An image: El Salvador, 1980. A country tattered by violence; the fabric of its society rent with a seemingly endless cycle of vengeance; a polis where the lineaments of justice were no longer discernible. In a dispatch to the Washington Post, dated June 13, Christopher Dickey, a reporter who had been chronicling what he termed "the gradual destruction of Salvadoran society," had this to say: "Each side talks of justice: the revolutionary or peoples' justice of the left assassinates anyone suspected of being an informer; ... the justice of the right ... ends with the murder of anyone who might concede an inch of power or influence to the left. In the end, there is little or no justice."
Dickey's depiction of a "climate of vengeance" in which the "bonds of human relationships" have been broken is hardly novel. Indeed, we already have had occasion, in Chapter 2, to locate the locus classicus of such a tale: Aeschylus's trilogy, the Oresteia. There too, in Argos, "where unto every doer is done," the "avenging gore" spills out over the land, and a father who sacrifices his daughter is, in turn, slain by his wife who subsequently is brutally dispatched by her son. Both images -- not timeless but certainly perennial -- protray a violated public world where vengeance is mistaken for justice and furtive deceit masquerades as public discourse. In these lands barbarity has vanquished civility.
It is not my purpose, here, to retell that tragic story but rather to reverse those images, as in a camera obscura, so that they might reflect on something quite the opposite -- the much more mundane and familiar tradition of civil discourse. In the spirit of G. K. Chesterton, who urged thinkers to look at the familiar until it became strange, I would like to view our civil speech, the civilis conversatio (to borrow Aquinas's alien tongue), in much the same way that Aeschylus used the barbarity of Argos to remind his fellow Athenians that the honey-lipped persuasion they took so much for granted was the wonderfully strange and fragile gift of a beneficent goddess. I do this because Chesterton's counsel was no mere theoretical trope but, rather, a practical mandate. History has taught us that the civilizing gift of a free and public discourse, once taken for granted, can easily be lost. Even more ominously, that forfeiture need not be effected, as Tocqueville reminded us by barbarians outside the city walls, but may result from an inner barbarism that can lead the citizens to, quite willingly, "loosen their hold" on the bonds that join them together.