Two Questions on Political Philosophy

I’m currently working on a degree in Political Science and just finished a fun course in introductory political theory. I thought I’d post the final exam essay questions and my answers as a blog post.

Plato argues that people should be philosophical. Machiavelli argues that people should exercise a certain form of virtue. Tocqueville argues that people should join clubs and associations. Mill argues that people should develop their individuality. Briefly explain each of their arguments for these character traits (about a paragraph each). Which of these traits is the most important for a democratic citizen to possess? Why?

As I consider what sort of trait is most important for a democratic citizenry among the possibilities of Platonic philosophical depth, Machiavellian courageous conviction, Tocquevillian gregarious cooperation, or Millian self-regarding independence, a perhaps familiar to some Bible passage comes to mind. In the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the church of Corinth, he writes, “there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Perhaps, along the lines of the early Christian assemblies (the more literal translation of the Greek word commonly translated “church”) struggling against Roman imperialism, a diversity of talents need to be marshalled in the service of the greater whole.

Paul’s list of these talents – usually translated as “gifts” – ranges over wisdom, knowledge, confidence (faith), and foresight (prophecy) among others. If democracy is an attempt to discern the “will of the people” and, if people have diverse skills, experience, and orientations then it seems obvious that a truly successful democracy will be the one that structures its work in order to elicit the greatest possible wisdom from the widest possible range of human contributions.

Yet, perhaps this focus on difference can mislead us. In the interest of empowering everyone for democratic participation we may be tempted to dis-empower the whole? Harry Truman’s famous dictum, “the buck stops here” was a declaration that ultimately there was a necessary ending to conferencing and deliberating. Moments do come in the life of any polis when action is demanded and waiting for extended consideration is problematic or dangerous.

I am certainly sympathetic to Plato’s conviction that philosophical strengths have much to offer political life. While his idealism seems extreme, isn’t our modern pragmatism often shallow? Where is the wisdom our leaders being elected for superficial popularity or on the basis of excessive advertising budgets? Plato believed that philosophy led a person to become smarter, kinder, and wiser, so of course, such people are desirable leaders, are they not? The “man of action” will no doubt reject this idealism for the simple power of “taking charge.” Some depth of discernment seems to have obvious value in facing our political challenges, as does some level of decisive resolve.

The infamous Machiavelli is the iconic champion of the politics of decisive conviction, which he seems to call “virtue.” He writes, “if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.” By this contrast, Machiavelli seems to privilege those actions which lead to security and well-being. This standard seems to fly in the face of the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice, for is there no action that leads to a loss of security that nevertheless has positive benefits?

It may be pressing too far to elevate sacrificial virtue above self-interest. Are we not taught from very young to honor the sacrifices of soldiers, since their deaths made possible “our way of life”? Considering the long arc of history, the notable rise in living standards in so many parts of the world, and the continuing horrific poverty of many, perhaps what Machiavelli is naming isn’t so much a simple equation of security and well-being, but a reminder that all things being equal, most of us do wish for a life of peace and comfort. So, perhaps Machiavellian virtue consists in knowing that the goal of even sacrificial actions is the extension of security and well-being for others. That said, I strongly reject Machiavelli’s glorifications of cruelty, even it too is justified as a necessary evil for a greater good.

In a real sense, Tocqueville’s elevation of cooperative civic life resonates with my own politics. In my twenties, I became involved with an intentional community, commonly called a “commune.” The decade I spent with this group of cooperatively experienced communitarians enriched me beyond measure and stoked a boundless thirst for participatory collective endeavor. Tocqueville encourages us to find something, anything that will bring us together to develop our social bonds and practices. I seriously doubt that just any social pursuit will deepen democratic skills. A bowling league is great, but hardly advances political life.

The last trait to consider is John Stuart Mill’s cherished ideal of pure liberty. His robust defense of each individual following one’s own lights with zeal is unmatched. We may worry if too much private pleasure might – perhaps indeed has already – led to widespread neglect of public good. However, as with the Machiavellian virtue of taking strong action to bring about security, the enjoyment of freedom and the fulfillment of one’s unique potentials seem genuinely useful. One primary reason to value democracy is that we cannot achieve true freedom and justice in our world if a small elite controls the populace for their own ends.

So, achieving a robust, even radical, democracy seems to demand marshaling a broad range of capacities and virtues. Some do need to be deep, deliberative thinkers, contemplating endless expanses of truth to offer their guidance. No doubt, there will also be the activists who insist that the time is short and to wait is to fail. Associations need to be structured so that each of these differing temperaments can learn to appreciate the strengths of their opposite. Such a developing interplay among different personalities helps us to sort out what is truly a collective good and what is the reasonable domain of personal freedom.

Should we think of ourselves as primarily citizens of the United States or as citizens of the world? What is at stake in this distinction; that is, how does embracing one perspective over the other change the nature of our political life? Discuss with reference to Nussbaum and at least one of the other essays in For Love of Country.

My first reaction to Nussbaum’s critique of patriotism versus cosmopolitanism is mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am quite staunchly unpatriotic, a rebel who rejects Americanism, capitalism, and militarism. On the other, being a citizen of the world seems an affectation. “Citizen” has never had a resonance for me of nobility, much less “World Citizen.” Murray Bookchin’s anarchist philosophy elevated the municipality as the prime site for political struggle, but my passions are too broad for that. I want to see the entire world at peace and prosperous. Poverty, in particular, breaks my heart, especially in a world where we can produce more than enough food to end starvation. Cosmopolitanism seems effete, a champagne toast to our sophistication. I crave something more revolutionary.

Perhaps I am a cosmopolitan by another name? In the far left political circles I inhabit, Hegel’s philosophy of world-historical dialectics looms large. Bookchin certainly took many notes from him. Hegel held that human reason is too grand for mere localism or provincialism, yet too finite for global identification. Hegel seems to have seen a nation as a super-individual that embodies the distinct historic genius of a culture. In his words, “The nation state is Mind in its substantive rationality and immediate actuality — the absolute power on earth”. He characterizes international relations by saying “international law springs from the relations between autonomous states.”

I tend to not find such a view satisfying, though perhaps I am just hopelessly alienated from a sense of citizenship, either global or national. Immanuel Wallerstein’s tangential rejoinder to Nussbaum strikes some of the right notes. He writes witheringly of the “magnanimous comprehension of ‘difference’” in a privileged cosmopolitanism. He is more appreciative of nationalisms of the “weak” as they fight for equality in an unjust world. Gandhi was one path for this fight, as was a very different fight led by Dr. King for equal civil rights for black Americans, within a re-conceived Americanism. Yet another path is the Marxist class struggle across national boundaries.

My radical allegiances are multiple and “nation” figures in them somewhat asymmetrically. On the one hand, I champion quite vocally the richness and even superiority of African-American culture and the political potency of an oppressed people within an oppressor nation. Yet, with Dr. Cornel West, I resist crossing the line from anti-racism to Black nationalism. I imagine quite effortlessly a true “United Nations” where international law is justly hammered out on the world stage. However, the reality of privilege frustrates such possibilities and predictably hands real power over to the same old elites.

If I try and deconstruct my anti-patriotism, I immediately think of my religious upbringing. In the early years of the 1970s, I became transfixed by a group of Christian hippies, derisively labeled “Jesus Freaks.” We combined rock-n-roll, long hair, and grooviness with a passion for the Prince of Peace. Such countercultural leanings brought me to live with a commune in my twenties. It seems so natural to me to connect Jesus and world peace rather than with Armageddon, as so many of my co-religionists did. In the heart of the 70s, the dream of peace and living in a commune connected me with a sense of the earth as a fragile, beautiful homeland. Citizenship bespeaks identification with a built environment of high walls and paved streets, a “city.”

Interestingly enough, the biblical book of Revelation ends its sweeping prophecies of destruction with a rather psychedelic tale of a “New Jerusalem” floating from the sky to the war-torn earth. Constructed from brilliant transparent gold and gemstones, rather than concrete and steel, this new city feels neither earthy or urban, but playful. Its centerpiece is a tree with healing leaves and an endless river of living water. What has always stood out for me about the New Jerusalem is that it is not floating out in space around a far-off planet called “heaven.” It lands on this earth and transforms it into paradise. Perhaps the word that names my sense of belonging is “earthling.” I am an embodied creature more at home in festivals, oceans, and meditation than in the sharp edges of citizenship.

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