Ethics & Public Policy Center

Believing Is Seeing

Published in The Weekly Standard on December 19, 2011



Mary Ann Glendon begins her chapter on Rousseau by recounting the story of Napoleon's visit to the grave of that worthy on the estate of the Marquis René Louis de Girardin at Ermenonville and saying, “It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never lived.” When the marquis sensibly pointed out that, without the impetus given by Rousseau's writings to the French Revolution, Napoleon himself would not have existed, at least not as Napoleon, the first consul replied that only the future would tell if it would have been better if neither he nor Rousseau had ever lived.

The association of Napoleon—himself as real as a heart attack, as we would say today—with this kind of intellectual speculation calls to mind the famous saying of Zhou Enlai about the results of the French Revolution: “Too early to tell.” Except that now he is generally supposed to have been referring to les événements of 1968 and not 1789.

But very often, time does not tell, whether it is two years or two hundred. History rarely if ever provides an unambiguous and definitive confirmation or refutation of theories—even theories of history like Marxism. Most people simply assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union amounted to a refutation of Marx's theory, and yet there still seem to be plenty of Marxists around, at least on American and European university campuses.

This is all part of the more general problem of finding a way to reconcile theory with practice, and that is Glendon's subject. She undertakes to shine a light into what some might describe as the central problem of our political culture, which is the gulf between a fundamentally utopian approach to political problems by our “intellectuals” and the often messy realities of political and everyday life which so often thwart and humble their elegant projects of social perfection.

Her insight, at least in my way of reading her, is that, historically, the successful unification of theory with practice has required a rigidly and unsentimentally non-utopian approach on the theorists' part, and a humility before the unbending truths of experience. See, for example, Plato's disdainful portrait in the Theaetetus of the ivory tower type

who is unaware what his neighbor is doing, hardly knows indeed whether the creature is a man at all; he spends all his pains on the question, what man is. .  .  . Only his body sojourns in his city, while his thought, disdaining all such things as worthless, takes wings .  .  . seeking the true nature of everything as a whole, never sinking to what lies close at hand.

Yet how few, really, are her shining examples of those in our own time who are said to have bridged the gap between scholarship and statesmanship: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and—er, that's about it for our fair republic. Václav Havel and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) are mentioned along with Abba Eban, Marcello Pera, and Rocco Buttiglione among foreign worthies; but it's a pretty limited collection, given the numbers of political leaders of the world who might fall into the same category and don't. And none even of these could really be said to rival Plato or Machiavelli or even Rousseau. I would wish she had given some more attention to the question of why this might be, except that that would itself be idle theorizing.

Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station may be the first great example of a literary tribute to heroic thinkers—in his case, the thinkers who brought about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. His book appeared at a time (1940) when many if not most Western intellectuals were disposed to regard that revolution as a more lasting achievement than anyone can today. Some of Wilson's heroes—more tarnished by the subsequent history of that revolution, to be sure, but still with a portion of their glitter intact—featured in Tom Stoppard's trilogy of plays called The Coast of Utopia which, differently from Wilson, paid these intellectual heroes homage for their good intentions and for their human foibles and sufferings, rather than the actual content of their theorizing.

Judging by the reviews, Mary Gabriel's recent Love and Capital about the life of Karl Marx is following the same well-trodden path.

But heroic thinking, at least when it comes to the social sciences, is much more the province of the left than the right. “Intellectuals” made their first appearance among us more or less simultaneously with the revolutionary impulse to refashion society according to some ideal model, and the shaping of that model was self-evidently a job for the brainy sorts who were the first to adopt the name of “intellectual” to describe themselves. Obviously, somewhat less in the way of brainpower was required of those who merely wanted to keep things more or less as they were, or who were inclined (like Napoleon and Zhou Enlai in their mellower moments) to trust to the wisdom of time and experience rather than any theorist, however brilliant.

To some extent, Glendon offers us an alternative to Wilson's dream team of heroic revolutionaries by bringing forward what could be seen as the conservatives' first-string lineup of philosophers and legal theorists to bat against them, even though some, especially Rousseau, might seem more at home on Wilson's team than on hers. The others are, from the ancient world, Plato and Cicero; from the Middle Ages, Justinian, Tribonian, and Irnerius, who between them preserved Roman law and the Roman legal tradition for modernity; from the Renaissance, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; and from more modern times, Burke, Tocqueville, Max Weber, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and—perhaps because she needs a woman for the honor of her sex—Eleanor Roosevelt together with her collaborator on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik.

It's not so easy to see what these thinkers have in common, certainly not in comparison with the socialist and anarchist thought of those we almost can't help thinking of as their rivals. Indeed, the comparison gives us the best hint as to what is the common element in this otherwise diverse lineup. If Vico to Trotsky are the Revolutionary Giants, Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt are the Skeptical Dodgers. Some are conservatives and some liberals, and one is three-quarters of the way to being a revolutionary himself; but all of them (it could be argued) orient themselves towards reality and away from the utopianism into which political idealism is always slipping.

Glendon's subtitle is “How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt,” but to the Skeptics, the imagining part would be of little interest in itself without its impact on practical politics, which is why she takes as her theme the difficulty of reconciling theory with practice.

She quotes, for example, Cicero's advice to philosophers with political ambition to the effect “that if they put their talents at the service of the polity, they must learn what the wise statesman knows: how to operate within the limits of the possible.” And yet it is surely a subject worthy of some more investigation that few of those on her team actually succeeded in doing this. Cicero and Burke are, perhaps, the main examples of thinkers who also had important, if not quite successful, political careers. Indeed, they could be said to have lived parallel lives. Machiavelli and Tocqueville had brief and fairly undistinguished political careers, which don't seem to have had all that much to do with their political thinking, while Plato's brief foray into practical politics nearly got him executed by Dionysius of Syracuse. Justinian, of course, was an emperor, but that's not quite the same as a politician. The res
t had little or no political experience of their own.

More important, in this lineup of intellectual heavy-hitters, there is no Montesquieu or Bentham, no Mill or Macaulay, no Carlyle or Cobbett. Hume is no more than a bit player in Rousseau's strange story, and Adam Smith hardly even gets a mention. Most remarkably, the American Founding Fathers, who on any reckoning must have a claim to be the most successful combination of political thinkers and political doers in history, have no place in her story. How does Rousseau find a place here when they don't?

Here's what Glendon writes about the connection between the two: “The legacy of the most influential political thinker of the eighteenth century is thus at odds with the era's greatest political achievement.” I wonder if she doesn't see their very success as slightly scandalous? Maybe she envies Edmund Wilson and Tom Stoppard and their cast of tragic but romantic failures. Or maybe it's no more complicated than the fact that, like most intellectuals, Glendon is simply more interested in thinking than she is in achievement. Hence her view that “Rousseau and his most discerning readers, especially Tocqueville, served the world's democratic experiments well as sources of constructive criticism.”

Well, that's one way of putting it! But couldn't the same be said of Marx and his followers? The unacknowledged conclusion, at least to this reader, is that thinking and doing really don't have very much to do with each other. Utopianism may go naturally with intellectual speculation, but Glendon's excellent and very readable book shows that, even if you have the latter without the former, the life of the mind usually has the most tenuous relations with political reality, while not being quite alien from it, either. And that it is most useful when it seeks to describe, as Machiavelli does, more what politicians do than what they ought to do.

James Bowman, the author of Honor, A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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