Elizabeth Corey reviews Marc DeGirolami’s recent book, The Tragedy of Religious Liberty, which offers an approach to disputes about the First Amendment that “does not rank [competing] values, but rather sees that all of them may well be more or less important, depending on the circumstances”:
Tragedy in the ancient sense, observes DeGirolami, moves not from joy to sorrow but from “struggle to unresolved struggle.” Its essence lies in recognizing fundamentally competing goods and the consequent realization that the conflict between them is permanent. Thus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, for example, Clytemnestra can never be at peace with Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter, even as Agamemnon understands his civic duty as king to require the terrible deed. Both characters act on their respective notions of good, which are partial and incomplete. Both, in taking the action they do, fail to recognize and value something else of great importance.
In just this way, DeGirolami points out that the pursuit of a single value necessarily sacrifices the other goods that have not been chosen.
She goes on to connect this style of thinking to Oakeshott’s:
Oakeshott famously argued that people—especially elites in politics and academics—are driven to systematize human experience, to formulate precepts that promise regularity and consistency, and to prefer a neatly constructed ideology to the messiness of actual human relations in politics, law, or any other field. This is just what takes place among the “comic” theorists, who desire elegance and theoretical parsimony at the expense of truth and lived experience.
However, Oakeshott, DeGirolami, and others like them show that this desire tends to result in a Procrustean bed, where all that does not fit the favored theory is either ignored or explained away. It is a reduction of human experience that promotes a false idea of (and hope for) coherence.