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Smith, Steven B., 1951–
Political philosophy / Steven B. Smith.
p. cm. — (The open Yale courses series)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-300-18180-7 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Political science—
Philosophy—History. I. Title.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 To Dylan, Geoff, Mari, Rebecca, Rek, Yedidya, Yishai,
and the memory of the Sunday Club If you will it, it is no dream.
Theodor Herzl, Altneuland Contents Preface
9. Why Political Philosophy?
Antigone and the Politics of Conflict
Socrates and the Examined Life
Plato on Justice and the Human Good
Aristotle’s Science of Regime Politics
The Politics of the Bible
Machiavelli and the Art of Political Founding
Hobbes’s New Science of Politics
Locke and the Art of Constitutional
10. Rousseau on Civilization and Its Discontents
11. Tocqueville and the Dilemmas of Democracy
12. In Defense of Patriotism
243 This page intentionally left blank Preface This book grew out of an introductory lecture course on political philosophy that I have taught at Yale for many years. It was a pleasure for me to be
able to edit and revise these lectures for Yale University Press’s book series.
I have written this book as an introduction to political philosophy
rather than the more conventional history of political thought. What I understand by political philosophy is treated in the first chapter. Suffice it to
say that political philosophy is a rare and distinctive form of thinking and
is not to be confused either with the study of political language in general
or with the dry and desiccated form of “concept analysis” so prominent in
the 1950s and ’60s. Political philosophy is the investigation of the permanent problems of political life—problems like “Who ought to govern?”
“How ought conflict to be managed?” “How should a citizen and a statesman be educated?”—that every society must confront.
The texts and authors considered here have been chosen because
they help to illuminate the permanent problems of political life rather
than the par ticu lar problems of the times in which they were written. I
have not tried to adapt Plato or Machiavelli or Tocqueville to fit our concerns but have aimed to show how our concerns are intelligible only when
viewed through the lenses of the most serious thinkers of the past. The
problems we confront today, to the extent that they remain political problems, are precisely the same as those confronted in fi ft h-century Athens,
fi fteenth-century Florence, or seventeenth-century England. It would be
a mistake to think otherwise.
This book is intended for readers who believe, as do I, that we still
have something to learn from the great thinkers of the past. This may seem
obvious, but it is hotly disputed within the current political science profession. There are those who believe that political science is or should aspire to
be a discipline like physics or chemistry or certain precincts of economics
and psychology that pay little attention to their own histories. It is to resist
this kind of academic amnesia that I have devoted my teaching and writing. My ideal audience is a general readership with no other specialization
than a desire to learn. ix x Preface In writing this book I make no claim to novelty. Most of what I have
said is but a reflection on some previous reflection or on a well-known text.
Nevertheless, I have put these lectures together in my own way, and they
bear my own stamp. I have tried to retain the informal, even conversational,
style of the lecture and to avoid the minutiae of academic controversy. I have
also kept footnotes and other scholarly references to a minimum, while at
the same time I have freely acknowledged my debts to other scholars, teachers, and colleagues from whom I have learned so much over the years.
I have no doubt that I have learned more from writing and rewriting
these lectures than have the undergraduates upon whom they have been
inflicted. I can only say that it has been an honor and a privilege to have
had so many wonderful students who have sat through these classes and
expressed an interest in my subject. I would like to give special thanks to a
former student, Justin Zaremby, for reading an earlier version of these lectures and for making many helpful comments. Texts Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1984); references are to the Bekker numbers provided in the margin of the text.
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett,
1994); references are to chapter and section number.
Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991);
references are to chapter and section number.
Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); references are to chapter and page number.
Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli, trans. Leslie J.
Waker, S.J. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975); references are to
book, chapter, and page number.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); references are to chapter and
Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968); references are to the Stephanus numbers provided in the margin of the text.
Plato, Apology of Socrates and Crito, in Plato and Aristophanes: Four Texts on
Socrates, trans. Thomas G. and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); citations are to the Stephanus numbers provided in
the margin of the text.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings,
trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1997); references are to page number.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1997); references are to book and chapter number.
Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954); references are to line number.
Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield
and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); references are to volume, part, chapter, and page number in brackets. xi This page intentionally left blank c ha p t e r 1 Why Political Philosophy? Custom dictates that I say something about the subject matter of political
philosophy at the outset of our course. This may be a case of putting the cart
before the horse—or before the course—because how is it possible to say
what political philosophy is in advance of having studied it? Nevertheless
I will try to say something useful.
In one sense political philosophy is simply a branch or a “subfield” of
political science. It exists alongside other areas of political inquiry like
American government, comparative politics, and international relations.
Yet in another sense political philosophy is the oldest and most fundamental
part of political science. Political philosophy is political science in its oldest
or classic sense. Its purpose is to lay bare the fundamental problems, the
fundamental concepts and categories, which frame the study of politics. In
this sense it is less a branch of political science than the very foundation and
root of the discipline.
The study of political philosophy today often begins with the study of
the great books of our discipline. Political science is the oldest of the social
sciences—older than economics, psychology, or sociology—and it can boast
a wealth of heavy hitters from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and Hobbes
to Hegel, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss. The best
way to find out what political philosophy is, is simply to study the works and
ideas of those who are regarded as its master practitioners. How better to learn
than to read with care and attentiveness those who have shaped the field? 1 2 Why Political Philosophy? Such an approach is not without its dangers. Let me just list a few.
What makes a book or thinker great? Who is to say? Why study just these
thinkers and not others? Isn’t any list of so-called great thinkers or texts
likely to be arbitrary and tell us more from what such a list excludes
than what it includes? Furthermore, the study of the great books and the
great thinkers of the past can easily degenerate into a kind of pedantry or
antiquarianism. We may find ourselves easily intimidated by a list of famous
names and we end up not thinking for ourselves. Doesn’t the study of old
books—often very old books—risk overlooking the issues facing us today?
What can Aristotle and Hobbes tell us today about the world of globalization, terrorism, and ethnic conflict? Hasn’t political science made any progress over the preceding centuries? After all, economists no longer study
Adam Smith; psychologists no longer read Freud. Why should political science continue to study Aristotle and Rousseau? These are all serious questions. Let me try to respond.
One very widely held view among political scientists is that the study
of politics is a progressive field very much like the natural sciences. Just as a
modern particle physicist does not feel compelled to study the history of
physics, so political science has now outgrown its earlier prehistory. The
methods and techniques of experimental and behavioral social science—it
is often argued—have doomed to oblivion the earlier and immature speculations of an Aristotle, a Machiavelli, or a Rousseau. To the extent that we
study these thinkers at all, it would be more as a curator or an archivist who
is only interested in their contributions to the collective edifice of modern
social scientific knowledge.
This progressive or scientific model of political science is often combined with another, that of the historicist or the relativist. According to this
view, all political ideas are a product of their own time, place, and circumstance. We should not expect ideas written for an audience in fifteenthcentury Florence, seventeenth-century England, or eighteenth-century Paris
to provide any lessons for readers in twenty-first-century America. All
thinking is bound by its own time and place, and the attempt to extract
enduring wisdom or lessons from writers or texts of the past is a mistake.
This belief—widely held by many people of today—is almost literally selfrefuting. If all ideas are limited to their own time and place, then this must
also be true for the idea that all ideas are limited to their own time and
place. Relativism or historicism, as it is sometimes called, insists, however,
that it alone is true, that it alone is eternally valid, while at the same time
condemning all other ideas to their historical circumstances. One does not Why Political Philosophy? 3 need to be a profound logician to understand that relativism is incoherent
even in its own terms.
The historicist manner of reading denies the claim that there is a
single tradition linking the works of Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli,
Hobbes, Rousseau, and beyond. This has been contemptuously dismissed
as an exercise in “myth-making.” In the name of seeking greater historical
accuracy, historicism has resulted in the deliberate parochialization of the
great works, confining them to their purely local contexts and interests. The
historicist thesis often regards ideas as no more than “rationalizations” or
“ideologies” expressing different preexisting social interests. The fact is,
however, that ideas have a causal power of their own. Ideas not only have
consequences, their consequences often stretch far beyond their immediate
context and environment. Constitutional theories like those of John Locke’s
that were developed in England under one set of circumstances often take
on a life of their own when they are transplanted to other places such as
the North American continent. The history of the twentieth century with
its clash of ideologies—communism, fascism, democracy—testifies to the
power of ideas to shape the world. Ironically it took no less an authority than
the economist John Maynard Keynes to bring out the limitations of a purely
economic theory of history: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers,” he wrote, “both when they are right and when they are wrong, are
more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by
little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any
intellectual influences, are usually the slaves 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.”
The study of political philosophy is not simply some kind of historical
appendage attached to the trunk of political science; nor does it perform
some kind of custodial or curatorial function—keeping alive the great glories of earlier ages like mummified remains in a natural history museum.
Political philosophy is the study of the deepest, most intractable, and most
enduring problems of political life. The number of such problems is by no
means infinite and is probably quite small. The study of political philosophy has always revolved around such questions as “Why should I obey the
law?” “What is a citizen and how should he or she be educated?” “Who is a
lawgiver?” “What is the relation between freedom and authority?” “How
should politics and theology be related?” and perhaps a few of others.
The thinkers that we will be reading provide the basic frameworks—
the constitutive concepts and categories—through which we can begin to 4 Why Political Philosophy? think about politics. They provide the forms of analysis that make possible the work of later and lesser thinkers who work within their orbit. We
continue to ask the same questions about law, about authority, about justice
and freedom asked by Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes even if we do not always answer them in the same way. We may not accept all of their answers,
but their questions are often put with unrivaled clarity and insight. These
questions do not simply go away. They constitute the core problems of the
study of politics. The fact is that there are still people who describe themselves as Aristotelians, Thomists, Lockeans, Kantians, Marxists, and Heideggerians. These doctrines have by no means been refuted or surpassed,
consigned to the dustbin of history as have so many defunct or discredited
scientific or cosmological theories. They remain constitutive of our most
basic outlooks and attitudes that are still alive and very much with us.
One thing you will quickly discover is that there are no permanent
answers in the study of political philosophy, only permanent questions.
Among the great thinkers there is often profound disagreement over the
answers to even the most basic questions regarding justice, rights, freedom,
the proper scope of authority, and so on. Contrary to popular wisdom, apparently all great minds do not necessarily think alike. But there is some
advantage to this. The fact that there is disagreement among the great thinkers allows us to enter into their conversation, to listen first, to reason about
their differences, and then judge for ourselves. I will admit that I am not a
great thinker, but neither—I should add straight away—are any of the professors you are likely to encounter at Yale or any other university. Most of the
people who call themselves philosophers are in fact only professors of philosophy. What is the difference?
The true philosopher is rare; one would be fortunate to encounter such
a person maybe once in a lifetime, maybe once in a century. But here is
where philosophy differs from other fields. One can be, say, a mediocre historian or a mediocre chemist and still function quite effectively. But a mediocre philosopher is a contradiction in terms. A mediocre philosopher is
not a philosopher at all. But those of us who are not great thinkers can at
least try to be competent scholars. While the scholar is trained to be careful
and methodical, the great thinkers are bold, they go, in the words of Star
Trek, where no man has gone before. The scholar remains dependent on the
work of the great thinkers and does not rise to their inaccessible heights. The
scholar is made possible by listening to the conversation of the greatest thinkers and staying alive to their differences. I do at least have one advantage over Why Political Philosophy? 5 the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle and Hobbes were great thinkers, but
Aristotle and Hobbes are long dead. With me you at least have the advantage
that I am alive.
But where should one enter this conversation, with which questions
or which thinkers? Where should we begin? As with any enterprise, it is
always best to begin at the beginning. The proper subject of political philosophy is political action. All action aims at either preservation or change.
When we seek to bring about change we do so to make something better;
when we seek to preserve we do so to prevent something from becoming
worse. Even the decision not to act, to stand pat, is a kind of action. It follows, then, that all action presupposes some judgment of better and worse.
But we cannot think about better and worse without at some point thinking about the good. When we act we do so to advance some idea or opinion
of the good and when we act politically we do so to advance some idea of
the political good or the common good. The term by which political philosophers have designated the common good has gone under various names,
sometimes the good society or the just society or sometimes simply the best
regime. The oldest, the most fundamental, of all questions of political life is
“What is the best regime?”
The concept of the regime is an ancient one, yet the term is familiar. We
often hear even today about shapi...
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