More on whether Political Philosophy depends on History

Poetry coming soon. I am very grateful for the questions sent and the readership. In what follows, I’ve tried to keep things real. I’m less interested in being right and more on just saying something, continuing the discussion.

I was asked the following question about the Zuckert/Strauss post:

Could you offer an example so that I can better understand what you mean here? “To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice.” I don’t follow how this is sufficient for undertaking the question of justice.

I’ll admit I have a tendency of speeding through points obvious to me and no one else. This is an excellent question about a point that is none too obvious.

Let’s back up a bit. My larger point is that Strauss is not being entirely honest when he says that experience of a variety of regimes, places, and times is necessary for “questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order.” My own feeling is that “What is justice?” explodes the whole argument. If one has lived in one regime at one time and is treated unjustly, there is a chance one might question the order she lives in and start imagining different things (cf. Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates and a horse). (To clarify, by “required” I mean “necessary” more than “sufficient.”) Is such questioning as rigorous as that of a political philosopher comparing regimes? Probably not.

Justice speaks to something far more important than intellectual rigor, though. It speaks to actually encountering the question. I love Mansfield’s description of Thrasymachus in his A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy. Thrasymachus is angry because he’s been treated unjustly. Socrates is busy talking about how justice is either “helping friends or harming enemies” or “doing no harm.” The realities of power and control, realities Thrasymachus is very sensitive to, are flat-out ignored. In questioning Socrates, then, Thrasymachus does not merely assert himself and address an injustice. He contributes to the development of the question of justice itself. And maybe he is most sensitive to what Socrates trying to teach in the Republic.

“What is justice?” isn’t some question that people ask because they’re wondering about what the best law. They’re also wondering how they ought to be treated, what justice is for them, what justice means. You can get to these questions that might be dismissed as “existential” from wondering why one was treated unjustly and questioning the law or institutions that allowed it to happen.

Ah! But that’s not political philosophy, you say. Political philosophy is the discussion of the best regime! Of getting a standard of good and bad! Any idiot can whine about being treated badly. That doesn’t even add up to a serious complaint about a legal system, much less the question “What is justice?” Moreover, we don’t consider founders of regimes philosophers, so even though any given constitution posits an answer to questions like “What is man” or “What is virtue,” that does not count either. A real political philosopher, aware of the diversity of peoples, places, times, and institutions, takes all of it into account and attempts a comprehensive, systematic answer.

I’ll just say this: the more we insist on this sort of intellectual rigor, the more we’re making political philosophy something very specific: we’re making it exactly what some Straussians say Socratic political philosophy is. And I don’t know that’s a particularly philosophic thing to do. Something about philosophy must speak to our experience directly, not just our arguments.

Granted, this is a problematic answer. I guess I’m throwing the tradition of political philosophy under the bus in favor of sophists and second-rate thinkers. And I’ve been told there’s something about seeing beyond the limits of one’s time at stake in using and defending the tradition. But then again, my question when approaching “Political Philosophy and History” is why anyone should care for either discipline. If Strauss’ essay fails to speak to anyone but Straussians, well.

There’s a second part to the above question:

Also, is it worth noting that the interlocutors are not, strictly speaking, Athenians in book 1 of the Republic? Thrasymachus was from Chalcedon, Cephalus was from Syracuse, as perhaps was his son, Polemarchus.

Again, an awesome question. This time I need to address history and experience, and how much is needed for the inception of political philosophy.

I say nearly none at all. If one can imagine a change to one’s own regime, a change of any sort, one is well on the path to imagining a number of different societies. If one conceives of political philosophy as the quest for the best regime, one can just think through societies one made-up and work from there. Write a book and pretend your characters exist and you can do political philosophy, too.

Strauss’ essay, for its part, gives an answer that goes two ways, neither way obviously helpful to my take on things. Sure, he starts by saying that some knowledge of history was required for political philosophy in the traditional view. This Zuckert rightly identifies as a surface that can at least rhetorically stand on its own. (The radically imaginative act that political philosophy is – well, you’ll know it when you see it.) And he ends by talking about the “history of political philosophy,” the project that will help us see the foundations of ideas our historicist tendencies are covering up. The specific importance of history is to more fully see the implications of the ideas one works with. Only a special imagination could adequately account for reality in speculation; I don’t even know we’d call that imagination “best” as the best ones reintroduce us to wonder and remake the world in fantastic ways. So it does seem history is a very necessary task, especially as we’ve been given a past to make sense of. Ignoring it makes us prey to some terrible demagoguery.

Yeah, political philosophy is still 99.9% imagination. I’m going to be uncompromising on this. I’ll trade off losing the debate about a tradition and rigor and development of the theme of natural right, and work to see philosophers as actual people.