It is difficult to evaluate the judgments of a past historical period, because we are not “at home” in it to assess its possibilities realistically. But is it any easier to evaluate the judgments of our own? Is it given to us to know our own society more clearly than a past one? Our society is not an object set before us for scientific examination. It is a historical, shifting and changing context, constantly emerging out of a past society and constantly developing into a future one. It is of infinite complexity, and we who assess it are part of it, and assess it from a partial point of view. We may sometimes suspect that there is no more misleading view of a society than the one it takes of itself, a blend of hopeful and despairing self-images, sectional perceptions, and so on.
The Ways of Judgment (Bampton Lectures) by Oliver O’Donovan, page 22.
Public judgment is constrained by this limit, and in its struggle to wrest the initiative from private judgment, it loses the ground of its authority if it succumbs to immodest pretensions. It is not only that there is more truth to be known than it can know; there is also more judgment to be given than it can give. Its work lies on the surface of things, and only anticipates the deep judgment of God by not pretending to forestall it. To the extent that it exceeds its limits it loses credibility as a community undertaking, and appears in the world as a prophetic, didactic, or ideological force, armed with an authority springing from beyond community discourse.
What, then, are the limits of practicability that constrain a judgment performed in public on the community’s behalf? They are three: (i) that not everything known can be publicly expressed or certified; (ii) that judgment has only certain modes of expression open to it; (iii) that it lacks final authority.
From The Ways of Judgment (Bampton Lectures) by Oliver O’Donovan, pages 27-28.
It is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all political questions whether and to what extent judgment is possible. How are we so to pronounce as to establish? How are we to make the truth appear effectively?
…Are we given to renew the life of human communities by a word of truth, or is this an unattainable ideal, from which we have to fall back upon the “messiness” and “compromise” of politics?
…”It belongs to judges to direct the people solely by God’s law, and to kings to use civil compulsion.” This “contemplative” government, which should be represented in Christendom, Wyclif believes, by the bishops, is a real alternative to coercive government, “nearer to the state of innocence,” more apostolic, more like the heavenly state, and so “more perfect.” Only “accidentally” (i.e., “circumstantially”) may the rule of kings be preferable in the face of extensive sin, though even so “human law and kingly office have no worth unless they are directed by the evangelical law.” Here we encounter a form of the “idealist” tradition, derived from Plato’s famous conception of the rule of philosophers in the Republic, where the whole action of government is contained in its expression of wisdom and rationality. Coercion is not essential to judgment; it is an ancillary for a less than ideal world, an accident that befalls the act of judgment.
…The question may present itself in various guises: in terms of the practical fragility of human judgment, the insufficiency of propositions to pass over into action, the shame attached to force, the limitations on our perceptions of the truth, and our restricted capacity for constructive and forward-looking initiative. These different forms of the question are interrelated, constantly leading back to one another and to the theological root-question underlying them: can we imitate God’s unity of thought and action so that the reasonableness of a judgment will be sufficient to give it effect?
…So for Augustine the just man wages even just wars in tears. The realist critique of idealism is that it fails to acknowledge the brutal rupture implied in the transition from speech to action. The idealist critique of realism is that it allows too little distinction between rational force and irrational violence.
The Ways of Judgment (Bampton Lectures) by Oliver O’Donovan, pages 13-15.
From the Bonds of Imperfection by Oliver O’Donovan (a potent exposition of John’s Apocalypse):
As a scroll, it represents history; as a sealed scroll, its contents are unintelligible. So the prophet presents his problem: how can the created order which declares the beauty and splendor of its creator be the subject of a world history, the events of which are apparently contradictory and without point? Only if history can be shown to have a purpose can the prophet’s tears be wiped away and the praise of the creation be resumed.