1. Introduction: What is Political Philosophy?



let me start today by asking the question what 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 in advance of 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 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 a 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 find out 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 isn't any so-called list of great thinkers or great texts like likely to be are simply arbitrary and tell us more about what such a list excludes than what it includes furthermore it would seem at 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 lis issues facing us today I mean what can Aristotle or Hobbes tell 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 but I don't hesitate to say that for 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 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 Aristotelian x' thomas –ts Locke Ian's kontin's even the occasional Marxist can still be found in the Ivy League universities these doctrines have not simply been refuted or replaced or historically superseded they remain in many ways constitutive of our most basic outlooks and attitudes they are very much alive with us today right so political philosophy is not just some kind of strange historical appendage to the attach 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 influence 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 ok so one thing you will quickly note is that there are no permanent answers in a study of political philosophy the 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 a quest to answer a question with the estate with the 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 us 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 is 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 maybe long but 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 Sid 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 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 our 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 the title of it of the Greek word pala taya 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 the regime indicates a form of government whether it is ruled by the one the few the many or is more common some mixture or combination of these three ruling powers the regime is defined in the first instance by how a people are governed and how public offices are distributed by election by birth by lot by outstanding personal personal qualities and achievements and what constitutes the people's rights and responsibilities the Roisin 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 and 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 inside 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 install 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 overall rival colleges and institutions write fierce loyalty partisanship its 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 is different parties and groups with loyalties and attachments contend for power for honor and for interest Andrey 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 is also attempt an attempt to channel and redirect those hatreds and animosities towards something like a common good this raises a question is it possible to transform politics to replace enmity and factional conflict with friendship to replace conflict with harmony today is 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 it is such a thing possible it can't be ruled out but such a world I would note that is to 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 principle formal structures and institutions ok 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 the 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 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 our 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 in the way we think about them yet other voices within the tradition Plato Machiavelli who so come to mind believe that regimes can be self-consciously founded through deliberate acts of great statesman or founding fathers as we might call them these statesmen Machiavelli for example refers to Romulus Moses Cyrus is the founders that he looks to we might think of men like Washington Jefferson Adams and the like our shapers of people's 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 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 in conscious human intelligence or our 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 nespa 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 statesmen or potential statesmen charged with steering the ship of state what are the qualities necessary for sound statesmanship how to statecraft differ from other kinds of activities missed the good statesmen as Plato believed for example be a philosopher versed in poetry mathematics and metaphysics or his 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 was the Statesman be capable of literally transforming human nature as Rousseau maintains or is the sovereign a more or less faceless bureaucrat in the manner of a modern say 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 it is knit to what it those qualities necessary to found and maintain states that we will we will be considering all of this in a way is is another way of saying or at least implying ok that political philosophy is an eminently practical discipline a practical field its purpose is not simply contemplation its purpose is not reflection alone it is advice-giving all of the peanut of it 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 Hobbs was the tutor to a royal household who followed the king into exile during the English Civil War and Locke was associated with the Shaftesbury 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 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 helped in that way to provide us okay with models for how we might think about ours a little break for refreshment 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 different 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 a 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 or is it an aristocratic Republic in which only the few best habitually rule or is the best 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 found in democracies those have acquired taste and money is in aristocracies the warrior or even the priest is 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 will 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 well 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 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 Clay wrote 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 ideal 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 laxed 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 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 calleth zone of indeterminacy between the is and the odd 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 into this class today but the study of political philosophy may be the highest tribute we pay to love think of it and while you're thinking about it you can start reading Plato's apology for Socrates which we'll discuss for class on Wednesday okay it's nice to see you back and have a very good but thoughtful September 11th

Maurice Vega

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