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The Sword of Political Idealism I 2 February 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Arts, History, Philosophy, Politics.

I would be exaggerating if I blamed the more spectacular political acts of today (planes into buildings, tanks into Afghans or Iraqis) on modernity, but the exaggeration would be an instructive one. As an Enlightenment project, modern political philosophy has traditionally reflected the belief that we can improve (indeed, perfect) our condition by the proper application of rational laws. By placing so much confidence in reason, however, we moderns tend to overreach overselves. Our utopian ideals have inspired considerable political, legal and social reform in the modern period, but the sword of political idealism cuts both ways.

Modern man believes that he can master nature, that the fragility of goodness (to use Martha Nussbaum’s phrase) is not something to be accepted but rather overcome. As opposed to coming to terms with the world as we find it, we want to remake it in the image of our political ideals. Stop injustice, end suffering, cure disease, eradicate poverty—these are the slogans of revolutionaries. We moderns are revolutionaries at heart, and modern political idealism is a revolt against nature.

With some probing, we can see how radically this political idealism departs from the classical, premodern attitude toward the vicissitudes of life. The classical Greek thinkers remind us again and again that we dismiss nature at our own peril.

The tragedy of Oedipus (now linked to Freud) is in the hands of the Athenian playwright Sophocles a lesson about man’s political hubris. Oedipus is a stranger with a mysterious past who claims the kingship of Thebes because he is able to decode the secret of the Sphinx. By releasing the city from the clutches of this half-woman half-beast, he symbolically cuts the community off from nature. And yet by the end of the play, his prophesied fate catches up with him. The stranger he killed turns out to have been his own father and the queen he married his mother. In the face of this unspeakable horror, the political life he built by dint of will crashes down around him. Once welcomed as a tyrant to the city, he is now cast out as a pariah. The human claim to independence is punished by the gods and man is thrown back into nature.

In Greek philosophy, too, we see the limits of political idealism. Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the protagonist of his dialogues, is always seen to criticize Athens but never to oppose it. Recognizing that a city requires the (nonrational) loyalty of its citizens, Socrates understands the political necessity of customs and gods he does not believe in.

St. Augustine carries this attitude into the medieval Christian view of politics. Since evil is a necessary and ineradicable part of the world, political justice lies not in removing evil but rather in choosing between greater and lesser evils (interestingly, he gives the example of torturing a terrorist to prove this point). The believer’s expectation for perfection and bliss is appropriately focused on the next life. St. Augustine’s great political work, City of God, describes the ideal political community as existing beyond this world rather than in it.

And yet we should not think that the classical view is bleak, or that it has no place for ideals. These same thinkers offer some of the most beautiful visions of political life. Without encouraging revolution, they create a space for the contemplation of what perfect justice and the perfect community might look like. Plato’s Republic is in fact a 500-page exercise in imagining the just city. By the end of the discussion (Book IX), we realize with Socrates’ student Glaucon that no such city exists in the real world.

Glaucon: I understand; you mean that he will be a ruler in the city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only; for I do not believe that there is such a one anywhere on earth?

Socrates: In heaven, there is laid up a pattern of it, I think, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.

The impossibility of such a community does not detract from its vision. The citizens of Plato’s republic, of Augustine’s city of God, act in accordance with their true community regardless of the city they actually live and breath in.

The challenge of the believer, as I remember reading in a college catalogue, is to be in this world but not of it.



1. The Turk - 2 February 2006

So the story goes, its better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. The so called american way : pursuit of happiness but no happiness is guaranteed. Thats the problem with life; perfection is unnattainable but the quest never ends.

2. eteraz - 2 February 2006

Reading the Republic as an anti-utopian manifesto may be plausible — certainly the Glaucon statement suggests it — but it cuts against the traditional understanding of the Republic. So much utopinianism is based on it. Marx, for example.

Still, good reading.

3. ABD - 2 February 2006

as-salaam alaykum.

the turk: would you have it any other way? if you actually had perfection in hand, wouldn’t life as we know it stop? there’s always the afterlife, of course.

eteraz: you’re absolutely right. if anything, plato’s republic has generally been taken as a classic example of political idealism. but strauss, bloom et al argue (convincingly, in my view) that socrates was not a revolutionary at all. from this perspective, it’s also easier to understand why socrates never explicitly rejected the gods, why he made such a poor defense at his own trial, why he chose not to flee from athens, etc. if you’re interested, you might want to check out the latest interpretation of the republic, by stanley rosen (2005), who goes even further to argue that the republic was actually meant as a farce (i.e., to show that the perfect city wouldn’t be just at all).

4. The Turk - 2 February 2006

Abd: The Afterlife; I await with hope and passion and I believe in one of the Surahs’/Hadiths’ “Allah promises that He will bless us with so much that we will forget earth and its problems.” I await that day. Innshallah. May Allah protect us with His unlimited mercy.

5. eteraz - 2 February 2006

abd – the rosen conclusion i cannot buy in light of plato’s attempt to build a utopia with pythagoras. if the republic was really a renunciation of the futility of utopia, plato should have been more of a man about changing his views. maybe explicit renunciations weren’t possible for the head of the academy, but that still doesn’t explain how thrasymachus becomes plato’s mouth-piece. we can’t, after reading eleven *socratic* dialogues, suddenly be expected to believe that in the last one it is thrasymachus who is the main man. there is no evidence of that intent — *unless* the corollary theory is posited that socrates was never plato’s mouth-piece, but that each of plato’s characters have something to share. in that case that would make plato the world’s first journalist. im willing to buy that theory, but what do we really do with it? also, that means that we have to do away with believing that the theory of forms was what plato believed in since under the journalist theory that cannot be proven either.

i concur that socrates was not a revolutionry. but that doesn’t mean you have to buy strauss’ read of socrates. after all, it was only the marxists who read socrates as a revolutionary. before them socrates had always been a conservative.

6. ABD - 4 February 2006

eteraz: i’m still studying these issues, but it seems to me that: a) if by plato’s connection to pythagoras you mean his aborted attempt to advise the ruling family of syracuse, it does pose a problem (though not an unsurmountable one) to the straussian/rosenian readings, b) neither socrates nor any other character in the platonic dialogues is exclusively plato’s “mouthpiece” (whether in the republic or elsewhere), c) that in this sense plato is more of a dramatist than a journalist (i.e., he consciously interweaves different perspectives rather than simply recording them), and that d) the straussian reading does undercut the platonic theory of forms.

where does this all leave us? plato is a more nuanced and skeptical (and less metaphysical) thinker than the subsequent tradition of platonism suggests. after all, what separates a dialogue from a treatise is the existence of multiple voices in a particular dramatic context.

as for your last point: if not a marxist manifesto (since it abolishes private property, promotes sexual equality and subordinates the family to the state), i thought that plato’s republic had at least been read by most interpreters as a blueprint for the ideal dictatorship (whether of the left or right). strauss’ point is that plato may have had a theoretical preference for such a dictatorship, but that this was never a practical, political program. socratic politics (in this view) is an exercise in the moderated criticism of one’s regime without pushing for a radical alternative.

thanks for helping me think through these issues, even if no one else reading this gives a hoot :)

7. eteraz - 4 February 2006

no problem. keep thinking. post on it every now and again.

i might do a review of ‘protagoras’ on my blog real soon. so just stay away from that =)

8. drjou - 6 February 2006

Has there ever been a notion of worldly utopia in Islam? I mean, according to Islamic theology (whatever that entails), does the establishment of Islamic Law directly result in some form of utopia? If not, a lot of people might be under the wrong impression. Of course, the negative to this question would not imply a deficiency in Islamic Law. Just that Islam, in its individualistic and communal/political form, does not place unbridled value on worldly utopia, unlike other political idealisms.

And Zeno.

9. ABD - 6 February 2006

as-salaam alaykum.

drjou: this was intended to be the first of three posts on political idealism. the third will be precisely on this question, inshaAllah. for now, let me just say that the traditional attitude of sunni scholars to social/political reform has been less than revolutionary, and that modern “political islam” may represent a departure from this view. it quickly becomes more complicated than that, however–at least in my mind.

10. serife - 22 November 2007

im writing an essay about socrates’s contribution to poitical theory
would any of u by any chance enlighten me please?
i would apprecaite any help

11. ABD - 26 November 2007

serife, why don’t you write a note to us at info@othermatters.org and we’ll see what we can do?

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