more than mere words

What does a text — particularly a venerated text — mean? Is it’s meaning to be found in the individual words that comprise the text? A disagreement concerning the meaning of those words will not be resolved by appeal to dictionary definitions, not by making the meaning of the whole a matter of assembling the meaning of each clause considered individually. In Madison’s Music, Burt Neuborne asks us to read the first amendment to the constitution of the United States broadly, with close attention not to the words that comprise it but rather the subject of the text: the promotion of democratic government. But what is democratic government? Not simply the expression of the will of the people, which is too easily confused with majority rule and which is all-too-often inchoate. Nor is the purpose of democratic government a strategy for picking the correct answer on a multiple-choice test. Democratic government is the discernment of the common good.

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government
for a redress of
grievances.

What Newborne asks us to do is to read the text in its entirety. To read the text slowly, without assuming we already know its meaning and that reading is merely arguing for that meaning. To read the text as posing a question or series of closely related and difficult questions that we need to answer anew each time we read it.

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