Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 16, 2016

Rawls: What’s Old Is New Again


In his book Political Liberalism, the influential 20th-century philosopher John Rawls channeled some common sense from the 19th century:

“The most intractable struggles … are confessedly for the sake of the highest things: for religion, for philosophical views of the world, and for different moral conceptions of the good. We should find it remarkable that, so deeply opposed in these ways, just cooperation among free and equal citizens is possible at all.”

Rawls adds:

“In fact, historical experience suggests that it rarely is.”1

Our recent experience also suggests that it rarely is.

But it’s nothing new. As Walter Bagehot wrote in Physics and Politics (1872):

“A nation means a LIKE body of men, because of that likeness capable of acting together, and because of that likeness inclined to obey similar rules.”2

He adds that to mix incompatible cultures and worldviews in the same society:

“… tended to confuse all the relations of human life, and all men’s notions of right and wrong; or by compelling men to tolerate in so near a relation as that of fellow-citizens differences upon the main points of human life, led to a general carelessness and scepticism, and encouraged the notion that right and wrong had no real existence, but were mere creatures of human opinion.”3

Exactly as we see in contemporary America and Europe.

Paraphrasing George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, those who do learn from history are doomed to watch those who don’t learn from it commit the same avoidable and catastrophic errors that brought down great nations of the past.

Works Cited

Bagehot, W. (2007), Physics and Politics. New York: Cosimo Classics. Kindle edition.

Rawls, J. (1993), Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press. Kindle edition.


  1. Rawls, J. (1993), loc. 727. 
  2. Bagehot, W. (1873), loc. 171. 
  3. Ibid, loc. 335. 

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