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retread| The Sword of Political Idealism I 6 May 2006

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Philosophy, Politics.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 2 Feb 2006.

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. With some probing, we can see how radically this political idealism departs from the classical, premodern attitude toward the vicissitudes of life.

Classical thinkers remind us again and again that we dismiss nature at our own peril.

The tragedy of Oedipus (now linked to Freud) is in Sophocles’ hands 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 sets apart the human realm 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 becomes its natural king only to be a pariah. The human claim to independence is punished by the gods and man is cast back out 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 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.

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