PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 24

 - In Defense of Politics


This final lecture of the course is given “in defense of politics.” First, the idea and definition of “politics” and the “political” are discussed with reference to the ideas of Immanuel Kant and twentieth-century political scientists, novelists, and philosophers such as Bernard Crick, E. M. Forster, and Carl Schmitt. Patriotism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism are also addressed as integral parts of political life. Finally, the role of educators–and “old books”–is discussed as essential to developing a proper understanding of the political.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 24 - In Defense of Politics

Chapter 1. Bernard Crick: In Defense of Politics [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Anyway, today, the last class, I had on the syllabus, I think it was called globalization and political theory or something to that effect and I guess since writing that I’ve changed the theme of this final lecture a bit and I want to talk about defending politics or in defense of politics. And I’ll try to explain what I mean by that as kind of a wrap up and exhortation for this last class.

In 1962, an English political scientist and journalist by the name of Bernard Crick wrote a short and very polemical and influential little book called In Defense of Politics, and by politics Crick meant a distinctive type of human activity where conflicts of interests among groups are adjudicated by discussion, persuasion and debate rather than by force or by fraud. A political society, as Crick understood it, is one where individuals and groups played by certain agreed upon rules that will determine how conflicts of interests are to be decided. Crick called this little book–very lively and still definitely worth reading–he called his book In Defense of Politics because he regarded the proper understanding of politics as being distorted by certain currents of thought and practice in his own day among which were for example the highly ideological style of politics found for example in the Soviet Union and its client state, the kinds of nationalist politics emerging in the developing world, and even in some aspects of the conservative politics of contemporary Britain of his time where that meant a kind of unreflective deference to customs and tradition. I think today it’s important to try to reprise Crick’s plea for a defense of politics although in a slightly different way.

Politics again, as Crick understood it, is something that takes place within a certain territorially defined unit called a “state.” This may seem almost too obvious to bear repeating. For centuries what is called the res publica has been regarded as the proper locus of the citizens’ loyalty. It was thought to be the task of political philosophy or political science in its original sense to teach or to give reasons for the love of one’s own country. Classical political philosophy regarded patriotism as an ennobling sentiment. Consider just a few of the following passages that I asked Justin to put on the board from Cicero, from Burke, from Machiavelli, from Rousseau, and from Lincoln, writers from the ancient and the modern world from many different countries and times. All make important expressions, some more extreme than others like Machiavelli’s–what else would one expect from an extremist like Machiavelli’s–to simpler and more dignified statements like that of Burke or Lincoln but anyway, all expressing the view that politics has something to do with providing reasons for the love of country.

Chapter 2. E. M. Forster: Patriotism and Loyalty [00:03:55]

Today, however, the idea of patriotism, at least among philosophers, seems to have fallen upon hard times. This isn’t to say that patriotism, as a phenomenon of political life, is likely to disappear. To the contrary. Go drive 20 miles or so outside of any urban area and one is likely to see flags being waved, bumper stickers on cars proclaiming the driver’s love of country, country music stations playing music that tells us to support our troops and keep driving our SUVs, all signs of American patriotism to be sure. But the issue seems quite different in universities and in educated circles, you might say, where patriotism has come to appear to be a morally questionable phenomenon. Tell someone at any Ivy League university that you are interested in patriotism and you will be treated as if you have just expressed a kind of interest in child pornography. Raise the issue and one is likely to hear very quickly repeated Samuel Johnson’s famous barb that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel or you might even hear, if the person’s read a little bit more, E.M. Forster’s famous statement that if he had to choose whether to betray his friend or his country that he, Forster, wished he had the courage to betray his country.

Forster, the famous English novelist, author of Howards End and other important books, Forster presents the choice between friendship over country, of private over public goods, as a kind of tragic and even noble decision that one has to make. But Forster, in some respect, has given us, I would suggest, a false dilemma. Loyalty is a moral habit just as betrayal is a moral vice. People who practice one are less likely to indulge in the other. Consider the following example. A few years after Forster made his statement at Cambridge, I believe, three young Cambridge undergraduates in the 1930s by the names of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess, I don’t know if those are names that are familiar to people here any longer but they were very, very famous names at one point, they chose to betray their own country. That is to say they acted for many years as Soviet agents and for years passed on vital secrets, English secrets, to Moscow, as they all ascended up the ladder of British intelligence services until they were finally exposed in the 1950s. And it was not long after they were exposed and they had all fled to Moscow that they began to betray one another. Loyalty it seems, like betrayal, is not a bus that one can simply get off at will. Rather, people who betray others in one area of life are likely to do so as well in others.

Chapter 3. Carl Schmitt and Aristotle: Patriotism and Loyalty [00:07:29]

So Forster has given us a false choice between choosing friendship over country or country over friendship and as with most matters, I think it probably makes greater sense to examine the problem through the lenses of Aristotle who tells us everything we need to know about most questions. In the Nicomachean Ethic, Aristotle taught us that all virtues, that is to say, all excellences of mind and heart, are best understood as a mean along a continuum of excess and deficiency. It is a matter of finding a balance, the proper balance, between extremes. So it might be useful to regard patriotism in this light. If patriotism is a virtue, and I ask the question “if it is,” it would be important to see it as a midpoint between two contending extremes, two contending vices. What are these vices, you might say, that obscure from us the meaning of–the proper meaning of the political today? On one side, you could say, the excess of patriotism is a kind of nationalistic zeal that holds absolute attachment to one’s country and one’s way of life as unconditionally good. This is the kind of loyalty expressed in sentiments like, “My country right or wrong,” but was given powerful expression, perhaps the most powerful expression, in a short book- another short book in this case by a German legal philosopher of the early twentieth century named Carl Schmitt.

Carl Schmitt wrote a short book called The Concept of the Political in 1921 and here Schmitt drew extensively on Hobbes but rather to defend a view of the political, but rather than tying the state of war, Hobbes’s state of war, to a pre-political state of nature, Schmitt saw war and also which includes the preparation for war, as the inescapable condition of human life, of political life. Man, he believed, is the dangerous animal because we can kill one another and individuals, and more importantly groups of individuals, stand to one another in a virtually continual state of conflict and war. Schmitt believed Hobbes was right in many crucial respects but where he fell down was in believing that the social contract could create a sovereign state that would put an end to war. Quite the contrary, he thought. The inescapable political fact is therefore the distinction between what he called friend and enemy, those who are with us and those who are against us. To misunderstand that distinction, distinction that goes all the way back to Polemarchus’ view in theRepublic, where he talks about justice being doing good to friends and harm to enemies but might obviously go on much deeper or further than that.

For Schmitt, that distinction was central to what he called the political. The political, he says, and he uses that word as a noun, we tend to think of political largely in its adjectival form, but in Germany you can often use it as a noun as well. The political, he wrote, is the most intense and extreme antagonism, becomes that much more political the closer it approaches to the extreme point, that of the friend, enemy grouping, he says. Friend and enemy are the inescapable categories through which we experience what he calls the political. Life consists of that fundamental distinction. Athens and Sparta, Red Sox and Yankees, Harvard and Yale–These are fundamental groupings, enemies, friends and enemies. All humanitarian appeals, he believed, appeals to the concept of human rights, to free trade or so on, all of these are, as it were, attempts to avoid the fundamental fact of conflict and the need for a politics of group solidarity. The politics of the future, he hoped, would be determined by those who have the courage to recognize this fundamental distinction and to act upon it.

Chapter 4. Immanuel Kant: Transpolitical Cosmopolitanism [00:12:24]

At the other end, however, of the continuum of excess and deficiency, the defect, you might say, of patriotism comes to light as a kind of today what we might call transpolitical cosmopolitanism. Present day cosmopolitanism is, to a very large degree, a product of another German philosopher named Immanuel Kant writing at the end of the eighteenth century. Kant stressed, on the other hand, that our moral duties and obligations respect no national or political or other kinds of parochial boundaries, whatever boundaries such as race, class, ethnicity, political loyalty, and the like. On this view, on Kant’s view, that is, we owe no greater moral obligations to fellow citizens than to any other human beings on the face of the planet. Citizenship–if I can use language that is not exactly Kant’s own, but is largely sort of identified with a kind of Kantian move in philosophy–citizenship is simply an arbitrary fact conferred on individuals through the accident of birth. But since birthright citizenship is an artifact of what you might call a pure sort of genetic lottery, there are no moral or special obligations attached to it. The Kantian emphasis on universality, that is to say that there is a moral law that can be universalized and held to be true for all human beings, stressed for Kant that we are all parts of what he called a kingdom of ends, a universal kingdom of ends where every individual is due equal moral value and respect because simply of their humanity alone.

That idea of a cosmopolitan ethic of humanity, Kant believed, could only be realized in a republican form of government, today what we might call a democracy, or, to speak more precisely, what Kant believed it could only hold true in a confederation of republics overseen or ruled by international law. Kant was perhaps, I don’t know if he was the first, but he gave the first, he gave the most powerful early expression to the idea of a league of nations, a league of nations that would put an end to war altogether between states for the sake of achieving what he called perpetual peace, the title of a famous essay of his. Hobbes and Locke, he believed, were wrong in attributing sovereignty, absolute sovereignty, to the individual nation state. For Kant, the state, the individual state, is merely a kind of developmental stage along the path to a world republic, a world republic of states organized around the idea of international law and peace. Only in, he believed, a league of republics would peace among the nations finally be realized and would individuals be able to treat one another as ends rather than means. If you want just some indication of how influential Kant’s view has been, you can think that his idea of an international league of nations came to fruition over a century after his life in Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14 Points issued after the first world war and elaborated more fully in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, all of which bear the unmistakable imprint of Immanuel Kant.

Chapter 5. Schmitt vs. Kant: Nationalism vs. Cosmopolitanism [00:16:17]

Now, neither of these views, let me argue, either of these views, Schmitt’s or Kant’s, really captures the nature of the political. Let me start adequately so at least. Let me start with–return to Schmitt again. Schmitt’s view is rooted, I believe, in a very important human truth, namely, the world is a dangerous, in fact, very dangerous place, like in many ways Hobbes or Machiavelli, Schmitt takes the extreme situation, that is to say, the situation of war and mobilization for war, and turns it into the norm, turns it into the normal situation. An extreme situation is one where the very survival, in fact, the very independence of a society, is at stake and for Schmitt every situation is potentially a life and death struggle against a kind of existential enemy where one must decide to choose up sides between friends and enemy. Politics, for him, is a kind of endless struggle for power guided by national self-interest alone. And yet, it would seem to me, a politics of unremitting war and preparation for war would be, have to be, self-defeating even in Schmitt’s own terms. For example, why should the struggle between friend and enemy be exclusively what we might call an interstate rivalry? Wouldn’t competition between individuals and groups just as easily become a feature of domestic politics as well? Why is war something that takes place exclusively between states rather than within them, as the logic of bitter rivalry and competition and friend and enemy cuts all the way down, so to speak?

The logic of Schmitt’s argument, at least as I understand it, points not only to war between states but ongoing civil war and civil conflicts within states, between rival groups expressing their own desire for power and their own loyalty to their individual groups. The result of this logic of conflict, it seems to me, would be the negation of politics, that is to say the destruction of the sovereign state as the locus of political power. Why should, again, the choice of friend and enemy be a choice between states rather than individuals. But let me then turn to Kant’s view, cosmopolitanism, because if the effect of Schmitt’s distinction between friend and enemy is to make politics identical with war, the effect of Kantian cosmopolitanism is to confuse politics with morality. Kant and his present day followers wish to transcend the sovereign state and replace it with known international rules of justice. If Schmitt believed that man is the dangerous animal, Kant believed man is simply the rule following animal. But Kant’s desire, it seems to me, to transcend the state with a kind of international forum, is both naïve and anti-political. If Hobbes was right when he said that covenants without the sword are but words, the question is who will enforce these international norms of justice?

Kant’s conception of a kind of global justice is to wish a world without states, a world without boundaries, a world, in short, without politics. International bodies like the United Nations have been notoriously ineffective in curbing or restraining the aggressive behavior of states and international courts of justice like that in the Hague have been highly selective in what they choose to condemn. It would seem that reliance on such bodies would have the further disadvantage of uprooting people from their traditions, from their local arrangements that most people find as a source of reverence or awe. There seems to be little room for reverence for the sacred, in the cosmopolitan ideal. The logic of this view, the logic of Kant’s view for perpetual peace, necessarily leads to a world state, world government. Even Kant admitted that a world state would be what he called a soulless despotism. He was opposed to the idea of a world state, but the logic of his argument leads him inescapably in that view, in that vein. The idea underlying perpetual peace is that human life as such, human life independent that is of the kind of life one leads, is an absolute good. Such an idea, I think, can only lead in the long run to moral decay, that is to say, to a kind of inability or unwillingness to dedicate one’s life to ideals, to the relatively few things that give life wholeness and meaning. The cosmopolitan state would be–the world state would be the home of what Nietzsche called the last man, a world where nothing really matters, where there is nothing really of importance left to do, a world of entertainments, a world of fun, a world void of moral seriousness.

So these two extremes, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, are today the two doctrines or tendencies that tend to obscure the true nature of the political. Each of these extremes contains at best a part of the truth, a partial truth. The nationalist is surely correct in some respect, to see that politics is always a matter of the particular, particular states, particular nations, particular peoples and traditions. For the nationalist, the particular stands for something infinitely higher and more noble than the cosmopolitan or the universal. We enter the world as members of a particular family, in a particular neighborhood, in a particular state, in a particular part of the country and so on. We are a composite of particularities and these attachments, these particularities, are not something extraneous or accidental to our identities. They are what make us who we are. The demand that we give up our particular identities and assume a kind of cosmopolitan point of view would be the same thing to ask us, at least those who are native English speakers, to give up speaking English and adopt Esperanto, the artificial false language. I would ask, who was the Shakespeare or Milton of Esperanto? In other words, everything great derives from something rooted and particular. This is the morality of what you might call common ties.

But there is also some truth on the cosmopolitan side, on the other hand. Are we simply determined or condemned by the accident of birth to live by the traditions of the particular nation in which we happen to have been born? Doesn’t this deny what seems to be highest in us, that is to say our capacity for choice, to detach ourselves from our surroundings, to determine for ourselves how we will live and who we will be? This idea of choice, of being able to choose for oneself, is, I think, at the bottom of our experience of human dignity. We experience our moral worth as human beings through our ability to choose how we will live, with whom to live, and under what conditions. This kind of ideal, this cosmopolitan ethic, has the virtue of allowing us to stand outside of our particular situation and view ourselves from, what you might call, the standpoint of the disinterested spectator, from a higher or more general point of view. And clearly, such a morality gives us a kind of critical distance or vantage point on how we can judge ourselves and our society. From this point of view, our local and particular attachment to family, friends, fellow citizens, again carries no overwhelming moral weight. We must view them as we would view anyone or anything else, disinterestedly, objectively, and this one might call the morality of cosmopolitanism.

Chapter 6. Ethos of the American Regime [00:25:45]

Each of these ethics, the ethic of communal ties, the ethic of cosmopolitan individualism, express, again, an important piece of the truth of politics although neither is alone complete in itself. How to combine them or what should we do? In many respects, I think these two ethics, these two forms of ethos, are very much combined already in the American regime and how the American way of life should be properly understood. Consider the following. American regime is the first truly modern nation, that is to say, a nation founded upon the principles of modern philosophy. Our founding document, the Charter of American Liberties, the Declaration of Independence, is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is fair to say that the American regime requires more than loyalty, that is to say it requires understanding, it requires understanding of that founding principle or that proposition, and the various texts and debates in which that proposition was later articulated as well as the range of responses and alternatives to it. To believe for example, as you all now know, to believe that “all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights” requires us to consider the opposite proposition contained in books like Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics that believe that human beings are not equal and that the best regime is one governed by a philosophical aristocracy.

So to consider our regime means in some ways to consider it in the light of these universal alternatives. But ours is also a regime that contains elements of both the universal and the particular. Again, the American regime is one founded on what Jefferson called “a self-evident truth,” the truth that there are certain unalienable rights, that these principles are not simply true for Americans but believed to be good for all human beings, always and everywhere. Consider Tom Paine inThe Rights of Man where Paine writes, “The independence of America was accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of government, government founded on a moral theory,” he says, “on the indefeasible hereditary rights of man that is now revolving from west to east.” In other words, far from suggesting a traditional form of communal morality, American politics, as Paine suggests there, requires a commitment to the highest, most universal moral principles. That seems to be the cosmopolitan dimension upon which the very nature of the American regime rests.

But the question does not end there. The principles of Jefferson and Paine once again did not arise sui generis. Anyone knows Jefferson’s principles about equality and rights have their profound source in the philosophy of John Locke and particularly in his Second Treatise of Government. Recall that Locke occupies a central moment in the development of the modern state and his new idea of a kind of industrious and rational citizen. Locke’s philosophy emerged not only in conversation with the other great founders of modernity like Machiavelli and Hobbes but, in some important sense, it emerged in opposition to the tradition of the classical republic whose greatest representatives were Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius. It would seem then, in other words, to be an American citizen in the fullest sense of the term requires an immersion in the philosophical tradition because only in America, of all the countries in the world I believe, does the philosophical tradition remain most deeply and truly alive. And yet at the same time, the American regime requires an understanding and appreciation not only for a set of abstract philosophical ideas and debates but for a constitution, its history and a distinctive way of life. A regime is obviously more than a catalog of philosophical doctrines and abstract propositions but is embedded within a particular set of moral, legal, political, constitutional practices that give it color and distinguish it from all others.

A proper understanding of the particular regime requires today, or requires at any time, an immersion in history, not only philosophy but in history, and I mean by history not social history, economic history or even cultural history, but history in the proper sense of the term, that is political history. Political history presupposes the centrality of politics, of how the constitution of any society and its most fundamental laws shape the character and choices of its citizen body. Political history concerns the struggle of individuals and groups for power. It concerns the political uses of power or, maybe to speak a little more clearly, of the two great ends to which power can be put, namely freedom and empire. Political philosophy is related to political history. In fact, political history or political philosophy presuppose one another in the same way or in the same relation of the universal to the particular. While the political philosopher studies the principles, the underlying principles of the regime, the political historian examines the way those principles have been applied in practice. While the philosopher is concerned with the best regime, the regime that is best according to unchanging principles, the historian is concerned with what is best for a particular people at a particular time and place, Athenians, Frenchmen, Americans and so on. And this is what the greatest political historians, Thucydides, Theodor Mommsen, Lord Macaulay, Henry Adams, this is what they have done. They have examined how different regimes, both express but also depart from fundamental principles. When Adams, for example, examines in painstaking detail the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory under the Jefferson administration, he does so always against the backdrop of Jeffersonian ideals about democracy and limited government.

Chapter 7. Where Should the Study of Political Science Be Today? Who Should Educate the Educators? [00:33:05]

But that leads us to the final question that I want to end with, is the proper understanding and appreciation of the political is not something we inherit but obviously something we must be taught. Like anything that must be taught, it requires teachers. But where are such teachers to be found at least today? It would seem only very rarely in universities and rarer still in departments of history, political science or economics. Excuse my polemic. Modern professors of history, for example, often appear to teach everything but a proper respect for tradition. One would get the impression from many classes that America alone among the nations of the world is responsible for racism, homophobia, the despoliation of the planet and every other moral evil that one can imagine. In my own field, political science, that once designated the skill or art possessed by the most excellent statesmen or politician, civic education has been replaced by something called “game theory” that regards politics as a marketplace where individual preferences are formed and utilities are maximized. Rather than teaching students to think of themselves as citizens as these members–individuals did, the new political science treats us as something called rational actors who exercise our preferences, but the question is, what should we have a preference for, how should rational choice be exercised? On these questions, that is to say the most fundamental questions, our political science is sadly silent. It has nothing to offer and nothing to say.

By reducing all politics to choice and all choice to preference, the new political science is forced to accord legitimacy to every preference however vile, base or indecent it may be. That kind of value neutrality towards preferences is akin to the philosophic disposition that we know as nihilism, that is to say the belief that our deepest principles and convictions are nothing more than blind preferences. So the purpose of political science is not to stand above or outside the political community as an entomologist observing the ant behavior but rather to serve as a civic-minded arbiter and guardian of disputes in order to restore peace and stability to conflict ridden situations. We are in danger today of losing touch with those questions and those insights that are the original motivation for understanding politics. In place of these questions has arisen a kind of narrow-minded focus on methodology often at the expense of the life and death issues that make up the substance of the political.

So I end with this question. Where should the study of political science be now? You have sat through 13 weeks of an introductory course. Where do you go from here? To ask a question posed brilliantly by Karl Marx, he asked, “Who will educate the educators?” the best question he ever asked. How can we begin a comprehensive reeducation of today’s political science? The only answer and the best answer I can give you today is simply to read old books. These are our best teachers in a world where real teachers are in short supply. In addition to what you have read here, I would include front and center in your future reading books like Plato’s Laws, Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, and Montesquieu’s incomparable Spirit of the Laws, and of course, The Federalist Papers. To read these books in the spirit in which they were written is to acquire an education in political responsibility. This, of course, or these should be supplemented by a study of the deeds and writings of the most important American statesmen from Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln through Wilson and Roosevelt. And these, in turn, should be supported by the study of our leading jurisprudential thinkers from Marshall, Holmes, Brandeis, and Frankfurter. And finally, this should be completed by an examination of the most important statesmen and leaders from world history from around the world, from Pericles to Churchill. Once you have completed those readings, once you have done that, and I would say only when you have done that, can you say that you are living up to the highest offices of a Yale student aptly summarized on the memorial gate outside of Branford College which says, “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” Thank you for your time and patience over this semester and good luck to you in the future.

[end of transcript]

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