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When I started graduate work many, many, years ago, I wanted specifically to write a project on Thucydides and Aristotle, and what they had to say about the passions, politics, and the philosophic life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how the path to this project would make an important detour through international relations theory.

I took the core IR Theory course specifically so I could fill my requirement for a minor field. It was soon clear to me that what I thought International Relations meant and how I thought about International Relations were severely underdeveloped and juvenile. The professor during that course work went on to become my PhD Supervisor. That early encouragement from him that my interests aligned with IR theory in more ways that were immediately clear to me was a pivotal moment in my education and training.

However, there was one particular moment when I could see the path forward for myself, and how to frame the problem of politics and passion that I wanted to write about. That moment was when I read Roland Bleiker’s seminal essay, “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory“.  The key point that I took away was this: Aesthetics and aesthetic representation conceal the entirety of the political problem. The movement from original thing to represented thing requires, as a matter of responsibility, a logos; it requires a reasoned and rational account of what the differences are between original and copy. Of course, this isn’t new. At the same time that I was reading Aesthetic Turn essays in IR I was also preparing a presentation on Book VI & VII of Plato’s Republic. Circumstances!

This notion of aesthetic distance concealing the political is the thread that wove together everything for me – from Aristotle’s teaching on the passions in Book 2 of his Rhetoric, to Rousseau’s teaching about masks and amour propre in Emile – and made the project that I wanted to write intelligible to an audience I wouldn’t have expected.

With all of this said, it’s wonderful to see this topic revisited so many years later by Bleiker and others in Millennium.  Here is a quote that inspired this post:

the aesthetic turn was and should continue to be about opening up thinking space…Opening up thinking space inevitably involves risks. It is to embrace creativity, and the uncertainty associated with it, over the comfort of time-honoured procedures and disciplinary conventions. It is to never stand still and to search for ever new ways of writ-ing, sensing, seeing and hearing the political.

There’s clearly an ethics, a morality, a duty upon writers, researchers, and practitioners, that is demanded by the aesthetic turn, once one is attuned to it.

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.