Reimagining American Community

EWSW_Simone_Glasses_webAlthough we don’t always admit it, in our hearts, modern Americans understand that the driving force behind our society is force itself. Democracy is the sum of equal forces, creating a greatest force. Economics is run by a force called money. International politics is run by that same force. When that force fails, we use drones and tanks. In our hearts we accept force willingly as the principle of justice and truth.

We are not always quite so blunt, to be sure, in our day to day speech. Polite newspapers use attractive-sounding words, such as democracy, free trade and freedom in place of the plain-spoken ‘force.’ The more reflective among us see through these metaphors to the underlying principle. I hasten to add that recognition of the sovereignty of force is by no means restricted to some particular political frequency within the very narrow band that we allow to exist here – a band which extends from the liberal liberals of the Clinton/Obama school to the neocon liberals of the Cheney school. On a radio dial, that spectrum would take up half an inch.

The idea that our lives are regulated, that they should be regulated, by force, is often traced to Hobbes, but a more accurate starting point is Machiavelli. Machiavelli famously banished Christianity from politics. What does this really mean, though? It was not Machiavelli who first discovered that a strict adherence to Christian charity is not always possible in politics. Augustine, a millennium earlier, was fully aware of this. Why else would he have developed a doctrine of just war?   Machiavelli’s innovation lies elsewhere: he redefined politics in such a way as to make it independent of a striving toward the best moral order. Who has not heard the quote from Chapter 15 of The Prince, where the founder of our ‘realistic’ and ‘wised up’ world spoke dismissively of Plato, Aristotle and Augustine as men who “have imagined republics and principalities that never existed”? After Machiavelli we are to deal with men as they are, not as we wish them to be. The earlier political philosophers presumed that human lives are organized teleologically; we move from our present state, whatever it may be, toward a best order. This is what we do if we wish to be human. We do not choose how to become human: that part is given. What we choose is whether or not to live up to the possibility. The principle of political motion is one of attraction. Those who understand what is good or beautiful move, of their own volition, toward it; they are drawn toward it.

Machiavelli dismisses the teleological approach, as do all of his heirs, who include Hobbes and Locke and Michael Ignatieff and anyone else who prides himself or herself on being with the times. Machiavelli tells us that we must orient ourselves not to how men should be, but to how they are. But to sever ‘what men are’ from the teleological order is already to redefine ‘what men are.’ After Machiavelli, political man is looked at mechanistically. We are now beings who are bandied about by our passions, our fears of having evil done to us; our lusts for doing evil to others. This Machiavellian perspective is called realism. But what does realism really mean? Pierre Manent, who is our most insightful (if indeed not our only) living political philosopher, tells us that, for the realist, evil is “politically more significant, more substantial, more ‘real’ than ‘good.’” What is more, the realist political order “is now a closed circle having its own foundation within itself, or rather, below itself. To assert the necessity and fecundity of evil is now to assert the self-sufficiency of the earthly, secular order.” (Manent, Intellectual History, 13, 15).

The teleological order, with its ideas of a best order, grounded finally in a realm – as Weil frequently put it – that lies “beyond this world,” made possible a limit to evil. Political language and imagination has as much a need for beauty as does art, Weil tells us, and only such a language can specify the true ends of social life. (Roots, 215-216) Ignoring, as we do, what politics is, we imagine that we are sophisticated when we believe that it is nothing more than a “technique for holding onto power.” But power is not an end, but a means. If we define politics as nothing more than force and power, then this power can only continue endlessly to grow and expand. How can a means have a limiting principle?   And we see this in practice as well. America is precisely the country that demonstrates an inability to recognize limits to its own power. It appears incapable of even conceiving how that might be possible, much less desirable. Since the early 1990s, it has raised the principle of absolute hegemony to the status of its official strategic doctrine, and, in country after country, we see how this doctrine, regardless of human suffering, is translated into practice.

In Weil’s political conception, we are bound by certain obligations toward human beings. These obligations supersede rights. “The possession of a right implies the possibility of making either a good or a bad use of it; while, on the other hand, the performance of an obligation is always, unconditionally, a good from every point of view.” (Note, in passing, how Weil continues her thought: “That is why the men of 1789 made such a disastrous mistake when they chose the notion of right as their chief source of inspiration.”) (Roots, 275)

Like the writers of the ancient, but not our modern, liberal, world, Weil recognized that tragedy exists. What is tragedy? It is a circumstance where one absolute obligation comes into conflict with another absolute obligation. “The imperfections of a social order,” Weil tells us, “can be measured by the number of situations of this kind it harbours within itself.” And yet, even in such a case as this, Weil adds, “ … a crime is committed if the obligation so sacrificed is not merely sacrificed in fact, but its existence denied into the bargain.” (Roots, 4 – 5).

In his essay “Machiavelli Was Right” (The Atlantic, Dec. 2013), the liberal publicist Michael Ignatieff praises Machiavelli for being ready to do evil when it serves the needs of the state:

Everyone, it is safe to say, knows that politics is one of those realms of life where you put your soul at risk … What’s distinctively shocking about Machiavelli is that he didn’t care. He believed not only that politicians must do evil in the name of the public good, but also that they shouldn’t worry about it.

Ignatieff displays no originality when he states that a strict adherence to charity is not always possible in politics. Ignatieff’s innovation is his frankness. “We should not choose leaders,” Ignatieff writes, “who agonize, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.” We should do evil and not worry about it, Ignatieff, the philosophical liberal, tells us. We should deny even the existence of our obligations, and thereby embrace our criminality.

There is an alternative, of course. But it will require reinventing our entire conception of what politics is.

About the Author
Paul Grenier grew up in a working class northern California suburb. While his New England father was out building factories and shopping malls, his Austrian WWII refugee mother was instilling in him a love for Tolstoy. The result has been something of a split professional personality. Currently he does urban redevelopment work by day, and writes, translates or philosophizes with Russian friends by night. In the past he has worked as a simultaneous (Russian-English) interpreter and as a researcher and writer at a New York think tank. He has written for the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places (torture or city architecture being the most frequent topics). Paul enjoys re-reading Jane Austen and Harry Potter novels in Spanish. He gets a thrill from teaching teenagers at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a little gig he recently took on with the support of his wonderful wife and co-teacher, Svetlana. Despite his best efforts to be sociable, he often retreats into a (Platonic) cave and refuses to come out for tea.