Hilary Mantel’s most recent novel, The Mirror and the Light, contains a roaring theological debate. The topic: does the sacrament of communion really transubstantiate bread and wine into the literal body of Christ? Arguing in the negative: a radical preacher named John Lambert. Arguing in the affirmative: His Majesty King Henry VIII. This is a face-to-face disputation, the King and the preacher squaring off before a boisterous audience of church and state worthies. And this debate has stakes – literally. If Lambert is proven wrong, he will be burned as a heretic.
Two things become apparent in Mantel’s depiction of the epic exchange. First, this is obviously not a fair debate. Setting aside the threat of terminal conflagration, there is no dialogical parity between a monarch and his subject. Henry makes liberal use of his audience, calling upon England’s highest scholars to produce scriptural ammunition for his side. Lambert, of course, has not been permitted to bring along any learned helpers. He is not even permitted a chair.
So this is a show trial, not an honest debate. It is a morbid joke of an ideological exchange. And yet, – this is the other thing a reader slowly realizes – Henry may not be in on the gag. At times, His Majesty appears to believe this really is a truth-conducive enterprise. After all, it does need to be determined whether Lambert is a heretic – and what better way to find the truth than to match his wits against the kingdom’s most wise and Godly mind? As Mantel writes, Henry “does not want to kill Lambert, that is of no interest to him. He wants to out-reason him: so that in the end, Lambert will crumple and confess: ‘Sire, you are the better theologian: I am instructed, enlightened and saved by you’”.
I read this passage last week, amid our own era’s tumultuous debate over the meaning of debate. On July 7, a group of luminaries signed an open letter, published in Harper’s, claiming that free inquiry has been pushed aside by a certain kind of progressive zealotry. Over the following weeks, two conservative writers – Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan – left their positions at the New York Times and New York magazine, respectively. Ever since the protests over George Floyd’s murder by police began two months ago, the intellectual world has been in a tither about whether there can ever be too much debate of sensitive issues.
Henry’s inflammatory debate with John Lambert
offers a helpful framing to our own deliberations. I assume the authors of the Harper’s
letter – like most of us – would imagine themselves in the role of Lambert:
speaking truth to power, arguing bravely against the threat of the Canceler’s
pyre. Iconoclasm and underdoggism have been the defining virtues of
intellectual life since the Enlightenment. No one seeks a career in journalism
or academia with the conscious goal of becoming the blundering voice of
establishment authority. Those who make their living in letters are usually
fortified by an image of their own rhetorical courage.
But look again to His Majesty King Henry VIII, hulking on the bejeweled end of the debate platform. Doesn’t he also believe himself an embattled exponent of truth? He’s the King, of course, and there’s certainly power in that. Yet there are greater powers still – that dastardly bishop of Rome, his henchmen on the thrones of Europe, and the Dark Prince himself lurking in the fires of Hades. Against such forces of sweeping malevolence, what is one lone king of England? Surely it is only Henry’s courageous truth-seeking that allows him to overcome Lambert, a benighted pawn of faithless power.
That’s the lesson of this parable of kingly debate. We always believe that we are the ones speaking courageous truth while our opponents wield only the irrational tools of power. If only our opponents would stop trying to silence us through unfair tactics, if only they would allow a fair debate – that is, on our terms – then our truth-guided arguments would surely carry the day. That is Henry’s delusion.
And, say some critics, it is also the delusion of the Harper’s letter. According to a counter-letter published on July 10, the Harper’s signatories are just like the King quelling his troublesome preacher: “Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out”. The counter-letter says that the upper reaches of journalism and academia have always belonged to certain types of people – mostly white people – who use this power to quash the inconvenient truth-seeking of others. The Harper’s signatories, it is alleged, “have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories. When they demand debates, it is on their terms, on their turf”.
Of these dueling letters, which is right? Which
letter is the real Lambert, courageous exponent of a downtrodden truth? And
which is the delusional Henry, failing to recognize his own disproportionately
influential voice? Each side accuses the other of wielding illicit power. How
could we ever tell which is which? Whatever side you are drawn to will surely
feel to you like the side of Lambert. But even Henry thinks he is Lambert.
Well then, why not give up the whole game of
rhetorical power? Why not aim for a mode of engagement in which we neither seek
to achieve power nor imagine our opponent wielding it? That is the mode
preferred by the philosopher Agnes Callard in a recent New York Times opinion piece. Callard, thinking of Aristotle’s support for
slavery and sexist inequality, calls for us to read an author’s objectionable
words “purely as vehicles for the contents of his beliefs”, rather than an
attempt to “convey a dangerous message that I might need to combat or silence
in order to protect the vulnerable”.
That has a veneer of agreeableness: can’t we all
just hear out each other’s sincere views, rather than hunt for dark motives?
But this pleasant interpretation can’t last long. After all, Aristotle was
trying to convey a dangerous message – dangerous, at least, to his
contemporaries. Alexander the Great’s tutor surely expected his words to have
effects beyond venting his own musings. And Callard’s point is that Aristotle’s
words are no danger to us now, millennia beyond the causal reach of ancient
authority. She says this remoteness is exactly why she prefers to engage with
the views of long-dead Greeks: “it is difficult to entangle these authors in
contemporary power struggles”.
Indeed, debate can be severed from power only at
the cost of terminal innocuousness. Bernard Williams once wrote, in Ethics
and the Limits of Philosophy, that we cannot be in real moral disagreement
with people who lived in distant times and cultures. We cannot, for example,
really disagree with samurai warlords or Aztec enslavers about the propriety of
their practices. This is because their ways of life are no longer available to
us. Cultures change slowly; we could not choose tomorrow to reinstitute
a set of cultural practices that developed (and then unravelled) over
centuries. Since we cannot take these distant people’s moral recommendations
practically, nor can they exert power over us across the centuries, there is
only the thinnest sense in which we might try to debate their views. It will be
at best a one-sided and hypothetical debate.
For debate to be more than dialectical shadow puppetry, it must happen between people whose words can affect one another. And that means power. Speaking words meant to change how we live together not only is a form of power, but doing so effectively requires a sort of power. Callard’s own prominence – and that of the New York Times – are powerful attractors of attention. Had Callard posted this same text anonymously to Reddit, would it have been anywhere near as much discussed? Surely not. If it does have an effect on our public discourse, that will be due in large part to the social power of the author and the venue.
This is an inescapable aspect of public debate in
large democracies. Debate is – and must be – only partly the work of reason.
When decisions are made by millions of citizens with busy lives and limited
attention spans, getting a new idea onto the public agenda will take some form
of power: networking power, economic power, sometimes even coercive power. If
the new idea does succeed, hopefully this will owe something to its
truth-seeking merits. But it would be naive to pretend that good ideas spring
into practical implementation straight from the unassisted light of reason.
So King Henry’s dilemma is unavoidable. Power is
always somewhere in the subtext of any real debate. Anyone who aims to
influence our moral and political choices is aspiring to a form of power (and
had better start with some power if they’re to have any chance of success). The
only real question is whether we manage our own power responsibly. Do we fall
into Henry’s delusional confidence that we are always the courageous target of
an unaccountably potent adversary? Or do we admit the ways we might also be
unfairly advantaged in a particular debate, perhaps accepting some limits on
our expression in the hope of neutralizing our own truth-irrelevant influence?
This isn’t an easy balance to maintain. Talk about power for too long and you begin tracing a postmodern spiral, rhetorical bludgeons all the way down. At the bottom there is only Stalinistic cynicism, with no higher purpose than power for its own sake. We need to hold on to some confidence in the rational power of debate, some willingness to take our opponents’ – and our own – arguments in good faith. But if you are ever tempted to wrap yourself in the righteous mantle of truth’s one pure champion, then remember: Henry’s joke is almost certainly on you.