Making Distinctions: The Value of Walls and Boundaries

The one and the many is an ancient philosophical puzzle. If the world weren’t a unity of some sort, it wouldn’t form a world. Still, there are a variety of things in it. How can both aspects be real, so that things are the same as well as different? It seems somehow more profound to emphasize oneness, and say that distinctions are illusory. Differences matter as well as similarities, though, so sanity and practicality require us to recognize both.

The difficulty, and the complexities sanity and practicality force on us, apply socially as well as metaphysically. Which social distinctions are real? Fundamental? Legitimate? It seems a sign of moral elevation to emphasize human unity. On the other hand, human diversity is real too, so the normal view has been the commonsensical one that distinctions matter somewhat, and often quite a lot, even though unity is more basic. That’s why Kipling tells us in “The Ballad of East and West” that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” but notes that the differences drop away “when two strong men stand face to face.” And Paul, who famously tells us that in Christ there is no race, class, or gender, displays no inclination to do away with such distinctions as an everyday practical matter. His point is not that they are illegitimate, any more than the distinction between private citizen and Caesar or married and unmarried, but that they are subordinate to a more basic unity.

In modern times, for all the talk of accepting ambiguities, people don’t like contemplation of open-ended mysteries or subtleties that can’t be fully grasped. They want to do away with ancient conundrums like mind and body, God and man, the one and the many, and favor simple forceful arguments that rely on a very few clear principles that tell us how to get things done. They agree with Marx: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The implicit goal of that way of thinking is to reduce the human world to a clear rational order oriented toward practical ends. On such an approach the metaphysical problem of the one and the many disappears, and the social problem becomes that of achieving efficiency, uniformity, and control in the face of the multiplicity of situations and human types. The solution that’s been adopted is a technocratic one: turn society into a unitary machine composed of interchangeable parts distinguished only by function, and wall off pursuits that are not part of the machine by ostensibly liberating them while keeping them strictly private and therefore irrelevant to the functioning of the machine and the activities of other people.

That solution follows the same industrial logic that applies uniform grades and standards to ball bearings instead of looking at who produced them. It tells us that a CEO can legitimately be distinguished from an intern, and someone with a degree in mechanical engineering from someone trained as a janitor, with large differences in salary, respect, working conditions, and job security. In contrast, distinctions like sex, religion, and cultural community, which are neither simply private nor designed to promote the functioning of commercial and bureaucratic organizations, have to be deprived of all practical significance and turned into private lifestyle or consumption choices.

Man is a religious and moral or at least a self-justifying animal, so he claims that whatever he does is the best thing to do for some lofty reason. The Marxist idea that economic organization determines moral ideals therefore makes sense in a world that puts economic concerns first. In such a world people do what the interests of the dominant classes tell them to do, and say it’s the will of God, History, Human Rights, or whatever else counts as the highest principle in public discussion. It is therefore not surprising that “inclusiveness”—abolition of distinctions not specially relevant to commercial and bureaucratic forms of social organization—has become the highest ideal publicly recognized today.

The change is evident in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” which begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” takes as its symbol a barrier that is a useless imposition rather than an enduring human reality, as in Kipling’s poem, and compares the neighbor who wants to maintain it to “an old-stone savage armed [who] moves in darkness.” That’s the way inherited distinctions had come to seem by 1914, at least in New England, and the tendency to view them that way has only grown since then. Traditional boundaries are now seen as presumptively oppressive and invalid, so much so that “transgressive” has become a term of praise.

The Church has not been immune to that development, so she too has seen attacks on traditional distinctions in many aspects of her life. Paul’s statement that in Christ there is no male or female is thought to sit very oddly with the male priesthood, and theologians tell us that Jesus’ message is one of radical inclusiveness, because he transgressed boundaries by associating with prostitutes and tax collectors. (He does not seem, however, to have encouraged them to affirm their identities as such.)

The Catholic Church, with its strong principle of tradition and divine protection against ultimate defection, has been less venturesome in such matters than other ecclesial communities. Still, they have had their effects: ritual has become more mundane in recent decades, sacred language has fallen into disuse, and the distinction between lay and ordained has been blurred where possible. Further, the public moral witness of Church leaders has tended to follow the prevailing trend of moral sentiment to the extent permitted by doctrine. There has been little opposition to feminism, except with regard to abortion and the male priesthood, and princes of the Church have recently made “immigration reform,” basically meaning free movement across national boundaries for purposes of permanent settlement, a high priority moral cause. Most recently some have even proposed cutting back on the distinctiveness of marriage, at least as a practical matter, for example by changing the rules for reception of communion by the civilly divorced and remarried.

Still, it should be obvious that boundaries matter, and good fences do indeed make good neighbors. They provide a zone of peace and freedom within which particular ways of life and networks of human connections can establish themselves and function. That principle applies at the level of the family: it is why an Englishman’s home is said to be his castle. More basically, it is part of the reason a man leaves his father and mother, cleaves to his wife to the exclusion of all others, and forms a new family. Man is social, so the same principle applies at higher levels as well. If we don’t have national communities and boundaries, for example, we’ll have other walls: the walled quarters of the traditional polyglot Middle Eastern city or the gates of gated communities.

The Church recognizes the need for walls and boundaries in her own case. Jesus speaks of the sheepfold, which is defined by its walls, and from ancient times Catholics have spoken of the Barque of Peter, with its hull that keeps out waves, sharks, and seaweed. The Book of Revelation even talks of the walls of the New Jerusalem, which are needed to create a defined space and world even after all need for exclusion and protection has vanished.

Nobody wants to destroy all distinctions. To abolish them is to abolish the institutions and ways of life to which they relate, so people want to keep the ones that relate to matters they care about. Academic radicals may be willing to accept feminist abolition of the family and multicultural destruction of the functioning of specific culture, but few prominent ones want to abolish the PhD or the tenured chair.

Such considerations don’t answer specific questions by themselves, but they do put the issue of walls and distinctions in a different light. Barriers can be injurious, but we should not treat them as suspect in principle. As often, Chesterton showed good sense with his counsel to leave fences in place unless their functions and purposes are thoroughly understood so we can know what it would mean to get rid of them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of the wall protecting the Vatican.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • ForChristAlone

    Excellent, as always.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In his Grammar of Assent, Bl John Henry Newman draws an important distinction: “Now what do the terms of a proposition, the subject and predicate, stand for? Sometimes they stand for certain ideas existing in our own minds, and for nothing outside of them; sometimes for things simply external to us, brought home to us through the experiences and informations we have of them. All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence, no counterpart, out of it.

    Now there are propositions, in which one or both of the terms are common nouns, as standing for what is abstract, general, and non-existing, such as “Man is an animal… And there are other propositions, which are composed of singular nouns, and of which the terms stand for things external to us, unit and individual, as “Philip was the father of Alexander””

    • The passage you quote looks like a clear statement of extreme nominalism. It’s worth noting that nominalism has been a minority view within the Church–most Catholic thinkers have attributed some sort of real existence to universals–and people argue about what Newman’s real views on the topic were.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Prof Kalb

        Bl John Henry Newman would certainly have agreed with you that “human diversity is real too, so the normal view has been the commonsensical one that distinctions matter somewhat, and often quite a lot…”

        “And in like manner as regards John and Richard, when compared with one another; each is himself, and nothing else, and, though, regarded abstractedly, the two may fairly be said to have something in common, (viz. that abstract sameness which does not exist at all,) yet, strictly speaking, they have nothing in common, for each of them has a vested interest in all that he himself is; and, moreover, what seems to be common in the two, becomes in fact so uncommon, so sui simile, in their respective individualities—the bodily frame of each is so singled out from all other bodies by its special constitution, sound or weak, by its vitality, activity, pathological history and changes, and, again, the mind of each is so distinct from all other minds, in disposition, powers, and habits,—that, instead of saying, as logicians say, that the two men differ only in number, we ought, I repeat, rather to say that they differ from each other in all that they are, in identity, in incommunicability, in personality.”

        It is the distinction between notions or ideas in the mind and real knowledge – “All that we know, strictly speaking, is the existence of the impressions our senses make on us.”

        • michael susce

          It is the distinction between notions or ideas in the mind and real knowledge – “All that we know, strictly speaking, is the existence of the impressions our senses make on us.”Again, I must refer to the fact that Thomas Reid, the Scottish philosopher who effectively countered (putting it politely) David Hume and the Catholic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas reject this view of the senses. And for us of average intelligence, the above quoted statement asserts a view outside of impressions, therefore a self denying statement.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            Michael Susce

            Knowledge requires a criterion. That is why Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations, “I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say “I know what you are thinking,” and wrong to say “I know what I am thinking.” (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)” (II, xi, 222). Newman was alive to that distinction.

  • publiusnj

    If boundaries weren’t important, invasions would just be meaningless migratory movements. Albeit by armed persons, but they only had to arm because old-fashioned hegemonists wanted to keep them outside the walls they had erected.

    The author is right when he says: ” If we don’t have national communities and boundaries, for example, we’ll have other walls….” In today’s US, the walls are the categories the pollsters use to slice and dice the electorate, usually following the lead of politicians who likewise wish to “divide et impera.” Think how the latest group of (primarily white) immigrants got hived off in the 1960s primarily by Democrats and given the non-racial minority classification of “Hispanic speaking.” White ethnics were moving up the middle class and abandoning the Democrat Party and the Democrats couldn’t see their ways through to a new majority coalition unless they isolated a group of the ethnics to whom they could pander with unique benefits. Thence: “Hispanics.”

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Perhaps, this is why so many of the old historians preferred to speak of the Folk-Wandering Time (Volkerwanderungen) with the whole history of Europe being explained in terms of the Wanderlust of the Teutons.

  • Stanley Anderson

    In quality control, continuous improvement, product development, and many other areas of course, one hears the overused phrase “thinking outside the box”. This can obviously be a good thing to do, but its dangers can be to position oneself so far off in another galaxy of ideas that any potential ideas become impractical to implement in any reasonable amount of time or effort.

    I like to say, in a kind of sonic pun on the phrase, that instead of (or perhaps in addition to) the idea of “thinking outside the box”, it is good to “think about the sides of the box” or as I have also referred to it, “meta-box thinking”. In other words, the sides of the box were originally there for some reason. It is well to think on them and consider why there are there. One may be able to expand one or more sides or perhaps open up or even remove one or more of them, but the effects of doing so may not be easily anticipated or dealt with.

  • There are people who are clear about making distinctions and
    often fail to notice most people make none or go for homogenization time after
    time or we assume they see what we see. Lawyers, doctors, plumbers all have a
    language filled with distinctions that lets them see what I don’t see. If you
    learn a new language, you rapidly see that the new language has a different set
    of distinctions that do not allow for easy translation or transition between
    the two. How many different distinctions for snow are there? Ask an Inuit to
    know. Ask someone speaking Sami in Northern Europe about reindeer. They
    have at least 1000 distinctions for what I see as reindeer. Watch a fly
    or honeybee enter into a room and notice how often it finds the single pain of
    glass where it dies attempting to escape. If you did not have the
    ‘distinction’ door or window, you would be stuck in a room with many pictures
    on the wall. The unity is myth, as mythical as a flat planet and like the flat
    planet orders and designs thinking. You still say the sun rises in the
    east and sets in the west and that does not happen. Really. The world and those
    in it who use their distinctions to homogenize us, to put us into groups and like-minded
    hoards is not the path for anyone aware. As a child, I whined to my
    father, ‘but everyone else is doing it!’ His response, “If everyone
    was jumping of a bridge, would you too?” struck me hard.

    To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to
    make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being
    can fight; and never stop fighting. – e. e. cummings

    Jesus said “Enter by the narrow
    gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to
    destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” [Matt 7:13] 7:21
    has another hint, distinction, lost on many today too.

    The homogenized pabulum offered by the world isn’t just the road to perdition.
    It is perdition.

  • hombre111

    Well done, as usual, with plenty of food for thought. For instance, the enigma of mind/body, the one/the many. Dualism has nagged western thought like a rock in a shoe, and has led philosophy and theology into one dead end after another, until, in this era, we are stuck with the hopeless enterprise of analysis, looking at words and sentences through a logical microscope that loses any idea of the larger context revealed by intuition and experience. The more abstract and focused we become, the further we are from reality.

    As for the distinction between lay and cleric, the great present scourge is clericalism. Just had a discussion with a retired bishop. I always listen to him carefully, because he seems to be the ultimate hierarch. The subject was the vocation shortage. He told me that some of the South American bishops had urged Pope Francis to consider the possibility of married priests. “At least,” he said, “Someone credible is bringing up the subject.” Only bishops and archbishops are credible? Only they are qualified to speak the truth? If the answers can come only from the top, the Church, no wonder the institution limps along. During the last years of his pontificate, during his looooong journey to the grave, Pope John Paul put the Church into a desperate place. Pope Benedict, thank God, saw the need for a pope who was not slogging through senility, and so he resigned. Pope Francis says he wants to listen to more voices. I look forward to the Synod on the Family. What will emerge? Fortunately, bishops and archbishops will not be the only ones with access to the microphone.

    • DE-173

      “Well done, as usual, with plenty of food for thought. ”

      And after that, a slog through senility.

      • hombre111

        Well, buy a dictionary. If you see a word with three or more syllables, look it up!

        • DE-173

          Did I complain about the words?

          • hombre111

            I have never ridiculed or diminished the People of God. In our worship of the purple, we forget that that is where the real Church abides. If you have an example of a post ridiculing and diminishing the ordinary people of God, bring it forth.

            • DE-173

              “I have never ridiculed or diminished the People of God.”

              Although that was not my assertion, you lie. Within four minutes of writing this, you referred to “right wing rubes”, who are as much the “People of God”, as your Marxist or homosexual friends.

              Then again, you are a self-professed liar, right “Monsignor”.

              My assertion was that you make light of the old age infirmities. You have done this on numerous occasions and for anybody that cares to wade into the sewer that is your comment history, they’ll find multiple charges of senility against the Sainted Pope.

              At your age you should be a little less glib about senility. The second derivative of the function of incidence over time for 76 year olds should scare the hell out of you, but I rather doubt you understand derivatives.

              • hombre111

                Most of the right wing rubes in my part of the world are Baptists who have never repented the Civil War.
                Sigh, anyone who is my age is resigned to the coming of senility. That is why I read about astronomy, particle physics, and theology. Keeps my mind sharp. Yesterday, I spent some time reading Star and Telescope, then spent the early dark hours pondering the moon, Mars, and Saturn. Can’t be compared to the glories of Hubble, but I am looking at those planets real time. Crisis helps me with the theology part. Every time I enter into a controversy on this site, I check the sources of my theological reflections, usually Don Gelpi, SJ, who was probably the St. Thomas of our era.

                • DE-173

                  “Most of the right wing rubes in my part of the world are Baptists who have never repented the Civil War.”

                  Liar. You’ve expressed your contempt for your parishioners on multiple occasions.

                  Your mind isn’t sharp. You are an enfeebled old man who fancies himself a pillar of morality, but all you have to offer is socialism and sodomy.

                  • hombre111


    • michael susce

      “Clericalism is the application of the formal, church-based, leadership or opinion of ordained clergy in matters of either the church or broader political and sociocultural import”. When I read of the great clerics of the early 20th century like Francis Kelly, Father Coughlin, Rupert Mayer ,Bishop Sheen, Saint John Paul II and hundreds of others, I pray that God bring a revival of clericalism. When I read of the Clericalism of the past two thousand years explicitly articulated by people like Christopher Dawson, I pray to God to bring back clericalism!! When I discovered via Father Jaki the science of Father Lematre, the originator of the Big Bang Theory, I say….you get the picture…

      • hombre111

        I wince when you mention Fr. Coughlin. But your list of sterling accomplishments by bishops and priests is not what is meant by clericalism. Clericalism means the rule over the Church by a distant and aloof clergy who claim sole access to wisdom and the Holy Spirit. The tyrant pastor. The bishop who has lost touch, or never was in touch, with his people. The clerics who see themselves as a superior class, who have lost track of the fact that the greatest source of our Christian dignity is our baptism, and that they are called to be servants, as Jesus was.

    • It seems to me that the trend in the last few decades has been
      away from simple clericalism toward claims of certified expertise on the
      one side and ultramontanism on the other. I’m not sure that’s been an

      Not that anything’s perfect. Congregational and presbyterian churches have issues as well. Ditto rule by representative assemblies. There are problems no matter how things are set up.

      • hombre111

        I agree about the congregational and presbyteral models. I have seen some epic fights, with pastors going up as whole burnt offerings.
        But I am not sure what you mean about certified expertise and ultramontanism. A battle between theologians and the authority of the pope? I would certainly say the authority of the pope and the magisterium is part of the struggle. There is a growing awareness of a democratic process and the demand that, somehow, the Church open herself to a sensus fideli. As Pope John Paul said, again and again, “The Church is not a democracy.” No, we don’t take a vote, thank God. But we do need to do what Pope Francis did in his forthcoming Synod on the family, invite the laity to offer their own opinion.

        If we don’t, we will have what followed Humanae Vitae, a general rejection by the Faithful of a papal document. At issue, if I remember correctly, was the authority of the pope. Pope Paul VI had some measure of authority before the document, and less authority afterward. This marked a water-shed. This kind of crisis did not exist before the encyclical, but it has ever since. We have the majority of the faithful on one side, and the self-proclaimed orthodox who read magazines like Crisis, on the other.

        • We certainly need more of a sensus fidei and sensus fidelium. Without it we get the view that the Faith is simply the outlook of the man occupying the seat of Saint Peter, or else something to be determined by the methods of modern secular expertise. Or it’s the view the preponderance of the people of God in fact hold, so that when Moses was on the mountaintop it involved worshiping the golden calf.

          It’s interesting that Humanae Vitae and contraception have turned out to be such key issues for the Church and the world. I would never have guessed. Time reveals all things I suppose.

          My own view is that HV was plainly correct, that events have confirmed that, and that responses to it demonstrate the catastrophic consequences modern tendencies of thought have had for the human understanding. They dissolve the sensus of just about everything by attempting to make everything an expression either of will or of pure scientific objectivity. One consequence is that legitimate authority disappears, so the response to the encyclical only revealed the situation the Church was already in.

  • The problem of the one and many has not disappeared, it has simply become unconscious. Of course the debates about centralization, national boundaries and diversity are directly related to the problem of the one and the many but even the elites are so poorly educated they don’t even recognize the problem. They assume the answer in their abstractions of “human rights” and other gobbley-gook and fail to even see the problem. John Rushdooney did a great book on this called “the One and the Many” several years ago, I recommend it. You also find good discussion of it in Voegelin.

  • Catholicus

    Brilliant article. The question reduces itself to whether we should accept the borders of nature, creation, and tradition, or those artificially imposed by our disordered passions, political will, and sinful inclinations. Borders are to be discovered, not created or redrawn. God has created this world with a fascinating multiplicity, and we have by far not exhausted the study of the many borders and boundaries there are, with their own laws and regularities within them. Animal and plant species, differences in tissues, minerals, landscapes, languages, races — none of these “socially constructed”, i.e. artificially demarcated. The world is spiky, not flat, as Friedman and other abolitionists of borders tried to propagate. Catholics have a natural reverence for the multiplicity of creation. They should be very suspicious about human designs to eliminate natural boundaries. Such attempts have in history always led to new totalitarianisms, for ultimately it is meant to make one category triumph, but this time one of human choice (the German people, the proletariat, the female sex, or what not).

  • Pingback: Why We Love the Traditional Latin Mass -

  • Pingback: The One, the Many, and the Battle Zone | The Orthosphere()

  • C.Caruana

    On the loss of distinctions, its genesis, ‘progress’, and terrifying consequences, read Rene Girard.