Sense and Nonsense: Tolerance and Persuasion

Persuasion is a novel of Jane Austen. Anne Elliot, whose word had “no weight” with either her father or sister, explains that, “If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk.” Persuasion concerns things that can be otherwise.

Persuasion is the object of rhetoric or oratory, to move us to action by preponderance of argument when many reasonable or unreasonable alternatives are open to us. Elements both of risk and safety are indeed to be considered.

At the beginning of The Republic, a wealthy young man and his servants chase after Socrates returning from the sea port to Athens. When Polemarchus catches up with Socrates, he tells him that he is wanted at the home of his father, Cephalus. After inquiring why he should go, Polemarchus tells Socrates to look around at the number in his company. He implies that they can force him to come with them. But Socrates asks if there is not another way. Can they not “persuade” him voluntarily to return? Already here, we have a playful contrast between force and persuasion.

Many, perhaps too many, think that because of this possibility and indeed preferability, that it is always better, always possible, to persuade rather than to coerce. Aristotle was perhaps less naive. He recognized that some people will not be persuaded—the emphasis is on the “will not.” In such cases, to use appropriate force precisely to restore a possibility of reason or persuasion is not unjust or irrational. Coercion itself, in this sense, is ultimately an instrument of persuasion.

These thoughts about persuasion are occasioned by a remark in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book on Augustine. Speaking of the “late twentieth century” preoccupations “with ourselves,” itself ongoing into the 21st century, she distinguishes between (1) a self open to what is not itself and (2) a liberal self that is only open to itself and its own values, which it gives itself. She adds, mindful of Yves Simon’s book on the same subject, that Augustine’s “understanding of authority is pretty much opaque to us, believing, as we do, that even persuasion is a form of imposition.”

That phrase “even persuasion is a form of imposition” deserves much reflection. At bottom, if persuasion is itself suspect, we are left with only coercion, with Hobbes. We frankly admit that all laws or rules are impositions of irrational force. In making absolutely everything persuasion, too often the contemporary temptation of the religious mind, we leave no space for reasonable coercion precisely in the name of reason. And if we further have a theory of the free or liberal self, obedient to nothing but itself, even in first principles, then any sort of persuasion will be looked on as coercive, which was Elshtain’s point about imposition.

Is there a way out of such intellectual traps? Only if we have a theory of intellect in which its purpose is to discover, not make, the truth. When an intellectual argument is valid in the speculative order, it is valid always and everywhere. There is no such thing as a “particular” philosophy or any claim to any truth, including religious truth, that can claim exemption from a test of truth that is not subjective.

This potential universality is the natural basis of any missionary mandate. Many nations, on political grounds, do not allow openness to questions of truth. The rise of absolutist tolerance theory is, in effect, intellectual skepticism. As a theoretical position, it means the establishment of the “denial of truth” as the truth.

Tolerance theory has nothing to do with allowing discussion. It has every-thing to do with preventing settled positions from being examined against some non-arbitrary standard. When the Declaration of Independence stated that certain “truths” are “self-evident,” it was not trying to “persuade” us about these truths. Rather it was affirming that we see, in our own mind’s logic, the necessity of certain propositions and conclusions that were not to be held on authority, or as if they were opinions about other plausible alternatives. They were conclusions of valid arguments that any mind must see when it is free to see anything. The propositions are not held as private opinion but as public fact.

When Elshtain remarked that even “persuasion” is suspicious, she meant this latter sort of destructive doubt, the doubt that the mind itself ever has the capacity to know any truth, including the truth about itself. We can be “persuaded” about things that can be otherwise. About things that are true, necessarily true, we are free when we see the truth. We do not “make” the highest truths. We discover them already in existence, not of our own making. Such is the ultimate basis of freedom.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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