Lots of new followers recently — I hope you’ll say hi in the comments or on twitter or on facebook or through the contact form. I don’t always respond, but I do appreciate hearing from you. My thanks for your readership and support. It means a lot, especially when I’m prone to go on rants about how illiterate this world is.
So hi. I’m Ashok. I live in Texas and am really picky about the BBQ and Mexican food in the Dallas area. I like poetry and want all the gorgeous verse I encounter to find its way into my prose and make me a better writer. I play way too many video games. And I study this thing called “political philosophy.”
That last point requires some explanation. Some people study political philosophy and do things like compare Rawls’ social contract to Locke’s. They’re interested in how values and incentives inform systems and what sort of citizens result. The approach I take, by comparison, might be considered conspiracy theory. Following Leo Strauss, I hold that not every age enjoyed freedom of speech like we do, and even in an age which enjoys freedom of speech, certain propositions might not be best to openly state. Lincoln, in his private letters, says no less than if slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong. You’ll note his First Inaugural Address doesn’t come anywhere close to that position. In previous ages, concepts like “democracy,” “science,” and “secularism” had to be hidden from the censors, and when they were mentioned, they were not innocent notions that did no harm.
So what does this have to do with all the poems on this site? I mean, you’re here for Emily Dickinson, sometimes Picasso or Caesar III. There are academics who write papers with titles like “Political Imagery in Paradise Lost,” but that’s not what’s going on here. No, what’s happening here on a basic level is this: in order to be attuned to political esotericism from the past, one needs to be an exceptionally sharp, attentive reader. People who are trying to hide their real argument will put forth red herrings and false leads. Locke goes on for page after page about God while advocating as materialist a doctrine as one could possibly have, and that’s the easier esotericism to spot. I’ll still run into scholar after scholar who insists that Locke (in essence, American Constitutionalism) and Christianity merge neatly with no problems whatsoever. That’s fine: Locke put forth plenty of rhetoric to allow people to believe that sort of thing if they wanted, and I’m not really interested in that debate anyway.
Where things get really thorny — where learning to read requires continual improvement — is ancient political thought. There are puzzles sealed with seven seals which require one to stretch one’s imagination like never before, exhaust sources of dubious authenticity, and attend to the most subtle uses of metaphor and imagery. I am pretty much a failure when it comes to understanding Plato and Xenophon. I can say things about the positions various scholars hold which make some sense. I can highlight a few ideas which are important but also very different from what we usually debate. Reading lots of poetry helps me see that older arguments about horses, for example, aren’t actually about horses in some cases (Machiavelli & Xenophon), but about men who hold themselves higher. It makes me more attentive to how language is being used before I attempt an evaluation of a surface argument presented by the text.
But there’s something else poetry and art does which papers with titles like “Political Imagery in Paradise Lost” — or even lectures entitled “What is Political Philosophy?” — cannot do. Which is: actual political philosophy, the questions of how we know, how and why we believe, how we build conventions and society and let all these manmade structures govern our political life, our individual lives, and even the state of our inner being. How we let values come to life and become demons or angels or gods. The esoteric dialogue between the great thinkers of the past has, in not inconsiderable measure, been replaced by a vibrant, colorful, diverse discussion that stays hidden because no one cares to look at it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that’s happening in poems and art nearly all the time. There are people who seriously read, looking for great ideas to talk about, and write in the hope they can further develop those ideas. They don’t do this directly, because a real debate about ideas doesn’t happen with piles of statistics and policy papers about outcomes. Nor does this happen in certain papers devoted to what Rousseau or Hume truly meant. Those matters, in a way, do admit of a more or less scientific or settled answer. No, debates about ideas include the thorny problem of why we even attach to them in the first place, why we let them govern.
The Greek word poesis does not only mean poetry, but “making.” In a world dominated by a set of stories and values and ideas from those stories, people don’t see rocks and trees and buildings. They see where Zeus hid behind before seizing some girl, or the huntress Apollo fell madly in love with, or the Parthenon. The whole world is made by poetic vision. It is that larger sense of poetry which brings forth this blog’s inquiry, making political philosophy possible. We’ve got our myths too — in many ways, they’re far stronger than those before — and the only way to address them is to see how people love, where they feel free, how they engage pain and loss.