April 20, 2005


Plato, Anyone? (Paul Starobin, April 1, 2005 , National Journal)

At times like these, the abstract concerns of those known as political philosophers -- from Plato down through the ages -- might seem quaint and irrelevant. Our senses are engaged, and our attention claimed, by a seemingly nonstop succession of big events -- in some instances grim, in some instances hopeful, but in all instances, unmistakably concrete. Whether the headlines tell of a suicide car bombing in Iraq or a pro-democracy demonstration in Lebanon, the events seem to speak for themselves.

And yet, it is precisely these sorts of occurrences that open a door to political philosophers. These events do not, in fact, speak for themselves; they cannot be coherently understood without mental reference points, gained from an understanding of history, or moral law, or other sources of wisdom. Political philosophers, and others whose thinking incorporates a measure of political philosophy, are in the orientation business -- they offer a kind of compass. And whether we realize it or not, our own attempts to make sense of things -- for how else can we live? -- are often echoes of their musings.

Consider, for example, The Concept of the Political, a 1932 treatise by Carl Schmitt, a prominent thinker in Weimar Germany. Schmitt later joined the Nazi Party and defended Hitler's policies, but put that aside for the moment. Schmitt's central argument is that all politics can be reduced to a core distinction between friend and enemy. And making this distinction, he maintains, is the principal task of people in a political community: "Therein resides the essence of its political existence." He writes:

The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case, conflicts with him are possible.

I encountered this passage a few days after attending a roundtable at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research -- a stronghold of so-called neoconservative political activists. The seminar was called "Saudi Government Propaganda in the United States: Avowed Ally or Secret Enemy?" The focus was on the Saudis' dissemination of religious "hate propaganda" in American mosques. But the deep question raised by the panelists -- who included former CIA Director James Woolsey -- came straight, if not consciously, from the writings of Schmitt: Is Saudi Arabia a friend or an enemy of America? Indeed, much of American foreign policy these days -- Is the new Iraq our friend? Is France no longer our friend? Can Iran ever be? -- resembles an exercise in Schmitt-style questioning.

We may be living in a time -- an era of deep, fundamental insecurity, of worries about things like whether a terrorist equipped with a suitcase-size "dirty" nuclear bomb is at this very moment crossing the Mexican border -- when only the political philosophers (a category, defined expansively, that can include those of a theological bent) have something relevant to say. The rest is noise.

Some folks get this; others do not. George W. Bush and his speechwriters certainly get it. Critics found his second Inaugural Address hopelessly abstract. It did stray into dogma, and maybe even into theology, but even so, Plato might have liked it. The speech was stocked with the very sorts of enticing (and debatable) assertions -- "In the long run, there is no justice without freedom" -- that are the subject of his Dialogues.

The much-maligned "neocons" -- many of them Republicans -- get it, too. One of their distinguishing characteristics is an interest in old-fashioned, values-laden political philosophy (even if they don't generally acknowledge an influence from the controversial Schmitt). The neocons greatly admire the savant Leo Strauss, a German Jew who taught political philosophy at the University of Chicago and other haunts, and who died in 1973. Despite some critics' assertions, his teachings are not particularly esoteric. Against the fashion of the times, especially the turbulent '60s, Strauss insisted that the Ancients -- the Greek philosophers of Athens and the biblical prophets of Jerusalem -- remained the West's primal source of orientation. A group of devoted students, some of whom became active in neocon political circles, took him seriously.

By contrast, the Democrats -- and liberals, in particular -- seem lost in Dante's woods. They appear to lack not only ideas but, even more than that, a philosophical well from which ideas can be drawn. Or to put this in Socratic terms, they often seem to be living the unexamined life. The challenge for Democrats is to dig deep. They need to find their philosophers.

Context is an awfully tough sell in a nation where 90% of us believe in God, but it's the core of the Democrats secularist message.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2005 11:27 PM

Democrats can easily find their philosophers in the stacks. Unfortunately, if they attempt to check the books out the revulsion of the librarian would likely lead to a tip off to the cops to watch out for the perverts.

Posted by: Luciferous at April 21, 2005 1:31 PM