Eighth Centrepiece Lecture from “The World Explored, the World Suffered: The Exeter Lectures”(Jude Sutton on Politics)

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Jude coughed to attract attention and began:

“The bad man can be a good citizen in a good state, this was the conviction of both Plato and Aristotle, even though they had fundamentally different conceptions of what constitutes the good state. Plato’s idea, as a consequence of watching Athens put his teacher Socrates to death, was that Philosophers will not wish to be ruled by people who did not know how to rule and that they, therefore, should bear the burden of government themselves together with a warrior class that protect the city walls from outside attack and internal disorder. The warrior class would be educated in the form of the beautiful to have a disinterested attitude towards their duties and the philosophers would be primarily educated to understand the form or the idea of the Good. It is interesting that in this formula the idea or form of the truth was not the highest idea and this may have been due to witnessing the failure of Socrates in his attempt to influence the opinions of his jurors and judges at his trial by appealing to the truth. Clearly using the idea of what was true via the technique of elenchus, did not work satisfactorily, and such a historical failure of Philosophy required a re-thinking of its strategy. Socrates used the dialectical method, a method of dialogue between two interlocutors or friends when what was needed was the art of persuasion or rhetoric: a technique that is a more public form of address to a multitude of listeners. Rhetoric was required because public life in Athens was competitive, even to a degree antagonistic: the limits of its reach were the city-walls, the laws, the good and justice. All such ideas were what one should appeal to when, as Hanna Arendt put it, “the chips are down”. Making a mistake in one’s philosophical strategy in such situations will result in a good man being put to death. One can but reflect on whether the penalty for such a mistake should be death. Aristotle possibly shared more with Socrates than he did with Plato in believing that there was a higher form of life than bios politikos: namely, the contemplative life or bios theoritikos. The state could not in his opinion force the citizens into one mold representing one form of life. The fact of inequality, of the plurality of a number of different forms of life, had to be respected. Aristotle was a pluralist and believed the communal/social force should be individuals forming friendships, because, being thrown together as one is in a state “no one should be without friends”. For Socrates, the search for the truth was guided by the fact that when the soul thinks, it is in dialogue with itself and its goal is not to contradict itself. For both Socrates and Aristotle, this mechanism of obeying the law of non- contradiction ensured that friends in dialogue with themselves and others could achieve “the good” in all their inquiries, activities and choices. For Aristotle, the contemplative life was, therefore, the best life. We have seen how important Aristotle has been for education. Our fundamental desire is to understand the truth, to see the world under the aspect of the truth and to act in accordance with what is both true and good. In order to do this, we need to understand metaphysics and the kind of explanations that provide us with normative and descriptive justifications of what we take to be the facts. Here is the fundamental pedagogical justification for the fact that we spend upwards of 12 years in school, in a peaceful environment where knowledge is pursued, not just for personal gain but because it is good in itself. Both Socrates and Aristotle were able to emphasize the importance of the ethical by this idea of the two-in-one self that is engaged in a dialogue with itself. How, they would ask, could anyone commit a murder and then live together with a murderer for the rest of one’s life? This is something one ought not to do in one’s life because of the obvious tragic personal consequences, irrespective of whether one gets indicted for the crime or not. But what if I find myself in a situation where the passions are running high and I am threatened? What should I do? Socrates is stoically determined on this point. One should resist evil. However high the passion for so-called justice, one should realize that hurting or punishing a bad man does not make him better.”
Sophia raised her hand:
“But surely our institutions of justice make sense, surely criminals must get what they deserve?”
“Yes, my dear, I agree with you and so would Socrates. The murderer and the thief and the slanderer do get what they deserve, will have to live with themselves until they die. They all get life sentences, living a contradiction.”
“An Economics major raised their hand:
“Assuming that they know what they have done is wrong. What do we do with those citizens that do not have the requisite knowledge?”
“They steal a car, and they are put in prison to think about what they have done. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in the eyes of the law. If the murderer in his actions believes that “murder is wrong” is a universal law, and consequently makes an exception of himself, then he does not believe that “murder is wrong”. He does not, that is, believe that murder is universally wrong. Perhaps he believes it is a doxa, an opinion. He is sent to prison to contemplate the universality of the proposition “Murder is wrong”. He may also of course neither know the universal “Murder is wrong” and also not know that what he did was wrong at the time of doing it, as might be the case with someone psychotic following a voice ordering him to kill. If this is the case we put the person concerned in a mental hospital until his voices cease to force him to do criminal things. But it should be pointed out here that the proper account of why such events occur would be a kind of psychoanalytical one or a psychological one which would clearly show that the moral development of the person concerned was interrupted by abnormal factors. Abnormal factors such as the case of the thief who stole the car referring to his mother leaving him, his father becoming an uncaring alcoholic, his education failing, he himself becoming involved with drugs etc. The moral of this tale is that the legal system is there for those circumstances in which the moral system breaks down: it is not a moral system in itself.
But let us continue with Socrates and Aristotle. Socrates’ conflict with bios politikos was in trying to show how the philosophy of bios theoretikos was relevant to the state. Aristotle’s response to the putting to death of Socrates was to refuse the task of taking responsibility for the state and when the time came for him to be falsely accused he disregarded the law and left Athens. His defense of this action would probably have been on moral grounds. This refusal by such a great mind was groundbreaking and meant that Politics in its turn would always keep a suspicious eye on Philosophy. Of course, Aristotle theoretically investigated what makes a good constitution. He replaced Plato’s descending spiral of states from the one good Republic down via timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, to terrible tyranny, with an idea of a plurality of good states that ruled in accordance with the unifying idea of the common good. The plurality of evil states ruling in the interests of particular classes or particular individuals for their particular interests divides the state into irreconcilable parts. Aristotle’s Kallipolis or perfect state was less of an idealist construction than Plato’s Republic. He believed that the perfect constitution was a result of applying the principle of the golden mean to the present existing forms of state. The perfect constitution would embrace the best aspects of oligarchies and democracies and avoid the deficiencies and excesses of both forms of organization. Democracies, as we know from subsequent historical development in modern times would become better than oligarchies because they possessed a larger middle class that shunned the deficiencies and excesses of the Greek form of democracy. Both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that class division in the state would fatally wound the state and prevent it from becoming a unified community. By the time we come to the nineteenth century and Marx with his materialistic “science of society” we see how the roads taken by politics and philosophy diverge considerably. In Marxist theory, the laboring class was to be given preferential treatment on the grounds of their exploitation by the bourgeoisie and that class’s ownership of the means of production. Arendt interestingly points out that the more serious criticism of the bourgeoisie was their obsession with the dictum “expansion for expansion’s sake”. Aristotle’s solution to the rich-poor conflict, namely the growth of a middle class that will ignore perspectival interests and develops the state for the common good, is largely ignored in Marx’s conflict theory. Man becomes animal laborans in work and the necessities of living shift into focus at the expense of the love of the good and friendship. The state is predicted to wither away, to be ultimately destroyed by the revolution in which the ultimate nihilistic outcome is to be ruled by an administration: to be ruled by nobody. The Greek idea of bios theoretikos and thought has been replaced by an almost biological conception of work and thoughtless nihilistic action. Aristotle reflects on the origins of the state by referring to an evolutionary theory involving 1. The individuals that come together to build the unit of the family ruled by oeconomos, 2. Families uniting in the name of the common good to form a village, 3. Villages uniting in the name of the common good to become a city-state which can self-sufficiently meet all the needs of a city in accordance with the standards of the truth and the good laid down by Philosophy. This idea of the natural evolution of the city-state is usurped by Marx in favor of an economic materialism which functions at one level biologically in a crass struggle for survival and at another instrumental functionalist level where the end is the destruction of the state. The analysis of how this came about one can find in Hanna Arendt’s work “The Promise of Politics”.
I want to finish on an optimistic note by looking at the Enlightenment’s role in the development of Political philosophy. Kant’s political vision is, as we all know, cosmopolitan but this does not necessarily involve the dissolution of the state. It requires the creation of an International Human Rights institution, similar to the United Nations we have today, based on a Kantian view of the individual’s human rights, and possessing a mandate to prevent war and restore and maintain peace in the world. Kant’s starting point here is to point out that insofar as the individual is concerned we cannot hope for too much since reason is not universally present. Hopefully, however, if the enlightenment theory of Progress is correct, our societies will become enlightened after a period of approximately 100,000 years, when reason will be universally present in the species. The major ethical problem is, of course, installing the idea of the good in every consciousness and the good as we know extends from being friends with everyone to not murdering anyone. The self- evidence of the latter is probably evident to almost everyone but I am not sure that the self-evidence of the former is that certain. Well, in both cases it is the individual as an adult that is the source of his actions and the individual is, as Arendt puts the matter, a two-in-one, or, as we would characterize it someone capable of thinking in the sense of engaging in discourse with oneself. There is not much to think about insofar as murder is concerned since this is so naturally repugnant, but what about the wealthy man, like Carazan, who has a history of using other people for his own ends in order to make money. He has no friends because everyone knows his modus operandi. How would this discourse manifest itself if it did not naturally occur within him in the normal course of living?
“As the love of man grows cold within him he increases his prayers and religious activities”.
Kant talks about the dream of such a man, Carazan, who dreams that the Angel of death comes for him one night after he completed calculating his profits for the day. Carazan instantaneously was made aware that nothing more could be added to the good he had done in his life and nothing subtracted from the evil he had committed. The Angel of death rejects the wealthy man’s prayers and religious activities because of his evil disposition towards man and pronounces a sentence upon him. Because he has lived his life alone he shall live throughout future eternity alone, far removed from men and their home. Carazan found himself speeding through space leaving all the planets and stars behind him until all light was extinguished. He realized that the journey he had commenced could continue tens of thousands of years and he would still be confronted with an infinite stretch of time and space before him. His eyes useless, he thrust out his hands to desperately reach out to reality and awoke. From that moment on Carazan learned to esteem mankind and he longed for the company of even those miserable beggars he had turned from his door.
This is the outcome of the mechanism of inner dialogue or thought, which Kant believed was more efficacious than religious or political persuasion. Anyone whose soul has been ruled by bodily greed will be at odds with oneself. Such is the power of the soul, and the implication of such internal dialogue. Plato did not believe in this kind of Socratic dream where Carazan himself experiences the contradiction in his life. Plato, on the contrary, believed that somehow the idea of the good installed in the community would suffice to make him into a good citizen. Having to deal with men like Carazan before his conversion induced in Kant the feeling that life was burdensome and he often referred to the “melancholic haphazard nature of life”. He produced his philosophy in response to this condition. But there was another dimension to his melancholy: wars and natural catastrophes in “culture” were painful to witness but necessary to stop man sinking back into a life where the animal-like satisfactions of the body would brutalize their souls. Society and life in it appeared to him to be insane and he, like Aristotle refused to take responsibility for this state of affairs and wrote no work on Political Philosophy. That the Enlightenment could pass by without a serious work on Political Philosophy in the spirit of Aristotle or Kant merely prepared the stage for the entrance of Marx and the Politics of power. Kant’s philosophy and all philosophy, according to Marx, appeared too contemplative, too theoretical. The time had come for man to cease thinking about the world and to begin to change it. Economics and political power were moved from the periphery to the centre of the stage of world affairs. The Marxist change would sweep the world clean. It was science and the invitation was given to the political leaders of the world to begin a bizarre experiment of social engineering, which would destroy the old reflective values and install the new values connected with action.
The language of the law permeates all of Kant’s work and is very appropriate to the spirit of Kant’s contemplation. He uses the concept of “Critique” in all three of his major works” and “Reason” in two of them. The language of the law and legal activity appeared to Kant, as it would have to Socrates, to mirror the language and activity of philosophy insofar as both were searching for the truth and meaning. The law of course differed from philosophy in that its activity was called into play in order to pass judgment on particular events such as x murdering y, or x stealing a car. The judge with his knowledge of the law and a jury with their common sense watch proceedings as would spectators in a theatre as the various actors play their roles in the legal process. Was there a murder? Did the defendant commit the murder? Why did he do it? These are all part of the passing show. The plot ends with the judge passing sentence, the final act of criticism par excellence.
Robert raised his hand
“What is the relation between the law and morality? There would appear to be a problem with maintaining that, even if the law is to some extent related to morality, the law seems to be an older form of social regulation that does not exactly rely on the autonomy of the critical spirit. Yet if we cannot justify an action in terms of the critical attitude of individuals what principle can there be? Can society provide a principle of order?”
“There is a political problem relating to the legitimacy of authority which in its turn is related to the question of the principles of order in society. It is true to say that man lives in society, it is nevertheless not clear what this actually means. The first thing to realize is that although we intuitively are convinced that we can see and identify men perceptually, what we mean by saying man lives in society is not the same kind of thing as when we see and say that woodpeckers live in trees, for example. In this case, we can perceptually identify both woodpeckers and trees and the truth conditions of such a statement are self- evident, partly because this is a perceptually based factual statement. In contrast, the principles that bind a number of individuals together into a society are principles of value or normative principles. These rules or principles constitute firstly, the rights and duties that these individuals have toward one another, secondly, the ends they pursue in their various social activities, and thirdly the ways in which it is legitimate to pursue these ends. In order to understand these issues, it is necessary to strive to make sense of the assertion that we are rule following animals because we are rule-constituting animals. Chess is the game it is because of the rules that constitute it and, in a sense, these rules are arbitrary, they could be other than what they are, but one should also point out that, if they were, we would be playing a different game. We might, for example, think that the rules are too complex to remember and invent a simpler game whereby a piece can only be taken if another piece is diagonally adjacent to it and every piece can move only one square at a time. The rules or principles of life in a simpler civilization than ours would be much simpler. There might or might not be a principle that murder is wrong. It is important to realize here that the members of a society share a commitment to the complex principles we live by because they are practically rational and do not result in practical contradictions. An example of such a practical contradiction would be the making of deceitful promises in which we make use of other people’s assumptions that everyone tells the truth. These assumptions are then used to intentionally say something false, which may be to one’s advantage. As you will see we are once again raising ethical questions about actions which must be more than a movement of the body: actions must relate to man-made standards which in their turn relate to human forms of life over time and their decisions concerning them as well as the criteria involved of either meeting those standards or not. Benn and Peters in their work entitled “Social Principles and the Democratic State” maintain that it was only in the 17th century that man managed to separate thought about the physical world from thought about the human and social order. They believed this occurred because man began to speculate more critically and thinkers needed to give reasons for their speculations or their beliefs. This translated into our thought about action where it was realized that actions are constituted by their intentions and the reasons we give for acting. This marked a fundamental shift in our idea of authority and both science and morality emerged as autonomous bodies of thought which eschewed the authority of judges or police. Man came of age and was expected to be his own judge, take responsibility himself for his actions. The law then became a back- up system swinging into operation when the social and moral system broke down and individuals did not take the responsibility expected. The law no longer was the backbone of the state but became a peripheral set of muscles supporting the moral backbone of man. That man was a rule constituting and rule-following animal already became apparent in the social practice of following the rules and norms that were associated with different roles in society. Being a father and a husband involved following rules that constituted a set of rights and duties as well as a set of goals and means to achieve them. With the emergence of autonomy and critical reasoning in the fields of science and morals came an increased conscious awareness of the universal character of some rules and norms. These were more substantive and allocated a different level of respect but this respect for what was substantive was by no means universal because the rise of individualism also brought with it a selfish spirit of acquisitiveness: the pursuit of power and a striving for honour. Life became a competitive struggle from which a middle class emerged based on the virtues of thrift, efficiency, hard work, individual effort, and initiative. Benn and Peters have a striking image of Protestant man making his own lonely and weary way up the hill of salvation. There occurred as a result of these changes a loss of the sense of security and kings stepped in to attempt to make up this loss. The nation-state emerged and the law became the state’s method of maintaining control, providing the much longed for a sense of security. The critical spirit, however, did not accept the institution of this new authority and controversies over the legitimacy of the state’s power raged. Freedom was suddenly the idea on everyone’s minds when Kings like James 1st maintained that his command was the law of the nation. The critical spirit naturally asked the question “Was the arbitrary command of a sovereign the same thing as the authority of a law that had derived from tradition and custom over centuries of living together?” Commands are authoritative utterances for which no reasons are given. Was the king a de facto or de jure authority? There are reasons behind the law. Reasons embedded in the hurly-burly social forms of life of men living together over long periods of time. Benn and Peters draw attention to the underlying historical conditions supporting the position Wittgenstein would have adopted. As Benn and Peters point out, ladies and gentlemen, this cultural development over a long period of time via the path of Christianity heralds back to the well-named Golden Age of Greece, in particular to the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle where the critical spirit was born and thrived for a short period. Socrates et al insisted that an individual should not blindly accept the command of authority but rather should accept only those rules, principles and norms that he himself could argue for. Authorities obviously disagreed and laws could be unjust. All of this ladies and gentlemen had been brewing for some time as increased trade continually brought different societies with different norms and beliefs into contact with each other. In the Enlightenment period in particular man began to proclaim with Kant that practical reasoning united all men and cosmopolitanism was a positive philosophical force. This was a re-emergence of an old Stoic cosmopolitan idea of a world citizen obeying a natural law. Men were equal, proclaimed the Stoic, whatever appearances might otherwise suggest. Promises ought to be kept, life and property ought to be respected even if appearances suggested otherwise. Moral principles and norms were universally applicable and had to be rationally accepted by the individual. The Stoic position was a development of Socratic and Aristotelian political and ethical reflections and it developed further as Alexander the Great with his conquests demonstrated the impotence of the city-state to cope with the force that was pushing for cosmopolitanism. There is much of the Stoic position minus the cosmopolitanism in Freud’s mature position.
Robert raised his hand:
“So, the Kantian practical idea of freedom might be a reflection of the critical attitude of society which had been developing since the 17th century?”
“Yes, we can, for example, see in Descartes skeptical method a rejection of authority as a source for opinions and justifications of action: one can also see in his method the reflection of a radical individualism which rests in the certainty of the individual’s awareness of his thinking activity.”
Sophia raised her hand:
“You mentioned Protestantism but what relation did Christianity have toward this wave of cosmopolitanism.”
“A very substantial one indeed. The concept of the brotherhood of man from the very beginning was undermining the idea of the nation-state. It was also incidentally undermining what many regarded as its driving force, namely economics. The event of Jesus throwing the moneylenders off the steps of the Church may have had a wider significance than many attributed to it.”
An Economics major asked
“Socialism also proclaimed an interest in internationalism. Is it, at least in this respect, the government of the future?”
“If it abandons Marxism and begins to pay attention to the growing educated middle class who have always had cosmopolitan commitments.”
Jude realized that it was time to stop and paused to collect his thoughts. His tone changed and seemed to be strangely out of character with what had been said before:
“ In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, education, is also a kind of tribunal in which teachers or examination boards judge whether the act of learning has succeeded in its task and with less than one week remaining of term I very much suspect you are all going to participate in this process of a blindfolded woman walking around the campus with a sharp sword. I sincerely hope you will treat this poor blind lady striving to find her way about justly.”