Monday, May 24, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 3: Not-So-Political Philosophy in the Age of Empire
Let us return to Sheldon Wolin. In this entry, I want to briefly discuss the third chapter of Wolin's Politics and Vision*. His key point is that political philosophy takes a sharp turn after the classic Greek city-states succumb to the Macedonian Empire. This philosophical shift continues and intensifies as the Roman Republic turns into the Roman Empire.
The nature of the change is directly related to the change of the dominant political unit. Gone is the time of a relatively compact and homogeneous polis; it is replaced by a sprawling, heterogeneous empire. Unlike the polis, an empire is marked by complexity, class and regional interests, and a massive enlargement of political space. Also unlike the polis, where citizens are engaged in direct and meaningful dialogue regarding the affairs of their city, in an empire the average citizen is subordinated to an autocratic ruler and his bureaucracy. In other words, where "loyalty had earlier come from a sense of common involvement, it [is] now to be centered in a common reverence for power personified" (p. 69).
This has two effects on the analysis of politics. First, political philosophy retreats from its political obligations, and ultimately becomes a form of "vapid moralism" (p. 85). Though some Greek thinkers of the Macedonian period, like Isocrates, are explicitly political (and urge a form of federalism to transcend Greek particularism), the philosophers after Plato and Aristotle are by and large those who reject an "intensive participation in a life of common concerns" (p. 69). This turn away from active citizenship is a natural effect of a distant, imperial hierarchy, and the Good is now defined - contrary to Pericles, Plato and Aristotle - as "political disengagement" (p. 71). Both the Cynics and the Epicureans are dominated by "strong elements of despair and withdrawal" that are "nourished by an anti-political impulse" (ibid) similar to modern libertarianism. The dominant philosophy of the Roman era, Stoicism, is well-known for its appeal to a universal rationality that binds nature and rational beings into a brotherhood of equality and freedom. So far, so good. But for Wolin, Stoicism shares the disillusionment of imperial politics with the Cynics and Epicureans: "its philosophic outlook [is] not derived from a positive view concerning the nature of a truly political order, but from a conclusion about its insufficiency" (p. 73). The Stoics are committed to moral development that lies outside politics since the "bureaucratized and highly impersonal public life of the Empire [has] only the slenderest ties with man's potentiality for moral development" (p. 75). Moreover, the naturalism of Stoicism displaces any notion of social conflict with a "quasi-religious" (p. 84) desire for harmony, and men are "exhorted to extend their allegiance to the cosmos as though it were a true society" (p. 74). The best that can be said for Stoicism is that it becomes, under the Roman Empire, a useful "code of conduct for public magistrates and administrators" (ibid).
The second major effect of Empire on political analysis is that it's soon dominated by historians and politicians (e.g. Polybius and Cicero). Their analyses are a study of technique, compromise and pragmatism. They also focus on the role of institutions, largely because institutions and their procedures help rulers wrestle with complexity. No longer do philosophers venerate a participatory politics that uplifts the soul; in the Roman era, students of politics seek - as we might say in Canada - peace, order and good governance. Interestingly, Wolin seems somewhat sympathetic to this trend. While Polybius and Cicero might be overly optimistic when they view politics as a balance of power, they are "basically correct in drawing attention to the fundamental importance of institutions in legitimizing conflict among diverse forces and interests" (p. 76).
Some interesting themes emerge from Wolin's analysis. His concern for the unsettled world of every-day politics persists. However, he is not content with the simple interest-based politics of Cicero. Wolin is fearful of those periods "when politics is reduced to nothing but the pursuits of interests, when no controlling standards of obligation are recognized" (p. 81). And indeed, in the Roman experience, mistrust of principle as merely the lexiconic mask of naked interest helps lead to the collapse of the Republic. From this Wolin concludes that society "cannot long endure uncontrolled political conflict, and the inevitable reaction is to demand peace at any price" (p. 82). Somewhere, amid the rancour of factional struggle, we must find values and principles that we can all agree to, and which we obey even when our "particular interests or ambitions are not always being served" (p. 80).
The struggle between unity and difference rears its head again.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 2: Plato and Politics
What is “politics”? According to Chp. 2 of Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision*, it’s certainly not an intellectual conception he shares with Plato.
Plato’s vision of politics is of the Good: the right and just principles that are common to all rational beings, and that ought to govern their political community. It is a philosophical conception, in the sense that his vision is derived from reason, yet practical because it reflects a serious attempt to imagine a real and tangible Good Society. But Plato’s quest for a tabula rasa, on which society is to be reconstructed with the help of a philosopher king (as in The Republic) or a philosopher-legislator (as in The Laws), always points to the same conclusion: “absolute power yoked to absolute knowledge” (p. 45). To be sure, Plato does not aim for a totalitarian solution. Far from it. Plato is repeatedly concerned with the excesses of power. His solution is a search for the Forms, eternal verities which transcend time, place and historical convention. With knowledge of the Forms, and the leadership of Rational people suffused with a “deep longing of the purified soul” (p. 52), Plato argues that the corruption of power will be overcome. In Wolin's words, it is the assuring logic of all Rationalists: “when political power is joined to knowledge it loses its compulsive element” (ibid).
Wolin disputes this vision of politics. According to Wolin, politics is defined as the activity of citizens within a given geographical area who work (or struggle) to resolve common problems under the condition of scarcity (of resources, status and authority). It is fundamentally a vision of conflict (p. 11). From this perspective, there is no real sense of politics in Plato’s writings, precisely because Wolin's politics is a communal activity that does not aim at Truth. Plato contributes little to issues like political participation, because such concerns imply a need for consent and conventionality that have little time for the Universal Good. Against Plato, Wolin argues that any political “agreement that issues from participation is not intended as a symbol of truth but as a tangible expression of that sense of belonging which forms a vital dike against the forces of anomie” (p. 58). And beyond legitimization, politics “involves a judgment concerning claims, all of which possess a certain validity” (ibid). In other words, it is a balance of competing “opinions” that leads to “tentative stabilities within a situation of conflict” (p. 60).
Wolin rebukes others, like Leo Strauss, who laments that “agreement may produce peace but it cannot produce truth” (quoted in Wolin, p. 57). Plato, Strauss and others have refused to see politics for what it is: an activity that is necessary in and of itself, and which can’t be transcended. Arguing otherwise, says Wolin, is simply “fatuous” (ibid). As such, political philosophy cannot ignore judgments of conciliation and compromise. It must be about conciliation and compromise, and the communal nature that frames these “tentative stabilities”. A “political judgment, in other words, is ‘true’ when it is public, not public when it accords to some standard external to politics” (p. 58). Moreover, any idea of transcendence leads to a “hollowing out of political content”, and makes the issues of political obligation, political community and the existence of competing interests “dangerously irrelevant” (p. 48). Dissent and contrary political views, from Plato’s logic, can only be seen as untruth, and untruth is mere steps away from a totalitarian solution.
I find myself very sympathetic to Wolin’s critique of Plato. It certainly mirrors my own reading of Plato (particularly The Republic), and reflects the shock I had when I first read Plato’s prescriptions for a new and better world. Two concerns do surface, however. First, Wolin never satisfactorily explains the irreducibly pluralistic nature of politics. It’s posited with a few examples, but there is no systematic discussion to buttress his point of view. Perhaps we shall see more about this later. Similarly, I am somewhat disenchanted with Wolin’s conception of power. So far, it seems very simple and clear-cut; power is explicit decision making on behalf of particular interests over others. It seems much like the first level in Steven Lukes’ three levels of power. Maybe later we will see a greater concern with non-decision making and the covert shaping of desire… and discourses of truth.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision,
Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Reading Wolin, Part 1: Philosophies, Theories and Ideologies
In the world of political thought, philosophies, theories and ideologies are traditionally viewed as distinct entities. A philosophy is considered a systematic and logical understanding of the world arrived at primarily through reason and intellect. A theory is also said to be systematic and logical, but aims to represent empirical data and observed evidence. In other words, social scientific theory aspires to a certain level of verisimilitude - a correspondence between explanation and the real, tangible world. Finally, an ideology is a set of beliefs - again, said to be internally systematic and coherent - that has, at its core, a functional political agenda, a worldview that organizes groups either in favour of or against the status quo. Thus, philosophies, theories and ideologies may all set their gaze on politics, and seek a sense of coherence and truthfulness, but they are distinguished by their respective emphases on rationality, science or political action.
Nevertheless, there are many who see little difference between philosophies, theories and ideologies. The respected political philosopher, Sheldon Wolin, treats these as interchangeable terms: "Of all the restraints upon the political philosopher's freedom to speculate, none has been so powerful as the tradition of political philosophy itself. In the act of philosophizing, the theorist enters into a debate the terms of which have largely been set beforehand" (Wolin 21). Moreover, philosophy and theory, particularly in the realm of political knowledge, are inherently programmatic. Most political thinkers, even Plato, "have believed that precisely because political philosophy was 'political,' it was committed to lessening the gap between the possibilities grasped through political imagination and the actualities of political existence" (ibid 20).
To Wolin, all three types of political thought are united by their common goals: to make sense of our political lives, and to provide the clearest account of the realities and potentials of politics.
* Wolin, Sheldon. Politics and Vision, Expanded Edition (Princeton University Press, Princeton), 2004.