How Does One Determine Whether Old Books About Politics Are Applicable Today?

Politics seems to be too closely related to circumstance for any political decision to be grounded in something timeless. A commitment to a principle such as “our roads should be safe” has obvious practical overtones. When other decisions such as alliances with dictators are made, the practical overtones are plain and disturbing, but even a critique of such a decision is only based on how much of a threat the ally is ultimately. Note on that last point the Left’s embrace of Chavez and Castro: they cannot threaten the material well-being of their foreign supporters. Note also the Right’s embrace of China – there, the calculation is that our values will displace their tyranny. It isn’t working, but the feeling China’s values can’t threaten ours is enough to call China a “strategic partner” (I think that was President Clinton’s phrase).

However, once we make either the argument “Politics is about dealing with circumstance, hence it is entirely practical,” or “Politics is about practical matters, thus it is reducible to dealing with circumstances,” we can see something curious going on. If we say the importance of political decision-making concerns the practical, our subjectivity – our opinions and beliefs – can’t be entirely alien to politics. If we say the world is reducible to nothing but circumstance, then we have to be clear about why we have to confront circumstance. Once we say we want control over the “flux,” we’ve implied something greater is at stake.

At the very least, old books can critique our attitudes and force reflection on the way we feel about things. Circumstances then and now could be totally different, but a person confronting a great evil then is probably someone a person confronting a great evil now can relate to.

The links get stronger once we abandon relativism/historicism entirely and try to build analogies between previous time periods and ours. Analogy-building is a skeptical enterprise. One does not assume the literal details of a time correspond exactly to something done now unless the matter has been treated analogously at first. In other words, in arguing that British naval ascendancy in the 17th c. parallels Athenian naval ascendancy in the ancient world, one has to confront the fact that while the Anglo-Dutch wars over commercial interests may parallel the rise of the Athenian navy, the difference between Cromwell and Pericles in devising uses for the navy cannot be overstated. Analogies are never perfect: if the literal detail corresponded too well, there would be no need for them.

Nonetheless, analogies not only build bridges between times, but allow for moments in analysis where the literal detail of one period might be the exact same thing another period tries. i.e. Diocletian’s attempt to impose price caps in an inflationary environment; Hannibal at Cannae and the way the Battle of the Bulge was won.

What comes forth as a question now is how literal I want the term “literal detail” to be. We have all these sciences like archeology to try and reconstruct exactly things of the past were.

I want to say, however, that literal details are part of a subjective circle that extends from observers of the past to observers today. The observers of the past are writing for audiences in their time and beyond their time. This means in key descriptions of things they will look to generalize in a way which corresponds to the way we use abstract thought today. i.e. Thucydides description of the effects of plague, and how it seems awfully similar to the effects of revolution at Corcyra (I think that’s the city. It’s the one that’s mad at Corinth).

We use abstractions to point away from particular details, and to try to get fixed laws that govern things. Most of the writers of old books try to get us to look at details to see similarities and differences that fixed laws might find no use for. In the case of plague and revolution, there is something about the plague which is of a much greater magnitude than the tumult. There is something about the tumult which is more tragic.

Everything hinges on that concern for detail: it means we can read too much into old books and see our world exactly, and yet not be insane. Because they’re not positing fixed and final laws like we in the social sciences would like to posit, they’re really just musing on what it all could mean and drawing provisional conclusions (some of which are far too profound to ever be dismissed for any reason). To focus on the details they give is to look at the world around us anew, with eagle eyes.

Some of us say nothing ever changes because we have no imagination, and want to dismiss other opinions before they are even heard. Some of us say it because of a far too long acquaintance with things gone wrong, and firm knowledge of what could be better.

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