Politics is on everyone’s mind. But amid all the scandals and attack ads and ever-changing polls, it can be tough to remember what the point of all this drama is. The great Harvey Mansfield of Harvard reminds us in this article adapted from his acclaimed Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy.
Political philosophy is found in great books—those by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, and others of the highest rank. It can also be found outside the books—in actual politics—but here we see it only in its first strivings, before it appears under its own name.
Citizens and politicians do not claim to be philosophers, whom they rather look down on as ingenious but inept. But politics and political philosophy have one thing in common, and that is argument. If you listen to the talk shows or follow Twitter, you will find your fellow citizens arguing passionately pro and con with advocacy and denigration, accusation and defense. Politics means taking sides; it is partisan. Not only are there sides—typically liberal and conservative in our day—but also they argue against each other, so that it is liberals versus conservatives.
Each side defends its own interests, those of schoolteachers versus those of stockbrokers, for example, but they also appeal to something they have in common: the common good. Defending their interests, each says, contributes to the common good. The parties appeal to someone in common, a common judge who would decide the issues between them. Arguments, good or bad, are made with reasons.
Here is where political philosophy enters. Most people reason badly, but they do reason—and political philosophy starts from that fact. In America today, liberals argue that wealth is unjustly distributed, for example, but they overlook the need to generate wealth. Conservatives do the reverse; preoccupied with wealth generation, they pay little attention to how it should be distributed.
A partisan difference like this one is not a clash of “values,” with each side blind to the other and with no way to decide between them. A competent judge could ask both sides why they omit what they do, and he could supply reasons even if the parties could not. Such a judge is on the way toward political philosophy.
There is a long tradition of political philosophy dating from Socrates and consisting of a series of great books, each written to comment favorably or adversely on a contemporary or a preceding philosophy. Anyone serious about political philosophy will want to acquire at least some knowledge of this tradition. But one does not have to go to books of political philosophy to find political philosophy. All the books of political philosophy could be lost, if one can imagine such a calamity, and yet the activity could be generated anew directly from political life. The partly rational character of politics calls for completion in political philosophy—even though it takes a great thinker, to whom we are all greatly indebted, to answer the call.
Politics always has political philosophy lying within it, waiting to emerge. So far as we know, however, it has emerged just once, with Socrates—but that event left a lasting impression. It was a “first.”
I stress the connection between politics and political philosophy because such a connection is not to be found in the kind of political science that tries to ape the natural sciences. That political science, which dominates political science departments today, is a rival to political philosophy. Instead of addressing the partisan issues of citizens and politicians, it avoids them and replaces their words with scientific terms. Rather than good, just, and noble, you hear political scientists of this kind speaking of utility or preferences. These terms are meant to be neutral, abstracted from partisan dispute. Instead of serving as judge of what is good, just, or noble, such political scientists conceive themselves to be disinterested observers, as if they had no stake in the outcomes of politics. As political scientists, they believe they must suppress their opinions as citizens lest they contaminate their scientific selves. The political philosopher, however, takes a stand with Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), who said that while he himself was not a partisan, he undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties.
To sum up: political philosophy seeks to judge political partisans, but to do so it must enter into political debate. It wants to be impartial, or to be a partisan for the whole, for the common good; but that impartiality is drawn from the arguments of the parties themselves by extending their claims and not by standing aloof from them, divided between scientist and citizen, half slave to science, half rebel from it. Being involved in partisan dispute does not make the political philosopher fall victim to relativism, for the relativism so fashionable today is a sort of lazy dogmatism. These relativists refuse to enter into political debate because they are sure even before hearing the debate that it cannot be resolved; they believe like the political scientists they otherwise reject that nothing can be just or good or noble unless everyone agrees. The political philosopher knows for sure that politics will always be debatable, whether the debate is open or suppressed, but that fact—rather welcome when you reflect on it—does not stop him from seeking a common good that might be too good for everyone to agree with.
Political philosophy reaches for the best regime, a regime so good that it can hardly exist. Political science advances a theory—in fact, a number of theories—that promises to bring agreement and put an end to partisan dispute. The one rises above partisanship, the other undercuts it.
When we contrast political science and political philosophy we are really speaking of two kinds of political philosophy, modern and ancient. To appreciate the political science we have now, we need to look at its rival; to do that, we must enter into the history of political philosophy. We must study the tradition that has been handed down to us.
The great political philosophers read the works of their predecessors and commented on them, sometimes agreeing, often disagreeing. This history has less of the accidental in it than other history because, to a much greater degree than citizens or statesmen, philosophers are reflecting upon, and reacting to, thinkers that came before them. In considering the history of Western civilization, one must not forget the tradition of Western thought that inspires and explains the actions of peoples and statesmen. No one can count himself educated who does not have some acquaintance with this tradition. It informs you of the leading possibilities of human life, and by giving you a sense of what has been tried and of what is now dominant, it tells you where we are now in a depth not available from any other source.
Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University. He has received a National Humanities Medal as well as the Sidney Hook Memorial Award from the National Association of Scholars. This essay is adapted from his acclaimed book A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy.