Ethics & Public Policy Center

Krauthammer On Things That Matter

Published in Commentary Magazine on October 22, 2013



Things That Matter is a collection of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary writings over the last 30 years. For those of us who have admired Krauthammer from the moment we first read him–and for a younger generation, from the moment they first watched him on Fox News–this volume has obvious appeal. It’s a marvelous, and at times quite moving, collection.

But I want to draw attention to the book’s introduction, which is new and autobiographical. Krauthammer writes about his upbringing and journey from medicine to politics, including a fascinating account of his intellectual evolution. What people might also find interesting is that his book was originally going to be a collection of his writings about everything but politics–on things “beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” I’ll let Dr. Krauthammer takes it from there:

But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.

Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

In reflecting on the place of politics in the hierarchy of human disciplines, and building on the observations of John Adams, Krauthammer writes, “the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.” He adds this: “the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.”

If, as the saying goes, every anthropologist loves his tribe, then I suppose that everyone who has devoted his or her life to public affairs (as I have) loves politics. Now it would be silly to pretend that politics doesn’t include some darker sides; that it doesn’t draw to it people who are narcissistic, who thirst for power for its own sake, and who choose their self-interest over the general interest. And much of politics, depending on the level at which one is involved, can involve mundane and fairly prosaic matters. All true. (And all qualities attendant less to politics per se than to our fallen human nature.)

But there is also this. We should care about politics because political acts can have profound human consequences. It makes a very great difference whether people live in freedom or servitude; whether government promotes a culture of life or a culture of death; whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. The end of government, James Madison wrote, is justice.

So yes, politics and governing is fraught with temptations and dangers. There are plenty of people who bring dishonor to the enterprise. But at the risk of sounding out of touch with our times, there is something ennobling about politics, at least when done properly. We cannot neglect the importance of our laws or the political philosophies in which we root our laws because we cannot neglect their influence on our lives. Such are the duties of citizenship in a free society.

That is, I think, what Charles Krauthammer is saying; and why what he is saying matters so very much.

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