Political Philosophy

Jacques Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”

The expression “infinite justice” was dismissed by the U.S. government a few days after having been put forward as an inappropriate term. But I think that it was fairly appropriate. An infinite justice is not only a justice that dismisses the principles of International Law, prohibiting interference in the “internal affairs” of another state; it is a justice which erases all the distinctions that used to define the field of justice in general: the distinctions between law and fact, legal punishment and private retaliation, justice, police, and war. All those distinctions are boiled down to a sheer ethical conflict between Good and Evil

Aristotle, On Rhetoric, Book 2 – “Orge, or Anger”

Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by mental and physical distress, for conspicuous retaliation because of a conspicuous slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one. If this is what anger is, necessarily the angry person always becomes angry at some particular individual…and because he has done or is going to do something to those near to him; and a kind of pleasure follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation. It is pleasant for him to think he will get what he wants; but no one wants things that seem impossible for himself to attain, and the angry person desires what is possible for him. Thus, it has been well said of rage [thymos], “a thing much sweeter than honey in the throat, it grows in the beats of men.” A kind of pleasure follows from this and also because people dwell in their minds on retaliating; then the image that occurs creates pleasure, as in the case of dreams.

I’m struggling with how to “introduce” my dissertation, now that it is finally, officially, the end game for writing. Looking through notebooks and old files I found my preparatory work for my Proposal defense. It isn’t quite appropriate for the dissertation itself, but it’s always nice to revisit the clarity with which one thought about a project at its beginnings, as opposed to the layers upon layers of literature that obfuscate at the end of it. Here’s what I had to say, then:

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One writes as one reads. Few are the things I like reading more than a great review. Take Samuel Moyn, recently, in the Boston Review on Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

That is an amazing paragraph. I think a good review should give the reader as sense of 1) the original text as it understands itself and 2) the unvarnished judgment of the reviewer. Judgment is the key, because often academic journals are littered with faint praise and faint criticism, or superficialities that teach us nothing. I don’t care if you liked the book, or hated it. How do you judge the work, in your capacity as a learned individual, with some expertise in the area?  This is what matters.  I don’t want compassionate reviewers but humane ones, who know who to praise and blame.  The modern ur-text here is Miguel Vatter’s review of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.

This is how you review a book.  If you have a better example I’d love to read it.

Rousseau ends The Social Contract by saying that he has yet to speak about the state’s foreign relations, international law, rights of war, commerce, and so on. In short, he can write an entire treatise on the ideal sovereign state without addressing these questions. This puts the matter too simply, of course. He does not go so far as Aristotle does, imagining a city with no foreign relations whatsoever – that would be a true Utopia, because it would never exist. But it serves to show the extent to which Rousseau thought the questions that we present-moderns take as primary – security, war, peace, external relations, markets, trade, THE ECONOMY – Rousseau thought to be secondary to the important question of the just and good regime.

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Over the last couple of months I’ve had a couple of reviews published. Both books are excellent. And they are quite related. The first is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics for the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The second is Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace for E-International Relations. Both are published with Cambridge University Press. I want to say a couple of things that didn’t make it into the reviews for the sake of space.

First, regarding Rengger’s book. It is remarkable the extent to which just war is totally misunderstood, and the reasons causing us to misunderstand it. His point is, essentially that once politics began to question the morality of certain tactics of war, the big question of whether a war was just became displaced by the question of whether our actions were legal. This is a hugely important change because it is no longer easy or clear that we should ask whether or not to allow violence to enter politics but how and in what way politics is violent. This is quite obviously related to the question of security, which only arrives in full bloom once Machiavelli and Hobbes have had their way with the holy books. Violence is permitted too easily. Far too easily. I’m writing this post under the environment of the American Senate releasing the executive summary of its committee report on torture. The questions, “is it worth it?” or “Is it permissible?” miss the moral point. Merely posing them means some kind of moral introspection about the relationship between politics and violence has been lost.

This relationship between politics and violence is a running them in Howse’s book. Strauss, it turns out, has a great deal to say about international politics, state violence, international law, and so on. Howse covers an incredible range of material, in Strauss’s written work and in his newly available lecture transcripts. One point which I left out of the review is that using the transcripts is not as difficult as at first seems, despite their quasi-private character. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, as Strauss used it himself. In his introductory essay to Mendelssohn’s The Morning Hours and the Friends of Lessing, Strauss uses the private correspondence between Jacobi and Mendehlssohn to clear up ambiguities in the public record regarding Lessing’s “Spinozism,” that is, whether he was an atheist. Certainly if private correspondence is suitable for that weighty subject, the less private character of classroom conversations can be used for insights regarding questions of everyday political relevance.

The one thing I loved about Howse’s book is how it puts to rest any doubt that Strauss resembles the caricature usually represented in popular media. The polemical case against this has already been made by a handful of others in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, but now we have a philosophical case against this nonsense. Any writers who continue extolling that simplistic tripe demonstrate the shortcomings of their reading habits. To wit, this bizarre review by Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We leave this review learning more about Richard Wolin than either Leo Strauss or Rob Howse’s book. Though Wolin has faced criticism recently about his reviews.

Two reviews well worth reading are from Steven Smith and Benjamin Wurgaft.

Video of a dialogue on the book held at Penn State with commentary from Anne Norton is available here.

Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, under the fifth proposition:

Man, who is otherwise so enamoured with unrestrained freedom, is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.  And this is indeed the most stringent of all forms of necessity, for it is imposed by men upon themselves, in that their inclinations make it impossible for them to exist side by side for long in a state of wild freedom.  But once enclosed within a precinct like that of civil union, the same inclinations have the most beneficial effect.  In the same way, trees in a forest, by seeking to deprive each other of air and sunlight, compel each other to find these by upward growth, so that they grow beautiful and straight–whereas those which put out branches at will, in freedom and in isolation from others, grow stunted, bent and twisted.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”

Socrates was put to death, but the socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination overt the whole intellectual firmament.  Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.

Far from missing the forest for the trees, there is a world of disagreement buried in this wood.

The more I learn of the Inklings’ outlook on Modernity, the more I come to love them.  I know I’ve written about Lewis’s The Abolition of Man previously in this space, and I should read them (and write) about them far more often.  What is most impressive and accurate to me about the approach that is as clear in the most esoteric and unknown Inkling works as it is in the Tolkein inspired movies, is the profound sense that some humanity has been lost in Modernity.  Modernity (which is a word thrown around too often but also not often enough) as a phenomenon in itself is glossed over too often and too quickly, especially by “international Relations” scholars, a category to which I belong.  (n.b. The proximate cause of this is a dreadfully famous essay by Martin Wight.  I’ve discussed the ultimate cause in a post on Descartes, Hobbes, Schmitt, and Strauss).  I suspect because Tolkein, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams wrote novels, or poetry, or literary criticism, and because the art of rhetoric had already been unjustly discredited and its study fallen into disuse that Political Science neglected the commentary on politics, society, technology, economics, &c. that is so clearly running through everything they’ve written.  What has my attention at the moment is Barfield’s essay “The Coming Trauma of Materialism.”  A quote:

“Materialism” in my title means, not any materialist philosophy … but the mental habit of taking for granted, for all practical purposes and most theoretical ones, that the human psyche is intrinsically “alienated” from nature in the manner indicated, a habit so inveterate as to have entered into the meanings of a great many common words and thus to have become accepted  as common sense itself.  Materialism in this sense is not, for instance, incompatible with deep religious conviction.  The habit is one which owes a good deal to a certain secondary consequence of Cartesianism that is not often recalled or alluded to.”

Again, I’ll remind about the previous post on the makros anrhopos vs. the retreat into consciousness.  The retreat does not take for granted the intrinsic alienation of psyche and physics.  To thwart my own confusion, materialism is compatible with deep religious conviction because of the transformation of common sense.  Modernity and its sciences take a leap of faith.  What Barfield says two paragraphs later about Darwinism is simply magisterial, and speaks directly to something that I can only describe as an “Enlightenment of Biology.”  Even in this small passage above we see the basis of a grammatology and a post-modernity, but a post-modernity that first returns to the past before progressing.  No small feat, and still ignored.  Whatever.  I still have papers to mark and a dissertation to write.

In December 1981, Gadamer did an interview with Professor Fr. Ernest Fortin at Boston College.  It was published in 1984 in Interpretation, Vol.12 No.1.   The interview’s intention is for Gadamer to speak about Leo Strauss, but is more wide ranging than that.  The opening gives us this depiction of Weimar Germany after World War One:

“The general feeling was one of disorientation.  One day  — I was only a youngster then — a number of us got tougher and asked: “What should we do?” “How can the world be reconstructed?” The answers were very different.  Some thought we ought to follow Max Weber; others; Otto von Gierke; others still, Rabindranath Tagore, who was the most popular poet in Germany immediately after World War I, thanks to some moving translations of his plays. (He was a good friend of Paul Natorp and occasionally came to Germany. I saw him once: an enormous figure with the face of a prophet. Fantastic! Natorp himself was a giant in the guise of a dwarf.) These concerns were shared by the young Leo Strauss as well. He too was looking around in search of some orientation.”

What’s interesting, from the perspective of the formal subject of the interview, is that Strauss and Gadamer do not “have their first real acquaintance” until 1933.  I learned of Tagore from this interview, and am very glad for it.  It is certainly worth a moment’s reflection that a man who could write to Gandhi to warn him about the inhumanity of his politics could have had a potential influence over the same intellectual environment in which Heidegger eventually flourished.  The especially interesting comparison though is with the Kronjurist himself, Schmitt.  I will let Tagore speak for himself:

Have you not seen, since the commencement of the existence of the Nation, that the dread of it has been the one goblin-dread with which the whole world has been trembling? Wherever there is a dark corner, there is the suspicion of its secret malevolence; and people live in a perpetual distrust of its back where it has no eyes. Every sound of a footstep, every rustle of movement in the neighbourhood, sends a thrill of terror all around. And this terror is the parent of all that is base in man’s nature. It makes one almost openly unashamed of inhumanity. Clever lies become matters of self-congratulation. Solemn pledges become a farce,—laughable for their very solemnity. The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation, that all its precautions are against it, and any new birth of its fellow in the world is always followed in its mind by the dread of a new peril. Its one wish is to trade on the feebleness of the rest of the world, like some insects that are bred in the paralysed flesh of victims kept just enough alive to make them toothsome and nutritious. Therefore it is ready to send its poisonous fluid into the vitals of the other living peoples, who, not being nations, are harmless. For this the Nation has had and still has its richest pasture in Asia. Great China, rich with her ancient wisdom and social ethics, her discipline of industry and self-control, is like a whale awakening the lust of spoil in the heart of the Nation. She is already carrying in her quivering flesh harpoons sent by the unerring aim of the Nation, the creature of science and selfishness. Her pitiful attempt to shake off her traditions of humanity, her social ideals, and spend her last exhausted resources in drilling herself into modern efficiency, is thwarted at every step by the Nation. It is tightening its financial ropes round her, trying to drag her up on the shore and cut her into pieces, and then go and offer public thanksgiving to God for supporting the one existing evil and shattering the possibility of a new one. And for all this the Nation has been claiming the gratitude of history, and all eternity for its exploitation; ordering its band of praise to be struck up from end to end of the world, declaring itself to be the salt of the earth, the flower of humanity, the blessing of God hurled with all His force upon the naked skulls of the world of No-Nations.

I know what your advice will be. You will say, form yourselves into a nation, and resist this encroachment of the Nation. But is this the true advice? that of a man to a man? Why should this be a necessity? I could well believe you if you had said, Be more good, more just, more true in your relation to man, control your greed, make your life wholesome in its simplicity and let your consciousness of the divine in humanity be more perfect in its expression. But must you say that it is not the soul, but the machine, which is of the utmost value to ourselves, and that man’s salvation depends upon his disciplining himself into a perfection of the dead rhythm of wheels and counterwheels? that machine must be pitted against machine, and nation against nation, in an endless bull-fight of politics?

You say, these machines will come into an agreement, for their mutual protection, based upon a conspiracy of fear. But will this federation of steam-boilers supply you with a soul, a soul which has her conscience and her God? What is to happen to that larger part of the world where fear will have no hand in restraining you? Whatever safety they now enjoy, those countries of No-Nation, from the unbridled license of forge and hammer and turn-screw, results from the mutual jealousy of the powers. But when, instead of being numerous separate machines, they become riveted into one organized gregariousness of gluttony, commercial and political, what remotest chance of hope will remain for those others, who have lived and suffered, have loved and worshipped, have thought deeply and worked with meekness, but whose only crime has been that they have not organized?

But, you say, “That does not matter, the unfit must go to the wall—they shall die, and this is science.”

No, for the sake of your own salvation, I say, they shall live, and this is truth. It is extremely bold of me to say so, but I assert that man’s world is a moral world, not because we blindly agree to believe it, but because it is so in truth which would be dangerous for us to ignore. And this moral nature of man cannot be divided into convenient compartments for its preservation. You cannot secure it for your home consumption with protective tariff walls, while in foreign parts making it enormously accommodating in its free trade of license.

You may continue listening to him speak for himself here.

Flipping through old notebooks – if an old notebook of my own counts as a “book” with which I can “discoure” – and I found the following rumination on Sovereignty and Security:

Sovereignty vs Security

These are, fundamentally, the same concept.  They have the same “essence” i.e. the right to life, and all that right implies.

To speak of a trade-off or balance between securitas and libertas is to make an error.  More security does not mean less freedom.  Rather, the logic of modernity implies that more security must mean, or bring about, more freedom.  Precisely: because this security satisfies and upholds my right to life.  So, security – as the desire to have more than one needs – becomes the desire for life itself.

Therefore, we have an asymptotic (?) relationship between liberty and security, not a trade-off.

Sovereignty is the institution that upholds rights.  Security is the activity that does the upholding.  They are essentially the same.

p.s. The Logic of inside/outside is made possible by the noetic heterogeneity of the best/ideal/just regime.

p.p.s. “Security” is a vision of the good society, therefore posing the question of the good as such. cf. Thoughts on Machiavelli, p.268.



Well then. My past self has given my present self something to think about.