Tag Archives: philosophy

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.


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.

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.

From the autobiographical preface to his mammoth History of England:

I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Chapter 46 of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in English or Latin. This series of remarks from the 14th Latin paragraph are otherworldly:

For after a year or two Pope Leo, in his correspondence, exhorted Emperor Charlemagne to establish universities throughout his dominions, where all letters and sciences would be taught. So he set up, in Paris, the first university; and afterwards other kings set up others, each in his own dominion, which, once the colleges had been set up and organized for study, where to be governed by laws, according to the discretion of the Roman pontiff. Finally, from masters such as Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, was born the theology which they call scholastic, a hodgepodge of Aristotle’s philosophy and Sacred Scripture. In the universities they teach Aristotle’s logic, his physics, his metaphysics, his ethics, and his politics, as if the whole of the sciences were in one man, who was then also the greatest father of the Church, Aristotle. But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanor of deference, they were exercised in public disputations and speeches, by which they could maintain and preach the dogmas of the Roman church. So by the sermons of ecclesiastics, sent from the universities into almost all the cities, towns and parishes of the Christian world, and by published writings, it was fixed inedibly in the minds of all Christians that there is no other rule of just and unjust except the dictates of the Roman church, that kings are not to be obeyed further than is permitted by the Roman church, and kings themselves ought to obey the Roman pontiff like sheep. And they accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

Emphasis mine, on the white-hot fire that Hobbes just threw at Aristotle. A “hodgepodge” of Aristotle and scripture has come to represent the entirety of the contest between philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. This is somehow stronger than his justly famous English takedown: “And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics. Perhaps the benefits of modern translation vs Olde English explain my impression of the Latin text, but the clear and pernicious influence of Aristotle on the sociology of knowledge at the time Hobbes was writing comes through so loud and clear. And read this phrase again: ”But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanour of deference…" – has the problem of education ever been so pithily explained? Here’s my Hobbesian inspired statement of teaching philosophy from this day forward: to undo the demeanor of deference established among adolescents.

n.b. quotes from Curley’s translation.

First things. After many, many, months (i.e. almost two years) I finally finished Tecumseh and Brock – what a wonderful book. One thinks the Canadian government’s valourization of these two eminent figures of Canadian history was the right intention, poorly executed. (Next will be The Civil War of 1812).

I am also looking for a treatment of the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada in 1838/9 that is truly a work of political history. If you’ve stumbled across this space and have some suggestions, please share.

Like the rest of the world I inhabit, I’ve started reading Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Doubt I’ll have more to say than what has already been printed. I recommend Larry Arnhart’s thoughts, comparing Piketty’s account of the origins of inequality with the light and compass on that topic.

Oh, I’ve read Crazytown, the story of the incredible last year in my humble metropolis. The title is appropriate. I also read a fantastic book (on the recommendation of Elise) by John Vaillant: The Tiger. This gripping account of life in the Taiga is superb writing. This author is a notch above Krakauer who is far more famous in this genre. Next up is The Golden Spruce.

But the purpose of this post is the intellectual autobiography by McMaster Professor Emeritus Janet Ajzenstat: Discovering Confederation. This book is a treasure, and permanent possession. If only more academics would be so brave to recount their relationship to the great and permanent questions – but this first requires the bravery and courage to face these questions. And though it’s an autobiography one learns far more about Canada than about Ajzenstat. This book is a window into the essence of the Canadian founding, or at least one path there. It is for that reason necessary reading – not just for any Canadian, but especially for them – but for those of us who aspire to a truly liberal education. Here is an example of a scholar devoting a lifetime of study to the regime in which she was cultured and educated, in order to divine some insight into the permanent problems of political life – i.e. good and just governance, the exercise of freedom, the struggle for equality, and so on. Canada’s governing institutions come to life not as some counterrevolution as I was taught, or some afterthought, or some accident, but as a purposefully chosen. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that the constitution was not worth the paper it’s written on, he could not be further from the truth nor a better example of the need for a thorough evaluation of Canadian civic education.

The highlights of this book for me are many. The kind words for one of my supervisors (whose heavily annotated copy of Ajzenstat’s Political Thought of Lord Durham I have been lucky to inherit). The shade throwing on my university library for its past greatness and current shame. The gloss on her Rabbi who remains unnamed but must have been Rabbi Stanley Weber, and whose dissertation on Strauss I’ve written about previously in this space. And the wonderful recollections of Allan Bloom during his Toronto days, and her fond memories of his Emile course. As a student of political philosophy whose culminating year at U of T was spent reading Emile with one of Bloom’s most famous students, before arriving at McMaster to study political theory and modernity, Ajzenstat’s book is a beautiful depiction of the two places my education has called home.

These personal attachments to her story are, of course, not so important to those with a different biography. But her book, as her career, does its best work advocating for the importance of the way Canada’s Fathers of Confederation answered the most pressing question that humanity has ever face: “How must we live?”. I should turn to the edited collection on Canada’s Founding Debates right away.

This year will be year of writing – especially the early part.  So two quotes on writing to start the New Year:  

Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, Bk 1, Ch 1:

“All men on whom the Higher Nature has stamped the love of truth should especially concern themselves in laboring for posterity, in order that future generations may be enriched by their efforts, as they themselves were made rich by the efforts of generations past. For that man who is imbued with public teachings, but cares not to contribute something to the public good, is far in arrears of his duty, let him be assured; he is, indeed, not “a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit in his season,” but rather a destructive whirlpool, always engulfing, and never giving back what it has devoured. Often meditating with myself upon these things, lest I should some day be found guilty of the charge of the buried talent, I desire for the public weal, not only to burgeon, but to bear fruit, and to establish truths unattempted by others.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I.8 ff.

“Sing Heav’nly Muse … I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, that with no middle flight intends to soar above th’Aonian Mount, while it pursues things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime… What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support; that to the highth of this great Argument I may assert th’Eternal Providence, and justifie the wayes of God to men.” 

Fortunately, both of these men were much older than me when they wrote these lines.  Tocqueville, on the other hand…. 


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.

I dare you to find someone currently reading a better crop of books right now than I am. OK, slight hyperbole, but this is a fun mix of pleasure and dissertation material: 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (this one has been a slow burn for a while now)

Michel Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended”, Lectures 1975-1976

Thucydides, Kthema es Aei

W. Robert Connor’s Thucydides

Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ edited by Rafael Major. 

Oh, and Dirk Hayhurst’s Out of My League. (baseball is the most esoteric of sports–being played between the lines, as it is–so this title is allowed).   

Also just finished Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, which is a book deserving of its own post.