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The subordination of poetry to rational guidance has been denounced as a symptom of a specifically Western sickness, with its origin in Plato's Republic. But Plato's disposition to the poets is more complex than is often supposed. Although Book Three's education in civic virtue includes a call for an austere, civic poetry, in Book Ten Socrates finds the wisdom of this provision to need a serious reconsideration, one made necessary because philosophy has emerged as the true answer to the search for a genuinely fulfilling, happy life. Book Ten's reconsideration quietly shows that great poets like Homer are wiser than the earlier examination had suggested, especially about death, and are even indistinguishable from Socratic philosophers in their understanding of and disposition toward death and so in the related matter of the best human life.
The history of political philosophy may be said to begin with the courtroom drama that led to the execution of the thinker who founded the enterprise. Socrates (469–399 BC) wrote nothing for publication. In his own lifetime he was made notorious as the central, dubious character in Ancient Greece’s greatest comedy, the Clouds by Aristophanes (446–386 BC). After his execution, Socrates was portrayed much more favorably and seriously in numerous dialogic dramatizations by his students, above all Xenophon (431–355 BC) and Plato (427–347 BC). None of these depictions of Socrates purport to be histories. They are products of the dramatic art. Their purpose is not to preserve an exact record of what Socrates actually said, but rather to convey what it was like to encounter Socrates – and thereby to be aroused to intense, perplexed, and critical thinking about profound and abiding problems of human existence. All of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and not least his Apology of Socrates, are rich in deliberately provocative puzzles meant to stimulate probing detective work – through repeated rereading, with alertness and with dogged and even suspicious questioning. The Platonic dialogues are meant to constitute a kind of training ground for becoming a human being who goes through life truly awakened, by Socrates and Socratic questioning, to life’s depths and challenges.
The Challenge to Our Way of Thinking
Plato’s Apology presents Socrates delivering his sole public account of his life as a whole and what he lived for. But the account takes the form of a defense in a criminal trial that culminates in Socrates’ death sentence. Plato thus provokes a number of questions: What is it about Socrates, and his way of life, in relation to the political society around him, that leads to so dire a clash with the legal authorities? Is this not a blamable, avoidable crime on the part of the Athenian democracy? Or at least a terrible accident, the result of a deep misunderstanding? Or is there something essential to Socratic political philosophy that makes it unavoidably threatening to lawful society, and hence always in danger of lawful punishment? What answer does Plato mean to teach us?
The great achievement of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) is to have brought together in a grand synthesis the teachings of the pagan rationalist philosophers, above all Aristotle, and the revelation taught in the Holy Scriptures. Thomas contends that reason or science, wisely understood, leads up to or points toward the truth of the Christian faith and, conversely, that faith-based truth, if properly understood, presupposes while completing rational philosophy and science. Thomas insists that the truly honest scientific mind – because it is keenly aware of its own limits – is the mind open to and welcoming of Christ’s inspiration. By the same token, the thoughtful Christian welcomes, as a gift of God, Aristotle and his exemplary demonstration of all that the reasoning of man can and should discover and clarify on its own, as the basis for wisely accepting and interpreting revelation.
The Broad Historical Context
At the time Thomas began to write and teach, it was far from clear that this sort of outlook would prevail in Christendom. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the works of Aristotle were reintroduced into the West, from the Muslim world. For five hundred years previously in Christian Europe, Greek thought, and especially Greek political philosophy, were poorly known. Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, the Greek texts became well known and had an enormous impact on thinkers in Judaism and Islam. The most fraught influence was through Platonic political philosophy. The major political philosophers – most notably al-Farabi and Avicenna and Averroes in Islam, and Maimonides in Jewry – contended that the Scriptures, as the revelation of an all-wise deity, must be understood to be written wisely: much like Plato wrote his books but with an even more “wily graciousness” (in the famous formula of Maimonides). God has deployed a subtle strategy of responsibly civic, educative rhetoric that teaches the unequal levels of humanity differently, through conveying many levels of meaning, the most serious and complex of which God has deliberately hidden from most readers. The surface message of the Bible or Koran, these Islamic and Jewish Platonists suggested, consists of edifying myths, or noble lies, which are good for and needed by the less thoughtful majority.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) placed the whole tradition of political philosophy, founded by Socrates, in doubt. Prior to Nietzsche, the enterprise that Socrates started had been carried on for 2,500 years – by philosophers who disagreed with Socrates, on many fundamental points, and who of course disagreed with one another; but all their controversies proceeded on the basis of a fundamental consensus: Namely, that it is possible and necessary to make progress in discovering universal and abiding, rational standards of justice and of the good life. These standards were understood to be derivable either from insight into the permanently deepest needs of human nature, or from insight into the historical process through which humanity grows into completion. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to call radically into question this plane of agreement, and therewith the whole undertaking based on this plane.
The impact of Nietzsche’s questioning has been devastating. In his wake, the preeminent philosophic thinkers in the twentieth century – Husserl, Bergson, Heidegger, Whitehead, Wittgenstein – abandoned or avoided political philosophy. In our time, political philosophy has largely been replaced by political “ideology,” that is, high-level propaganda: the elaboration of sophisticated intellectual defenses for a presupposed, and never radically questioned, set of normative principles called “our values.” The most influential and sophisticated political theorists – such as Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, Richard Rorty, or Jürgen Habermas – regard the original enterprise of political philosophy founded by Socrates, and continued through Marx, to be impossible. They are convinced that there is no knowable rational standard beyond or outside each historical culture on the basis of which one could independently judge between conflicting cultural “values.” All “value commitments” are ultimately relative to and products of their specific historical culture. No thinker, however wise and profound, can ever really escape his culture. All thinkers are “children of their time.” All past philosophers who believed themselves to be engaged in the Socratic project, who believed themselves to be making progress in discovering the universal and abiding norms of human nature or history, are detected to be victims of profound self-delusion. We today can claim to understand all of them better than any of them understood themselves.
The vast masterpiece of the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) became extraordinarily influential almost overnight. Its most famous contributions were: a new theory of participatory democracy (which inspired Rousseau among others); a new theory of “despotism” (l’état despotique: the term first became current through Montesquieu); a new theory of federalism; a new theory of the decisive influence of climate, geography, and history in shaping human existence; a new theory of the separation of powers (legislative, executive, and judicial); and a new, reformist theory of civil and criminal law to provide greater security for the accused and more reasonable procedures for parties in lawsuits. It was the last two that made Montesquieu the authority for the framers of the American Constitution, and for Blackstone’s reform of English law in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1776). In addition, The Spirit of the Laws is the single most important philosophic inspiration for the eventually successful movement, initiated by English disciples of Montesquieu, to abolish racial slavery of Africans (relying especially on bks. 15–17, and above all the mordantly ironic 15.5). Last but not least, The Spirit of the Laws is the work that made authoritative the idea that the peaceful common good of all mankind can be best advanced through the worldwide spread and intensification of globalized commercialism.
The Norms of Nature
Montesquieu begins with an account of the causal matrix governing the entire universe. The first originating cause is god: not the biblical God, but the god of nature, the god discernible by human science. This true god is identified with “a primordial reason” (une raison primitive) generating the rest of the universe in accordance with unvarying “laws” that are “the necessary relations that derive from the nature of things”; “thus the creation, which would appear to be an arbitrary act, presupposes rules as invariable as the fatality of the atheists” (1.1). By implication, there are no miracles, and in particular no miracles of revelation. The miraculous, and revealed teachings play no role in Montesquieu’s account of human reality.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), more clearly than anyone else, elaborated the conceptual framework that has predominated in all distinctively modern political thought ever since: government conceived as a “social contract” among radically independent individuals intending to protect their personal, pre-political liberties or “rights.” Hobbes laid out this framework and provided its philosophic justification, in several successive treatises, but his acknowledged masterpiece is Leviathan.
The Broad Historical Context
In the century and a half immediately prior to Hobbes, there had been two momentous reshapings of the intellectual landscape: first, the Protestant Reformation, which split Christianity forever into competing and, for a long time, warring sects; second, the emergence of modern, materialistic-mathematical physics – and the new, Baconian project of technology that we studied in the previous chapter. Hobbes’s political thought is deeply shaped by both these transformations.
Hobbes was transfixed by the sight of the horrible religious wars convulsing Europe, and he detected as their chief cause the fight among sects over clashing interpretations of what the Bible teaches government ought to implement in order to foster the “highest good” – the piety and the justice that maximize virtue as the source of the health or salvation of the soul. Hobbes reacted by leading the way to the implementation of a new, drastically lowered, conception of the goals of government. Hobbes was the first to propose a conception of civic justice and the common good that removed from civic purview the whole question of the good life, in the sense of spiritual fulfillment.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) was raised in a conservative French aristocratic family, but as a young man he became a political liberal. After supporting the revolution of 1830, he was commissioned to go to America to study prison reform. But Tocqueville knew that there were vastly more important things to learn in and about America. He spent nine months traveling the country, getting to know people in many walks of life, questioning everything he saw – as an outsider, who took nothing for granted and looked with wonder at everything. Returning home, he studied his copious notes and many American documents, meditated on all that he had seen and learned, and crafted a treatise meant to teach present and future generations the deepest mainsprings and tendencies of the new kind of democracy he found emerging in the United States.
Tocqueville vs. Marx
Tocqueville lived at the same time as Marx, and like Marx was deeply influenced by the post-Rousseauean critique of the original Enlightenment and its bourgeois individualism. Tocqueville also shared with Marx a conviction that the history of the West in the previous centuries revealed itself as a process through which humanity had been gradually developing toward a final, decisive epoch, whose awesome challenge was coming to clear sight only in the early nineteenth century. Tocqueville parted company with Marx in that he takes with utmost seriousness two things that Marx does not take very seriously at all: God and American democracy.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is best known as the chief original articulator of the modern scientific method. His most important writings in this regard are The Advancement of Learning (1605) and The New Organon (1620). But Bacon was also a highly successful statesman under Queen Elizabeth and James the First, and – more momentously, for our purposes – an outspoken admirer of Machiavelli, as well as the employer and older friend of Thomas Hobbes. Inspiration from Bacon was gratefully acknowledged by subsequent early modern political philosophers such as Spinoza (another open admirer of Machiavelli) and Locke. Thomas Jefferson, arguably the most theoretically inclined of the American founders, counted Bacon (along with Newton and Locke) as one of “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences” (Letter to Richard Price, January 8, 1789, our emphasis).
Bacon’s Machiavellian Scientific Method
We can best begin to understand the relation between the scientific and the political strands in Bacon’s thought if we start from his expressed indebtedness to Machiavelli. In The Advancement of Learning, Bacon cites Machiavelli a full ten times, almost always favorably – and this at a time when such a display of favor to Machiavelli entailed considerable daring. Bacon similarly cites Machiavelli with approval in his Essays. Why Bacon does so, not only in his political but especially in his scientific works is not immediately apparent. We can identify, however, three key ideas in Machiavelli’s reflection on human nature that became roots of Bacon’s new method for the science of nature in general.
In moving from Hobbes to John Locke (1632–1704), we follow a key development within modern political philosophy, entailing the qualified acceptance of the fundamental principles of human nature as articulated by Hobbes, but accompanied by a severe criticism, and rejection, of the way Hobbes implemented those principles in his prescriptions for government. Locke argues that Hobbes has not adequately recognized how easily government itself can become a threat to security and peace – a threat far graver than the threats from groups and individuals in the state of nature. For government has at its disposal more terrible power than is possessed by any individual or group in the state of nature. That terrible power can be abused by the humans who wield it, unless the “mighty Leviathan” (sec. 98) is itself restrained, from within, by some system of checks and balances. Locke took Hobbes’s basic theoretical foundation (the new conception of human nature as extremely dangerous) and argued for building on that foundation a different and safer governmental structure. Locke thus set the agenda for the modern tradition of liberal constitutionalism, constitution framing, and constitutional law. (At the same time, we must not forget that the purer Hobbesian tradition, or what one might call the statist, or authoritarian, rights tradition, has always continued to have deep influence and leading exemplars – such as Napoleon in France; Bismarck in Germany; Atatürk in Turkey; and Putin in Russia.)
Locke’s Rhetorical Genius
With this bird’s-eye view of how Locke departs most obviously from Hobbes, we are almost prepared to turn to Locke’s Second Treatise. But if we are going to understand Locke’s writing – whose true message is more difficult of access than is Hobbes’s – we have to begin by focusing in on an important disagreement Locke has with Hobbes concerning human nature. According to Hobbes, fear – anxiety about security – is the passion that is to be counted upon and built upon. Fear is the passion that can become reasonable, that can link up with and be guided by reason, and can therefore form the basis for a minimal but solid justice. Locke finds this insufficient.
In turning from Athens to Jerusalem, we venture into a new realm. In a sense, we leave behind political philosophy, as it was originally founded by Socrates and carried on by his successors. We engage a writing that offers a radically alternative way of understanding and living human life. The Bible never refers to philosophy or to science, to “politics” or “the political.” The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian Gospels never speak of “nature” in general or of “human nature” in particular – or of “natural law,” “natural right” or “natural rights,” or “human rights.” The Scriptures never refer to “democracy,” “oligarchy,” “republics” or republicanism, “statesmanship,” “citizenship,” “constitutions,” “regimes,” or “forms of government.” The Bible elaborates a comprehensive, normative account of the whole of human existence – of righteousness or justice, of law, of cities and nations or peoples, of rulers and ruled, of family, of love, of education, and, above all, of divinity – without reference to, or apparent need for, many of the seemingly essential terms, categories, and concepts by which classical political philosophy sought to clarify the enduring meaning for human existence in all times and place of what the philosophers observed around them in republican practice. Starting with Socrates, the political philosophers claim that their unassisted human reasoning about empirical evidence available in principle to everyone makes decisive progress in uncovering the deepest permanent needs and problems of human nature from which one may derive lasting standards of good and bad. The Bible, in contrast, presents itself as the revelation to all mankind, through select inspired prophets, of authoritative guidance that humbles and shows the limitations of all merely human understanding and experience. The God who speaks through the Bible is a transcendent God, who as the creator of heaven and earth is not limited by any necessities, as his very name – “I will be what I will be” (“Ehyeh-‘Asher-Ehyeh” – Exod. 3:14) – suggests. His only limits are those he imposes on himself by his unfailing promises or covenants that bespeak his adherence to and enforcement of justice: a justice that is intelligible to human critical thinking (Gen. 18:23–33; Deut. 32:4). He is known through the narration of his deeds and his commands.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) launched the first modern philosophic rebellion against the Enlightenment – that vast cultural revolution whose philosophic foundations we have studied in Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu. As we have seen, the Enlightenment entails a lowered conception of humanity’s moral nature. This new, lowered view of humanity is to be popularized, spread to the mass of mankind, by the philosophers and their followers writing as educational propagandists. Philosophers aim to reshape Christianity into a religion of (modern) reason, and to make scientific philosophy, rather than pious traditions, the source of mankind’s conceptions of “nature’s God.” This constitutes a dramatic break with the classical view of the proper relation between rationalist philosophy or science and healthy political society. The ancients, starting with Socrates, had taught that philosophy or science should keep muted or hidden its critical questioning, because healthy republican society, centered on self-transcending moral and civic virtue, needs to live in a medium of tradition and opinion that is endangered by philosophic skepticism.
Rousseau returns to something like the Socratic view of the relation between philosophy and healthy civil society. But he does not do so on the basis of Socratic or classical political philosophy. He contends that we can and must appreciate the practical wisdom and virtue of classical political life on a modern or even ultramodern philosophic and scientific basis. Otherwise stated, Rousseau effects a kind of synthesis between ancient practice and modern theory, or between classical republicanism and the modern philosophic and scientific conception of nature and of human nature. It is a synthesis that subordinates the ancient ingredient to the modern. But Rousseau argues that his modern predecessors have failed to grasp the full, radical, and problematic meaning and implications of their own discoveries about human nature.