When my professional life is going well it consists of reading and writing appellate briefs. Fortunately, this is not nearly as pathetic as it sounds.
An appellate briefs is a written argument presented to a court explaining the claims of your client and how those claims are supported by the law. In short, it represents one of the great triumphs of human civilization. I am serious. Law rests on a basic commitment to resolving the disputes of human life by resort to reason rather than violence. In the days before appellate briefs (or something like them) we resolved disputes through blood feuds, trial by combat, or by throwing women into ponds to see if they floated. Deliciously dry and intricate arguments about precedent, controlling authority, pleading, and statutory construction represent one of the few unequivocal leaps forward in human history. Post-modernism, historical relativism, and skepticism of Whig history all have their place, but at the end of the day, the rule of law is simply a lot better than trial by combat.
A well written brief has a kind of beauty about it. The well written brief will have a unifying structure, a clear skeleton on which the flesh of the argument hangs. Doctrinal arguments and policy arguments will be woven together, adverse precedents will be carefully distinguished without seeming glib or plodding. The writing will be clear and free from jargon (except for the occasional flourish of a Latin maxim). At the end of the brief, the reader will be left thinking, “The law supports the appellant’s claim and it is a good thing to, as our law is wise and just and clear.” A badly written brief is all ugliness. The question presented will run on for pages. The argument will be lost in a profusion of points and subpoints, never coalescing into an identifiable structure. Adverse precedents will be ignored or labored over for pages. Doctrine and policy will be left in stark isolation, presenting the judge with the unhappy choice of enforcing a bad law or ignoring the law to reach a just result.
In this sense, an appellate brief is like a game of chess. A person who knows how the pieces move, but has no grasp of how the game is played will push pawns and bishops aimlessly around the board, attacking and defending pieces with no discernable strategy or plan. Weaknesses in the player’s position will develop, backward pawns, and hanging material will proliferate as pieces clog the lines of attack of their fellows until ultimately the game sputters to an accidental ending. In contrast, in a well played game of chess each move will fit into a position or plan. There will be identifiable strategic goals and great care to avoid the minor weaknesses that will later flower into catastrophe. The game will utlimately be decided by the execution of a coherent strategy pushed forward by precise attacking combinations.
Both chess and the appellate brief present a drab and plodding exterior but there is a deep structure to both that can exhibit the beauty of well employed reason or the ugliness of diffuse and scattered thought. Traditionally, theologians have looked at the world in remarkably similar ways, searching out the trace of divine reason. Indeed, the very cognizability of the world, the fact that we can make some sort of halting sense of it, was seen as a finger-print of God and reason itself became an aspect of the divine presence. Of course, this sort of thinking can slide into pantheism and this has been a slide against which monotheism has expended a huge amount of effort.
Mormonism creates such a strong distinction between God and the universe, between the creator and “matter unorganized,” that it is difficult, I think, for us really to appreciate the appeal of the omnipresent logos or long after the flesh-pots of pantheism. Still, in the appellate brief or a well played game of chess (something that I do not do well), I think that I get some sense of what such imminent reason might mean and I wonder how such beauty relates to my radically situated and Mormon God.