A Conversation About Things That Matter

Published September 2, 2014

Commentary Magazine

Mark Blitz, professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, was interviewed by William Kristol as part of the Conversations With series.

It’s a discussion that touches on Plato’s political philosophy and Aristotle’s understanding of character and virtue. Professor Blitz offers up insights on Hobbes and Locke, whom he calls “the central thinker to understand if one wants to understand modern liberal democracy and therefore ultimately modern politics.” He discusses Marx and Hegel (“the most powerful thinker of the 19th century”) and the allure of, and damage done by, Nietzsche. Professor Blitz speaks about liberal democracy, its connection to human happiness and the importance of human excellence. And he reminds us why we need to think about the philosophic basis of a regime (arguing that the principle of justice must be at the heart of politics) and explains the limitations of modern science.

There are a dozen themes one could develop from the conversation; for now, I’ll focus on Blitz’s reflections on Plato and Aristotle being neither relativists nor absolutists; on their belief that there are standards by which we can judge but the standards themselves are not unbending absolutes. Professor Blitz is worth quoting at length on this matter:

There’s a cartoon version of Aristotle and even of Plato and sometimes that moves students away from them, because students are intelligent and recognize that absolute, immovable–“It always must be done this way or it’s wrong”–is rarely, if ever, correct. And that’s not Aristotle.

Aristotle doesn’t have unbridgeable laws. What he has is a full understanding of what virtue is. There is a difference between courage and cowardice and excess of boldness. There is a difference between generosity and cheapness and profligacy. You know which one is better.

Blitz goes on to say this:

But within the particular situation that you face, you need to think about what the generous action is or what the courageous action is. Similarly, politically, you know what’s more and less just. You know that the purpose ultimately of politics is to aid human happiness, which means excellence of character and excellence of judgment, to the degree to which you can.

But what you need to do, here and now–what set of institutions can actually achieve, support, and consent, here and now–that’s something you need to think about, you need to judge, you need to choose, so you’re guided in your choice, but you’re narrowly restricted and directed in your choice. Complete relativism gives you no opportunity to choose and think. Complete absolutism is a way of running away from the responsibility of choice and thought. So Aristotle gives you guidance, but not rigidity.

Bill Kristol invokes the metaphor of trying to steer a ship toward a goal, sometimes zigging and sometimes zagging, depending on the circumstances. The goal isn’t arbitrary, but neither is there a single, unchanging course on how to arrive at it. “Good judgment, prudence, as one calls it, practical wisdom, combined with a real understanding and holding your understanding in the direction of the goal that you would like to reach, that’s the central matter,” Blitz says. “And I think it is what leads people to be successful in the serious sense in Washington, not just personally successful, but to advance the level of freedom and justice in the country.”

This homes in on one of the most underrated and misunderstood virtues in politics: Prudence. In its classical understanding, prudence embraces moral purposes, though always with an eye toward what is achievable in the world as it is. It isn’t simply caution; rather, it has to do with choosing the right course of action among contingencies. It involves wisdom in acting upon human affairs. And it plays a vital role in guiding and regulating other virtues. (For more, see Aristotle’s discussion of prudence/practical wisdom in Chapter VI of Nicomachean Ethics and in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Part II of the Second Part, Questions 47-56.)

As I understand prudence in the context of politics, we should look for leaders who combine ethical clarity and correct moral intuitions, the courage and perseverance to strive for appropriate ends, and the wisdom to adjust to circumstances and who are guided by discernment and common sense. Men and women who have the ability to steer the ship to port, through rough waters, arriving whole and safe. This is, I think, what Mark Blitz and Bill Kristol were getting at in their marvelous conversation.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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