Will The Center Hold? A Philosophical Intervention

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” –William Butler Yeats

“There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.” — Bernard Lonergan

First, the bad news. William Butler Yeats wrote these lines in the wake of the terrible global calamity of the First World War, a time when he and his contemporaries had reason to feel that the world was indeed falling apart. Additionally, Yeats’ apocalyptic imagery points to the failure of cultural ceremonies and rituals and of social institutions to provide checks on anarchic tendencies. In fact, the poem points to some malevolent force (a worldly spirit having the body of a lion and head of a man with eyes blank and pitiless appears in the next lines) flooding the world with darkness. But I wonder what Yeats meant by the center that “cannot hold”. Likely, not the social or political symbols and institutions that had held the world together in the previous centuries of the modern period. The apocalyptic imagery suggests that the poem is about something other than colonialism, free market capitalism, liberal institutions, democracy, imperialism, monarchy or constitutionalism. It strikes me that the source of the trouble is indicated in the last two lines of this first part: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” What has come untethered is something much closer to home. The horrid beast may be the commonplace chimera we meet with every day: the socially minded person who lacks the courage to risk private comforts for higher goods and the egoist with all the passion and fury needed to capture and distort higher goods for personal gain. We are the center that may not hold.

Now for the good news. Lonergan’s center, likewise, symbolizes the integrity of the human person. I think we would miss the point if were to imagine the center simply in linear terms as a point between the solid right and the scattered left. The center in Lonergan’s quote is not, I think, simply a matter of a compromise position that blends some of the concerns of each side leaving both dissatisfied. Neither is the center a matter of some “third way” that tries to avoid the worst possible excesses of the extremes while preserving the so-called common concern at the heart of the competing agendas. Both of these have their place. But neither is adequate to meet the problem of being at home in both the old and the new, refusing half-measures, and insisting on a complete solution. A compromise is by definition a half-measure. The third way rests upon the identification of a common core of issues. Those core issues however are the very meanings that constitute the two divergent worlds, the older world the right seeks to preserve and the newer world the left wishes to bring about. The center is occupied as a commitment to the human good as a concrete historical process and by submission to the ongoing process of knowledge as self-correction by those who are sufficiently big, painstaking and strong. We are again the center, and the good news is that it can hold if we have the strength and patience to keep it.

The old which is passing and the new that is coming to be are each part of the concrete course of human history. This course of change is by definition disruptive. It contains within it a principal of chaos that may appear anarchic. At the center is the ongoing process of knowledge and desire for evermore complete realization of the ideal of human good. Conflict often arises because opposing parties disagree on whether the course we are taking is in reality a matter of progress or of decline. Is the country headed in the right or the wrong direction? There are three different ways in which to answer this question: first, by focusing on whether I will get more or less of my personally desired outcomes in the new situation; second, by focusing on whether the new situation places the institutions that structure our world in a stronger or a weaker position; and third, whether the new reality enhances or jeopardizes our common commitment to truth and goodness.

To be big enough means taking a longer perspective and developing a deeper understanding of history. This means shifting from the first to the second way of evaluating progress. The sets of good things and freedoms that we currently enjoy are made possible and sustained by the institutions and social practices that shape our world. Without democratic institutions, we would not enjoy democratic freedoms. Without market practices, we would not enjoy market goods. Our liberties are sustained by liberal institutions. Our human communities are sustained by commitments to human values. We should not pass judgment on a particular policy proposal or legislative agenda by looking only at the short term or at the particular good things we hope to get. We must keep in view the concrete social practices that make these particular goods possible. As a sports-lover should value the integrity of the game above the outcome of a particular contest, a citizen should value the rule of law above the judgment of guilt or innocence passed on any particular person. When institutions themselves need to be challenged or changed, however, for instance in the social and cultural rejection of slavery, the third kind of question comes into play. It is beyond folly to speak and act in ways that undermine the universal commitment to honesty, knowledge and responsibility. The best need not lack all conviction.

To be painstaking enough is, first of all, to value one’s work as a service to the community and to moderate one’s appetite for entertainment. We are, from the beginning, unwilling to take pains to discover truth if we have a habit of preferring the immediate pleasure and satisfaction of being entertained. The doors of the mind cannot be opened when media garbage overflows in the foyer of the senses. To be painstaking is to have something of a work ethic in the realm of ongoing education for the sake of citizenship. The specific intellectual task to which Lonergan refers involves making, one by one, the necessary transitions from the old world that is passing to the new world that is coming into being. On the basis of the longer view, we know that such transitions have been made in the past. Civilizations, cultures, science, humanities, governments, etc. have all succeeded one upon another. Scholars in these various areas have done much of this work for us showing how what is of genuine value was preserved and even enhanced in the new situation, to the extent that the transition was a matter of progress; and how something of great value was lost, wherever there was decline. The transition indicates how the old value was given new life in the subsequent order and purified of its former diseases. But that work remains barren when it does not pass into the minds and hearts of those who play an active role as influencers, activists, leaders, and professionals in the emergence of the new practices, industries, policies, laws, beliefs and values. To be painstaking is to be a lifelong learner permanently dissatisfied with an immoderate appetite for entertainment.

Finally, to be “strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though [one] has to wait” is to consistently place the commitment to common institutions above personal gains and truth and social responsibility above party loyalty, nationalism, or identity politics. What is immeasurably helpful here is both the longer view of history and the work ethic of the informed citizen. But what is also needed is emotional maturity to stand with one’s opponent as a fellow human being united in this concrete common history and mutually sustained by our common participation in shared institutions and practices. It is well known that in a state of conflict couples revise their own memories of their relationship. Married couples in conflict tell characteristically negative stories about their wedding day: comedies become tragedies. Individuals in conflict feel that the other poses an existential threat and dehumanize each other. To refuse a half measure means many things. It means not capitalizing on short terms gains at the expense of long term goals. It means not solving the problems of my family, community, industry, nation at the expense of the well-being of other groups. But it also means not devaluing the other and trampling the human dignity of others whose core being is a principle of truth and goodness. Courage, strength, and patience are needed if the best are to rival the passionate intensity of the worst. The center is a place we can occupy by adopting Lonergan’s philosophical attitudes in the face of Yeats’ (and our own) apocalypse.


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