1.  Introduction: What is Political Philosophy?
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1. Introduction: What is Political Philosophy?

August 27, 2019


Professor Steven Smith:
Let me start today by asking the question, “what is political
philosophy?” Custom dictates that I say
something about the subject matter of this course at its
outset. This in some ways might seem a
case of putting the cart before the horse, or the cart before
the course maybe, because how can you say,
how can we say what political philosophy is in advance of
doing it? Anyway, let me try to say
something that might be useful. In one sense,
you could say political philosophy is simply a branch or
what we call a subfield of the field of political science.
Yes, all right. It exists alongside of other
areas of political inquiry like American government,
comparative politics, and international relations.
Yet in another sense, political philosophy is
something much different than simply a subfield;
it seems to be the oldest and most fundamental part of
political science. Its purpose is to lay bare,
as it were, the fundamental problems, the fundamental
concepts and categories which frame the study of politics.
In this respect it seems to me much less like just a branch of
political science than the foundation of the entire
discipline. The study of political
philosophy often begins as this course will do also,
with the study of the great books or some of the great books
of our field. Political philosophy is the
oldest of the social sciences, and it can boast a wealth of
heavy hitters from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli,
Hobbes, Hegel, Tocqueville,
Nietzsche, and so on. You might say that the best way
to learn what political philosophy is,
is simply to study and read the works of those who have shaped
the field–yes, right?
But to do that is, I recognize,
not without dangers, often severe dangers of its
own. Why study just these thinkers
and not others? Is not any so-called list of
great thinkers or great texts likely to be simply arbitrary
and tell us more about what such a list excludes than what it
includes? Furthermore,
it would seem that the study of the great books or great
thinkers of the past can easily degenerate into a kind of
antiquarianism, into a sort of pedantry.
We find ourselves easily intimidated by a list of famous
names and end up not thinking for ourselves.
Furthermore, doesn’t the study of old books,
often very old books, risk overlooking the issues
facing us today? What can Aristotle or Hobbes
tells us about the world of globalization,
of terrorism, of ethnic conflict and the
like? Doesn’t political science make
any progress? After all, economists no longer
read Adam Smith. I hesitate to…
I don’t hesitate to say that you will never read Adam
Smith in an economics course here at Yale,
and it is very unlikely that you will read Freud in your
psychology classes. So why then does political
science, apparently uniquely among the social sciences,
continue to study Aristotle, Locke and other old books? These are all real questions,
and I raise them now myself because they are questions I
want you to be thinking about as you do your reading and work
through this course. I want you to remain alive to
them throughout the semester. Yes?
Okay. One reason I want to suggest
that we continue to read these books is not because political
science makes no progress, or that we are somehow uniquely
fixated on an ancient past, but because these works provide
us with the most basic questions that continue to guide our
field. We continue to ask the same
questions that were asked by Plato, Machiavelli,
Hobbes, and others. We may not accept their answers
and it’s very likely that we do not, but their questions are
often put with a kind of unrivaled clarity and insight.
The fact is that there are still people in the world,
many people, who regard themselves as
Aristotelians, Thomists, Lockeans,
Kantians, even the occasional Marxist can still be found in
Ivy League universities. These doctrines have not simply
been refuted, or replaced,
or historically superceded; they remain in many ways
constitutive of our most basis outlooks and attitudes.
They are very much alive with us today, right.
So political philosophy is not just some kind of strange
historical appendage attached to the trunk of political science;
it is constitutive of its deepest problems.
If you doubt the importance of the study of political ideas for
politics, consider the works of a famous economist,
John Maynard Keynes, everyone’s heard of him.
Keynes wrote in 1935. “The ideas of economists and
political philosophers, both when they are right and
when they are wrong, are more powerful than is
commonly understood….Practical men,” Keynes continues,
practical men “who believe themselves to be quite exempt
from any intellectual influences,
are usually the slave of some defunct economist.
Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air,
are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of
a few years back” . So this course will be devoted
to the study of those “academic scribblers” who have written
books that continue to impress and create the forms of
authority with which we are familiar.
But one thing we should not do, right, one thing we should not
do is to approach these works as if they provide,
somehow, answers, ready-made answers to the
problems of today. Only we can provide answers to
our problems. Rather, the great works provide
us, so to speak, with a repository of
fundamental or permanent questions that political
scientists still continue to rely on in their work.
The great thinkers are great not because they’ve created some
set of museum pieces that can be catalogued,
admired, and then safely ignored like a kind of
antiquities gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art;
but rather because they have defined the problems that all
later thinkers and scholars have had to use in order to make
sense of their world at all. Again, we still think in terms
of the basic concepts and categories that were created for
us long ago. Okay? So one thing you will quickly
note is that there are no permanent answers in a study of
political philosophy. A famous mathematician once
said, “Every question must have a correct answer,
for every question one answer.” That itself is an eminently
contestable proposition. Among the great thinkers there
is profound disagreement over the answers to even the most
fundamental questions concerning justice,
concerning rights, concerning liberty.
In political philosophy, it is never a sufficient answer
to answer a question with a statement “because Plato says
so,” or “because Nietzsche says so.”
There are no final authorities in that respect in philosophy
because even the greatest thinkers disagree profoundly
with one another over their answers,
and it is precisely this disagreement with one another
that makes it possible for us, the readers today,
to enter into their conversation.
We are called upon first to read and listen,
and then to judge “who’s right?”
“how do we know?” The only way to decide is not
to defer to authority, whoever’s authority,
but to rely on our own powers of reason and judgment,
in other words the freedom of the human mind to determine for
us what seems right or best. Okay? But what are these problems
that I’m referring to? What are these problems that
constitute the subject matter of the study of politics?
What are the questions that political scientists try to
answer? Such a list may be long,
but not infinitely so. Among the oldest and still most
fundamental questions are: what is justice?
What are the goals of a decent society?
How should a citizen be educated?
Why should I obey the law, and what are the limits,
if any, to my obligation? What constitutes the ground of
human dignity? Is it freedom?
Is it virtue? Is it love, is it friendship?
And of course, the all important question,
even though political philosophers and political
scientists rarely pronounce it, namely, quid sit deus,
what is God? Does he exist?
And what does that imply for our obligations as human beings
and citizens? Those are some of the most
basic and fundamental problems of the study of politics,
but you might say, where does one enter this
debate? Which questions and which
thinkers should one pick up for oneself?
Perhaps the oldest and most fundamental question that I wish
to examine in the course of this semester is the question:
what is a regime? What are regimes?
What are regime politics? The term “regime” is a familiar
one. We often hear today about
shaping regimes or about changing regimes,
but what is a regime? How many kinds are there?
How are they defined? What holds them together,
and what causes them to fall apart?
Is there a single best regime? Those are the questions I want
us to consider. The concept of the regime is
perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of political ideas.
It goes back to Plato and even before him.
In fact, the title of the book that you will be reading part of
for this semester, Plato’s Republic,
is actually a translation of the Greek word politea
that means constitution or regime.
The Republic is a book about the regime and all later
political philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato,
and that means that it must provide a series of variations,
so to speak, on Plato’s conception of the
best regime. But what is a regime?
Broadly speaking, a regime indicates a form of
government, whether it is ruled by the one,
a few, the many, or as more common,
some mixture, a combination of these three
ruling powers. The regime is defined in the
first instance by how people are governed and how public offices
are distributed by election, by birth, by lot,
by outstanding personal qualities and achievements,
and what constitutes a people’s rights and responsibilities.
The regime again refers above all to a form of government.
The political world does not present itself as simply an
infinite variety of different shapes.
It is structured and ordered into a few basic regime types.
In this, I take it to be one of the most important propositions
and insights of political science. Right?
So far? But there is a corollary to
this insight. The regime is always something
particular. It stands in a relation of
opposition to other regime types, and as a consequence the
possibility of conflict, of tension, and war is built in
to the very structure of politics.
Regimes are necessarily partisan, that is to say they
instill certain loyalties and passions in the same way that
one may feel partisanship to the New York Yankees or the Boston
Red Sox, or to Yale over all rival
colleges and institutions, right?
Fierce loyalty, partisanship:
it is inseparable from the character of regime politics.
These passionate attachments are not merely something that
take place, you might, say between different regimes,
but even within them, as different parties and groups
with loyalties and attachments contend for power,
for honor, and for interest. Henry Adams once cynically
reflected that politics is simply the “organization of
hatreds,” and there is more than a grain
of truth to this, right, although he did not say
that it was also an attempt to channel and redirect those
hatreds and animosities towards something like a common good.
This raises the question whether it is possible to
transform politics, to replace enmity and factional
conflict with friendship, to replace conflict with
harmony? Today it is the hope of many
people, both here and abroad, that we might even overcome,
might even transcend the basic structure of regime politics
altogether and organize our world around global norms of
justice and international law. Is such a thing possible?
It can’t be ruled out, but such a world,
I would note–let’s just say a world administered by
international courts of law, by judges and judicial
tribunals–would no longer be a political world.
Politics only takes place within the context of the
particular. It is only possible within the
structure of the regime itself. But a regime is more than
simply a set of formal structures and institutions,
okay? It consists of the entire way
of life, the moral and religious practices, the habits,
customs, and sentiments that make a people what they are.
The regime constitutes an ethos,
that is to say a distinctive character, that nurtures
distinctive human types. Every regime shapes a common
character, a common character type with distinctive traits and
qualities. So the study of regime politics
is in part a study of the distinctive national character
types that constitutes a citizen body.
To take an example of what I mean, when Tocqueville studied
the American regime or the democratic regime,
properly speaking, in Democracy in America,
he started first with our formal political institutions as
enumerated in the Constitution, such things as the separation
of powers, the division between state and federal government and
so on, but then went on to look at
such informal practices as American manners and morals,
our tendency to form small civic associations,
our peculiar moralism and religious life,
our defensiveness about democracy and so on.
All of these intellectual and moral customs and habits helped
to constitute the democratic regime.
And this regime–in this sense the regime describes the
character or tone of a society. What a society finds most
praiseworthy, what it looks up to,
okay? You can’t understand a regime
unless you understand, so to speak,
what it stands for, what a people stand for,
what they look up to as well as its, again, its structure of
institutions and rights and privileges. This raises a further set of
questions that we will consider over the term.
How are regimes founded, the founding of regimes?
What brings them into being and sustains them over time?
For thinkers like Tocqueville, for example,
regimes are embedded in the deep structures of human history
that have determined over long centuries the shape of our
political institutions and the way we think about them.
Yet other voices within the tradition–Plato,
Machiavelli, Rousseau come to mind–believed
that regimes can be self-consciously founded through
deliberate acts of great statesmen or founding fathers as
we might call them. These statesmen–Machiavelli
for example refers to Romulus, Moses, Cyrus,
as the founders that he looks to;
we might think of men like Washington, Jefferson,
Adams and the like–are shapers of peoples and institutions.
The very first of the Federalist Papers by
Alexander Hamilton even begins by posing this question in the
starkest terms. “It has been frequently
remarked,” Hamilton writes, “that it seems to have been
reserved to the people of this country,
by their conduct and example, to decide the important
question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of
establishing good government from reflection and choice,
or whether they are forever destined to depend for their
political constitutions on accident and force.”
There we see Hamilton asking the basic question about the
founding of political institutions:
are they created, as he puts it,
by “reflection and choice,” that is to say by a deliberate
act of statecraft and conscious human intelligence,
or are regimes always the product of accident,
circumstance, custom, and history? But the idea that regimes may
be created or founded by a set of deliberate acts raises a
further question that we will study,
and is inseparable from the study of regimes.
N’est pas? Who is a statesman?
What is a statesman? Again, one of the oldest
questions of political science, very rarely asked by the
political science of today that is very skeptical of the
language of statesmanship. In its oldest sense,
political science simply was a science of statecraft.
It was addressed to statesman or potential statesmen charged
with steering the ship of state. What are the qualities
necessary for sound statesmanship?
How does statecraft differ from other kinds of activities?
Must a good statesman, as Plato believed for example,
be a philosopher versed in poetry, mathematics,
and metaphysics? Or is statesmanship,
as Aristotle believed, a purely practical skill
requiring judgment based on deliberation and experience? Is a streak of cruelty and a
willingness to act immorally necessary for statecraft,
as Machiavelli infamously argued?
Must the statesman be capable of literally transforming human
nature, as Rousseau maintains, or is the sovereign a more or
less faceless bureaucrat in manner of a modern CEO,
as, for example, someone like Hobbes seems to
have believed? All of our texts that we will
read–the Republic, the Politics,
the Prince, the Social
Contract–have different views on the qualities of
statecraft and what are those qualities necessary to found and
maintain states that we will be considering.
All of this, in a way, is another way of
saying, or at least implying, okay,
that political philosophy is an imminently practical
discipline, a practical field. Its purpose is not simply
contemplation, its purpose is not reflection
alone: it is advice giving. None of the people we will
study this semester were cloistered scholars detached
from the world, although this is a very common
prejudice against political philosophy, that it is somehow
uniquely sort of “pie in the sky” and detached from the
world. But the great thinkers were
very far from being just, so to speak,
detached intellectuals. Plato undertook three long and
dangerous voyages to Sicily in order to advise the King
Dionysius. Aristotle famously was a tutor
of Alexander the Great. Machiavelli spent a large part
of his career in the foreign service of his native Florence,
and wrote as an advisor to the Medici.
Hobbes was the tutor to a royal household who followed the King
into exile during the English Civil War.
And Locke was associated with the Shaftsbury Circle who also
was forced into exile after being accused of plotting
against the English King. Rousseau had no official
political connections, but he signed his name always
Jean Jacques Rousseau, “citizen of Geneva,” and was
approached to write constitutions for Poland and for
the island of Corsica. And Tocqueville was a member of
the French National Assembly whose experience of American
democracy deeply affected the way he saw the future of Europe.
So the great political thinkers were typically engaged in the
politics of their times and help in that way to provide us,
okay, with models for how we might think about ours. But this goes in a slightly
different direction as well. Not only is this study of the
regime, as we’ve seen, as I’ve just tried to indicate,
rooted in, in many ways, the practical experience of the
thinkers we’ll be looking at; but the study of regime
politics either implicitly or explicitly raises a question
that goes beyond the boundary of any given society.
A regime, as I’ve said, constitutes a people’s way of
life, what they believe makes their life worth living,
or to put it again slightly differently, what a people stand
for. Although we are most familiar
with the character of a modern democratic regime such as ours,
the study of political philosophy is in many ways a
kind of immersion into what we might call today comparative
politics; that is to say it opens up to
us the variety of regimes, each with its own distinctive
set of claims or principles, each vying and potentially in
conflict with all the others, okay?
Underlying this cacophony of regimes is the question always,
which of these regimes is best? What has or ought to have a
claim on our loyalty and rational consent?
Political philosophy is always guided by the question of the
best regime. But what is the best
regime? Even to raise such a question
seems to pose insuperable obstacles.
Isn’t that a completely subjective judgment,
what one thinks is the best regime?
How could one begin such a study?
Is the best regime, as the ancients tended to
believe, Plato, Aristotle, and others,
is it an aristocratic republic in which only the few best
habitually rule; or is the best regime as the
moderns believe, a democratic republic where in
principle political office is open to all by virtue of their
membership in society alone? Will the best regime be a small
closed society that through generations has made a supreme
sacrifice towards self-perfection?
Think of that. Or will the best regime be a
large cosmopolitan order embracing all human beings,
perhaps even a kind of universal League of Nations
consisting of all free and equal men and women? Whatever form the best regime
takes, however, it will always favor a certain
kind of human being with a certain set of character traits.
Is that type the common man, is it found in democracies;
those of acquired taste and money, as in aristocracies;
the warrior; or even the priest,
as in theocracies? No, no question that I can
think of can be more fundamental.
And this finally raises the question of the relation between
the best regime or the good regime,
and what we could say are actually existing regimes,
regimes that we are all familiar with.
What function does the best regime play in political
science? How does it guide our actions
here and now? This issue received a kind of
classic formulation in Aristotle’s distinction of what
he called the good human being and the good citizen.
For the good citizen–we’ll read this chapter later on in
the Politics–for the good citizen you could say
patriotism is enough, to uphold and defend the laws
of your own country simply because they are your own
is both necessary and sufficient.
Such a view of citizen virtue runs into the obvious objection
that the good citizen of one regime will be at odds with the
good citizen of another: a good citizen of contemporary
Iran will not be the same as the good citizen of contemporary
America. But the good citizen,
Aristotle goes on to say, is not the same as the good
human being, right? Where the good citizen is
relative to the regime, you might say regime-specific,
the good human being, so he believes,
is good everywhere. The good human being loves what
is good simply, not because it is his own,
but because it is good. Some sense of this was
demonstrated in Abraham Lincoln’s judgment about Henry
Clay, an early idol of Lincoln’s.
Lincoln wrote of Clay, “He loved his country,” he
said, “partly because it was his own country”–partly
because it was his own country–;”but mainly because it
was a free country.” His point, I think,
is that Clay exhibited, at least on Lincoln’s telling,
something of the philosopher, what he loved was an idea,
the idea of freedom. That idea was not the property
of one particular country, but it was constitutive of any
good society. The good human being,
it would seem, would be a philosopher,
or at least would have something philosophical about
him or her, and who may only be fully at
home in the best regime. But of course the best regime
lacks actuality. We all know that.
It has never existed. The best regime embodies a
supreme paradox, it would seem.
It is superior in some ways to all actual regimes,
but it has no concrete existence anywhere.
This makes it difficult, you could say and this is
Aristotle’s point, I think,
this makes it difficult for the philosopher to be a good citizen
of any actual regime. Philosophy will never feel
fully or truly at home in any particular society.
The philosopher can never be truly loyal to anyone or
anything but what is best. Think of that:
it raises a question about issues of love,
loyalty, and friendship. This tension,
of course, between the best regime and any actual regime is
the space that makes political philosophy possible.
In the best regime, if we were to inhabit such,
political philosophy would be unnecessary or redundant.
It would wither away. Political philosophy exists and
only exists in that… call it “zone of indeterminacy”
between the “is” and the “ought,” between the actual and
the ideal. This is why political
philosophy is always and necessarily a potentially
disturbing undertaking. Those who embark on the quest
for knowledge of the best regime may not return the same people
that they were before. You may return with very
different loyalties and allegiances than you had in the
beginning. But there is some compensation
for this, I think. The ancients had a beautiful
word, or at least the Greeks had a beautiful word,
for this quest, for this desire for knowledge
of the best regime. They called it eros, or
love, right? The quest for knowledge of the
best regime must necessarily be accompanied, sustained,
and elevated by eros. You may not have realized it
when you walked in to this class today, but the study of
political philosophy may be the highest tribute we pay to love. Think of that.
And while you’re thinking about it you can start reading Plato’s
Apology for Socrates which we will discuss for class
on Wednesday. Okay?
It’s nice to see you back, and have a very good but
thoughtful September 11^(th).

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