James V.  Schall, S.  J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

   www.moreC.com/schall

 

Published in Perspectives on Political Science, 29 (Fall, 2000), 219-24.

 

                     ON THE PARADOXICAL PLACE OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

                                               IN THE STRUCTURE OF REALITY

 

“Every human being and every society is what it is by virtue of the highest to which it looks up.  The city, if it is healthy, looks up, not to the laws which it can unmake as it made them, but to the unwritten laws, the divine law, the gods of the city.  The city must transcend itself.”

                                                                                                      – Leo Strauss, The City and Man.[1]

 

“I will argue that genuine subjectivity is to be attained through the redemptive return of doxological dispossession, thus ensuring that the subject is neither autonomously self-present, nor passively controlled from without (the pendulum of ‘choice’ available to the citizen of our immanentist city).

                        – Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy.[2]

 

“For these sophists desire that demonstrative arguments should be given for all things; for it is obvious that they wanted to take some starting point that would be for them a  kind of rule whereby they could distinguish between those who are healthy and those who are ill, and between those who are awake and those who are asleep....  Still, they are not deceived in their own minds so that they believe the judgments of one who is asleep and the judgment of one who is awake to be equally true.  And this is clear from their acts....”

                         – Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk.  IV, C.  15, #709.

 

I.


Philosophic discussions sometimes lend themselves to non-philosophic beginnings.  It seems proper to start with a tract that ended in the last days of the XXth Century.  The scene at the theater is the “Tenth Annual Tiny Tots’ Concert.”  Present are Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally, and a diminutive girl with long hair, wearing a head-band.  Peppermint Patty tells us right off that she “hates” such “Tiny Tot Concerts.”  Sally in turn complains, “Every time we come to one of these concerts, they play ‘Peter and the Wolf.’”  In the next scene she continues, ‘They must think we don’t understand anything else.”  The little girl with the head-band, sitting to Sally’s left, asks her, “Don’t you like ‘Peter and the Wolf’?”  Sally replies, “I don’t know ... I’ve never understood it.”[3]  We find this account amusing because we understand, without need of further explanation, what it means to say that we do not understand, while at the same time claiming that we do understand.

 That is to say, as the passage from St. Thomas that I cited in the beginning affirms, we possess the first principle of being and knowledge without our having formally to elaborate it; namely, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time.  We cannot deny the principle without implicitly affirming it.  Our acts often make our thoughts clear when we do not admit their clarity even to ourselves.  Even when we would be skeptics, we reveal something that is not skeptical.  Our very rational power is given to us.  As Samuel Johnson put it in a letter to James Boswell, on February 9, 1776, “Providence gives the power, of which  reason teaches the use.”[4]  Without the implicit truth of the principle of contradiction, we could not know that we reason badly.  Without it, we could not be taught reason’s use.       


In a conversation at the University of Leyden in Holland, on May 20, 1975,  the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was asked by Professor H. Phillipse: “Is philosophy a diversion for you, as it was for Pascal?”  To this question, Levinas enigmatically responded, in a phrase to which I shall return later, “if the undivertable can be a diversion, and if a diversion can be undivertable.”  Phillipse next inquired, “Is the philosophical attitude  – which is in essence a skeptical attitude -  not in contradiction with the attitude of faith?”  Levinas distinguished the meaning of “skeptical,” a point with which I am beginning these considerations on political philosophy.  “‘Skeptical’ only means the fact of examining things,” Levinas affirmed,

the fact of posing questions.  I do not at all think that a question  – or, at least, the original questioning –  is only a deficiency of answers.  Functional and even scientific questions  – and many philosophic ones – await only answers.  Questioning qua original attitude is a relation to that to which no response can contain, to the “uncontainable”; it becomes responsibility.  Every response contains a “beside the point” and appeals to an un-said (dé-dit).[5]

The fact is, there are questions to which there are answers, even when we realize that every answer arises out of a reality that is “uncontainable” by our own minds.  This questioning is not skepticism but a manifestation of what Socrates called intellectual “eros,” an awareness and pursuit of the revelatory nature of what is.

II.


“Examining things” is what we do when we philosophize.  We would not bother to do this examining if we thought a priori that we could know nothing of what we examine.  The burden of knowing what political philosophy might be involves the effort to distinguish and identify what it is not.  This may be a skeptical enterprise, if you will, but it has the prime purpose of knowing about things as such.  It seeks to identify where and how political things fit into the order of reality. “Philosophy is the intellectual activity that works with distinctions,” Robert Sokolowski has written.       Philosophy explains by distinguishing.  This does not mean that philosophy just asserts distinctions and lets it go at that; rather, it works with distinctions, it brings them out and dwells on them, dwells with them, showing how and why the things it has distinguished must  be distinguished from one another....  The activity of making distinctions always has something contemplative about it.  Whenever we make a distinction, we become somewhat disconnected from whatever practical or rhetorical activity we may be engaged in.[6]

That is to say, the effort to distinguish things at one level simply means that we want to know what they are independently of our wanting to know what to do with them or make of them.  In this sense, there is an unavoidable philosophical aspect to our reflecting on political things, even though politics is what Aristotle called a “practical” science, one directly ordered to doing, to acting, not making or contemplating.

The “place” of any philosophy is, properly speaking, within the human mind while it actively thinks about what is, about what is not the human mind itself or anything in it.  Our “consciousness” depends initially on the fact that we have a mind that comes to be in act, that is, that comes to know something.  Thus, consciousness also depends on what is other than mind.  What is not mind is not itself necessarily conscious even though it has some intelligibility to it, something not of its own making.  The human mind, that power that is capax omnium, only knows itself indirectly, in knowing what is not itself.  In this sense, it is not a divine mind that knows all in knowing itself.  It remains a limited, finite mind, yet, still mind, still open to all things, to what is.  Therefore, it is capable of receiving what it is not. 


This capacity of knowing all things is why finite beings can be content not to be themselves gods.  To talk of philosophy, moreover, is to talk of the knowledge of the whole, to seek this whole.  To talk of precisely “political” philosophy, on the other hand, is to talk of certain conditions that allow us to continue this enterprise of thinking, of seeking to know, to love the whole.  Political philosophy addresses first the politician to convince him to let philosophy itself be.  Political philosophy in this sense always remains under the shadow of Socrates and Christ, both non-writers of books, both killed by the best states of their time.[7]  But it also wants to know the status and intelligibility of precisely political things, the things we call political. 

Among the things that are, we find human cities.  Indeed, it is worthy of note in the beginning that the description of the whole, as in Plato, the Stoics, and Augustine, is after the manner of a “city”    – “The Republic,” the “Cosmopolis,” the “City of God.”  Human cities as such are not, properly speaking, “things,” though there are things, primarily human things, within them. Existing human beings are the substantial realities that ground the ontological status of cities.  As we see in ruins everywhere, minus human beings, minus cities.  Human cities, while not totally or metaphysically “unreal,” do not fall into the category of substance, however un-Hegelian but downright Aristotelian this observation might sound.  Human cities do not exist without human beings, without human beings acting for some purpose, some end.  Cities fall in the category of “ad aliud,” of “relation.”  They indicate the order of actions existing among rational beings acting practically to achieve their chosen ends, ends themselves revealed again and again by their chosen goals, as Aristotle described it so well in the first book of his Ethics. 


And human beings themselves do not exist of their own making.  Political science does not make man to be man but taking him from nature as already man, causes him to be good man  – to summarize the words of Aristotle (1100a30-32; 1102a8-10; 1258a21-23).  What it is to be man is not itself an idea concocted from nothing or originally formulated by man.  Rather it is something learned by reflecting on some already present order of being and action within him, already within a world, a cosmos.  We find ourselves to be, and to be  human beings, not turtles or trees or torrents of rain.  Human beings want to know the truth of things, including the truth of what their cities are, together with the truth about their own status in reality.             

“The experiences of reason and spirit agree on the point that man experiences himself as a being who does not exist from himself,” Eric Voegelin wrote in his second German lecture on “The Development of Diagnostic Tools.”

He exists in an already given world.  The world itself exists by reason of a mystery, and the name for the mystery, for the cause of this being of the world, of which man is a component, is referred to as “God.”  So dependence of existence (Dasein) on the divine causation of existence (Existenz) has remained the basic question of philosophy up until today.  This was formulated by Leibniz in the classic proposition that metaphysics has to deal with two questions: Why is there something, why not nothing? And one second question, Why is this something as it is?   These why questions place at the beginning of all reflections on man, what we can call, with classical philosophical expression, the etiological problem of the existence of man and the world.[8]


Voegelin insists that at our own beginning, we cannot but know that what we are is not caused by any efficacious action or thought of our own.  We can, perhaps, deny that we have this wonderment about ourselves in our fragile being, but this denial again puts us back at the skeptical question.  We affirm something in our very denying of it.  Moreover, Voegelin’s second question, “Why is this something as it is?”  – the question of form –  involves in the case of man the Aristotelian affirmation that man is by nature a political animal, a city-living being, again not something of his own making..

III.

Years ago in Spokane, I heard a lecture of the great historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson.  His lecture concerned itself with the starting point of philosophizing.  This starting point, I recall him vigorously affirming, was the certainty of the evident propositions that 1) “there are things,” and 2) “I know them.”  To doubt this starting point makes it impossible ever to begin.  He reminded us that there is nothing clearer than this experience and affirmation.  Even the denial of things or knowing them involves things and knowing.  Even if we be Descartes himself, we cannot find something clearer from which we might “prove” that there are things or that we know them.  Starting points are not known by prior “proofs,” as Aristotle reminded us in the sixth book of his Ethics.  The habit of first principles means that some things are known of themselves, per se nota, self-evident truths, as they came to be called.  They are known in the first act of knowing anything else, hence their firstness.  The attempt to prove all proof is an infinite regression that results in knowing nothing.


Gilson at a certain point in his lecture took a glass of water that was on the podium.  He held it in front of us.  We wondered what he was about.  He placed the glass of water in his hand and showed it to us.  “If I said that what I have in my hand was a block of wood,” he provocatively told us, “you would all sit up and pay attention.  You would be curious.  But if I said that it is a glass of water, you would say, ‘so what.’” Gilson let this account sink in a bit.  No one protested that the glass of water was really a block of wood.  The dream world and the real world were assumed to be different.  Then he added, with some rhetorical force, “but the truth is that it is a glass of water and not a block of wood.  True things may be very common things that we know all along.  It is falsity that often strikes us, makes us pay attention.”  I have never quite forgotten that glass of water that was not a block of wood, that “there are things and I know them.”[9]

A friend of mine, to continue this theme, Professor Thomas Martin, was asked to give the eulogy in Arizona for his friend and mentor, the late Professor Richard Arlen Wood, who had been for many years a famous professor of philosophy at Northern Arizona University.  Wood had a great influence on Martin and generations of students at Northern Arizona.  Martin, in his eulogy, recalled the first time he encountered Wood in a class at Flagstaff.  Martin, through his recollection of Wood, makes Gilson’s point in another way. 

“I stood there remembering the first time I had met Dick Wood at NAU in 1973 when he walked into ‘Philosophy 353: Man and Reality...,’” Martin recalled. 

Twenty-five of us were seated in the classroom when in walked this man with his hair slicked back, wearing brown jeans, a western shirt, and cowboy boots.  He stopped and stood eyeing the class while twitching the corner of his mouth, straightening out his mustache with his forefinger and thumb.  He frowned and looked about as though he were searching for something to say.  He took a puff on his half-smoked cigar and began to read the roll.


After reading a few names, he suddenly stopped and asked a student sitting in the front row, “Do you have a mind?”  “Yes,” the student brightly responded.  “Well, you will like this course and reading Descartes’ Meditations because he also had a mind about which he is going to tell us.  Do you have anything in your mind?”

“I have a lots of things in my mind,” the student replied.  “That’s nice, but could you give me an example of one thing you have in your mind?” Wood asked.  “Well, currently I have you, Professor Wood, in my mind.”  “I am in your mind?” Wood wondered.  “Well, it’s not really you that is in my mind, but an image of you which has come through my eyes to my mind,” the student explained.

“An image of me has come through your eyes and is in your mind?”  “Exactly,” the student affirmed.  “So do you see me or do you see an image of me?”  “I see an image of you,” the student acknowledged.  “Have you ever seen me?” Wood wanted to know.  “No, I have only seen an image of you,” the student replied.  “Then how do you know that this is me if you have only seen an image of me?”  “I don’t,” the student admitted.  “Then to whom are you speaking?” Wood asked.  No response.[10]

This amusing classroom scene, of course, illustrates what we mean by the crisis of modernity, the inability to get outside of ourselves to a reality that we did not create or know before we encountered something that is,  but which something is the cause of our knowledge because it is. 


Modern political philosophy is, at bottom, the product of this inability to get outside of ourselves so that what we really know is only ourselves with no possible check on ourselves by what is not ourselves.  When Machiavelli, in his famous Chapter XV of The Prince, made it impossible, as he thought, for men to pass from what they “do” do to what they “ought” to do, or vice versa, he left the will of the Prince and the wills in the Republic free to create any form of man they wished.  By destroying Plato, nothing stood in their way.  The Prince became an artist, not a politician, or better he became an artist whose subject matter, whose raw materials, were human beings themselves devoid of any intrinsic form.  No check on the Prince’s actions was to come from the “form” of what man is, the form by which he knows that he himself did not make himself.  What ought to be is what exists, as Hegel is later to postulate the logical conclusion of this position for us. 

IV.

In a famous essay, Leo Strauss asked the question, “What Is Political Philosophy?”[11]  Clearly, intellectual clarity asks us to distinguish political science and political philosophy.  Likewise, we need to be aware of the distinction of reason and revelation, of philosophy and science.  Hence, if we ask about the “paradoxical” place of political philosophy in precisely the “structure” of reality, we  imply both that there are political things, including the question of the best regime, and human practical reason out of which political things initially flow.  We also affirm that reality is not a “chaos,” but a “structure,” that is, an “order.”  We can make sense of political things. 


I use the word “paradoxical” about the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality because the subject matter of political reflection, namely, human actions insofar as they are blameworthy or praiseworthy, do not reach reality apart from human thinking and choosing.  In other words, the fact that man is “by nature” a political animal, one whose full being is not available to him without the city, means that, unlike other beings in their flourishing, human beings must actually “act” for political things to exist and thus for themselves fully to exist.  Likewise, he must actually “think” if he is going to understand where these actions are to be located in the order of things. 

The intellectual virtue of the moral virtues is precisely “prudence,” the virtue that supplies the form or content to the will so that we can know what the act we put in existence really is.  The wide variety of ethical and political things, of which Aristotle speaks, is due to the fact that their subject matter is variable both among good alternatives and evil ones.  The potential variability of human choice and understanding in each individual prudential act means that it could have been “otherwise.”  This “otherwiseness,” as it were, must be included within the meaning of the act or else it cannot have its note of praise or blame that indicates what it is in the order of things.  This is why the so-called “social sciences” cannot “know” their subject matter after the manner of those sciences whose subject matter is by nature invariable.  Modern social sciences lack this sense of altereity.  Hence their method is “reductionist,” that is, it presupposes that reality must be as its method demands.  Classical political science does not assume this demand that reality and a mathematical method of knowing it correspond because political science cannot expect more certitude than its subject matter allows.. 


Aristotle often uses the analogy of the doctor and the politician to shed light on political things.  This distinction goes back to the difference between art and prudence.  Political things are “recta ratio agibilium,” whereas artistic things are “recta ratio factibilium.”  What is the point of this distinction for our purposes here?  The doctor knows that human health is a normal reality that occurs if nothing goes wrong.  What it is to be humanly healthy is not something the doctor “makes.”  He presupposes this given healthfulness as his first principle of action.  His task is not to ask, what is essentially the philosopher’s practical question, “what do I do when I am healthy?” but rather “how do I become healthy when I am sick?”  The doctor, as Plato warned us, is a dangerous man to us if he is our enemy, since he knows best how to inflict damage on us.  He can use his knowledge qua man for good or ill, but not qua doctor where he can only use it for our good, the end of the art..  Once we are healthy, the doctor’s task is finished.  He does not tell us how to live.  Good doctors can be unhappy men; indeed, they can be evil men.

Aristotle tells us to examine the typical “motion” of all things  – the movement of the stars, of the plants, of the animals.  He also tells us to examine our own “motions.”   The ethics, economics, politics, poetics, and rhetoric are designed to clarify one or another aspect of human “motion.”  Certain things are in the universe because human beings are in the universe.  Political philosophy exists because of this peculiar human “motion” by which human beings inter-act to achieve a common good in which the human being can flourish.  Political science is called an “architectonic” science, that is, it is a directive knowledge with a focus on action.  We can step back from this active knowledge to analyze in general what men do or do not do in their personal, familial, or political actions.  The organization of this knowledge into intelligible form results in The Ethics and The Politics. 

Political philosophy appears when it is necessary to justify the non-political being of man before the politician.  The same man is politician and metaphysician.  Essentially, political philosophy exists to explain that there are things that transcend man, that the highest things, not merely political things, are worth spending time on.  In this sense, political philosophy points to metaphysics and revelation, to the things that are brought up by, but not answered by political life.  Without this more contemplative thought, man cannot be what he is.  This is the meaning of that famous passage in the sixth book of The Ethics of Aristotle where he writes:


Wisdom must be intuitive reason combined with scientific knowledge  – scientific knowledge of the highest objects which has received as it were its proper completion.  Of the highest objects, we say, for it would be strange to think that the art of politics, or practical wisdom, is the best knowledge, since man is not the highest being in the world....  It is evident also that philosophic wisdom and the art of politics cannot be the same; for if the state of mind concerned with a man’s own interests is to be called philosophic wisdom, there will be many philosophical wisdoms... (1141a18-30).

This less than highest status of politics too is the reason why Aristotle tells us not to listen to those who tell us only to look to and work for “human” things even though we be humans (1177b30-78a4).  The very condition of our humanness points to what is not “human” but which is “mind.”  Mind is related to mind.  Man remains a rational being for whom all his non-rational powers and capacities are related to his highest faculty.

V.

The passage in classical philosophy that is most central to political philosophy as such is found in Plato’s Gorgias, the famous passage in which Callicles, the intelligent, smooth, handsome politician, the man whose god is the demos itself, ceases to answer Socrates’ questions (505c).  It is at this point, shades of The Apology itself, that we know that Socrates is dead.  As a philosopher, his hold on life is only guaranteed by his ability to speak with the politician who always retains the power to kill him.  Political philosophy is not merely the philosophical consideration of political things but the effort to convince the politician to allow the philosopher to continue in the city with his (the philosopher’s) own task.  The philosopher’s task in turn is to lead the politician to at least an awareness of what is not simply politics, itself deprived of any criterion but itself.


Leo Stauss put the issue well in his essay “On Classical Political Philosophy.”  The precarious status of philosophy in the city is contingent on rendering the politician, who ordinarily has no time or inclination for such things, benevolent to the higher things.

The adjective “political” in the expression “political philosophy” designates not so much a subject matter as a manner of treatment; from this point of view, I say, “political philosophy” means primarily not the philosophic treatment of politics, but the political, or popular, treatment of philosophy, or the political introduction to philosophy  – the attempt to lead the qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life.[12]

In both Plato and Aristotle, the bridge that allows the politician to open himself to things he does not fully understand is largely provided by music and poetry, both of which, as we know from the same sources, can equally corrupt the soul if they themselves are disordered.  Plato recognized that the only way he could “defeat” Homer and the corrupting nature of poetry would be for himself to provide philosophy with its own poetic attraction and enchantment.  This Platonic poetic counterpart to Homer, designed to counteract his charm with an even greater charm, is called,  precisely, The Republic.[13]

“There is aesthetic creation because there is creation,” George Steiner wrote in his Real Presences, a title with obvious philosophical and theological overtones.


There is formal construction because we have been made form.  Today, mathematical models proclaim access to the origins of the present universe.  Molecular biology may have in reach an unraveling of the thread whose beginning is that of life.  Nothing in these prodigious conjectures disarms, let alone elucidates, the fact that the world is when it might not have been, the fact that we are in it when we might, when we could not have been.  The core of our human identity is nothing more or less than the fitful apprehension of the radically inexplicable presence, facticity and perceptible substantiality of the created.  It is; we are.  This is the rudimentary grammar of the unfathomable.[14]

Steiner’s observations follow from Voegelin’s two questions, “Why is there something and not nothing?”  “Why is this thing as it is?”[15]  Political philosophy is located at the conjunction of every day politics and the wonderment about the highest things.  Reality would not be complete without it if by reality we mean not merely what is but the accurate understanding of what is.  Both of these, the reality and the understanding, seem necessary in a world that includes intelligence as well as being, which includes the intelligence of being. 


Leo Strauss states bluntly that “‘scientific political science’ is in fact incompatible with political philosophy.”[16]  Strauss implies here that the students of “scientific political science” do not engage in the classic enterprise of political philosophy so that there is a unacknowledged lacuna in the proper understanding of human things.  In attending to the fact that the subject matter of politics is human actions insofar as they are good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy, political philosophy can avoid that “scientific” neutrality that methodologically leaves out the essential nature of these acts.[17]  To be “value-free” means literally not to understand what is to be investigated, what is to be known.  Modern social science in this sense means that reality continues but it has no proper intelligence to illuminate it.  This is why Strauss thinks that political philosophy which does look to this reality as known by practical science and action is incompatible with modern social science.   

“The social scientist is a student of human societies, of societies of humans.  If he wishes to be loyal to his task, he must never forget that he is dealing with human things, with human beings,”  Strauss explains in his essay, “Social Science and Humanism.”

He must reflect on the human as human.  And he must pay due attention to the fact that he himself is a human being and that social science is always a kind of self-knowledge.  Social science, being the pursuit of human knowledge of human things, includes as its foundation the human knowledge of what constitutes humanity, or rather, of what makes man complete or whole, so that he is truly human.  Aristotle calls his equivalent of what now would be called social science the liberal inquiry regarding the human things, and his Ethics is the first, the fundamental, and the directive part of that inquiry.[18]


“The liberal inquiry regarding human things” recognizes that the “social sciences,” in the Aristotelian sense, are a kind of “self-knowledge.”  That is, they realize that their subject matter has passed through and reflects on “the human as human.”  This also means that it knows that there are things that are not “human” both below and above man; it is aware of the beasts and the gods as well as men.  The place of political philosophy in the structure of reality is at the point where the sub-human, the human, and the transcendent meet, but meet not as hostile combatants but as members of an ordered whole, a whole that includes beings who can freely reject what they are.

VI.

In the beginning of these considerations on the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality, I cited, in addition to the passage from Aquinas on skepticism, a passage from Leo Strauss in which he pointed out that of its very nature, the city looks not to laws that it can unmake but to those it cannot, because man did not make himself to be man.  The city must transcend itself, or perhaps better, the substantial beings among whom the city is a relation have ends that go through and beyond the political.  In a further passage, with which I shall conclude, I cited Catherine Pickstock, in a remarkable book pointing to, as she puts it in her sub-title, the “liturgical consummation of philosophy.”   Pickstock intimates that human consciousness cannot be guaranteed by ideological constructs or by “autonomous self-presence,” the only alternatives available in an “immanentist” world, as she puts it.  It can only grounded by a “redemptive” return of “doxological dispossession,” caused by a proper human response to the transcendent, a response that implies that man does not “make” his own salvation.. 


Earlier, I had cited the response of Levinas to the question of whether the absolute could be a “diversion,” of whether, following Pascal, and indeed Plato and Aristotle, the relation of man to transcendence was one of “serious play,” as Plato put it in The Laws.  Doxological dispossession means that human completion is not a response to itself or to what it has itself made  – to recall Voegelin’s questions about our awareness that we do not create ourselves to be or to be what we are.  Doxology, praise, causes us to let go of the illusion that we are the end of our own actions in any absolute sense.  All our actions, including our political ones, while remaining what they are, point beyond themselves.  If we do not allow for this pointing, we do not understand what we are or the nature of that “good,” as Plato called it, that lies at the origin of things.

Political philosophy takes us back to the proper being of cities in relation to man and to his own personal destiny.  Cities are not things that will be saved.  Any empire, be it Roman, Holy Roman, British, Soviet, or whatever, “declines and falls,” to use a famous and still haunting expression.  Important as they might be, cities and empires are passing things, even though they be also human things intended to surpass the length of the lives of their individual citizens.  The Greek classics, when they explained politics, explained them as an order of human actions by which citizens were praiseworthy or blameworthy, and this not in some just ephemeral sense.  It was in and through the city that the citizen transcended the city.  As Strauss put it at the end of his explication of Aristotle’s Politics, man transcended the city only by what is highest in him, only by pursuing “true” happiness.[19]  Modern political philosophy, with its “immanentist” background, as Pickstock intimated, has presented an alternate to the limited state either in terms of a this-worldly, universal ideology in which all good is seen to be a product of the state or in which the individual stands by himself as the maker of all value and the definer of all things, including himself. 

“Doxological dispossession” suggests that what is worthy of man’s highest praise is not the state.  It is not even man himself.  Since the state is a good, however, it can itself be set-up as apparently worthy of total human commitment.  No one, perhaps, has put the alternative better than C. S. Lewis’ famous Screwtape in his advice to his colleagues about how to distract the human being from his major purpose.  It seems fitting to close these reflections on the place of political philosophy in the structure of reality by citing, who else?  The Devil! 


Screwtape advises his fellow devils that human beings must be fostered in a certain delusion  – not “diversion,” to recall Levinas.  Ordinary human beings have a real presence in the world but also they have a real awareness that they did not cause their own being.  Human beings then must be deluded into believing that

the fate of nations is in itself more important than that of individual souls.  The overthrow of free peoples and the multiplication of slave states are for us [devils] a means (besides, of course, being fun); but the real end is the destruction of the individuals.  For only individuals can be saved or damned, can become sons of the Enemy or food for us.  The ultimate value, for us, of any revolution, war, or famine lies in the individual anguish, treachery, hatred, rate, and despair which it may produce.[20]

Political philosophy is itself an effort to place the nations in a proper perspective with respect to their being.  The fate of nations, however exciting and capable of being made to seem more important than it is, is not the central focus of political philosophy which points through the city to what transcends it.  It points to the beings capable of being saved or damned, to one beings capable of praise, of responding to the glory that man did not make. 


Human beings are precisely, in Steiner’s phrase, “real presences.”  We do not see their image in our eyes, but we see them.  We know to whom we are talking; we know that we did not cause ourselves to be or to be what we are.  Do not listen to those, as Aristotle told us, who, being human, tell us to concern ourselves only about human things, about the fate of the nations.  Human things, as Plato remarks, do have a certain importance, but compared to the “divine seriousness,” they are diversions.  But man remains the political animal even in the highest things.  We do have the power to distinguish between being awake and being asleep, as Aquinas put it. 

In the end, “doxological dispossession” is the highest form of being awake.  It is this awakeness to which the city points.  It is the paradoxical place of political philosophy in the structure of being that the being of the city finds itself in its rightful rank, in its rightful category, amid the things that are.  The highest life, as Aristotle said, is not the political life, but the contemplative life, the life which, compared to political live, is “divine.”  But to the degree that the philosopher does not convince the Callicleses of this world to make a place for these higher considerations, to that very degree will political philosophy fail in its mission both to the city and to that which transcends the city.  Political philosophy must be thought into existence in order that what is might be complete in knowing its own word.



[1]Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 152.

[2]Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 170.

[3]Charles M. Schulz, Dogs Don’t Eat Dessert (New York: Topper Books, 1987).

[4]Boswell’s Life of Johnson (London: Oxford, 1931), I, 638.

[5]Emmanuel Levinas, “Questions and Answers,” in Of God Who Comes to Mind, tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1986), 86.

[6]Robert Sokolowski, “The Method of Philosophy: The Making of Distinctions,” The Review of Metaphysics, LI (March, 1998), 516, 524.

[7]See James V. Schall, “The Death of Socrates and the Death of Christ,” At the Limits of Political Philosophy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 123-44.

[8]Eric Voegelin, Hitler and the Germans (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, V. 31, 86.

[9]Gilson’s great book has recently been re-published, Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).

[10]Professor Thomas S. Martin, “Eulogy for Richard Arlan Wood,” Epiphany Episcopal Church, Flagstaff, Arizona, June 19, 1999.

[11]Leo Strauss, “What Is Political Philosophy?” in What Is Political Philosophy and Other Studies (Glencoe, IL.: The Free Press, 1959), 9-55.

[12]Strauss, ibid., 93-94.

[13]See Gene Fendt and David Rozema, Plato’s Errors: Plato, a Kind of Poet (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1998).

[14]George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989),  201.

[15]“Why should there be art, why poetic creation?  The question is an exact analogue to that posed by Leibniz: why should there be being and substance, why should there not be nothing?” ibid., 200.

[16]Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?, ibid., 14.

[17]See E. B. F. Midgley, The Ideology of Max Weber (Aldershot, Hants.: Gower, 1983).

[18]Leo Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed. Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 6

[19]Strauss, City and Man, ibid., 49.

[20]C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillian, 1977), 170.