Published in Gregorianum, (Roma) 84 (#2, 2003), 419-30.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
24 January 2002
WHY IS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY DIFFERENT?
“The political science that was created by Plato and Aristotle was established in opposition to the opinions held by the intellectuals of their time, by the sophists. And this conflict with the intellectuals, the revolt against the intellectuals, from which emerged our science, is monumentally commemorated to this day in the political dialogues of Plato’s early and middle years. From its origins the science of politics is a militant enterprise, a defense of truth both political and practical. It is a defense of true knowledge about human existence in society against the untrue opinions dispensed by intellectuals; and it is a defense of true human being against the corruption of man perpetrated by the intellectuals.”
– Eric Voegelin, “Political Science and the Intellectuals.”1
“In his indignation at the extravagance of Plato, and his sense of the significance of facts, he (Aristotle) became, against his will, the prophetic exponent of a limited and regenerated democracy. But the Politics, which, to the world of living men, is the most valuable of his works, acquired no influence on antiquity, and it was never quoted before the time of Cicero. Again it disappeared for many centuries; it was unknown to the Arabian commentators, and in Western Europe it was first brought to light by St. Thomas Aquinas, at the very time when an infusion of popular elements was modifying feudalism, and it helped to emancipate political philosophy from despotic theories and to confirm it in the ways of freedom.”
– Lord Acton, “Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe.”2
Why we might ask, in the words of Lord Acton, does “political philosophy” need to be “emancipated” from “despotic theories?” Are not “despotic theories,” a subject familiar to both classical and modern authors, an aspect of “political philosophy” itself? And why, in the words of Eric Voegelin, does “true human being” need to be defended “against the corruption of man perpetrated by the intellectuals?” Are “intellectuals” more dangerous than politicians?3 What is clearly implied in both of these blunt observations is that despotism and human corruption are not accidents or happenstances but the result of “theories,” of intellectual errors originating with and deliberately perpetrated by “intellectuals” or “sophists” who, in the modern world, sometimes also go by the noble name of “philosophers.”
What has proved to be peculiarly dangerous about the modern world, especially the recent twentieth century, is that not a few of these latter “philosophers” and “intellectuals” have become active politicians. These philosopher-politicians have proved to be considerably more dangerous than the older concept of a tyrant, who was no doubt a brutal man, no doubt, but one with no particular philosophical pretensions. The philosopher-politician is bent, like the philosopher, on universalizing his intellectual vision no matter what. By contrast, speaking of the “world of living men,” Acton called Aristotle’s Politics “the most valuable of his works,” for it was a book that moderated politics and distinguished it from metaphysics without denying the validity of either. Both politics and metaphysics had an ordered place in the understanding of all that is. Philosophy and politics both go wrong when they have no fixed place or theory within which to locate themselves. As Aristotle put it, “political expertise does not create human beings but makes use of them after receiving them from nature” (1257b22-23). The origin of human beings as such is not political, even though man is by nature a political animal.
A politics without a metaphysics, however, soon becomes itself a substitute metaphysics, something that Acton no doubt saw coming from the “extravagance of Plato.” But to give Plato his due against all those ancients and moderns who see him as the origin of ideology, it was he who saw in its classic form in the Gorgias the dangers to the philosopher coming from a popular, intelligent, handsome young politician who himself contemptuously refuses to engage in philosophic discourse and thereby refuses to have his ideas put to the test of intelligence.
Political philosophy at its best is a dialogue with the politicians about the worth and validity of things that are not political, of things that are “not Caesar’s,” to use the scriptural phrase for it. It is the politicians who order the deaths of Socrates and Christ, though it is generally the theoretician, as Machiavelli sensed, who prepare the minds of both princes and potential philosophers to be able to carry out such orders. Political philosophy must consider the aberrations of the actual politicians as well as the reasons they give for these aberrations. Political philosophy must also be aware of the disorders of soul possible to philosophers themselves, something about which politicians can also know.
At first sight, this background, steeped in intellectual considerations from Western philosophy, does not even touch the whole Islamic world, so much in our attention. In this world, the state, unless it imitates Western notions, as few do, is identified with the religion and serves as its instrument. Voegelin, in fact, saw Islam as but an aspect of a broader movement in political philosophy that strove by force to put into effect the image of the world and man that it had conceived in theory. “Islam was primarily an ecumenic religion and only secondarily an empire,” Voegelin wrote in the Fourth Volume of his Order and History. “Hence it reveals in its extreme form the danger which beset all of the religions of the Ecumenic Age, the danger of impairing their universality by letting their ecumenic mission slide over into the acquisition of world-immanent, pragmatic power over a multitude of men which, however numerous, could never be mankind past, present, and future.”4
In other words, one cannot avoid the question of the truth of a theory or explanation of the world, whether that theory be from religion or philosophy, from ideology or intellectual system. And the instrument of this explanation cannot be yet another “theory” that holds that there is no truth. We cannot forget that there were metaphysicians in Islam. They tried to reconcile the absolute ungrounded will of Allah to which must all submit with some rational order in things. One can wonder with Stanley Jaki whether the theoretic impossibility of making this reconciliation is not at the roots of our present political turmoil.5 It certainly was at the root of a similar line of thought that led from Occam to Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel, a line that placed will at the center both of the divinity and of the Leviathan in all its forms.
“How is political philosophy different?” we ask And “what difference does its difference make?” On hearing such questions asked, what first thing comes to mind is: “different from what?” Let me first address the second question: what difference does it make? We are to call things that are by their right names. That identifying, that calling the right names is the first and, in some sense, the most important theoretical act we can perform. It stands before all action, the truth of which, that is, the truth of action or in action, is itself known, affirmed, and judged. This putting the stamp of truth on action is what the virtue of prudence (phronesis) means.
“Political philosophy” is not, however, a “thing” in the sense that it is not a substance having its own independent being. Rather it is an activity of the mind in its actually knowing something not itself. What it knows is not exclusively of its own construction. That is, it does not just know itself and what it causes to be from itself, which latter position is essentially what the modern project or modernity is about.6 What is known in politics is how human beings stand to one another in an orderly or disorderly way, a knowledge that requires us to know distinctions between good and bad, just and unjust, in order accurately to describe what we in fact see or understand ourselves to do. Moreover, we need to “speak” this understanding. The polis to be what it is needs to be locked in conversation, in persuasion.
Thus, the first step is a negative one. It is to grant that political philosophy is not the whole of philosophy itself; it is not theology, nor is it even political science or political or legal theory. It is not sociology or economics; nor is it a physical science or based on its methodology. It is not a branch of logic or psychology or anthropology. Though it has some articulated relation to all of these disciplines, they are not what it is. Phrases such as “the economics of politics,” or the “sociology of politics,” or the “psychology of politics,” or even the “biology” or “genetics” or “theology” of politics, may have some contribution to add, but, contrary to what is usually meant by such phrases, they do not explain what specifically political philosophy is “really” about in itself.
Initially, about political philosophy or anything else, there is something to be said for getting the question it answers stated correctly. We do not always know if our questions can be answered, but that is no reason not to have the proper questions. The questions that political philosophy poses to itself arise out of “politics” and “ethics,” that is, out of the experience of human living. They do not begin with some pre-existing theory, say of contract or state of nature or modern physics or linguistics, some “science” that stands between the knower and what is known. The possibility that some legitimate questions cannot be humanly answered is not necessarily a reason for not asking them. It is not a question of despair nor for thinking that their difficulty of answer is itself a bad thing. Aristotle told us in a famous passage in his Ethics, we must “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it is small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything” (1177b34-78a1).
In an old Peanuts cartoon, Linus runs up to Lucy with triumphant news, “Look, Lucy, I tied my own shoes.” He instinctively knows that she figured that he would never learn how to tie them. Lucy bends down to have a closer look at this unexpected feat. She exclaims, “So you did ... but you got ‘em on the wrong feet.” They both stand up straight with frowns on their faces, staring at the wrong-footed shoes. Linus replies, petulantly, “Waddya mean, the wrong feet?” In the last scene, to a defiant Lucy glaring at him, Linus shouts, “THESE are my feet!”7 Linus is right, of course, the first of all questions is that of existence. Is it? Is it not? Right and wrong presuppose and follow from this first question. Right and wrong are not abstractions or mere ideas unrelated to reality. Lucy, after all, is right; Linus does have his shoes on the wrong feet. Both answered different, but legitimate, questions.
In the introduction to his famous essay,”What Is Political Philosophy?,” Leo Strauss began his lecture with these solemn words: “It is a great honor, and at the same time a challenge to accept a task of particular difficulty, to be asked to speak about political philosophy in Jerusalem. In this city, and in this land, the theme of political philosophy – ‘the city of righteousness, the faithful city’ – has been taken more seriously than anywhere else on earth.”8 But this affirmation does not deny that in fact political philosophy is taken seriously elsewhere on earth. The very fact that Strauss could juxtapose Jerusalem and political philosophy recalls, as he intended it to recall, the famous distinction between Jerusalem and Athens of the early Christian theologian, Tertullian, who rather thought that the two cities did not have anything to do with each other.9
In a sense, Strauss is almost equally as shocking as Tertullian. Strauss implies that the “theme” of political philosophy, as he calls it, is identified with the “city of righteousness.” We are surprised to hear this clearly Old Testament theme, this Augustinian theme, identified with precisely “political philosophy.” At first sight, we would not expect a pious Jew, even if he also be a philosopher, to make such a comparison. The things of God descend, after the manner of an unexpected gift. Man does not command the divinity. Strauss himself, in contra-distinction with Christian thinkers, was loathe to posit too much, if any, relationship between reason and revelation.10 Still, the sense that some relationship exists cannot be avoided.
St. Augustine made this connection between Jerusalem and Athens more easily but he made it as a Christian, for whom the Word was made flesh, something, as he tells us in his Confessions that he “did not read in the Platonists” (Bk. VII, c. 9). Augustine had no trouble in calling his major work, The City of God, a phrase from the Psalms, but one that also clearly associates him with the project of Plato’s Republic, his city in speech that always seemed to be searching for a more grounded home. And St. Thomas made the connection between Athens and Jerusalem also but as Christian who read Aristotle for whom the body was a constituent part of what it is to be a human being and whose God was not a lonely one. “Thought thinking itself” did, however, serve to illuminate the inner life of the Trinity, the Father, the Word, the Spirit..
Strauss wants to know how much we can know of this “faithful city” by our own powers. Implicitly, at least, he is rejecting, or at least avoiding, a consideration of how much we can learn of it, even philosophically, with revelation.11 He does not wonder about the curious paradox that considerations of the same “city” come up in both reason and revelation. He is concerned, however, that our politicians and judges are more influenced by “social sciences” than by the “Ten Commandments.”12 He implies that the “social sciences,” inventions of modernity, may be one reason why the Ten Commandments did not need to be normative. It is clear that the crisis of western civilization, which it is his purpose to examine, does not arise from observance of the Ten Commandments. Strauss may be taken to hint indirectly that the crisis of the civilization might well be best met by teachings found in “the city of righteousness,” of which the Ten Commandments stand as the cornerstone.
Eric Voegelin, also recalling Plato and Aristotle, remarked that “the science of politics” was “militant.” It was engaged in war against “untrue opinions” of “intellectuals,” sophists. “True human being” needed defense against the constructs of the intellectuals. Intellectuals “perpetrated” something that was not the truth about men in society. Clearly, “intellectuals” were not equivalent to political philosophers. Voegelin identified intellectuals with the ancient sophists against whom Plato wrote. These were the speakers who came to our town and, for a fee, could tells how to achieve what we wanted in our lives or in our regime. Themselves, they took no stand on such issues. They were neutral, “value free,” as we have come to say following Max Weber.
Even Lord Acton in the last century said that Thomas Aquinas “emancipated” political philosophy from “despotic theories” and “confirmed it in the ways of freedom,” evidently, along with “a true knowledge of human existence in society,” its real vocation. Aristotle had said, however, that “it would be absurd for someone to think that political science or intelligence is the most excellent science, when the best thing in the universe is not man” (1141a20-21). Emancipation of political philosophy from “despotic theories” and a confirmation in “the ways of freedom”indicate why political science is not the “most excellent science.” The ways of freedom lead not to “freedom” as such but to what is best in man. The despotic theories claim a metaphysical power for politics, the power to change the very nature of what it is to be a human being.
If political science is not the “highest science,” it remains, nevertheless, the highest practical science, something worthy in itself. If man is not the best thing in the universe, he is still a good and worthy thing as such. The implication follows that if we know as much as we can about this political being and its political activities, we will reach the outlines of the “city of righteousness,” the city of God. We will understand that, though we be political animals, we are also rational animals, animals who laugh. The political life is generally necessary to know and practice the virtues. But virtue, while practiced for its own sake, leads to what is able to be seen because of virtue. The one thing the unvirtuous cannot see is what is beyond virtue but not apart from it. And the virtuous or political life is a worthy life.
Classical political philosophy, in addition to Aristotle’s discussion of wit and humor in Book Four of his Ethics, could be amusing. Take the question of whether philosophy itself was “useless.” Of course, there are two meanings to the word “useless” – one would be that the thing was worth nothing at all, the other that something is beyond the criterion of “use” or utility. The example that Aristotle uses in Book One of the Politics has to do with Thales of Miletus. It seems this good man was chided for his poverty and general frumpiness. In a spirit of light vengeance, Thales decided to show the locals that philosophy was not useless after all. He would meet his critics on their own ground.
Because of his knowledge of astronomy, Thales figured that it would be a good season for olives and grapes. So in the off season, he cornered the market on the presses need to crush olives and grapes. When the season sure enough turned in a bountiful crop, the local growers suddenly found out that they had to pay a premium to Thales in order to get their produce crushed. Thales made a tidy sum and the locals realized that the philosopher was not poor because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He was busy about other, higher things and could not be bothered with useful things like business and cornering the market in other affairs to make a fortune. The conclusion evidently was that philosophy itself was beyond use by choice and not necessity (1259a1-25).
The city was a place of merchants and farmers, but these did not compose the essence of the city. On the other hand, even if we had the rulers and the ruled in a legitimate constitution, a citizenry leading virtuous lives, we still did not have philosophy. Philosophy only existed if we had philosophers. And politicians had the power to kill the philosophers, so it was necessary that the rulers knew the worth of philosophy, even while not themselves having time for philosophy. Philosophers did not have their own civil defense league to protect themselves.
Aristotle remarked in the Rhetoric, however, “it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs” (1355b1-3). But as the trials of Christ and Socrates showed, the effort to defend the philosopher against the politicians does not always succeed. But it is the first task of political philosopher, as Plato’s Gorgias makes clear, at least to formulate an argument that would convince the politician not to kill the philosopher. But once it is agreed that the philosopher might live, he has to be free to philosophize. And one of his first efforts must be to understand the limits of the city so that what can become clear on the horizon is a city that is not, as it were, a polis that comes from man the political animal who is neither a god nor a beast.
Aristotle called political science an “architectonic” science (1094a7-17). This term meant that the polity might well be able to call, say, a mathematician into military service because it needed his skills. But it did not mean that the politician had the power to decide what mathematics was. For the good of the polis, the science had to remain what it was, even though the mathematician was serving the good of the polity in the employment of his knowledge. If one asks whether a priest or a philosopher might also be called upon to serve the public good, the traditional answer to this question was affirmative. Implicitly this meant that what priest or a philosopher did remained what they were defined to be by the nature of his office or profession. The “common good” included that priests be priests and philosophers be philosophers. But the politician was not to be himself unintelligent or unaware of unworthy priests or philosophers.
Political philosophy, then, is distinct in two ways: it is a defense of the cause or need of philosopher before the politician who himself is aware of, though not especially proficient in, philosophical things. It is also a defense of virtue in the city as a prerequisite for a philosophy that is able to look to and state the truth of things. A city must know of itself that it is not despotic. It must know that the human good is itself a real good that must be chosen and habituated in customs and laws. Finally, it must know that the things beyond politics are worthy things, of more ultimate moment than the polis itself, however necessary it may be. The philosopher knows that most human lives are not themselves devoted to philosophy, even though they may be aware of and indeed interested in philosophy. Yet, it seems unjust that those who are not in practice philosophers do not have a hope of achieving the higher ends of which philosophy makes us aware in an acute fashion. Revelation, in fact, addresses itself not merely to virtue but to happiness and to contemplation, to a way to the highest good not just for philosophers but to everyone. Revelation articulates a more clear and defined end than even the philosopher could envision by his own powers
After Thales proved he could make a minor fortune cornering the olive and wine presses, he returned to philosophy, to the pursuit of the highest things. When Socrates was executed, he reminded Crito to offer a cock to Asclepias, the god of healing, from whence he passed to the Isles of the Blessed to speak with Homer and Rhadamnathus and the other philosophers. In preparing to die, in dying, he was healed. When Christ died, He did speak to a politician, a Roman governor, but not to a philosopher. He did speak to ordinary thieves. One blasphemed Him. Christ remained silent. The other acknowledged that he himself was justly executed and asked to be remembered in His Kingdom. The city that killed Christ and the outlines of the city in speech converge. Political philosophy is different because it can, if it will, consider these cities – Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, the city in speech and the Righteous City, the City of God. If it will not make such considerations, then, in all likelihood it falls back on Lord Acton’s “despotic theories,” theories that do not know the “ways of freedom,” nor the true being of man, but the corruption of the intellectuals.
“Thought,” Aristotle said, “moves nothing; what moves us is thought aimed at some goal and concerned with action” (1139a36-37). The difference of political philosophy is that it is genuinely concerned with the thought that “moves nothing” as well as the thought concerned with action that leads to our end. Political philosophy is different because its own questions lead it to the concern about the content of the end, this end most enigmatically described as the “city of righteousness,” now not seen merely as either the highest of the social sciences or the handmaid of theology, but as the true understanding of that which is, however it be known to us, provided that we have asked the right questions and have heard answers to these questions as asked.
When the subject of “leisure” appears in The Politics, we are suddenly aware that the most important things take place not in constructing or even running the polity, but in living in it. What are the serious occupations of leisure, what things are to be done simply because they are true or beautiful? Plato’s answer to this question was “singing, dancing, and sacrificing” (803). Aristotle’s answer is philosophy (1279b11-15) and, perhaps, music. Political philosophy exists so that the politician, who can prevent these things, can also come to see that he best let them be what they are. The way of the politician and the way of the philosopher are not the same, but they do depend on each other if we are to be both open to the whole and aware that we cannot, by our own powers, attain it.
2Lord Acton, “Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe,”(1878), Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Essays of Lord Acton, edited by Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), I, 63.
3Just how dangerous they might be was the theme of Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals (New York: Harper, 1988), and Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, trans. T. Kilmartin (New York: Norton, 1957.
6See James V. Schall, “Modernity: What Is It?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CII (October, 2001), 15-23; At the Limits of Political Philosophy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), Chapter 3, “Modernity,” 49-70.
8Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Essays (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 9. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Aristotle and the Ethic of Imperatives,” Action and Contemplation: Studies in the Moral and Political Thought of Aristotle, ed. R. Bartlett and S. Collins (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 66.
9Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, edited by Thomas Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983),147-73. See Susan Orr, Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).