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Justice Clarence Thomas speaks out against philophronesis


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - February 28th, 2001

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently spoke to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, from whom he received the Francis Boyer Award (http://opinionjournal.com, 20 Feb 2001, copyright held by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research)

During that speech, Justice Thomas vehemently decried the common use of a rhetorical device, one that is used so often today that it is now considered a normal mode of speech rather than a tool of the skilled speaker. By this, I refer to philophronesis

Here's the quote from Justice Thomas' speech; see if you can guess what type or style of speech philophronesis is:

    Today, there is much talk about moderation. It reminds me of a former colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who often joked that he was a "gun-toting moderate"-a curiously oxymoronic perspective. Just think of that, dying over half a loaf.

    I do not believe that one should fight over things that don't really matter. But what about those things that do matter? It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us is to settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream.

    This tendency, in large part, results from an overemphasis on civility. None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing "judgmental." They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance. The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society. . . .

    Again, by yielding to a false form of "civility," we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etc. To this we often respond (if not succumb), so as not to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental-i.e., we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

If you stuck your hand in the air, waved it wildly, and shouted, "I know-I know---philophronesis is when you back away from what you believe and apologize for what you just said because you want to be nice to people", then you are correct about the modern-day sense of the word.

Allow me first to address the tradition meaning of philophronesis. The term is from the Greek for "kind treatment." Philophronesis soothes the anger stirred by harsh words or disagreement with gentle words, humbleness, and submission. It was often used when bringing bad news to a superior; anyone who has watched a television courtroom drama (or Court TV) has seen a lawyer use philophronesis to get out of a contempt threat.

As Justice Thomas notes, philophronesis is demanded from any one who speaks forcefully on almost any topic nowadays. Say something sympathetic about a group of soaking-wet smokers forced into the rain by clean indoor air laws and people will demand that you admit that smoking is nasty, disgusting, and that all smokers deserve to suffer. Say something about the inefficiencies of the war on drugs and people will demand that you acknowledge the dangers of drug abuse. Say anything religious and people will demand that you stop proselytizing and let them believe in their own way. The message is: no matter what your judgment may be on a topic, keep it to yourself because some one, some where may disagree with you.

The solution to this, according to Justice Thomas, is to stop confusing civility with civic virtues. People should "Be not afraid" to speak their minds when it comes to their opinion and beliefs:

    Listen to the truths that lie within your hearts, and be not afraid to follow them wherever they may lead you.

Those three little words hold the power to transform individuals and change the world. They can supply the quiet resolve and unvoiced courage necessary to endure the inevitable intimidation.

("Be not afraid" courtesy of Pope John Paul II as quoted by Justice Thomas)

In short, speak out when necessary and use rhetorical devices when appropriate, not when someone demands them of you.

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"...The solution to this, according to Justice Thomas, is to stop confusing civility with civic virtues. People should "Be not afraid" to speak their minds when it comes to their opinion and beliefs.."

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