In Pursuit of Shared Blessings
The more closely we look, the more to consider. Some writers mean every word because they are inviting our most careful scrutiny. Others are just as careful to take us off the scent of what words could mean because their possible meanings have never in truth occurred to them or have been dismissed and rejected. I have in mind today particularly Lincoln and Jefferson.
Jefferson lived in a world in which he regarded the privilege and power of white men much as any other self-evident truth: an unalienable endowment of the divine. That the words he (and his colleagues) composed and agreed upon did not include people of color or women was not debated. And in that so-called Age of Reason all plausible facts are worthy of debate. That tells us everything we need to know about how power arises from systems and structures that mean to serve themselves.
To break into other plausible meanings, reasonable claims, and so truths we pursue through debate does not test the self-evident but instead helps realize its purpose. Self-evident truths are regarded incontrovertible---and so the threat of disproof by reason alone is treated as beyond the pale. Until it is not.
Jefferson's basis for self-evident truth is that it is not human-made, which must strike us as ironic in light of the prevailing religious beliefs of his Deism. But notwithstanding this invocation of Divine sanction what is regarded as self-evident because it is incontrovertible might just as well be understood as shared premise. Not only must we be willing to make our assumptions, explicit or implicit, a foundation for further reasoned argument, we must understand that human-made claims are more than vulnerable; they fragile when untested.
If we abandon the assertion of the incontrovertible, we are not abandoning truth but rather the divine claim, the assumption of ordanance beyond evidence, reason, and debate. We are then left with very human selves to pursue truth. We the People must make the case that what must be true is something we alone must manifest and claim for all. This is no small matter. The humanist-alone truth is no longer self-evident but founded on premise and proposition.
This is what Lincoln did to Jefferson's argument, even though Lincoln is arguably far more the theist than his predecessor. Lincoln restates what was supposed to be self-evident as a propositional argument, which will necessarily have premises as vulnerable as the arguments themselves. We discover that our search for truth beyond conditions is once again conditional. What we want to be true before and after our analysis must be remade true in every effort, as the continuous argument.
We shouldn't dismiss Lincoln's theism---for it seems clear that he thought a just God would demand from us the pursuit of truth that is continuously true, which would make it for all purposes much the same as self-evident: always true from before, during, and after the argument. But that idea of pursuing truth is, I think, the genius we see in Lincoln reimagining the problem of truth itself. He aims not to dispute Jefferson but to force upon his self-evident claim the plausible argument that we uncover meaning only insofar as we are willing to pursue truth.
Truth for Lincoln is no longer static, a thing we possess or something known. Truth becomes a pursuit, an unfinishable business that needs to remain unfinished in order to be true. Thus the self-evident requires we work with the premises and test the propositions because they need to be made true, not because they "are."
What I'm suggesting here is that America's claims to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness means that we must dedicate to propositions rather than assert, that we must continue to seek what is moving rather than devolve into immovable declarations.
This kind of truth is going to require toil, tedium to learn and relearn, argument and the slower-moving processes of honest debate. There is no arc of justice but the one we create and for any such arc to exist will require re-dedication and re-application of its unfinishable goals. Justice to be just must pursue what cannot be completed but by our continued efforts to remain engaged.
Lincoln was right when he observed that the self-evident was not only unrealized and unwarranted but in effect unhelpful. What we need is not a static Justice (n.b., the capitalization like we would "God.") Rather what is demanded is dedication and the pursuit of justice--- above all that we agree to our shared premises and propositions.
That last requirement, I fear, is where America is currently failing, our greatest peril. Truth is like democracy: it is hardwon, fragile, and in need of continuous renewal and dedication. Truth like democracy is difficult, often messy and unclear; it is a process that tests our patience and requires inclusion and debate. But truth is also a matter of good faith, shared facts hardwon, and demands we reject the insidious purposes of disinformation. We must not accept the facts but win them in the crucible of arguments well-made.
How is it that 156 years after the Civil War we still cannot agree that all are entitled to the blessings of liberty and justice? To this we must rededicate, for those blessings are like truth itself---not things merely to treasure but rather treasures to pursue.