I decided it was time to change the name of the blog. Although, I still believe the word statesmanship is under appreciated and should be used more to understand politics today, I accept that a lot of readers may assume it is about diplomacy.
I meant statesmanship in the sense that a leader of a state weaves together a web of state. They have to work within a philosophical horizon when they create a city in speech and weave together different, and potentially conflicting, parts of the state to provide for the common good. The problem of the common good is that it can change depending on how the political community understands itself and the good. For the most part, elections and political institutions allow the common good to remain relatively stable, or at least stable enough, so that the city or the political community can deliver it. In that sense, the statesman makes political philosophy a practical exercise.
Statesmanship is more than building a coalition or bipartisanship
When we consider statesmanship, though, we cannot assume that the “weaving” is the same as bipartisanship, which is a crude understanding, nor is it “coalition building”. In a coalition, one has a fundamental disagreement about certain matters. The statesman, who can be a man or a woman, as a political leader has to bring the different strands together into a whole. The whole may not always be coherent or be able to sustain extended scrutiny depending on the issue, but it has to be enough to deliver what is needed. As we know from Aristotle, the city (or political community) comes together for life (security) and stays together for the good life. What is not given, and must be understood, is how the good life is determined. What is the good life for any community and how do the laws and political institutions express that good life.
Why should the philosopher talk to the political man, why should the political man listen?
At the root of the problem of statesmanship are two problems, one ancient and one modern. The first problem, well discussed and understood in the ancient era, was why should a philosopher talk to a political man and why should a political man listen to a philosopher. The ancients understood that the philosopher presented a problem for the city. Indeed, as the embodiment of a pure individual, because he could think for himself and did not need the city, the philosopher presented a fundamental or existential challenge to the city. In that sense, the philosopher has no need for political men or for their conversation. He may partake in politics (often with disastrous results when for political purposes) to protect philosophy, but he has no desire to be involved in political events or groups. The reason, so well understood in Plato’s Republic, was that the political life held no interest concerning the eternal things, the things worth understanding. Political fame or success were so ephemeral and un-rewarding, in comparison to understanding they mysteries of political life, that they were not worth pursuing. By contrast, the political man has no need of the philosopher because he knows what is needed. His political group, his city, tells him what he needs to know and do. His political life is clearly set out by the city so any time listening to a philosopher, who was asking questions about whether this was the best way to live or work, was simply a distraction at best or a menace at worse. We should not confuse a political commentator or a “special adviser” who gives political advice with a philosopher. For the most part, those types of men are simply trying to help the political man achieve his goals, they are not trying to change them or understand them within the context of the best things.
Modern natural science makes us free, but free to do what?
In the modern era, our era, the second problem emerges. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, history has ended. By that, I mean there are no further political truths to discover because we are all liberal democrats. The only challenge now appears to be the best way to work out how to be a liberal democrat. We are not simply at the end of history, but rather the need for philosophy seems to be settled. We are now within a philosophical cave in which there is no need to ascend to the light because the cave is fully lit with all the wonders of augmented reality and surround sound video entertainment. We are not simply in an age of comfortable self-preservation, the joyless quest for joy, but in an age where ideas do not matter because the effort to make an idea matter simply cannot be sustained. This is not to say we are in an age of the last man, or some sort of nihilistic malaise. We are not simply unambitious because we have relative prosperity, basic security, and technological capacity needed for the good life however understood. Instead, it is to suggest that the philosophical challenges that were needed to get there, the success (or perhaps failure) of modern natural science has rendered further philosophical exploration unnecessary (from the view of the city) or simply self-indulgence from the view of any individual now habituated to life in such an age.
When the necessity of war calls, the statesman is there to answer
Where the statesman seems to emerge as a possibility is when the political community goes to war. At that point, the desire for what is comfortable and sustain the community, the good life, comes under threat (even if not an existential threat but simply a sustained distraction), by the necessity and uncertainty that war creates. In that moment, the statesman emerges in his role as a strategic leader who now has to weave together the state to handle the threat. The first task is to understand the threat and make the threat understood. In that challenge, we see an opportunity for philosophy. One only need note that Athens greatest philosophical period was in the shadow of a major war. However, it is important to understand and to make sure one is understood that war is not to be chosen because it “makes us feel alive” or gives some “meaning” to our lives. Were it to be chosen for that reason alone, or that reason masked as something else, it would soon be unmasked and become unsustainable and ultimately destroy the city. Instead, it has to be understood as the only way to protect or expand the good life as understood by the community. Again, this is not some biologically determined idea nor is it a masked idea of “living space” or war for a political man’s ambition. What war means is the necessity that cannot be avoided, which cannot be overcome by prosperity or technological capacity.
Is the end of statesmanship the end of political philosophy?
Statesmanship represents a certain relationship with political philosophy. To the extent that statesmanship no longer exists, or at least is no longer expressed publicly, we have to question whether political philosophy exists as a viable way of life. In a political community where the political questions are now answered if not “solved”, the need for political philosophy is reduced and by extension the need for statesmen and statesmanship are reduced. Perhaps what is needed now is simply an attempt to reawaken an understanding of philosophical politics in which statesmanship and political philosophy can be understood.
Given the way that social media allows sophistry and rhetoric to flourish, I doubt whether we will see statesmanship return. I fear that philosophers have retreated to their cave. The poets, who are simply incompetent philosophers, and the sophists and rhetoricians, political “activists” posing as political commentators hollow political men, now roam the political landscape. With so much noise and pleasurable distraction, one wonders whether the the whisper of political philosophy will ever be heard again. Will there be a statesman to hear it?
- Public Philosophy? (3quarksdaily.com)
- Populist Statesman 101: Political Spelunking (populiststatesman.wordpress.com)
- What’s the Point of Political Philosophy? (3quarksdaily.com)