Self-evident truths, Part I

The ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment's insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his or her values and beliefs on others. In other words, "I don't know what the absolute truth is, but I also know for sure that you don't know what absolute truth is either." The recognition of this necessary equality of ignorance about absolute truths is one the insights that undergirds the Declaration's assertion that all men are created equal. This moral discovery by the Founders opened the space that has allowed human individuality and human particularity to flourish as never before in history.

The quote, above, is from "Created Equal?" by Ronald Bailey which is published on Reasononline. (Does anyone else find it funny that skeptics find it necessary to perpetually reaffirm for themselves that they are allegedly the rational ones by always having to name all of their publications and websites with some word related to "rationality" or "open minded"? I mean, if it were so obvious, don't you think that everyone would realize it? Ah, but I digress . . . . ) The only problem is that this view of the origin of the words "self-evident" as used in the Declaration of Independence ignores both history and the intended meaning of the phrase as used by the founders.

I have in my collection a great little book entitled Defending the Declaration by Gary T. Amos. The subtitle of the book is "How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence." The book is an absolutely great overview of the political and philosophical history of some of the more notable phrases as used in the Declaration, including phrases like "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God", "unalienable rights", and "the pursuit of happiness". Each of these topics has an entire chapter devoted to them.

The chapter on the phrase "self-evident" makes it clear that historically, people like reasononline have no leg to stand on. Consider the following from pages 77 and 78 of Defending the Declaration:

Seventeenth-century Enlightenment rationalists did not coin the term "self-evident." Medievil theologians used the term centuries earlier, tracing their views of "self-evident" to the teachings of St. John of Damascus (d. 749), author of De Fide Orthodoxa. John was the last of the Greek fathers and the first theological encyclopedist. "Self-evident" knowledge for the medievalists was that which was "naturally implanted" in men, such as "first principles." It was truth known intuitively, as a direct revelation from God, without the need of proofs. The term presumed that man was created in the image of God, and presumed certain beliefs about man's rationality which traced as far back as Augustine in the early fifth century. For example, four hundred years before John Locke, Thomas Aquinas wrote:

The precepts, therefore, contained in the Decalogue are those the knowledge of which man has in himself from God. They are such as can be known straightway from first general principles . . . and those which are known immediately from divinely infused faith . . . . (T)wo kinds of precepts, the primary and general, which being inscribed in natural reason as self-evident, need no further promulgation . . . . These two precepts are primary and general prcepts of the law of nature, self-evident to human nature.

In Aquinas, man is not the source of self-evident knowledge, God is. Certain things become self-evident to man because God has created man in His own image and inscribes the requirements of His law on man's heart in spite of man's sin. Certain truths are evident in men's selves, because God makes it evident by promulgating it to them. Aquinas's view is drawn directly from the Apostle Paul.

Mr. Amos then proceeds to draw a connection between the thinkers and writers of the medievil church straight to the authors of the Declaration. In doing so, he comes across one stumbling block -- John Locke -- who is largely accepted to be the author of the term "self-evident" in the period of the enlightenment. Mr. Amos takes this view of Lock on head-on and demonstrates in a fairly compelling fashion that Locke's use of the phrase was not different in any significant way than the use by the medievil thinkers. I will write more on Amos' elaboration on Locke's ideas next time. In the meantime, I recommend anyone who can find a copy of this book read it -- it is very "enlightening".


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