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An Introduction to Political Philosophy

All of us in the liberal arts are in the business of being asked what it is we study, and upon answering, getting a “pfft. What are you going to do with that?” For political science, the usual dismissive question is “Are you going to be a politician?” It seemed to me at first that most people couldn’t conceive, for example, of voter behavior in new democracies as a worthy area of investigation, or how one would analyze/model whether checks and balances are properly functioning.

I suspect nowadays there’s a lack of imagination at play to some degree, but also that there’s something about political science – esp. political philosophy – that’s genuinely threatening. In this democracy, the right to vote/run for office/express oneself, in short the right to rule, presupposes no knowledge or qualification in many cases. A political scientist, by his very title, is saying that knowing something about politics might be an important thing. It may be the case knowledge prior to action is more fundamental than any declaration of right. The Declaration makes it clear in specifics why governing bonds had to be broken. To merely be articulate about law, justice, or how politics functions is to implicitly claim a right to rule. Political philosophy is even more threatening perhaps, as political philosophy imagines alternative regimes and how/by whom they would be ruled.

The figure of Socrates seems to have nothing to do with any of this. He stood around in the agora, barefoot, away from a wife famed for her abusiveness. He had more than a passing interest in handsome young men and one wonders if the turn to philosophy – properly speaking, Socratic erotics – was necessitated because more direct advances were failing. Such a man cannot possibly be political; he seems utterly useless and ineffectual.

In the Lysis, Socrates expresses enormous concern with finding a true friend. Political claims arise from faction, but what if one cannot join or form any faction? This in a sense non-social, powerless life somehow transcended a radical individualism into which it may have collapsed.

The key may be less political and more personal. Most of us work with a “truth” that is really opinions with which we can be comfortable. But think of someone who could get you to exchange that comfort zone for at least one more true thing, just one. Such a person would be a teacher and a friend, even though the teaching has no formal content (it is literally value-less), and a friend despite demanding more than giving. The philosophic life introduces a new hierarchy based on the mere approach to knowledge. It directly challenges politics in the broadest sense, which consists of propositions such as “the oldest is best” or the sovereignty of the popular will.

Some argue that Socrates established political philosophy in order to protect philosophy from politics. I agree somewhat but this very cursory look at political philosophy and Socrates has me thinking two things. First that the use of reason is an implicit claim to rule in public life. Most of us can accept that after some thought. The radical reorganization of private life it can demand, though, is at once impossible and necessary. A quick glance at Plato’s Republic does reveal it to be the city philosophy built. It is a nonsensical city filled with ironies and requiring severe injustice to come about. No one who attempted to establish such a republic literally would be a philosopher. But that city when established may be just simply, and we note justice is the end of all government.

7 Comments

  1. Well I disagree with those people too. You can do tons of good stuff with Liberal Arts. If you get your pHD, you can work as a university professor. Or, once you get your Bachellor degree, you can actually change your direction and get Masters in a different or related field.
    .-= Daniel (Srebrenica Genocide Blog)´s last blog ..NEW MILESTONE: THE SGB EFFECT & VISITOR STATS FOR MARCH 2010, AND IDENTITY CRISIS CAUSE-&-EFFECT =-.

  2. “A quick glance at Plato’s Republic does reveal it to be the city philosophy built. It is a nonsensical city filled with ironies and requiring severe injustice to come about. No one who attempted to establish such a republic literally would be a philosopher. But that city when established may be just simply, and we note justice is the end of all government.”

    Could you say something more about this (how the nonsensical city filled with ironies might, when established, be just simply)?

  3. Short answer: book IV, where justice is minding your own business.

    Longer answer: “The story of Oedipus, however, makes ignorance, or the acknowledgment of a dispensation whose ground cannot be known, the basis for the city and man. As far as any actual city goes, Plato acknowledges its unknowable grounds; but, rather, than conceding so much to the holy and sacred, he argues that the arbitrariness of the limitation set on man in any community reflects the truth of the totally nonarbitrary nature of man, which diverges at its peak from the city at its peak. The city in fact has no peak; it is necessarily shot through with compromises precisely because man is not just a political animal. Justice vanishes as a virtue of the soul once the soul has been properly ordered. The city therefore can never be properly ordered, and the emergence of justice in the city expresses the necessary defectiveness of the city as such. What amounts to the same assertion is Socrates’ identification of the just man with the philosopher, for the philosopher minds his own business when he does not rule the city.” (Seth Benardete, “The Tragedy and Comedy of Life,” p. x)
    .-= ashok´s last blog ..Emily Dickinson, “Each Second is the last” (879) =-.

  4. Hmmm…I have a hard time taking the last point that “the philosopher minds his own business when he does not rule the city.” Everything else makes good sense. The philosopher might mind his own business, but even though Bernadete points out that men are simply political animals, nevertheless we still are. I think that is where the importance of The Clouds comes in. Was that a picture of a Socrates who minded his own business? I think it was, but I also think that one who minds his own business is suspect.

  5. should read this way: Even though Bernadete points out that men are *not* simply political animals…

  6. Yeah, I think my question wasn’t that good. Thanks for the excerpt though, it really was worth working through!

  7. Your article is very nice, very helpful for me and my family, thank you very much for this nice article.

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