conduct that the bad person does not have.

Opposition to Conflation of Law and Morality. Having begun by distinguishing law and morality, in hopes to avoid confusion in matters of law, Holmes then attacks misguided attempts to confuse law and morality. In my view, it is this portion of homes argument that is both often misunderstood and partially ill-advised. Holmes begins his analysis with the following disclaimer:

I take it for granted that no hearer of mine will misinterpret what I have to say as the language of cynicism. The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race. The practice of it, in spite of popular jests, tends to make good citizens and good men. When I emphasize the difference between law and morals I do so with reference to a single end, that of learning and understanding the law. [11]

Commentators often miss this limitation on what Holmes is saying. He begins by stating clearly that he does not want to be seen as a defender of moral cynicism. Law is connected to morality, because it is the “witness an external deposit of our moral life”. In fact the law contains (or should contain) within it a history of human moral progress. In addition, as a practical matter, law tends to make people better human beings as well as better citizens. However, morality is not law, and in order to understand the law and apply it, it is necessary to hold the two ideas separate for purposes of analysis. This separation is pragmatic and theoretical not as a matter of life in its wholeness. Thus, Holmes goes on to say:

I do not say that there is not a wider point of view from which the distinction between law and morals becomes of secondary or no importance, as all mathematical distinctions vanish in presence of the infinite. But I do say that that distinction is of the first importance for the object which we are here to consider—a right study and mastery of the law as a business with well understood limits, a body of dogma enclosed within definite lines. [12]

The distinction between law and morality is a practical one as it enables us to focus on law and to create a coherent body of law within defined limits, being the limits of what the state is and is not willingness to enforce. It is also a theoretical distinction because it enables an analysis of law as law. [13] What Holmes is not saying (or at least in my view should not be saying) is that morality is irrelevant to the actors, legislators, administrators, bureaucrats, and judges who administer the law. It is the law that is different from morality, not people who should be bound by some moral vision. In fact, Holmes seems to be aware that “from a broader point of view” the distinction between morality and law might disappear.

What Holmes means is difficult to grasp, but I think this may be a point at which he was influenced by Peirce and his version of pragmatism. For Peirce and Royce, while within the boundaries of history there is little prospect of human agreement on certain points of law or other communal activities, the goal of any community of inquirers is to seek that point of agreement that they have discovered the truth about a matter under investigation. This, at the end of history, one can hope that any disagreements between law and morality would disappear. In the meantime, on many points further inquiry and careful experiment may result in such agreement.


Holmes was a complex thinker and not systematic in his approach to legal or philosophical issues. As a materialist, he lacked Peirce’s faith in the reality of such abstract universal notions as “Justice.” As a committed evolutionist, he saw the law as a constantly evolving body of rules for human behavior. As a Social Darwinist, he was inclined towards support of the powerful and socially successful as against the weak, poor, and powerless. [14]. Consistent with this overall view of law, he attempted to keep that search within the boundaries of the law as enacted by the people, the legislatures, and courts.

His attempt is to build a coherent body of law without reference to natural law and some ideal of human flourishing is, in my view, useful theoretically but dangerous practically. It is a short step from Holmes to the kind of legal nihilism common today in which law is “nothing but what the judges say it is.” A better jurisprudence is one constrained by notions of law and justice developed over centuries, and in the case of American Constitutional Law, over the history of the United States of America. The ideal of justice is a universal ideal that continually reveals itself as the members of the legal community embark on a shared journey seeking justice and the common good in the practice and theory of law.

Such an undertaking is not a journey of certainty but of measured attempts to achieve public wisdom and the public good under the constraints of human fallibility The courts are but one link in the chain of reasoning toward the public good. Legislative bodies, administrative bodies, and others have a role to play along with the judicial system. I would argue that the notion of Natural Law and ideals of justice and common good are more important for legislative bodies for they are the groups who in the first instance are to make laws and embody notions of morality and justice in their decisions.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For those who wish a longer and very favorable treatment of Holmes’ life, I can only recommend Catherine Drinker Bowen’s work, Yank from Olympus, which has been the most popular of his biographies. I have relied on Wikipedia for some of the details of this introduction. See, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr. (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[2] Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Common Law Mark D. Howe, ed (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co., 1881, reprinted 1963).

[3] Thomas B. Silver quoting “Pragmatism’s Four Horsemen” in Clairmont Review of Books, Volume 1, Number 4 (Summer 2001)at https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/pragmatisms-four-horsemen/ (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[4] See, Sheldon M. Novick, Justice Holmes’s Philosophy 40 Washington University Law Review No. 3 (1992) for a very fine analysis of the philosophical interests and commitments of Justice Holmes.

[5] Common Law, previously cited.

[6] This was suggested to me by a paper by Cheryl Misak, “A Pragmatist Account of Legitimacy and Authority” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a47c831be42d6e6324a04f5/t/5a48fb758165f54918c12f2e/1514732410344/PRAGMATISM-AND-AUTHORITY-FINAL.pdf (downloaded April 12, 2022).

[7] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, The Path of the Law 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897), reprinted in Milton R. Konvitz, ed, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland, OH, Meridian Books, 1970).

[8] Id, at 145.

[9] Id, at 146.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id at 146.

[13] . Holmes goes on to note “The theoretical importance of the distinction is no less, if you would reason on your subject aright.” Id, at 147.

[14] See, Seth Vannatta, Justice Holmes the Social Darwinist 14 The Pluralist 1 (Spring 2019). This aspect of Holmes philosophy is by far the most often critiqued.

Pragmatism 4: Agapism and Political Thought

This week we take a final look at the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s life was something of a tragedy. He was a prodigy, reading Kant as a youth, studying under his famous father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and acknowledged to be one of the greatest and broadest minds of his day. He divorced his first wife and lived with his second wife before marriage. He lacked social skills and good political instincts. As a result, he was exiled from the most prestigious academic posts in America. He made a bare living writing articles for journals, lecturing and teaching where he could. For a time, he worked as a practicing scientist for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey, which is where he developed his theories of verification and his dislike of a kind of speculative philosophy he regarded as untrue to how human beings actually think. In the end, his suffering produced a rare, lovely, and brilliant character.

A Guess at the Riddle

If political life is to be essentially communal, and characterized by a communal search for a just social order, then some kind of unselfish, community-creating and community-sustaining ethic must be present. Peirce held that the evolution of the universe, and therefore of every society, involves a kind of love that expresses itself in a devotion to cherishing and tending to people or things other than oneself, as parent may do for offspring.

During the period from 1891 to 1893 Peirce wrote a series of articles collectively known as “A Guess at the Riddle.” [1] In these articles, Peirce sets out a system of understanding the world based on Chance, Necessity, and Love. This is to say that the process of evolution, which lies at the basis of much of his thought, involves, among other things, the response of the creature to the circumstances of existence, the orderly evolution by natural law, and the impact of love. Here is how Peirce describes these three modes of evolution:

Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love. We may term them tychastic evolution, or tychasm,anancastic evolution, or anancasm, and agapastic evolution, or agapasm. The doctrines which represent these as severally of principal importance we may term tychasticism, anancasticism, and agapasticism. On the other hand the mere propositions that absolute chance, mechanical necessity, and the law of love are severally operative in the cosmos may receive the names of tychism, anancism, and agapism. [2]

The term “Agapism” is the term Peirce uses for that cherishing or self-giving, sacrificial love that is at work in creation and in all human endeavors.

In Peirce’s view, all order emerges from chaos or what we might call in today’s quantum language, “pure potentiality.” This potentiality exists before the laws of nature and is the source and ground of whatever is. [3] In “A Guess at the Riddle,” written in the late 19th Century, Peirce expounds a theory of creation that anticipates modern “Big Bang” cosmology, and in which he sets out his view that there is at work in creation an evolutionary principle that we can call love.

As one author puts it

“Evolutionary Love” is one of Peirce’s most fascinating philosophical writings. It describes the existence of a cosmic principle of love throughout the universe creatively supporting the formation of new evolutionary forms. This love is a cherishing form of love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce calls his new theory “agapism,” and he contrasts it with evolutionary theories that are based on a selfish form of love; these preach “the Gospel of Greed.” Peirce points out the occurrence of such selfish, greed-based thinking in the modern politico-economical structures, and in Darwin’s biological principle of natural selection based on the competition of private interests. On the other hand, agapism promotes a devotion to helping one’s neighbors, and is a true doctrine of Christian ethics. [4]

This quotation by Nicholas Guardiano sets out the reason which Peirce’s Agapism is important for this blog: Peirce is partially motivated by a desire to overcome a kind of excessive laisse faire capitalism prominent at the time by setting out his own, Christian view of the role of love in society. However, underlying this position is the notion that the universe itself is characterized not just by competition, but also by love.


For Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and love. In order to understand what Peirce is trying to say, it is important to understand what he means by the term “Agapism.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines this love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [5]

According to Peirce, Agapistic Love manifests itself in three specific ways:

  1. Agapistic Love may affect a people or a community and its collective personality as an idea or experience is communicated to individuals who in sympathy with the common connection of the collective mind of the group.
  2. Agapistic Love may affect an individual enabling that individual to apprehend an idea or appreciate the attractiveness of an idea due to an increase in sympathy with his community under the influence of a striking experience or development of thought.
  3. Agapistic Love may impact and individual independently of a human affection by virtue of an attraction exercise directly upon the mind prior to comprehension. [6]

As examples of the three kinds of experience of which Peirce is speaking, consider the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the crucifixion. This was a striking appearance to a group in sympathy with one another such that the group as a whole was enlightened and changed. Secondly, and an example Peirce uses, consider the experience of Paul on the Road to Damascus, a striking event that brought Paul into sympathy with the Christian movement. Peirce calls the third kind of example, “the divination of genius” by which a single individual is struck by an idea that immediately attracts the individual. Perhaps the famous incident of an apple falling at Isaac Newton’s feet, which gave him the immediate notion of gravity is an example.

From the perspective of political thought, all three characteristics of agapistic love are important. First, there are incidental moments of genius by which political thought is moved forward. This might for example, be seen in some of the great philosophers this blog has studied. Second, there are times in which an individual who is not in sympathy with a society or political system is struck by some virtue in that system and immediately grasps its importance. This might be seen in, for example, some of those who were in favor of communism but whose faith in freedom was kindled by contact with democracies. Finally, there are times when an idea impacts an entire society, as perhaps when the ideals of the Enlightenment impacted the American nation leading to the American revolution and national freedom.

Agapism and Politics and Morals

It is important to note that Peirce believes that Agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance and necessity, are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic for the creation of the world and of human societies. It is not an “add on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context I have called the kind of love to which Peirce is referring, “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [7]

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with with quotations from the letters of John in which he says that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). He then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. After introducing this theme, Peirce proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ. He then begins to discuss its application to evolutionarily theory.  What is important in Peirce’s approach is that he gives an ontological basis for morality and politics: It is built into the nature of creation.

I, however, would like to approach agapism from a different point of view. Peirce wrote before modern relativity and quantum theory and before the abundant proofs in science that relationality is built into the universe. Beginning with Einstein’s insights, the notion of the world as built upon independent unites of matter related only by forces acting upon them was undermined. Time and Space are relational phenomena. According to the best science available, particles are waves or “excitements” in a universal field that permeates the universe. Both the quantum phenomenon of “Entanglement” and Chaos theory point towards a relationality of creation embedded in the universe, whatever one’s theory of creation may be. [8] The physicist Argyris Nicolaidis puts it this way:

In conclusion, a mode of thinking has been reached where the primacy focuses on an “interactive being,” a being constant in relation to the other and being in continuous ex-stasis to reach the other.  This relational mode of existence, which has been associated with creative growth, novelty, and free development is qualified as agape. Agape then is something more than an emotional state or sentimental experience it is a very principle of existence…. [9]

In defending an agapistic ethic, I would move from the phenomena of relationality within the creative order, a kind of Deep Relationality, to the emergence of the various kinds of love best captured from their Greek forms as a part of the process of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection ( στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love ( φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα).
  • “agape” or self-giving love ( αγάπη),

These loves emerge out of a loving relationality at the root of creation. This loving relationality has evolved as human consciousness and human society evolved into new forms, forms that are not possible without the existence of the human race, for in the human race the inherent capacity for these loves has evolved in new and wonderful ways. From a Christian point of view, the created loves described above are derivative from and point to the uncreated love of God, reflected in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all the loves have some meaning, but three perhaps are important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which considers the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerance in sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

Love and the Gospel of Greed

Although this blog is getting long, I would be untrue to Peirce if I were not to return to his original thought that his theory of “Agapism” can be contrasted to the “Gospel of Greed” that he found present in American society, and which he thought unworthy of human society. Peirce was appalled at the way in which Social Darwinism had used the scientific principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify a social organization and social policy based upon unlimited, selfish striving for power and position, which he called “the Gospel of Greed.” He felt that the kind of political and economic structures that this way of thinking promoted were immoral. This does not mean that Peirce opposed free enterprise, just a particular form of free enterprise that operated without an underlying morality based on love.

Against this “Gospel of Greed,” Peirce posited his own “Agapism” as involving devotion to other people and a personal and social ethics built upon a personal and communal ethic of love. Human beings do not find their fulfillment in unlimited self-promotion, but in as participants in a community of persons who are engaged in a common endeavor. In the case of American democracy, the creation of a society based on freedom, equality, and a search for the common good.


This is Easter Week, and it is appropriate that I deal with Agapism on the week when Christians celebrate the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection as the assurance of his victory over sin and death. I will give the last word to the Apostle whom Peirce refers in his work:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (I John 4:7-12).

Copyright, 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Happy Easter

[1] C. S. Peirce, “A Guess at the Riddle” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp158-360, hereinafter “Guess,” at and page number.

[2] Id, at 245. These three terms are derived from Greek terms meaning chance or fortune (τύχη), Greek (ἀνάγκη) necessity, and agape, or love (ηγαπ).

[3] At the moment of creation, this “first” was followed by a “second” in which a kind of mediated habit begins to be formed due to reaction to the first, this is followed then by a third, involves reflection, reaction, and the beginning of cause and effect which forms a habit, law, convention, or rule of action.

[4] See, “Evolutionary Love” in “ Nicholas Guardino, Charles . Pierce and the open Court, 1890=1893:  Promoting an American Metaphysician at https://scrcexhibits.omeka.net/exhibits/show/charles-s-peirce-open-court/-evolutionary-love- (downloaded April 11, 2022).

[5] Guess, at 249-250.

[6] Id, at 251-252,

[7] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[8] See, John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). This volume, in which Polkinghorne is a contributor and editor, contains a variety of articles by scientists and others on the theme of relationality in the universe.

[9] Argyris Nicolaidis, “Relational Nature” in The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, at 106.

Peirce and Pragmatism 3: Politics and a Community of Seekers

As mentioned in prior blogs, in addition to founding pragmatism, Peirce struck what might be called the final intellectual blow to the kind of idealism represented by Descartes, and his essentially individualistic standard of truth. For Descartes, what was true was that which could not be doubted by any reasonable person. His argument, however, began with a fundamentally individualistic premise, “I think therefore I am.” Notice the “I.” For Descartes and much of the modern movement he began, the ideal was the solo individual, thinking on his own in the solitude of his or her study, reflecting on life and solving problems as a solitary individual.

Peirce’s philosophy, on the other hand, begins with a fundamentally communal, semiotic, communication-oriented standard of truth: truth is a matter of the correspondence of our ideas, which are inevitably expressed in signs, with some external reality we and others are trying to understand. Because human beings are inevitably controlled by their presuppositions, prejudices, limitations, and the like, no one human being can ever know the full and complete truth about any important matter. This drives Peirce to a theory of knowledge that is essentially communal. The truth is not known in solitude but as part of a community of inquiry, or what I have called a “Community of Seekers”.

If for Descartes and much of the modern world the ideal was the solitary individual deciding for his or her self, the ideal for Pearce is the individual scientist who, as part of a team of scientists is trying to solve some problem of science or medicine. Think of a research laboratory with many scientists in constant communication in the laboratory and in their private life, who read and comment on each other’s work, and who are in a common pursuit of a breakthrough in science or medicine. For Peirce, all knowledge is the result of this kind of a community of inquirers who work in both competition and in cooperation with each other.

We human beings are part of an infinite number of such communities. For example, I am a member of a family, and I have to understand my family and its relationships in order to solve problems. So does every other member of our family. I happen to be a lawyer and member of a bar association. As such, I am part of a community dedicated to the understanding the principles of American and Texas law. I’m also a pastor, a part of a community that is interested in the knowledge of God. I’m a citizen of San Antonio, Texas, interested in San Antonio and Texas and understanding its culture, laws, and government. I am a citizen of the United States, interested in the government and policies of our nation. My father, in addition to being a part of some of these things, grew roses. He was a member of the Rose Society interested in the methods and means of growing the best and most beautiful roses possible. Members of my family are farmers who beloing to various farming groups interested in the best methods of growing corn, soy beans, wheat, and other crops. You can see that all of us are members of many communities seeking understanding.

In a paper published in 1868, Peirce described philosophical inquiry as essentially social, claiming that, “We cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers.” [1] At the end of the same essay, Peirce concludes:

Finally, as to it anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is only by virtue of addressing a future thought that is in its value as thought identical with it, the more to be developed. In this way, the existence of thought now, depends upon what is to be here after so that it has only a potential existence depended upon the future thought of the community. The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only in ignorance and error, so far is he is anything apart from his fellows and from what he and they are to be is only a negation. This is man. [2]

Notice that for Pierce, the acquisition of knowledge is essentially communal. Twice in the passage quoted he speak of the “decision of the community” and “the future thought of the community.” He speaks of “the ignorance of human beings apart from their fellow human beings”. For Peirce, knowledge is the end result of a community’s process of reasoning not simply the result of an individual’s individual thoughts and reasoning.

Secondly, Peirce speaks of the dependence of the community not just upon its current thought, but upon the future thought of members of the community. In other words, there is no end within history of the expansion of meaning and progress of thought, for their will always be “future thought of the community.” As to political thought, there is no “end of history” in which a certain political theory or organization will be final and complete, for the communal process of understanding will continue so long as history continues. We human beings are essentially oriented both towards the past, the present, and the future. We emerge from our past. We live in the present. And, we seek a desirable future.

Community and Growing Political Wisdom

For the pragmatist, truth is never absolute in the sense that it cannot be revised based upon new information and insight; however, the goal of a pragmatic, scientific approach to learning is that it is possible that a perception of the truth will be accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community and will be proven by such adoption to have approached a kind of “operational (or pragmatic) certainty.” As demonstrated above, the most important analogy between science and politics is the fact that science does not take place among isolated individuals, but rather in communities of scientists who most often are engaged in programs of research requiring cooperation and interchange of information.

Despite the disputes remaining between participants in quantum research, there’s no doubt among scientist the Quantum physics is an improvement over Newtonian physics and has a deeper insight into reality. Although one cannot eliminate the possibility for a radical change in quantum physics, most scientists expect that any further progress will be made within the boundaries of the fundamental view of quantum physics. Disputes between the so-called “Copenhagen” approach and the “Hidden Variable” approach to the problem of indeterminacy are all conducted within a community that is working from the same general scientific data and involved in similar research programs designed to resolve the issues between them.

Politics operates in the same way. Politics is a communal effort and requires a community, bound together by common principles and a common set of values seeking to build a society for the benefit of all. In American society, those fundamental principles are set forth in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the various decisions of policy makers and courts interpreting these fundamental principles. This is the past from which we live in the resent. The application of these principles to contemporary problems is the process of inquiry in which we are engaged as a society as we seek the common good for all participants in our society.

The problem we face in America and in much of the West is that, under the impact of Enlightenment distrust of history and tradition, we have been unable to maintain a consensus as to fundamental aspects of human life and human thriving that we all agree are necessary. We have lost that sense of a communal participation in a living tradition that is essential for maintenance of any society. At the same time, so-called “negative politics” and the search for a final victory over political opponents has undermined our ability to function as a cohesive society. This is a failure of our educational, media, and other institutions. There is no way forward unless and until we can recover a sense of communal solidarity in the search for “liberty and justice for all” or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [3] or as the Consitution puts it:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [4]

These are the foundational ideals of the American community of which we are all a part.

Political Life as a Tradition-bound Process.

The modern world was inclined to also believe in a kind of “tradition-free” thinking that a scientific approach to political philosophy undermines. Peirce and other philosophers of science point out that all thinking takes place within a tradition of inquiry conducted by a community of persons. At any time in history, that community has an established “world-view” and establish principles within which reasoning takes place. While there can be and are revolutionary changes of scientific insight, such as the change from a materialistic to a quantum way of viewing reality, these changes are not part of the ordinary operation of science.

The same is true of government. While revolutionary ideas cannot be rejected as a matter of course, it can be realized that they are not part of the ordinary function of government. Because revolutionary changes in approach cannot be ruled out, freedom of thought and speech is important so that the public square can hear and be informed of all possible approaches to public issues.

Consensus, Conflict,  and Hope in Community

For Peirce the process of inquiry of the community always seeks a consensus such that all members commonly recognize a position or theory as true. This is the hope of any community of inquiry: that doubt will be eliminated for all participants. However, this consensus is normally a future hope, not an experienced present reality. This would be especially true in the political arena. In a private letter to a critic, Peirce acknowledged this essentially incomplete and future-oriented hope of any community:

We cannot be quite sure that the community will ever settle down to an unalterable conclusion upon any given question. Even if they do so for the most part, we have no reason to think the unanimity will be quite complete, nor can we rationally presume any overwhelming consensus of opinion will be reached upon every question. All that we are entitled to assume is in the form of a hope that such conclusion may be substantially reached concerning the particular questions with which our inquirers are busied. [5]

No community of inquiry devoted to a subject like government is ever complete within human history as regards things that are complex and not subject to unanimous decision. As I have mentioned in the past, such an endeavor is a fool’s errand that dooms the society that undertakes to end debate to decay and despotism.


In a very fine ending to a dissertation entitled, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self” Jacob Librizzi makes the following point:

No one is radically independent and self-supporting in this life. Rather, we are all sentimentally entwined with others in our thoughts and deeds. As such, to treat the memories of others poorly as means alone, and not equally as ends in themselves, is to falsely acknowledge one’s own existence as merely a means toward an end indifferent to its makings. Such a paradoxical, life negating thought—seeking radical independence and autonomy—achieves only to explain the self by explaining it away in isolation. [6]

Much of modern politics, left and right, is guilty of exactly this mistake, the mistake that St. Augustine pointed out so long ago: Treating those we should love as ends in themselves as means, and thus cutting ourselves off from the essential communal aspects of human life. [7] Isolated individuals, unconnected to a greater community, but only responsive to the needs of those who think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, are always unwilling and unable to act in the best interests of all members of society, for they lack the vital social connection necessary for such a task.

The greatest challenge political philosophy and theology face is the recovery of a kind of communal love that can sustain a democratic and free society while protecting minorities of all kinds. We need to find a way out of our cultural fixation on radical independence and autonomy, which increasingly makes us unable to solve serious social challenges, and into a community of seekers bound together by a kind of love in a common project to achieve the common good for all.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy,1868 as reprinted in Charles S. Peirce, Essential Writings Edward Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), 87.

[2] Id, at 118.

[3] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[4] United States Constitution (US 1789).

[5] Peirce, Charles S., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce Vols. 1 and 2. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), at 6.610. (Private letter to Paul Carus) I am indebted for this quote to Librizzi, Jacob, “The Haunted Animal: Peirce’s Community of Inquiry and the Formation of the Self”(2017). All Theses & dissertations. 317. https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/etd

[6] See, Jacob Librizzi, footnote 3 above, at 51.

[7] See, St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. 28 First Series, Volume 2. 1886–1889. (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 528-534.

Crisis of Discipleship Published

Dear Friends:

I recently finished and now published a book on Disciple-Making, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making. As I say in the Preface, “Both my wife, Kathy, and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, Kathy participated in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study made up of young people who were new Christians or seeking God. Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes, businesses, schools, and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [i] Salt & Light provides one simple, practical lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to make self-replicating disciples in an orderly and effective way. We continue to share our lives with others in discipleship groups.

This past weekend, we were in Houston for a reunion of that little group after forty or more years. It was a precious time of sharing, remembering, and fellowship–a taste of heaven as one person said. It was this little group that first shared Christ with me and helped me grow as a new disciple of Jesus.

The Great Commission was not just given to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. Every Christians is intended to share the Good News and make mature disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship clarifies some of the causes of the crisis of disciple-making in our culture and suggests a possible strategy to respond. Hopefully, readers will be empowered to understand the crisis of discipleship more deeply and more effectively share their Christian faith with others as well as lead other church members in the way of Christ.”

You can find the book at:


and at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/crisis-of-discipleship-g-christopher-scruggs/1141298125?ean=9781638680567

The ebook is or soon will be available at VirtualBookWorm, Amazon, and Apple IBooks.

[i] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017), hereinafter, “Salt & Light.”

Pragmatism 2: Logical Decision-Making, Fallibilism, and Freedom

Occasional readers of this blog will wonder why so much time is being given to the work of someone who was not a political philosopher nor well-known to the general public. As mentioned last week, C. S. Peirce was a seminal figure in philosophy and particularly in the fields of logic, semiotics (signs), and philosophy of science. Last week, we focused on Peirce’s development of pragmatism. This week, we explore his “logic of abduction,” which is central to the pragmatic way of thinking. Pragmatism begins with the “Pragmatic Maxim” first developed and published by Peirce:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object. [1]

For Pierce, this maxim was a “logical principle” connected with his ideas of what counts as reality (metaphysics), the proper methodology for philosophy to undertake to resolve its quandaries (epistemology), and even moral and other questions (ethics and aesthetics).

The maxim was designed to cure philosophy of the habit of channeling energy towards disputes with little or no practical value in the search for indubitable truth. In particular, Peirce opposed Descartes’ program of “doubt leading to certainty” via indisputable ideas. Pragmatism (or what he called “pragmaticism” to distinguish his personal program) has been many things to many people, but for Peirce pragmatism was the core principle of a way of doing philosophy and of solving philosophical problems in a more “scientific way.” [2]

Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a rule designed to clarify our conceptions by directly relating them to actual or anticipated experience. In very broad terms, the pragmatic principle urges that thinkers anchor concepts and ideas in their potential practical application in actions to be taken, including “rules or modes of action” to be adopted as a result of inquiry. Transported into the language of politics and political philosophy, this maxim might be rephrased as follows:

In evaluating any aspect of a political philosophy, the inquirer should consider what practical impact the adoption of a given philosophical conception might have for the government of society, and the impact of such a conception would have on some action to be taken is key to understanding that concept.

Thus, a “Peircean approach to political philosophy” finds its ground in the potential application of its ideas to substantive problems and actions to be taken to solve them.

Three Methods of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic, which he called “Abduction.” Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely, but not certain, in light of accumulated evidence. For example, suppose I use bleach on my sink 1000 times, and then conclude from experience that bleach is a good cleaner for sinks. This is an example of inductive thinking.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning starts with the assertion of a general rule and proceeds from there to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. In deductive reasoning, if the original assertion is true, the conclusion must also be true. In my example above, suppose I start with the general principle (A) that bleach is a good for cleaning porcelain objects. Then, I observe (B) that my sink is a porcelain object. The conclusion (C) is then logically certain that my sink can be cleaned by bleach.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experience has revealed. Let us suppose that I want to clean my sink with the best possible cleaner acceptable to my family as a whole. I might use plain soap, an all-natural soap my children recommend, a cleaner my wife recommends that contains hydrogen peroxide, a cleaner labeled “for porcelain” the woman who cleans our home prefers, or a cleaner which includes bleach which I prefer. Each of these options have a proponent in my family who strongly support its use. I initially prefer the cleaner containing bleach because my mother recommended it; however, I also try out all the other cleaners recommended before concluding that, given all the concerns of family members, the hydrogen peroxide-based cleaner is best choice. This is an example of abductive reasoning, which we consciously or unconsciously use in everyday life.  Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Abductive reasoning is at the center of any scientific approach to understanding. In all scientific inquiry, science begins with a problem that needs solving and one or more hypotheses or ideas about what might be the best solution to the problem at hand. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of sciences as based solely upon “facts alone”. Science is interested in developing and analyzing facts, but those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical framework, a hypothesis or theory about how the world is actually organized.

The ability of a thinker to engage in a pragmatic philosophical endeavor involves the ability to think in what Peirce called, a “scientific manner” about problems, which leads directly to an understanding of abduction as a logical method intimately connected to a pragmatic philosophy. In fact, the pragmatic approach is applicable in many situations where logical certainty is impossible, as is always the case with politics, where information is inconclusive and different approaches have support.

In the first stage of an abductive inquiry, a hypothesis is created. (For example, “I believe that shrinking the national debt without social instability is best achieved by selective tax increases on the wealthiest segment of society.”) In the second stage, deduction is used derive predictions. (“If selective tax increases were to work, small but significant increases in tax rates on the wealthy should bring down the national debt without increasing social inequality.”) In the third stage, induction is used to verify the assumptions by searching for facts. (“After enactment of a small increase in tax rates on the wealthiest one percent of Americans, it was noted that they deficit fell by “x” while lower and middle-class incomes and purchasing power remained stable.”). When and if the process does not yield sufficiently fitting facts to validate the hypothesis, the abductive cycle is to be repeated until it a verified theory or course of action is established.

Abduction and Political-Decision Making

More than one author has worked out implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. [3] This is important because abduction is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty.

Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering.

One implication of this kind of approach to political decision-making is the observation that policy makers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality as they test the results of their policy choices. Small adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can established.

I have used a contemporary example of the importance of incremental approaches to policy formulation and implementation in the results flowing from the enactment of what was known as “Obamacare.” The time the proposal was made, most people familiar with a medical insurance business understood that charging lower than average rates for the highest risk category defied the logic of the insurance business as a whole. Congress, determined to make a radical change in the way Americans receive medical care, enacted the proposal as developed solely by the party in power without considering the views of the minority or experts who disagreed with their approach. There was little or no attempted compromise and policy adjustment. Once enacted, the problems that were foreseen by experts occurred and the program failed in many respects. The party which enacted the program suffered multiple electoral losses. A more graduated approach toward change, might have avoided successive election losses by the party that produce this legislation.

Having used an example of relative to a decision made by one political party, let us take another in which the other party was a leadership. After the bombing of the Twin Towers there was a political consensus that America had to go into Afghanistan and eliminate the terror base of Osama Ben Ladin. There was massive political unity that this was a proper policy to follow. However, following the successful initial invasion two decisions were made that did not have widespread acceptance nor did the majority of the members of government believe the wisest course of action. The first decision was to stay in Afghanistan for a long period of time engaging in “nation building” in a society with little commitment to democratic principles. The second decision was to invade Iraq with the same objectives. These policies were not enacted after extensive dialogue and with a sense of national unity and were ultimately unsuccessful. The party of the institutors of this policy suffered electoral defeat.

Both of these policy failures illustrate the importance of a dialogue, compromise, and rational adjustment among members of the political community in responding to national problems, including considered attempts to meet objections and adapt policies to factual circumstances, rather than take ideological grounded actions on the basis of preconceived notions.

Fallibilism and Freedom

The fact that abductive reasoning takes place under circumstances where there is a diversity of opinion, are many facts to be explained, and no absolutely certain decision available, leads to another principle central to Peirce’s way of doing philosophy: Fallibilism. In his view, the kind of truths that pragmatism is able to generate is never absolute, and always subject to revision based on additional information or a better explanation of the information at hand. In other words, where rules of action are involved, all opinion is subject to change and any theory or explanation of the facts could be wrong. In political terms, this principle of fallibilism means that any decision made by those in leadership in principle could be wrong and require adjustment, however certain we may be at the time a policy is adopted. [4] Fallibilism is a principle of humility—a characteristic notably lacking in much contemporary political conversation.

Fallibilism is also important to another value of our society: Freedom of Thought and Speech. If I think I possess the unquestionable truth about matters of policy, then I may ignore, suppress, or distort others positions, since my opponents are obviously wrong. If, however, I understand that I am fallible in my opinions and policy preferences, then it is important and essential to my own participation in political life and to the operation of our political system that other views be able to access the public square, so that policy-makers, and in a free society, citizens, can make wise judgments about matters of importance.

Freedom finds its most secure grounding in a sense that no one person or group has access to the truth about matters of public policy nor is everything a matter of “Will to Power” as the Nietzscheans would have it. Instead, our understanding of political reality is of necessity limited and subject to incompleteness and the necessity for change and adaptation.


Our political system is subject to rampant irrationality, increasing intolerance, emotional and social manipulation and a host of evils that can be and should be ameliorated by a pragmatic approach to decision-making. In politics, there is rarely certainty or complete consensus. There is always conflict to some degree. It is the function of leadership to mitigate the weaknesses of a democratic system by wisely considering and discussing policy matters with a willingness to make slow, incremental, and rational changes for the public good. The great challenges we face as a society cannot be healed by irrational conflict, public anger, demonstrations and other similar programs. The greatest single change we could make in American politics is to embrace a pragmatic and logical approach to policy making at all levels of government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Charles S. Peirce, “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists (Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 105, hereinafter, “AP.”

[2] Peirce was in disagreement with the ways in which Dewey and James developed pragmatism, especially as to the reality of universals, and so he coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his approach.

[3] See for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/publicservice_etds/41 (down loaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[4] Fallibilism sits under any “critical realistic” philosophical position. This blog often defends critical realism as a philosophical position. It is the view that all of our opinions are subject to critique and change, but that the theories we develop are, nevertheless, insights into reality.


Pragmatism No. 1: What Difference Does Theory Make?

For the next several weeks, we will be looking at the political implications of the American pragmatist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To begin, we return briefly to perhaps the most brilliant philosophical mind that America ever produced, Charles Sanders Peirce, who began that movement—and in so doing began the movement from what I would call “the modern age” to the “constructive postmodern age.” Peirce is an important figure on the number of levels. He was a brilliant logician and made important contributions to the study of logic. He was the founder of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. He was a practicing scientist, familiar with the scientific method. He was skilled in mathematics. He understood the fundamentals of the physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific disciplines of his day.

Born into an academic family, Peirce was not an easy person, managed to get himself blackballed from the academia of his day, and earned his living writing for fees. Friends like William James and Josiah Royce did the best they could to support him, Peirce died in poverty. Nevertheless, he was acknowledged by James, Royce, and others as the founder of the movement we call “Pragmatism” and one of the great minds of the 19th and early 20thcenturies. He split from James and others who he believed had taken Pragmatism in the wrong direction and created his own version, which he called “Pragmaticism.” This will later become important to understand.

Tradition vs. Doubt

The modern world began with Descarte and his program of systematic doubt. [1] Peirce was the first philosopher to recognize that the kind of philosophic doubt that Descarte represented was a “false” or “fake” doubt. Peirce points out that Descarte did not in fact doubt in his every day and professional life what he proclaimed to doubt philosophically. Therefore, his doubt was a “philosophic” or “fake” doubt designed to support a conclusion he had already reached. Peirce, a scientist who worked within the scientific community of his day, responds to Descarte, observing:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by maxim, for their things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception and not a real doubt; …. [2]

It is at this very point that pragmatism begins to emerge. Real doubt is not philosophic doubt. Real doubt is a doubt that leads to action to undo some kind of real doubt as to some feature of reality, so that it may be understood and responded to appropriately.

For Peirce, doubt is in an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves so that we may pass into a state of understanding or belief. All intellectual progress begins with some kind of doubt or uncertainty. A scientist is motivated to inquiry by doubt that a current understanding is complete. Furthermore, doubt cannot be permanently removed from the human situation for it is the motive for continuing human inquiry.[3] Every understanding of any reality is temporary. “Real Doubt,” unlike “Philosophic Doubt” is a part of the human condition.

Peirce was familiar with the scientific method, which is normally not the activity of a sole individual but of a community of inquirers (for example the community of cancer researchers), whose joint efforts produce a better understanding of reality. Thus, he is also opposed to the radical individualism of Descartes’ method. This is an extremely important feature of Peirces philosophy on knowledge, a taken up by others.

We cannot reasonably hope to attain progress in philosophy or any other aspect of reality without participation in an historic community of inpuuiry and their understanding of reality. [4] Thus, pragmatism in its original form reinstates tradition as an important aspect of any kind of reasoning. We cannot reason effectively except within a tradition of inquiry, which is one reason this series of blogs had attempted to survey much of the history of political philosophy.

Pragmatism and Progress

As early as the late 19 century Peirce was developing a notion of how intellectual progress occurs, a pragmatic notion that relies upon a continuing course of inquiry by human beings. This notion of truth includes the idea that to believe a proposition to be true is not merely an intellectual commitment or removal of doubt, but instead a belief that includes a willingness to conduct ourselves on the basis of the truth we believe ourselves to have discovered to satisfy the desires that motivated our inquiry. [5]

Peirce compares the method of pragmatic inquiry with other methods of establishing truth often adapted by the human race:

  1. The Method of Tenacity. The method of tenacity removes the dread of doubt by holding a belief irrespective of the evidence. Interestingly, person is aware that this method is often used by highly successful individuals in practical day-to-day affairs. It is not however, result in a kind of progress in human understanding that inquiry six.
  2. The Method of Authority. A second method of inquiry establishes some kind of power, government, and administrative group, a bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to prevent any contrary doctrine from being established or spoken.
  3. A Priori Method. The final method with which person disagrees is the method of deduction from a priori first principles, characteristic of European rationalism. The A Priori method actually does not differ from the method of authority, except that individual human reason becomes that authority. Nothing new can be discovered because nothing new can ever be discovered without new information and the results of investigation. [6]

It is at this point that a connection with political philosophy is easily seen. Governments, throughout human history, have tried to enforce their legitimacy, and the wisdom of their policies, by creating bureaucracies, administrative centers of power, educational institutions, and other social organs, the purpose of which is to establish and promulate certain views as obviously true and even a priori true and a segregate those which disagree from any possible influence upon public policy. [7] In an important passage Peirce sets out the terrifying nature of this approach:

Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time the power to prevent country doctrines from being taught, advocated or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions let them be kept ignorant less they should learn and some reason to think otherwise they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. [8]

We see this kind of behavior at work today in our schools and universities, in their intolerance of certain ideas, in the media, in the entertainment industry, in the “cancel culture movement,” in political movements left and right, and even in our governments.

The method of authority is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by stigmatizing those who hold contrary views. It is the attempt to prevent any disagreement with current policies by a process designed to prevent real though so that ordinary persons will simply concede. Throughout human history, this method has been used by governments, and particularly by those governments dominated by an aristocracy or an oligarchy, to prevent the expression of any views which might undermine the power of those in authority.[9]

The Pragmatic Alternative

Having critiqued the methods of tenacity, authority, and reliance on a priori ideas,  Pearce outlines his pragmatic alternative. He begins by noting that willful adherence to a belief in arbitrary forcing beliefs upon others must be given up in a free society so that people may find rational means of fixing their beliefs. This rational method is analogous to the method of science in that it involves appropriate investigation and experiment in order to establish a new belief.

In addition, the pragmatic method begins with the realization that there are real things that exist independent of our opinions about them. That is to say, notions such as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and the like are not subjective as the modern postmodernist would have it, but real in the sense that they have the capacity to impact our behavior and adaptation to an environment, including a social environment, for good or ill. These things are not just material but also immaterial, before they have a reality born of their capacity to enlighten and inform human action. [10]

One implication of Peirce’s method is that it discourages impulsive, dramatic, or radical solution to problems unless the situation demands it. Most of the problems of a society require sober inquiry, careful experiment as to alternatives, and wise implementation by persons of capacity and practical wisdom.

Another implication involves maximizing freedom of speech and action. For a wise course of social action to be taken, the maximum number of views possible needs to be heard and studied by those responsible for a decision. Otherwise, the best practical solution may be missed.

Conclusion: Freedom of Speech and Pragmatic Inquiry

Before going on to other pragmatists, and especially before reviewing Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had a enormous impact on American jurisprudence, I wanted to spend some time with Peirce, who was the originator of the pragmatist movement of which Holmes and others of more direct political significance were a part. We will return to Peirce before this study is over, because he is such an important figure. For now, I want to end with the importance of this thought for Freedom of Speech, a right that we see being undermined in our society. In one of his passages that has a definite bearing upon political philosophy Peirce comments:

The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organizational force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give us through approval. [11]

Those who believe that they are surely correct in their political views, and those who value social peace and the maintenance of the current social, political or economic order, whatever it may be, will always be tempted to use the method of authority to secure their position in society, and the social piece which they enjoy. It is a method that has both a benefit and a danger to human progress. However, in the end, such a method can lead only to intellectual and social decay. Instead, there needs to be a pragmatic approach. Peirce believed that he had found this approach in the pragmatic method, which begins with the logical task of ordering ideas and recognizing inconsistency and incompleteness in those ideas, but which also involves further research and analysis before doubt is resolved and correct action can be taken.

Motivated by the doubt caused by the incompleteness or inconsistency of our understanding (and a corresponding unwillingness to take action based upon that incomplete or inadequate information), the pragmatist engages in further inquiry so to better understand that world and how to respond to it. This can be the physical world, as in science, the moral world, as in philosophy, the spiritual world, as in religion, or the social world, as in politics and government. The exact nature of the method will vary depending upon the community of inquiry and subject matter of the inquiry. So, for example, the method of politics is not the method of science or the method of religion. Each of these disciplines have their own adaptation of the pragmatic method.

The goal of the pragmatic method is the discovery of new information that will permit us to develop a new rule of action with confidence, that is a new mode of adapting ourselves to the environment. [12] In politics and government that new rule of action is intended to solve some social or political problem which the society of which we are a part faces and needs to solve.

The desired result of the use of the pragmatic method is to develop a course of action, what Peirce calls a “habit of action,” that will produce a beneficial result that is tangible and practical. [13] In one of his clearest statements of the pragmatic method, Peirce urges that, in the course of any intellectual inquiry, the best course of action is to consider what conceivable effects having practical bearing on the problem, might result from the conceptions developed as a result of our inquiry of some aspect of reality. [14] In the case of politics and social policy, the careful consideration of potential results is absent from much political discourse. For example, the impact of increasing government debt is rarely seriously considered as a restraint on policy desires by whichever party is in power.

One of the most attractive features of Peirce’s pragmatism as relates to practical matters of political thought, has to do with the “Critical Common-sensism” he endorses. [15] Unlike all systems based upon the premise of doubt, Peirce bases his system upon human “common sense,” upon the reality and reasonableness of our common sense understanding of the world and all of its attributes. However, this is not a naïve common sense. Or common sense is not always right. What Peirce recommends is a critical common-sensism, that is subject to revision based upon future discovery.

As mentioned earlier, the pragmatic method is always controlled by the result of criticism, doubt, and further inquiry, and there is no definite, established limit or end to the human search for understanding in any area in such a system of thought, including politics and government. In other words, our current ideas are always subject to revision based upon new evidence. Included within the scope of our ideas are our current political ideas, whatever they might be, which is why freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, respect for a diversity of opinions, including religious and other opinions, is important to a wise and good government.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Descarte, if you will remember, claimed to doubt everything except for this ability to think. “I think, therefore, I am. His inquiry was not unmotivated however, a factor of which Pearce takes note. In fact, his method of doubt was designed to defend the Catholic religion and the consensus of his day.

[2] Charles S. Peirce, “The Rules of Philosophy” (originally published in 1868) in Milton R. Konvitz & Gail Kennedy, eds, The American Pragmatists(Cleveland OH & New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1970), 80-81, hereinafter referred to as “AP” with essay title included. The “maxim” to which Peirce referes is “Cognito Ergo Sum,” or” I think therefore I am.”

[3] “Fixation of Belief” in AP, at 87.

[4] “The Rules of Philosophy” in AP, at 81.

[5] Id, at 89.

[6] This important discussion is in AP, “Fixation of Belief” (1877), at 89-96.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Id, at 91.

[9] Id, at 92.

[10] Id, at 95 ff. I do not have time to deal with the reality of universals in this blog. For those with an interest, see my prior blog, “Faith in the Unseen Reality of Truth: The Work of Michael Polanyi” at www.gchristopherscruggs.com, May 28, 2020.

[11] Id, at 97.

[12] “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878) in AP, at 105.

[13] Peirce uses the term, “habit” to refer to a rule of action or mode of action that can be repeatedly embraced to lead to successful behavior.

[14] Id at 108. See also, “Issues of Pragmatism” (1905) in AP, at 119.

[15] Id, at 119. I take Peirce’s “Critical Common Sensism” to be a form of Critical Realism, a principle of humility that holds common sense ideas of a time and place subject to revision upon further inquiry.

Rauschenbusch 4: Concluding Analysis

This is the final installment (for the time being) covering the life and work of Walter Rauschenbusch. By profession, Rauschenbusch was a pastor and church historian, and his arguments are buttressed by historical analysis. Rauschenbusch achieved prominence with the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis in 1907, which is why this book is being analyzed. [1] From 1907 until his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the American “Social Gospel Movement,” which had great influence in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,

Among Rauschenbusch’s other writings are Prayers of the Social Awakening (1910), Christianizing the Social Order (1912), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). It is my hope to return to his thought and later in this series with a look at Christianizing the Social Order.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Rauschenbusch was of German, Lutheran heritage. He studied in Germany and admired and respected the German People. He was sensitive about the public dislike of Germany that accompanied the run-up to American involvement in World War I. His opposition to war generally, and to the war with Germany in particular, resulted in much criticism, and his popularity waned. Rauschenbusch completed his final work A Theology for the Social Gospel, in early 1917. Thereafter, Rauschenbusch’s health declined. He was hospitalized in June 1918 due to colon cancer and died that July. [2]

The Social Crisis

As Rauschenbusch analyzed the social crisis of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, he came to believe that the Industrial Revolution and prevailing capitalist form of economic organization had stripped the working class from the land, from the security of the European Guild system, and from the dignity of ownership of the enterprises from which they gained a living. I found his discussion of the nature of pre-industrial land ownership intriguing. It was his conviction that the United States would soon see the same kinds of problems as Europe because of the centralization of land ownership and the decline of agriculture as the primary occupation of most people.[3] Interestingly, the ultra-rich of our society are increasingly purchasing farm land.

In his view, the existence of large numbers of people without significant ownership of property nor any claim on the profits earned by their labor was bound to work to the detriment of labor and their families. [4] The growth of laisse faire capitalism had so severed the social bonds and diminished the dignity of labor, that fear, not pride in labor was the primary motive of many workers. In a passage of great beauty, Rauschenbusch concludes:

For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life is a profound satisfaction, and antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, and be turned as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation. [5]

In my view, there is no question but that Rauschenbusch is at least partially motivated by a longing for a simpler, more organic, agriculture-based economy. He is taken by the notion that human beings need space, light, physical labor, and a healthy diet to remain active, all of which were lacking in the New York City of his ministry. He believes that the secret of the energy and prosperity of America was just those features lacking in an industrial (and perhaps even more in a post-industrial) economy.

In Rauschenbusch’s opinion, the crisis created by the Industrial Revolution undermined the moral foundations of American democracy. In his mind, “approximate economic equality” was a foundation of democratic government. [6] For example in Revolutionary America, most people were landowners and small farmers. Great fortunes existed, but nothing like the great fortunes that characterized the Industrial Revolution or America today. Where there is a proximate social equality, and people live in community with one another, the normal social intercourse of life bonds society together. [7]Where the rich and poor are separated by a great economic distance, and the rich live in enclaves of wealth removed from the life and problems of ordinary people, this bond is dissolved.

This is an aspect of Rauschenbusch’s analysis that coheres with current social analysis of the wealth disparity that characterizes contemporary America. We might well consider Rauschenbusch’s conclusion:

Politics is embroidered with patriotic sentiment and phrases, but at bottom, consciously or unconsciously, the economic interest dominate it always. If therefore we have a class which owns a large part of the national wealth and controls nearly all the mobile part of it, it is idle to suppose that this class will not see to it that the vast power exerted by the machinery of government serves its interests. And if we have another class which is economically dependent and helpless, it is idle to suppose that it will be allowed and equal voice in swing political power in short, we cannot join economic inequality and political equality.[8]

It may well be that political polices designed to give the middle and lower classes greater ownership in American business is essential to sustaining our democracy.

The Stake of the Church in the Social Crisis

In Rauschenbusch’s view, the social crisis has profound implications for the Christian church. The church, as a social institution rooted in the common life of a people, suffers if the society in which it is located suffers.[9] As in prior chapters, Rauschenbusch argues for the religious and moral necessity for the church to act. As a social institution, the church is bound to suffer the impoverishment of its members, the high cost of goods, the lower capacity for giving, and the loss of good pastors that economic decline causes. [10] Institutional maintenance aside, the church cannot remain indifferent to chronic and acute poverty. The church has a moral and spiritual obligation, to remedy human suffering. A loss of capacity to undertake this task would be a great loss to the church. [11] Finally, if the church cannot act to undo the commercialization of life, then the church itself will inevitably decline and be captured by commercial forces. [12]

Rauschenbusch attacks the use of Darwinian and Nietzschean theory to justify the current social order. Thus, he concludes:

With many of the Darwinian theory has proved a welcome justification of things as they are. It is right and fitting the thousand should perish to evolve the higher type of the modern businessman. Those who are manifestly surviving in the present struggle for existence can console themselves with the thought that they are the fittest, and there is no contradicting the laws of the universe. There is an atomistic philosophy crowds out Christian faith in solidarity. The law of the cross is superseded by the law of tooth and nail. [13]

Rauschenbusch goes on to reflect upon how the philosophy of Nietzsche had been used to justify the current social order with its opposition of “Christian slave morality” to the morality of self-asertion. This is not to say that Darwinian theory is not a true account of evolution, but with the emergence of the human race, a new factor is at work in the universe.

In our own society, political considerations prevents the honest admission that many of our economic and political leaders hold just such views.  In a few weeks, I will address the decline of the atomistic view of the universe to which Rauschenbusch refers, and the decline in the fundamental world view at work behind the thought of Nietzsche and others. For now, it is enough to observe that Rauschenbusch is clear about the fact that these views are not compatible with a Christian view of social relations.  A Christian view of social relations is inevitably a view based upon the goodness of God and of God’s creation, the inherent worth and value of the human person, the underlying unity of the human race, and the power of love in human social relations.

The Way Forward

Rauschenbusch concludes his great work with a chapter devoted to the broad outline of what is to be done to remedy the social crisis. The world and the Christian movement were (and are), as Rauschenbusch sees matters, at a moment of crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis of its history, as the force of industrialization and the formation of a society formed on materialistic principles becomes the dominant form of social organization.  Rauschenbusch begins with an analysis of the responses that show little promise of success.

  1. First among these unworkable responses is the vain hope that somehow human society could return to an earlier stage of development. The progress of democracy and the benefits of the scientific and industrial progress of the 19th and 20th centuries cannot be turned back. All that can be done is to rationalize and humanize the results. Rauschenbusch believes that some form of socialistic modifications of society are required for such an endeavor.[14]
  2. Secondly, it is not productive to attempt to reconstruct society on purely Biblical principles, as if the social organization of ancient Israel could be imported into the 20th or 21st In particular, the social structures of ancient Israel were created for an ancient agricultural society, distant in time and character. Rather than attempt to reconstruct ancient Israel in the modern world, the proper adaptation is to look for the timeless principles of justice and quality that motivated the Mosaic law and Jewish social organization in the years before Christ. [15]
  3. Finally, it is not reasonable for the church to retreat into a kind of monastic or communal retreat from modern society. While some of the Christian, socialistic and communal experiments of the past have proven useful, they can only make large scale changes when their ideals and principles ae put into practice on a larger scale. In particular, Rauschenbusch was aware of some of the experiments in cooperative ownership in Great Britain, which had gained much attention but little lasting influence. [16]

Rauschenbusch believes that the church should use its moral influence, but should not attempt to regain the kind of power that it possessed in the Middle Ages. The experience of the church in the Middle Ages, and the ultimate decline in its moral and spiritual power, are sufficient evidence of the temptations to power that did and would ultimately corrupt and undermine the church as a spiritual institution. The church can only assist in the transformation of the social life of a nation if it is content with inspiring a social movement on the basis of its faith. It must not attempt to control that movement for its own benefit or it is unfaithful to the spirit of Christ. [17]

The church in general, and every Christian in particular, can make their best contribution to the social restructuring of society by repenting of their own social sinfulness and receiving the spiritual and emotional power to create a more just society. Creation of a just society is ultimately based upon our common humanity and the organic nature of human society, for  no one can truly be an island or live solely for his or her own desires.[18] In the creation of this society, the church is a servant dedicated to transforming human lives in the service of a just society.

By creating a new kind of human individual, dedicated to the creation of a more just society, the church has a role to play both through its leadership and lay membership. Rauschenbusch believed that there was a need for pastoral leadership trained and willing to accept the call of using their position to enhance social righteous. [19] On the other hand, the kingdom of God can only be created when carried into social life by the common consciousness and personal faith of ordinary Christians. Therefore, any movement towards social righteousness must also be a movement of laity. [20]

One notion that runs throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis is the idea that the church has done a relatively good job of preaching and enhancing private morality, and Rauschenbusch was a believer that the private morality of his day was an improvement over prior periods in history. [21] On the other hand, he believed that the church as an institution had not been successful in promoting a social morality. Therefore, to him, there was no moral question more pressing than the question of public morality. [22]


Christianity and the Social Crisis is an important book, and its author one of the most important American contributors to any kind of a social political theology. Rauschenbusch exemplifies the best of 19th and 20th century liberal Protestantism. He never cut himself off from the evangelical roots of his childhood or the fervency of his early faith. His book walks a delicate line between bringing into the social conversation of the church new ideas and maintaining historic Christian faith. Rauschenbusch was heavily influenced by modern critical scholarship and the political winds of his day, but he never cut himself off from his Christian roots. Perhaps most important in this regard is his understanding that human society, governments and law rest on something deeper—a moral and spiritual reality without the support of which no society can endure. [23]

If Rauschenbusch was attracted to both Socialism and communism, it is to be remembered that he died before the horrific results of the Russian Revolution became known. He died before Lenin’s leadership and the emergence of Stalin. He did not see the end of the communist regimes we have witnessed. What he did see was the hope they presented for a more organic and Christian society. It is for our day and time to think through what might productively transmit of that hope to a new generation, perhaps in a different way. We must leave Rauschenbusch for now but hope to return to his thought before these blogs are complete.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] For further biographical information, see “Walter Rauschenbusch” in the online Encyclopedia Britannica at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Rauschenbusch (Downloaded March 10, 2022)

[3] CSC, 211-230.

[4] Id, at 234.

[5] Id, at 237.

[6] Id, at 247.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 255.

[9] Id, at 287.

[10] Id, at 287-304.

[11] Id, at 304-305.

[12] Id, at 314.

[13] Id, at 315.

[14] Id, at 344.

[15] Id, at 345.

[16] Id, at 346-7.

[17] Id.

[18] Id, at 352-353.

[19] Id, at 357.

[20] Id.

[21] I’m not sure it’s possible to agree with his conclusion, but he’s to be remembered that he lived at the time of prohibition, and the victory of conservative groups over the force of alcohol. He was actually a supporter of probation. He may have not seen that the social mores of the industrial society were becoming corrupt. In addition, he did not live to see the results of the First and Second World Wars.

[22] Id, at 358.

[23] Id, at 373.

Rauschenbusch No. 3: The Church and the Social Gospel

In Rauschenbusch’s analysis the message of Jesus was fundamentally social, concerning the coming of a kingdom of righteousness and social justice as a continuation of the ministry of the prophets. If Jesus’s message was essentially social, concerned with the Kingdom of God and its victory in reorganizing human societies around the Gospel, then the question is immediately raised, “How did the message of Christ fail to activate the kind of social change its founder intended?” The answer given by Rauschenbusch in Christianity and the Social Crisis is that the church failed to proclaim and enact the message of its founder in the way he intended. [1]

It is appropriate to locate Walter Rauschenbusch both theologically and ecclesiologically within the Christian movement. Rauschenbusch was a liberal Protestant, raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran. He went to a Northern Baptist seminary, where he embraced progressive theological ideas, ideas which powerfully impacted “Mainline Protestant Denominations” of his and our day. [2]

Rochester Theological Seminary (formed in 1850) was the central founding institution of what is today known through a series of mergers as “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.” It has been for many years a significant force in American liberal theological education, impacted by liberal biblical and theological scholarship and the Social Gospel Movement.  Throughout its history, the seminary has been known for its commitment to academic freedom, a quality that led it to support Rauschenbusch in publishing what, at the time, were extremely forward thinking ideas. Another faculty member, William Newton Clarke (1840-1912) wrote An Outline of Christian Theology (1898) that became, in the words of a leading historian, “virtually the Dogmatik of evangelical liberalism.” Yet another faculty member, Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) served as president of the seminary while producing theology that incorporated the doctrine of evolution and the emerging practices of biblical criticism within its scope. [3] The seminary distinguished itself for academic rigor and social witness, traits remarkably combined in its most famous faculty member, Walter Rauschenbusch.

I have given this lengthy introduction in order to reflect upon both the strength of Christianity and the Social Crisis, as well as what I believe is one of its limitations. It is the definitive work of the Social Gospel Movement in the United States of America. It is, however, influenced by the Protestant suspicion of the Catholic Church and of the veracity of the Church Fathers in transmitting the message of Jesus. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch’s work is infected with the suspicion of tradition as a reliable source of wisdom and knowledge that is a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment. In many cases, this defect leads Rauschenbusch to overstate his case and slightly misunderstand and underestimate the positive role of the Church in social progress that has marked Christian civilization.

What Went Wrong

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Jesus was a great man, and like all great men and founders of movements, his disciples were not of the same caliber. Thus, he begins his analysis with the following:

There are a few men who maintain their first love and shield to their colder age and their earlier purposes untarnished by policy and concession to things as they are. But as soon as the thoughts of a great spiritual leader passed to others and form the animating principal of a party or school or set, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples cannot keep pace with a sweep of their master. They flutter where he soared. [4]

In Jesus, a lofty mind and powerful spirit had proclaimed the Kingdom of God in a powerful and motivating way. His followers, alas, were not so gifted or energized for the task—at least until the Reformation and post-Reformation scholarship. This dismissive attitude towards the Christian tradition is the major defect in Christianity and the Social Crisis.

From an orthodox position, one wonders if Rauschenbusch has somewhat overstated his case. It is difficult to think of the apostle Paul as not gifted or energized for the task of sharing the gospel. It’s equally difficult to think the same thing about Dr. Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. It is, in fact, difficult to fully agree with Rauschenbusch’s conclusion as to all the apostles and leaders of the first 300 years of the faith, many of whom went to their death as martyrs for the Gospel. One might wonder if twelve ordinary men were gifted for the task, but one cannot easily deny that they were energized and committed to the task Jesus gave them.

A second factor at work in the failure of the church to accomplish the social mission of Jesus, in the mind of Rauschenbusch, has to do with its organizational development. As the church developed, and particularly as it became institutionalized, a structure was established (including the office of Bishop) which was both organizationally committed and conservative. Naturally, like all institutions committed to survival, there was a tendency to give way before the powers of the Roman Empire. In the end, it is Rauschenbusch’s view that the church distorted the true aims of its founder. [5]

Impact of Millennial Hope

A final factor has to do with Rauschenbusch’s view of the role that the millennial hopes of the first and early generations of the church played in the lack of social progress made by the founders of the movement. There is no question but was the early Christians anticipated that Christ would return relatively quickly, certainly within their own lifetimes. While there is evidence that the church was forced to come to grips with the fact that the return of Christ would not occur during the lifetime of the Apostle’s themselves, the fact is that the early return of Christ was a motivating factor in the mission of Paul and the other Apostles (See for example, I Thessalonians 4:13-18; I Peter 2:11-12). Through the time of Revelation, there is the constant hope that Christ would come quickly and soon (Revelation 22:20).

This Millennial hope was the hope of a return of Christ in which he would establish God’s kingdom of righteousness. In the words of Rauschenbusch:

The return of the Lord meant the inauguration of the kingdom of God. What the prophets had foretold, what the people had longed for, and what John the Baptist had proclaimed as close at hand, would come to pass when Jesus returned from heaven to reign. He had not achieved his real mission during his earthly life; the opposition of the rulers had frustrated that; it had been God’s will so. But he was still the Messiah of Israel; the national salvation was bound to come; the kingdom of God would yet be restored to Israel. In a very short time he would descend from heaven and then all their hopes would be fulfilled in one glorious and divine act of consummation. [6]

Sitting within this passage are several points of interest. First of all, Rauchenbusc assumes that Jesus failed to achieve his “real mission” during his life. This, of course, denies that the Cross was the central mission of Christ’s earthly life. [7] Second, implicit in this statement is that, at the time of Jesus’s death, he was seen as and saw himself as “the Messiah of Israel” and not a universal savior of the world. As Russian Bush goes on to say, it’s a national salvation that Jesus was intending.

Rauschenbusch is not unaware of passages in the Bible that cast doubt upon his analysis. I want only to mention one, the final passage of Revelation where, relying on Isaiah 63:17, the writer describes a “New Heaven and New Earth” descending from heaven:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:1-5).

A close analysis of this passage reveals that there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth.” The New Earth that is the creation of God will be seen in “the holy city” that is descending upon the earth. This is not the historic city of Jerusalem (the center of Jewish prophetic hopes), but the church of Jesus Christ, “the new Jerusalem”. In a change of metaphor, this New Jerusalem is clearly the church the Bride of Christ. In this new Jerusalem, God himself will be present by the Holy Spirit empowering its witness in mission.

This analysis is made even more clear by Chapter 22 where in the image of the writer, “a river of life” flows through the city of God, that is the new Jerusalem, bearing fruit as it flows out of the city through the witness of Scripture in the old and New Testaments and of the Apostles. In the words of one commentator, the vision of John, written after the destruction of the earthy city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is a vision of eternal blessedness of the people of God. [8]I would add, it is a vision of the spiritual task of the people of God to bear fruit within the earthly kingdoms.

Rauschenbusch clearly identifies the millennial hope of the Jewish people, and his analysis of that hope in the life of Jesus and the early church with an earthly kingdom to be created by the people of God: “The millennium was the early Christian utopia. It occupied the same place in the imagination in hopes of the first generations of Christians which the cooperative commonwealth occupies in the fancies of modern socialists.” [9] Rauschenbusch describes this hope as a “revolutionary hope”. [10] The hope of the early church was a “hope of social perfection.” [11]

It is at this point but I think one can easily see that Rauschenbusch has gone beyond a careful interpretation of the words of Jesus. For example, when brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). When discussing leadership with his apostles before his death, he indicates that his style of leadership will not be the style of glory leadership of earthly rulers, who lord it over others (Mark 10:41-45). An analysis of the relevant texts appears to reveal that Jesus was identifying himself as the Messiah of Israel, but not identifying that Messiahship with an earthly rulership of the Jewish people (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-40).


In my view, Rauschenbusch overstates the impact of the Kingdom of God in the thinking of Jesus; and therefore, he blames the early church for its failure to adequately establish the social message of the Gospel. This is not to deny that there are social implications to the gospel, implications that Rauschenbusch points out. Consistent with a point often made in these blogs, impacted by a kind of Enlightenment ideology and materialistic millennialism, Rauschenbusch isconcerned with the establishment of an earthly, material kingdom of God within history, and therefore, is automatically led to a prophetic analysis and interpretation of the meaning of Jesus and the gospels. A more careful analysis might conclude that Jesus was primarily concerned with creating a Spirit empowered people of God which would always be at work within human history to redeem and save human beings in their totality, physical, mental, moral and spiritual. This is not at all to deny the importance of the prophetic impulse in the life and ministry of Jesus or that there are profound social implications of the gospel.

One of the insights that a study of history brings is that one should not expect too much of those who went before us nor critique their failings too strongly. Each generation builds upon the achievements of the last, and it is not given to anyone to see the future and what changes it will bring. Rauschenbusch was a creature of his day—and a fine example of his day and time. He had a true Christian sympathy with the poor and downtrodden of his and every age. As we shall see next week, he also had a vision of what might be done to make things better. May we do as well in our own day and time.

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] When referring to the “Mainline Denominations” one is normally referring to the Northern Baptists (American Baptists), Congregationalists (United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ), Episcopalians (The Episcopal Church), Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or “ECLA”). and Methodists (United Methodist Church) and Presbyterians (Presbyterian Church USA or “PCUSA”). In recent years, all of these groups have experiences schisms and departures involving the formation of more evangelical groups (The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of such a split). Because of the similarities in these groups, I refer to the split off groups as the Neo-Mainline, since the experience many of the same problems as their more liberal traditional mainline groups.

[3] See, “Who We Are” on the website of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, at https://www.crcds.edu/who-we-are (downloaded March 7, 2022).

[4] Id, at 92.

[5] Id, at 94.

[6] Id, at 104-105.

[7] I do not have the time to completely discuss this important point; however, it is to be noted that the Gospels use about one third of their text to describing the last week of Jesus’ life, which leads to the assumption that the Gospel writers thought that the cross and resurrection of Christ were the central purpose of the incarnation, not the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

[8] William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Series Volume 2 Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 202.

[9] CSC, at 108.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 111.

Rauschenbusch No. 2: Jesus and the Social Gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century continue to impact Christian response to political questions. For this reason, if for no other, taking a few weeks to come to understand the Social Gospel movement is important for the project of understanding American political and social theology.


By the time Rauschenbusch wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis, [1] Enlightenment rationality and what is called “Higher Criticism” was impacting Biblical scholarship in American Protestant circles. Since the 17th Century, scholars had engaged in a “Search for the Historical Jesus,” which was a project of “demythologizing” Scriptural interpretation to try to determine the human character of the historical person, Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth. Under the impact of the Enlightenment and its skepticism towards the supernatural, these scholars attempted to construct a life of Jesus and an interpretation of his ministry consistent with the view that he was a human being working from a premodern world-view.

Rauschenbusch was profoundly impacted by the early “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in writing Christianity and the Social Crisis and brought its conclusions into his work. [2] He was, however, careful not to cut himself entirely off from the Baptist tradition in which he worked, especially in Christianity and the Social Crisis. His goal was to educate and motivate not just theologians and pastors, but lay people has well. He was not disappointed, as the book sold well and was extremely influential among American Christians.

Begining with Albert Schweitzer (1875- 1965), the Enlightenment “Quest for the historical Jesus” faced increasing and devastating criticism, in particular because of the participants’ obvious inability to distance themselves from their own naturalistic assumptions. According to Schweitzer, the scholars of the Quest for the Historical Jesus went searching for the “real Jesus” but instead found a typical, post-Enlightenment critical scholar with the views and prejudices of the time during which they wrote. This insight has been true both of participants in the initial quest and its modern and postmodern participants. [3]

Rauschenbusch was particularly impacted by Albert Harnack (1851-1930), who interpreted Jesus as a prophet whose message was remarkably similar to the and social ideals embraced by 19th-century liberalism. As one commentator put it:

Harnack believed that the doctrine of Jesus as the divine savior was an invention of the early church. He saw Jesus instead as the ideal ethical humanist. The essence of Christianity, according to Harnack, lay in a few timeless spiritual principles that Jesus taught: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul. Jesus’ primary message was to individuals and their inward spirituality. The kingdom of God was an invisible spiritual kingdom in the hearts of well-mannered men and women which would gradually grow in the world through human efforts of personal morality and civic duty. [4]

Before going further, to give credit where credit is due, the “timeless spiritual principles” of which Harnack spoke are, in fact timeless principles that are embedded in the Christian message, the essential humanity of all people, the value if human life, and the need for social morality and Christian activity in public life.

The Social Aims of Jesus

Rauschenbusch begins his analysis of the social thought of Jesus by confessing that he believes that the human race is in a revolutionary period. The modern world ushered into existence a new era in which the study of history and the interpretation of nature had vastly changed. As a part of that revolution, new histories of Jesus and the new interpretations of his life in ministry had developed, and Rauschenbusch proudly places himself within that tradition. [5] Nevertheless, before launching into a discussion of the political importance of Jesus, he connects himself to the Christian tradition by expressing the view that Jesus was not primarily a social reformer but a religious figure whose life and teachings have social importance. [6] Thus:

No man is a follower of Jesus in the full sense who has not through him entered into the same life with God. But, on the other hand, no man shares his life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all the relations of life and reconstructs everything that it touches. [7]

Here again, we see a view with which every disciple of Christ can agree: To enter into the life of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is to enter into a life from which there must issue “rivers of Living Water” (John 7:37-39). It is, therefore, not possible to uncouple one’s religious self from one’s social self as if they were two entirely separate regions of life.

Rauschenbusch believes that it is important to observe that Jesus’ ministry was preceded by the ministry of John the Baptist, whose message was one of repentance, including repentance from national sin. In Rauschenbusch’s view, John’s message of preparation for the Messianic kingdom of God involved repentance from personal and social sin and the institution of a brotherly life that would involve the equalization of social inequality. [8] In support of this view, Rauschenbusch quotes Luke 3, where it is recorded:

What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14).

In Rauschenbusch’s interpretation, in this and similar passages, contain the essential message of the prophets of the Old Testament and the roots of Jesus’ social gospel. Jesus was not the initiator of the movement of the prophets, but its consummator as he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. [9]

Jesus’ Use of the Kingdom of God

The Gospels reflect that Jesus’ preaching was profoundly impacted by and contained the essential message of the Messiah as the institutor of the Kingdom of God. From the time of the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the Jewish people had look forward to a restoration of the kingdom of David. In the beginning, their hope was for the physical restoration of the dynasty that David had begun. During and after the Babylonian captivity, that hope of Israel began to take a different and more universal turn. According to Rauschenbusch, by the time of Jesus, the idea of the kingdom of God included not only a physical restoration but also a time of social justice, prosperity and happiness for which the people of Israel longed. [10]When Jesus used the term, “kingdom of God”, it was Inevitable that people would hear him in light of the collective history of their people, and a way of thinking that had developed in the post-exilic era. On the other hand, Jesus brought new thinking to the whole concept of the kingdom of God.

At this point, it is helpful to think about how language works. Whenever one wants to communicate an idea to another person, one must use terms with which the hearer is already familiar. This is true and important in every translation of the Bible or any other document into another language. For example, if we want to talk about “God” then we must use a word from a language that has that or a similar meaning.

In my view, Rauschenbusch has an incomplete understanding of the metaphorical use of language in any form of human inquiry, which causes him to assume that Jesus must have meant at least as much, if not more, by his use of the term “Kingdom of God” than was intended by the people of his day. [11] This is not correct. He may have used the term metaphorically to carry his own and different interpretation of the term. Nevertheless, I think Rauschenbusch is correct in his view that Jesus is using the term “Kingdom of God” to mean both and internal blessedness and the impact of that blessedness on the ordinary lives of his hearers.

In one of my favorite passages, Rauschenbusch attributes to Jesus an understanding of the organic nature of human society and human social growth, an view that rejects the violent and revolutionary elements of the millennial thought of his own days, and instead embraced the slow, sure and organic growth of the Kingdom of God in the little things of life and human history:

It takes more faith to see God in the little beginnings than in the completed results; more faith to say that God is now working than to say that he will someday work. Because Jesus believed in the organic growth of the new society, he patiently fostered its growth, cell by cell. [12]

Rauschenbusch believes Jesus rejected just what modern people are anxious to see.  revolutionary change. Jesus, however, was content to see the Kingdom of God grow one human life at a time.

Having set the stage, Rauschenbusch moves on to a discussion of whether the Kingdom of God should be seen as a future, eschatological reality, never accomplished within human history or a present reality. In an eloquent passage, he sets out his view;

This, then, is our interpretation of the situation. Jesus, like all the prophets and like all his spiritually minded countrymen, lived in hope of a great social transformation, of the national, social, and religious life about him. He shared the substance of that hope with his people, but by his profounder insight and loftier faith he elevated and transformed the common hope. He rejected all violent means and thereby transferred the inevitable conflict from the field of battle to the antagonism of mind against mind and of heart against heart. [13]

Nevertheless, Jesus is still, in Rauschenbusch’s view urging the complete transformation of the social order of his day and of ours. The Kingdom of God which Jesus prophesies and the salvation Jesus offers involves the complete social organism we know as “human society.”[14]


There is much for the contemporary Christian to learn from Rauschenbusch’s analysis. It is clear that Jesus was in fact concerned with the human person, and through the human person with all of society because changed hearts cannot but change the social order in which they live and work. By focusing on the human Jesus, his sociability, and his connection with the common people and society of his own day, Rauschenbusch does a service Christian thinking about politics and society at large. [15] Neverthless, one can at the same time recognize that the naturalistic impulse of the Englightenment and the tendency of modernity to attempt to construct a perfect world (“Kingdom of God”) within history is present in his thinking. As I was preparing this blog, one of my quiet time readings included Jesus’ confrontation with his disciples over leadership in the church, where he says:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles sexercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-29).

The most natural way to interpret this passage is that Jesus is contrasting the nature of leadership among the secular nations with leadership within the body of believers who have become part of his “kingdom,” which would be the extension of Israel into human history through the ministry of the Apostles. This kingdom is not a current reality in any age, but a future reality towards which his followers work in their own lives and communities within the boundaries of human history.

Rauschenbusch is committed to a kind of millennialism in which the church brings in a physical millennium within history by a process of social change which does involve changing human hearts and minds as Jesus did but also a kind of social transformation. I am inclined to believe that his view underestimates the inevitable results of human sin and brokenness, which renders that vision incapable of accomplishment within any secular history.

He is to be commended for his rejection of the revolutionary violence that accompanies the Marxist and Nietzschean vision of human history and for this understanding of the organic roots of human society and the need for gradual, rational, organic change. It is a message that needs to be heard in our own age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] The quest for the historical Jesus was an attempt by scholars determine what words and actions contained in the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels could be properly attributed to Jesus in the attempt to create a biography and picture of the historical Jesus. It continues to this day in the work of the so-called, “Jesus Seminar.”

[3] The Tablet: The Internaytional Catholic Weekly (downloaded March 2, 2022) puts it this way: “In The quest for the historical Jesus Schweitzer concluded that the quest was largely futile and that scholars’ reconstructions of the historical Jesus were subject to Feuerbach’s comment in The essence of Christianity (1841) “Man … objectifies his being and then again makes himself an object to the objectivised image of himself thus converted into a subject” In other words, “what man wishes to be, he makes his God”; the historical Jesus became a projection of what the scholars questing after him wanted him to be.”

[4] Kurt Struckmeyer, “The Search for Jesus” in Following Jesus: The Life of Faith in the Post-Modern World https://followingjesus.org/the-search-for-jesus/ (downloaded February 28, 2022).

[5] CSC, 45-46.

[6] Id, at 47.

[7] Id, at 48.

[8] Id, at 50.

[9] Id, at 54.

[10] Id, at 56-57.

[11] Id, at 57. Rauschenbusch defends his view of the social intentions of Jesus by assuming that he would not have used the term Kingdom of God unless he intended to mean by it the entire cluster of hopes that the collective people of Israel had invested in the term. I think this is not correct.

[12] Id, at 60.

[13] CSC, at 64.

[14] Id, at 65.

[15] Id, at 69.

Walter Rauschenbusch No. 1: Christianity and the Social Crisis

As I sit down to write this morning, Russian troops are in the Ukraine. I ask myself, “Why sit down today and write a blog about the role of Christianity in the history of American social thought at the turn of the century?” C. S. Lewis was once required to defend the work of scholarship and thought in the midst of the Second World War and the West’s defense of freedom. He reminded his readers that the human race has always been in some form of crisis, and civilization has always has to make progress in the midst of social change and disorder:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have began. [1]

This quote from Lewis is a reminder that important human achievements have and always will occur in the shadow of poverty, war, and human suffering. There is a propensity among modern people to be overly-concerned with any present crisis and to lose sight of eternity. As we shall see, the work of Walter Rauschenbusch speaks to us today in the midst of our present economic, social, political, and other uncertainties with a voice important to hear.

Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was born at the beginning of the American Civil War and died during the First World War. His life was bookended by conflict, and his work was dedicated to ameliorating the human suffering created by the Industrial Revolution. His father was a Lutheran minister. The son became an American Baptist minister, serving beginning in 1886 in an economically depressed area of New York City. It was an experience that changed his life, and his book, Christianity and the Social Crisis emerged from this experience and dedicated to those he pastored during these formative years. [2]

The book that made him famous was originally published in 1907 by which time Rauschenbusch was on the faculty of Rochester Theological Seminary, at the time a leading Protestant seminary in the United States. Christianity and the Social Crisis was and is the leading text in what is sometimes called, “The Social Gospel Movement” that powerfully impacted American Protestant thought in the early 20th Century and continues to influence political theology today. Rauschenbusch himself was influenced by the German theology of his day and relies on the insights of critical thinkers in outlining his position. In addition, he was influenced by the Socialist and Communist thinkers, though as we shall see, his position avoided some of their more radical ideas. His aim was to energize the Christian church in America to attack social evils.

Social Background

It is difficult for modern people to fully understand the upheaval in human society created by the industrial revolution, an upheaval that continues in some form to this day. People in the year 1700 lived pretty much as their parents and grandparents had lived as far as human memory extended. Economies were primarily agricultural and land was the primary source of economic and social wealth. With the industrial revolution, society changed dramatically. People were forced from the land and into cities, where the industrial revolution was creating opportunity, jobs and a new form of wealth. Families were fractured, as children left the land for the cities of Europe. Existing social forms were disrupted, and the burgeoning cities were often places of poverty and disease. Rauschenbusch saw the impact of all this during his years in ministering to a poor area of New York.

The Prophetic Voice in Old Testament History

Rauschenbusch uses an historical approach to building his case, moving from the Old Testament roots of the notion of the “Kingdom of God,” to Jesus’s interpretation of the Kingdom, to the early church’s embodiment of the idea, and on to the present day. Crucial to his analysis is the notion of a fundamentally political orientation of the Old Testament and especially of the prophets, and Jesus’ continuation of that tradition. In Christianity and the Current CrisisJesus is portrayed as a prophetic figure who stands against the injustice of his day in such a way as to create a permanent movement for social justice in human history. Therefore, for Rauschenbusch, “a comprehension of the essential purpose and spirit of the prophets is necessary for a comprehension of the purpose and spirit of Jesus and of genuine Christianity.” [3]

As opposed to what Rauschenbusch regards as a primitive state of religion focused on the worship of the gods to gain some control of nature, the prophetic impulse is inherently social. It urges a social reformation to create a more just society in the midst of social decay and disease. [4] The prophets saw the immorality and social decline of Israel and spoke a primarily moral and social message, calling their society to repentance and restoration. The “restoration” they had in mind was the restoration of the society of Israel as it developed from the emergence from the Egyptian captivity to the end of the prophetic age.

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Calvinism and the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on morality in public life is the inheritor of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which is one reason why the countries of Europe under the sway of Calvinistic ideas developed modern democracy. [5] His book is an attempt to rally the prophetic impact of Cristian faith to eradicate the social ills of his own day, similar to the way in which Christian faith impacted the society emerging from the Middle Ages.

An Organic Model of Society

Sitting beneath Rauschenbusch’s analysis is an organic view of society, which he believes that laisse fairecapitalism and industrialization disrupted, substituting an atomistic and mechanical view of society:

Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic view of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. We usually conceive of the community as a loose sand-heap of individuals, and this difference in the fundamental view distorts the utterances of the prophets as soon as we hear them. [6]

This observation is important in understanding the attraction of socialistic ideas in Rauschenbusch’s day and our own. Rauschenbusch does not want to denigrate the emphasis on the individual in modern society, but he sees the danger in overemphasizing the individual at the detriment to community. [7]

The past 400 years have seen a change in the fundamental idea of what a society is and should be from an organic ideal to a mechanical and individualistic ideal. The politics of our day is deeply impacted by this fundamental division. A truly post-modern political philosophy will not necessarily take sides on this division, so much as it may seek to transcend it by unifying an organic and individual approach, preserving the best of both. I hope to deal with this in a future blog. For today, it is important to note that Rauschenbusch yearns for a more cohesive social fabric in which the division of labor and capital, with labor impoverished is superseded by a more just form of economic organization.

Prophetic Preference for the Poor

Anticipating recent liberation theology, Rauschenbusch sees in the prophetic tradition another emphasis that should motivate people of faith to social change: The constant preference of the prophets in defending the poor and their needs against economic and political oppression. In the Old Testament the prophets condemned the tendency for land, which was the primary wealth of their day, to be centralized in an aristocracy who joined together plots of land acquired at the expense of the poor, which resulted in economic inequality and human suffering. [8] Thus, a dominant concern of the prophets was the protection of the weak and restoration of some kind of economic equality.

Rauschenbusch sees the analogy of the Old Testament situation with the economic inequality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as we might well see the value of his critique as we look at the vast economic and social inequality created by the “Second Industrial Revolution” that the growth of an information-based society and economy has produced. This does not necessarily argue against private property, for the goal of the ancients was to recover a society in which people did own their homes and the fundamental property needed for some kind of economic security. It will not be “every man owning his own fig tree” in a post-industrial society, but some kind of human security based upon what I will call “personal ownership of the fundamental requirements of life” may substitute as an ideal in our post-industrial society. [9] Far from limiting the ownership of labor of the elements of capital, we should encourage its extension by every reasonable means.

Eschatology and the Perfect Society

There is an eschatological aspect to Rauschenbusch’s thought that begins with the Old Testament. I will leave to the future a full discussion of eschatology as it impacts Christianity and the Social Crisis. This week it will be enough to mention that the prophetic impulse in the Old Testament is connected to the ideal of a perfected society. [10]Rauschenbusch recognizes that the Hebrew prophetic tradition did not primarily focus on an unrealizable equality or perfection of society, but upon those improvements which lay “within a realizable distance” of current social conditions. [11] For the prophets, a return to the national freedom of the Davidic kingdom under the rule of a just and faithful ruler was within reason and ought to be attempted in order to forestall a judgement falling on the people. In their view, national repentance and a restoration of a just society was realizable.

In this insight, any Christian political theology can agree. Christians may disagree as to what improvements increase societal perfection or are within the reasonable reach of society. Christians cannot agree that no attempt ought to be made to move society to a greater level of justice. It is the duty of the church to cooperate with those elements of society and thought that would maintain and increase the level of justice in our society.


I have refrained for the most part from critiquing Rauschenbusch in this blog. This will not be possible throughout what I think will be a several-week look at his thought. This week, I would point out that his focus on the prophets in the Old Testament leave out the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, which contains powerful political implications and foreshortens his analysis of the Torah upon which Hebrew society was built. Without the law and without the wisdom tradition, it is not possible to understand the prophets. The prophets were calling Israel back to the insights of both the Torah and the Writings.

The prophetic aspect of Christian faith is an important element in its impact on individuals and society, even at the cost of critiquing current direction of our society. In a passage that could easily be directed at our own day and time, Rauschenbusch concludes his discussion of the prophetic background of a Christian response to the suffering and corruption of his own day with these words:

[S]uppose that our country was bleeding through disastrous foreign wars and invasions, shaken by internal anarchy, terrified and angry at blows too powerful for us to avert, and in that condition a preacher should “weaken public confidence” still further by such a message? The vivid Oriental imagery of the prophets must not give us the impression that the injustice and corruption of that day were unique. It is impossible to make accurate comparisons of human misery, but it may well be that the conditions against which moral sensibility of the prophets revolted could be equaled in any modern industrial culture. [12]

Here we end the beginning of our look at Christianity and the Social Crisis. Next week we will look at the figure of Jesus and his extension of the tradition.

If we were to substitute “post-industrial” for “industrial” the critique Rauschenbusch makes might also be applicable to the injustice of our own society, an injustice that has reached the end of the earth and created an elite in every nation whose interests are not those of the common person.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War Time” in The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeardman’s Publishing, 1949), 44.

[2] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[3] CSC, at 3. As will become clearer in the next installment, I believe that Rauschenbusch overstated his case as regards the intentions of Jesus. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable political aspect of Jesus’ thought that Rauschenbusch correctly emphasizes.

[4] Id, at 5.

[5] Id, at 8.

[6] Id at 10.

[7] Id, at 29.

[8] Id, at 11.

[9] I have hinted at the exact way in which I think this might be accomplished. I disagree with the growing notion that we should create a society of renters on a world scale in which private ownership (and inevitably freedom) are abolished. Instead I think that worker and consumer ownership of elements of all businesses, as well as individual ownership of homes and essentials is the better course for maintenance of a free society.

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] Id, at 34.

[12] Id, at 38.

Christian wisdom for abundant living

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