What is Political Philosophy?



Lecture by Dr. Steven B. Smith / 04.05.2012
Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science
Master of Branford College
Yale University

An Overview of Political Philosophy

In one sense, you could say political philosophy is simply a branch or what we call a subfield of the field of political science. Yes, all right. It exists alongside of other areas of political inquiry like American government, comparative politics, and international relations. Yet in another sense, political philosophy is something much different than simply a subfield; it seems to be the oldest and most fundamental part of political science. Its purpose is to lay bare, as it were, the fundamental problems, the fundamental concepts and categories which frame the study of politics. In this respect it seems to me much less like just a branch of political science than the foundation of the entire discipline.

The study of political philosophy often begins with the study of the great books or some of the great books of our field. Political philosophy is the oldest of the social sciences, and it can boast a wealth of heavy hitters from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and so on. You might say that the best way to learn what political philosophy is, is simply to study and read the works of those who have shaped the field–yes, right? But to do that is, I recognize, not without dangers, often severe dangers of its own. Why study just these thinkers and not others? Is not any so-called list of great thinkers or great texts likely to be simply arbitrary and tell us more about what such a list excludes than what it includes? Furthermore, it would seem that the study of the great books or great thinkers of the past can easily degenerate into a kind of antiquarianism, into a sort of pedantry. We find ourselves easily intimidated by a list of famous names and end up not thinking for ourselves. Furthermore, doesn’t the study of old books, often very old books, risk overlooking the issues facing us today? What can Aristotle or Hobbes tells us about the world of globalization, of terrorism, of ethnic conflict and the like? Doesn’t political science make any progress? After all, economists no longer read Adam Smith. I hesitate to… I don’t hesitate to say that you will never read Adam Smith in an economics course here at Yale, and it is very unlikely that you will read Freud in your psychology classes. So why then does political science, apparently uniquely among the social sciences, continue to study Aristotle, Locke and other old books?

One reason I want to suggest that we continue to read books [by these authors] is not because political science makes no progress, or that we are somehow uniquely fixated on an ancient past, but because these works provide us with the most basic questions that continue to guide our field. We continue to ask the same questions that were asked by Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and others. We may not accept their answers and it’s very likely that we do not, but their questions are often put with a kind of unrivaled clarity and insight. The fact is that there are still people in the world, many people, who regard themselves as Aristotelians, Thomists, Lockeans, Kantians, even the occasional Marxist can still be found in Ivy League universities. These doctrines have not simply been refuted, or replaced, or historically superceded; they remain in many ways constitutive of our most basis outlooks and attitudes. They are very much alive with us today, right. So political philosophy is not just some kind of strange historical appendage attached to the trunk of political science; it is constitutive of its deepest problems.

If you doubt the importance of the study of political ideas for politics, consider the works of a famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, everyone’s heard of him. Keynes wrote in 1935. “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood….Practical men,” Keynes continues, practical men “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” [The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24]. So this course will be devoted to the study of those “academic scribblers” who have written books that continue to impress and create the forms of authority with which we are familiar. But one thing we should not do, right, one thing we should not do is to approach these works as if they provide, somehow, answers, ready-made answers to the problems of today. Only we can provide answers to our problems. Rather, the great works provide us, so to speak, with a repository of fundamental or permanent questions that political scientists still continue to rely on in their work. The great thinkers are great not because they’ve created some set of museum pieces that can be catalogued, admired, and then safely ignored like a kind of antiquities gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but rather because they have defined the problems that all later thinkers and scholars have had to use in order to make sense of their world at all. Again, we still think in terms of the basic concepts and categories that were created for us long ago. Okay?

So one thing you will quickly note is that there are no permanent answers in a study of political philosophy. A famous mathematician once said, “Every question must have a correct answer, for every question one answer.” That itself is an eminently contestable proposition. Among the great thinkers there is profound disagreement over the answers to even the most fundamental questions concerning justice, concerning rights, concerning liberty. In political philosophy, it is never a sufficient answer to answer a question with a statement “because Plato says so,” or “because Nietzsche says so.” There are no final authorities in that respect in philosophy because even the greatest thinkers disagree profoundly with one another over their answers, and it is precisely this disagreement with one another that makes it possible for us, the readers today, to enter into their conversation. We are called upon first to read and listen, and then to judge “who’s right?” [and] “how do we know?” The only way to decide is not to defer to authority, whoever’s authority, but to rely on our own powers of reason and judgment, in other words the freedom of the human mind to determine for us what seems right or best.

But what are these problems that I’m referring to? What are these problems that constitute the subject matter of the study of politics? What are the questions that political scientists try to answer? Such a list may be long, but not infinitely so. Among the oldest and still most fundamental questions are: what is justice? What are the goals of a decent society? How should a citizen be educated? Why should I obey the law, and what are the limits, if any, to my obligation? What constitutes the ground of human dignity? Is it freedom? Is it virtue? Is it love, is it friendship? And of course, the all important question, even though political philosophers and political scientists rarely pronounce it, namely, quid sit deus, what is God? Does he exist? And what does that imply for our obligations as human beings and citizens? Those are some of the most basic and fundamental problems of the study of politics, but you might say, where does one enter this debate? Which questions and which thinkers should one pick up for oneself?

What Is a Regime?

Perhaps the oldest and most fundamental question that I wish to examine is the question: what is a regime? What are regimes? What are regime politics? The term “regime” is a familiar one. We often hear today about shaping regimes or about changing regimes, but what is a regime? How many kinds are there? How are they defined? What holds them together, and what causes them to fall apart? Is there a single best regime? Those are the questions I want us to consider. The concept of the regime is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of political ideas. It goes back to Plato and even before him. In fact, the title of the book that you will be reading part of for this semester, Plato’s Republic, is actually a translation of the Greek word politea that means constitution or regime. The Republic is a book about the regime and all later political philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, and that means that it must provide a series of variations, so to speak, on Plato’s conception of the best regime. But what is a regime? Broadly speaking, a regime indicates a form of government, whether it is ruled by the one, a few, the many, or as more common, some mixture, a combination of these three ruling powers. The regime is defined in the first instance by how people are governed and how public offices are distributed by election, by birth, by lot, by outstanding personal qualities and achievements, and what constitutes a people’s rights and responsibilities. The regime again refers above all to a form of government. The political world does not present itself as simply an infinite variety of different shapes. It is structured and ordered into a few basic regime types. In this, I take it to be one of the most important propositions and insights of political science.

But there is a corollary to this insight. The regime is always something particular. It stands in a relation of opposition to other regime types, and as a consequence the possibility of conflict, of tension, and war is built in to the very structure of politics. Regimes are necessarily partisan, that is to say they instill certain loyalties and passions in the same way that one may feel partisanship to the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, or to Yale over all rival colleges and institutions, right? Fierce loyalty, partisanship: it is inseparable from the character of regime politics. These passionate attachments are not merely something that take place, you might, say between different regimes, but even within them, as different parties and groups with loyalties and attachments contend for power, for honor, and for interest. Henry Adams once cynically reflected that politics is simply the “organization of hatreds,” and there is more than a grain of truth to this, right, although he did not say that it was also an attempt to channel and redirect those hatreds and animosities towards something like a common good. This raises the question whether it is possible to transform politics, to replace enmity and factional conflict with friendship, to replace conflict with harmony? Today it is the hope of many people, both here and abroad, that we might even overcome, might even transcend the basic structure of regime politics altogether and organize our world around global norms of justice and international law. Is such a thing possible? It can’t be ruled out, but such a world, I would note–let’s just say a world administered by international courts of law, by judges and judicial tribunals–would no longer be a political world. Politics only takes place within the context of the particular. It is only possible within the structure of the regime itself.

But a regime is more than simply a set of formal structures and institutions, okay? It consists of the entire way of life, the moral and religious practices, the habits, customs, and sentiments that make a people what they are. The regime constitutes an ethos, that is to say a distinctive character, that nurtures distinctive human types. Every regime shapes a common character, a common character type with distinctive traits and qualities. So the study of regime politics is in part a study of the distinctive national character types that constitutes a citizen body. To take an example of what I mean, when Tocqueville studied the American regime or the democratic regime, properly speaking, in Democracy in America, he started first with our formal political institutions as enumerated in the Constitution, such things as the separation of powers, the division between state and federal government and so on, but then went on to look at such informal practices as American manners and morals, our tendency to form small civic associations, our peculiar moralism and religious life, our defensiveness about democracy and so on. All of these intellectual and moral customs and habits helped to constitute the democratic regime. And this regime–in this sense the regime describes the character or tone of a society. What a society finds most praiseworthy, what it looks up to, okay? You can’t understand a regime unless you understand, so to speak, what it stands for, what a people stand for, what they look up to as well as its, again, its structure of institutions and rights and privileges.

This raises a further set of questions that we will consider over the term. How are regimes founded, the founding of regimes? What brings them into being and sustains them over time? For thinkers like Tocqueville, for example, regimes are embedded in the deep structures of human history that have determined over long centuries the shape of our political institutions and the way we think about them. Yet other voices within the tradition–Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau come to mind–believed that regimes can be self-consciously founded through deliberate acts of great statesmen or founding fathers as we might call them. These statesmen–Machiavelli for example refers to Romulus, Moses, Cyrus, as the founders that he looks to; we might think of men like Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the like–are shapers of peoples and institutions. The very first of the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton even begins by posing this question in the starkest terms. “It has been frequently remarked,” Hamilton writes, “that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” There we see Hamilton asking the basic question about the founding of political institutions: are they created, as he puts it, by “reflection and choice,” that is to say by a deliberate act of statecraft and conscious human intelligence, or are regimes always the product of accident, circumstance, custom, and history?

Who Is a Statesman? What Is a Statesman?

But the idea that regimes may be created or founded by a set of deliberate acts raises a further question that we will study, and is inseparable from the study of regimes. N’est pas? Who is a statesman? What is a statesman? Again, one of the oldest questions of political science, very rarely asked by the political science of today that is very skeptical of the language of statesmanship. In its oldest sense, political science simply was a science of statecraft. It was addressed to statesman or potential statesmen charged with steering the ship of state. What are the qualities necessary for sound statesmanship? How does statecraft differ from other kinds of activities? Must a good statesman, as Plato believed for example, be a philosopher versed in poetry, mathematics, and metaphysics? Or is statesmanship, as Aristotle believed, a purely practical skill requiring judgment based on deliberation and experience? Is a streak of cruelty and a willingness to act immorally necessary for statecraft, as Machiavelli infamously argued? Must the statesman be capable of literally transforming human nature, as Rousseau maintains, or is the sovereign a more or less faceless bureaucrat in manner of a modern CEO, as, for example, someone like Hobbes seems to have believed? All of our texts that we will read–theRepublic, the Politics, the Prince, the Social Contract–have different views on the qualities of statecraft and what are those qualities necessary to found and maintain states that we are considering.

All of this, in a way, is another way of saying, or at least implying, okay, that political philosophy is an imminentlypractical discipline, a practical field. Its purpose is not simply contemplation, its purpose is not reflection alone: it is advice giving. None of the people we will study this semester were cloistered scholars detached from the world, although this is a very common prejudice against political philosophy, that it is somehow uniquely sort of “pie in the sky” and detached from the world. But the great thinkers were very far from being just, so to speak, detached intellectuals. Plato undertook three long and dangerous voyages to Sicily in order to advise the King Dionysius. Aristotle famously was a tutor of Alexander the Great. Machiavelli spent a large part of his career in the foreign service of his native Florence, and wrote as an advisor to the Medici. Hobbes was the tutor to a royal household who followed the King into exile during the English Civil War. And Locke was associated with the Shaftsbury Circle who also was forced into exile after being accused of plotting against the English King. Rousseau had no official political connections, but he signed his name always Jean Jacques Rousseau, “citizen of Geneva,” and was approached to write constitutions for Poland and for the island of Corsica. And Tocqueville was a member of the French National Assembly whose experience of American democracy deeply affected the way he saw the future of Europe. So the great political thinkers were typically engaged in the politics of their times and help in that way to provide us, okay, with models for how we might think about ours.

What Is the Best Regime?

But this goes in a slightly different direction as well. Not only is this study of the regime, as we’ve seen, as I’ve just tried to indicate, rooted in, in many ways, the practical experience of the thinkers we’ll be looking at; but the study of regime politics either implicitly or explicitly raises a question that goes beyond the boundary of any given society. A regime, as I’ve said, constitutes a people’s way of life, what they believe makes their life worth living, or to put it again slightly differently, what a people stand for. Although we are most familiar with the character of a modern democratic regime such as ours, the study of political philosophy is in many ways a kind of immersion into what we might call today comparative politics; that is to say it opens up to us the variety of regimes, each with its own distinctive set of claims or principles, each vying and potentially in conflict with all the others, okay? Underlying this cacophony of regimes is the question always, which of these regimes is best? What has or ought to have a claim on our loyalty and rational consent?

Political philosophy is always guided by the question of the best regime. But what is the best regime? Even to raise such a question seems to pose insuperable obstacles. Isn’t that a completely subjective judgment, what one thinks is the best regime? How could one begin such a study? Is the best regime, as the ancients tended to believe, Plato, Aristotle, and others, is it an aristocratic republic in which only the few best habitually rule; or is the best regime as the moderns believe, a democratic republic where in principle political office is open to all by virtue of their membership in society alone? Will the best regime be a small closed society that through generations has made a supreme sacrifice towards self-perfection? Think of that. Or will the best regime be a large cosmopolitan order embracing all human beings, perhaps even a kind of universal League of Nations consisting of all free and equal men and women?

Whatever form the best regime takes, however, it will always favor a certain kind of human being with a certain set of character traits. Is that type the common man, is it found in democracies; those of acquired taste and money, as in aristocracies; the warrior; or even the priest, as in theocracies? No, no question that I can think of can be more fundamental. And this finally raises the question of the relation between the best regime or the good regime, and what we could say are actually existing regimes, regimes that we are all familiar with. What function does the best regime play in political science? How does it guide our actions here and now? This issue received a kind of classic formulation in Aristotle’s distinction of what he called the good human being and the good citizen. For the good citizen–we’ll read this chapter later on in the Politics–for the good citizen you could say patriotism is enough, to uphold and defend the laws of your own country simply because they are your own is both necessary and sufficient. Such a view of citizen virtue runs into the obvious objection that the good citizen of one regime will be at odds with the good citizen of another: a good citizen of contemporary Iran will not be the same as the good citizen of contemporary America.

But the good citizen, Aristotle goes on to say, is not the same as the good human being, right? Where the good citizen is relative to the regime, you might say regime-specific, the good human being, so he believes, is good everywhere. The good human being loves what is good simply, not because it is his own, but because it is good. Some sense of this was demonstrated in Abraham Lincoln’s judgment about Henry Clay, an early idol of Lincoln’s. Lincoln wrote of Clay, “He loved his country,” he said, “partly because it was his own country”–partly because it was his own country–;”but mainly because it was a free country.” His point, I think, is that Clay exhibited, at least on Lincoln’s telling, something of the philosopher, what he loved was an idea, the idea of freedom. That idea was not the property of one particular country, but it was constitutive of any good society. The good human being, it would seem, would be a philosopher, or at least would have something philosophical about him or her, and who may only be fully at home in the best regime. But of course the best regime lacks actuality. We all know that. It has never existed. The best regime embodies a supreme paradox, it would seem. It is superior in some ways to all actual regimes, but it has no concrete existence anywhere. This makes it difficult, you could say and this is Aristotle’s point, I think, this makes it difficult for the philosopher to be a good citizen of any actual regime. Philosophy will never feel fully or truly at home in any particular society. The philosopher can never be truly loyal to anyone or anything but what is best. Think of that: it raises a question about issues of love, loyalty, and friendship.

This tension, of course, between the best regime and any actual regime is the space that makes political philosophy possible. In the best regime, if we were to inhabit such, political philosophy would be unnecessary or redundant. It would wither away. Political philosophy exists and only exists in that… call it “zone of indeterminacy” between the “is” and the “ought,” between the actual and the ideal. This is why political philosophy is always and necessarily a potentially disturbing undertaking. Those who embark on the quest for knowledge of the best regime may not return the same people that they were before. You may return with very different loyalties and allegiances than you had in the beginning. But there is some compensation for this, I think. The ancients had a beautiful word, or at least the Greeks had a beautiful word, for this quest, for this desire for knowledge of the best regime. They called it eros, or love. The quest for knowledge of the best regime must necessarily be accompanied, sustained, and elevated by eros. You may not have realized it when you walked in to this class today, but the study of political philosophy may be the highest tribute we pay to love. Think of that.

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