Thoughtfulness, truth and responsibility
On the uses and limits of political theory in dark times
In her essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt writes that “no one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” She is of course pointing us toward an old truism, one that perhaps we have forgotten. But with the election of Donald Trump to the White House, and the rise of post-truth politics and alternative facts, the old antagonism between truth and politics has reappeared once again, perhaps with more force than at any other time in recent memory.
Commentators have been quick to repair to traditional authors in political theory to find guidance in these dark times— not just in their efforts to come to terms with political deception, but also to explain demagoguery, fascism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, concepts that were once very central to our political thinking, but have long since slipped out of view. Arendt herself has been wheeled out so often in these discussions that there are now thinkpieces about which of the other thinkpieces have interpreted her work correctly.
What these commentators have in common is that they are all trying to make sense of a world that is increasingly spinning out of control, one in which the lines between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, and reality and satire have become dangerously blurred.
This is, ironically, precisely what Arendt feared would happen if political lying became organized, systematic and total — pulling the rug out from beneath our feet, it would leave us without the means to distinguish up from down. “The result,” she observes, “of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.”
The attempt to steady ourselves in uncertain times by an appeal to theory is laudable. But sometimes it produces odd results. The British historian Sir Richard Evans, for instance, recently tweeted: “Post-truth and alternative facts: today’s leaders in the USA all imbibed postmodernist relativism at university in the late 1980s and 1990s.” As a teacher of political theory, I found this tweet quite irksome. Evans, the head of a Cambridge college, is a talented historian. But I think he is misleading us here.
Where I work, we introduce our students to the subject of political theory through a historical sequence of classes in ancient, early modern and contemporary political thought. Though we try to engage our students in debates about “the canon” — what it is, why it looks the way it does, and what voices may have been left out — there is no getting around it; this is about as traditional an education in political theory as you can get. As a result, I spend a great deal of my time explaining to students why they should care what a philosopher from Ancient Greece, a 17th century Englishman, or a 20th century German Jewish woman who fled the holocaust, for example, thought about politics.
The case I make is relatively straightforward on its face, but far more subversive than it first appears. There is, I tell students, a kind of wisdom to be recovered from the works of these authors — a wisdom that has the potential to nourish and sustain our capacities for political judgment. (I don’t pretend this argument is my own: Sheldon Wolin makes this point much more eloquently than I ever could in his classic essay “Political Theory as a Vocation.”) But these texts do not give over their secrets easily. They have to be wrestled from them. And this involves intellectual labor. It involves thinking.
What is thinking, in this context? It is a radical form of submission. You have to be prepared to submit yourself to the text, I tell my students. Let it wash over you, swallow it, drink it down, so that you might begin to see the world, if only for a moment and however imperfectly, as Plato did, or as Thomas Hobbes did, or as Hannah Arendt did. In other words, I ask students to inhabit a worldview that is distinctly not their own, one from which they are likely separated by vast quantities of time, by a profoundly different metaphysics and by, in some cases, a completely different understanding of politics — what it is for, and what it might achieve.
This is difficult, painstaking and often frustrating work. It is rarely fully successful. But it’s necessary as a prelude to thinking. For philosophy starts with the “initial and initiating shock” of thaumadzein, what Arendt described in her essay “Socrates” as “wonder at that which is at it is.” And there is no better incitement to wonder than a confrontation with a text that leaves the reader feeling uncanny— feeling not at home in the world. This electrifying jolt leads us to see that the world is not the way we thought it was. Or that it could be different from the way that it is.
In telling my students that we are trying to recover “wisdom” from the texts we read, I’m therefore being a little disingenuous. In fact our efforts at excavation are a pretext for a different activity: encouraging thoughtfulness. To what end? To encourage my students to become stronger and more resilient people. So that they might be less liable to be taken in by bullshit, and less inclined to utter it. So that they might develop the mental fortitude that the modern world requires of them — a world of happiness, love, justice and beauty, but also of fear, madness, violence and oppression.
Sometimes I fear that this is all an exercise in futility. My students will leave my classroom and, I hope, go on to have satisfying careers and fulfilling lives. Some of them may even enter politics. And when they do, they might become liars too. What shall we say then? What responsibility do I bear?
I’m not the only one to wonder. A short profile of Julia Hahn recently appeared in the New Yorker. Hahn is a graduate in philosophy of the University of Chicago, a former Brietbart reporter and now a counselor to the President. The article ends with a quote from one of her seemingly dismayed classmates at Chicago: “Not to wax too poetic about academia, but part of the idea of learning the canon is that it will, ultimately, make you a better person,” she says. There is little editorializing in the piece, but the subtext is clear: how could someone with such a venerable education ally herself with the dark forces now occupying Trump’s White House?
Evans’s tweet suggests one answer: the political liars who rule us were taught at university by postmodernists who distrust the idea of objective truth. I don’t think he is right. I think allegations about the death of the canon at the hands of postmodernism — whatever one thinks about their merits — are greatly exaggerated. And while there are certainly canonical thinkers whose influence on the study of the social sciences and humanities is associated with postmodernism — Nietzsche and Foucault spring to mind — only a superficial reading of their work would leave us with the impression that they are “relativists” in the sense that Evans implies.
It is true, for instance, that Nietzsche is slippery on the question of truth. In a famous passage in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” he says that truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.” It’s not difficult to interpret these remarks, and others like them, as a denial of objective truth. But they have to be set in the wider context of his other writings.
In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche aimed to show us that while many of the truths we hold dear — about morality, for example — appear timeless and immutable, they arose in and through history at the behest of concrete, human forces to serve particular ends. This is, he thinks, a difficult truth to face. But face it we must. For only if we can learn to accept the dizzying fact that we are the authors of our values will be able to live in a world lacking the structures that previously gave them their authority (e.g. God). This requires the sort of intellectual courage and independence of spirit that many of us lack, which is why so many of these truths stick around, despite their shoddy origins.
Foucault was obviously taken with Nietzsche’s genealogical mode of thinking. In “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History” he encourages us to see that behind what we think of as “truth” there lay contingencies of history (often papered over after the fact) and relationships of power. Foucault is not trying to get us to dispense with truth altogether: he wants to disperse “the sovereignty of origins.” Put differently, he wants us to ask not, is it true, but why do I accept this truth? What accidents of history — and what errors — underlie it? Who has brought it about that I believe this truth, and to what end?
In fact the allegations against postmodernism are a bit of a red herring. They get in the way of the far more unsettling question that we should be asking. If our students choose to become involved in politics, what grounds do we have for thinking that they will be honest? A wider question: is a rigorous education in the history of political thought — an introduction into thinking — adequate insurance against the risk they will involve themselves in political wrongdoing? Probably not.
Perhaps, for example, our students will take seriously Plato’s suggestion in the Republic that even a just regime rests on the widespread acceptance of a founding myth, a noble lie. In Book III, in the midst of a discussion about the kind of education befitting the ruling class of his ideal state, Socrates says:
“I’ll attempt first to persuade first the rulers and the soldiers, then the rest of the city, that the rearing and education we gave them were like dreams; they only thought that they were undergoing all that was happening to them, while, in truth, at that time they were under the earth within, being fashioned and reared themselves, and their arms and other tools being crafted. When the job had been completely finished, then the earth, which is their mother, sent them up. And now, as though the land they are in were a mother and a nurse, they must plan for and defend it, if anyone attacks, and they must think of the other citizens as brothers and born of the earth.”
The tale has a second part. It holds that each individual born of the earth has a metal mixed in with her soul, determining her position in society. Those with gold in their souls will be rulers, silver in their souls auxiliaries and those with iron and bronze “farmers and the other craftsmen.”
What is Plato trying to tell us in this very strange story? The tale has a political purpose: to unify the citizenry (the myth of common nationhood) and to justify a hierarchical social order, thereby stabilizing the relations between classes and preventing the community from blowing itself apart (the myth of the metals). Plato is suggesting that these kinds of myth are essential to the proper functioning of any polity. That is probably also true of our own.
Or perhaps they will agree with Machiavelli’s argument that a ruler who wants to maintain power must learn to be wicked and feel nothing of breaking his word when necessary. In The Prince he writes:
“So you see a wise ruler cannot, and should not, keep his word when doing so is to his disadvantage, and when the reasons that led him to promise to do so no longer apply. Of course, if all men were good, this advice would be bad; but since men are wicked and will not keep faith with you, you need not keep faith with them.”
How do we reconcile Machiavelli’s “evil” teachings in The Prince with his professed love of republican government and political liberty in The Discourses? Machiavelli did genuinely love liberty, but he was also realist. He wanted us to see that the pursuit of liberty is such an important goal that a specifically political ethics, one that takes human beings as they are, not how we wish they would be, governs the behavior of rulers whose job is to secure it.
Or perhaps, finally, they will side with Max Weber when he urges us to accept that the problem of dirty hands is intrinsic to all political activity, and that those who cannot bring themselves to make a deal with the devil should probably find themselves another career. In a famous lecture, “The Profession and Vocation of Politics,” he says:
“The early Christians too knew very well that the world was governed by demons, that anyone who gets involved with politics, which is to say the means of power and violence, is making a pact with diabolical powers, and that it does not hold true of his actions that only good can come of good and only evil from evil, but rather that the opposite is often the case. Anyone who fails to see this is indeed a child in political matters.”
Weber is not merely parroting Machiavelli here. To the familiar argument that in politics, worthy ends may justify nefarious means, he adds the following: if this is true, then with what sort of ethic should rulers conduct themselves? His answer: with a sober mindedness, and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of action, that is lacking in almost virtually every existing professional politician we know.
The point of citing these authors is not to vindicate the political liar. Even if one thinks, for example, that some measure of deception is necessitated by the burdens of rulership, or is inherent in the activity of politics itself, this does not sanction the widespread culture of deceit that is currently forming around us, a culture that brings with it the threat of tyranny. As Bernard Williams points out in Truth and Truthfulness, “precisely because of their peculiar powers and opportunities, governments are disposed to commit illegitimate actions which they will want to conceal, as they also want to conceal incompetent actions. It is in citizens’ interests that these be checked. They cannot be checked without true information.” This is what Williams calls the anti-tyranny argument for truthfulness in politics, and it is correct insofar as it goes.
Rather the point is to make clear that, as Arendt argued in the quotation with which we began, there is nothing new about the problem of truthfulness in politics. It is not a postmodern problem. It is not even a modern one. It is an ancient one, as old as politics itself. (Though I grant that technological progress and the rise of the modern mass media change the stakes involved.) And the tradition of political thinking is arguably ambivalent about the morality of political lying. Or at least, its more perceptive contributors have recognized that lying in politics is a perennial problem, a paradox, perhaps an irresolvable one.
It is comforting to believe, with Evans, that those who lie in politics do so because they do not believe in Truth with a capital T. It is comforting because it allows us to push to one side the starkly more terrifying thought: that those involved in politics know all too well the difference between truth and falsehood, and lie anyway. They might lie because they are bad people. Or because they are good people who think that the ends justify the means. Or simply because they are ruthless in their pursuit of power and will do anything to get it, keep it and use it.
These are not particularly mysterious explanations for political deception. They are just obvious truths about the activity of politics itself. But it is useful to be reminded of them. In his book about realism in political theory, In the Beginning was the Deed, Williams recalls a conversation with another philosopher. “After one glass of bourbon,” he writes, “we agreed that our work consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.” Perhaps we could substitute political theorists (or historians) for moral philosophers and these lines would still contain much wisdom.
It is similarly comforting to believe, on the other side, that an immersive education in the traditional canon can inoculate a student against the temptations of political vice. It allows us, as teachers of political theory, to discharge out responsibilities while working under two satisfying assumptions: first, that there is a body of political thinking which it is our responsibility to transmit (and invite students to interrogate) and, second, that the application of its principles and arguments will necessarily have an ameliorative effect on the political world.
In other words, with this second assumption, we allow ourselves to indulge in the peculiarly modern faith that knowledge and progress necessarily go hand in hand. That the more enlightened our students become, the better people, and more responsible political actors, they will be.
But we have no warrant for expecting this to be the case. In fact, as Raymond Geuss worries, many of them will simply use their cleverness, their dexterity in the “glib manipulation of words, theories and arguments,” to prop up the status quo and protect it from change. Or, even worse, to defend the indefensible in the language of the absurd, which is precisely what Trump surrogates do when they appear on cable news.
Indeed, from the perspective of the political theorist, there is something genuinely terrifying about the ideologue dispatched to the television studio, a commonplace fixture of the American political landscape. This is a person who must bend the world to her words in order for it to make sense. In other words, it is a person who has stopped thinking.
So these are comforting myths and dangerous illusions on all sides. If we want to avoid being perennially disappointed — by politics, and by our students, especially if they choose to take it up as their vocation — we would do well to discard them. Where does this leave us?
The Polish poet and aphorist Stanisław Jerzy Lec once said “do not expect too much from the end of the world.” Perhaps we should not expect too much from our students either. We should not be too surprised if they accept the less-than-edifying lessons of the canon, rather than the ones we would prefer. We should not be too surprised if, upon reflection, they choose in their own lives to prioritize the pursuit of power, fame, glory or money. And, particularly in the case of those who enter politics, we should not be too surprised if their conduct one day horrifies us.
That’s because politics is often horrifying. It is easy to forget that not too long ago, our political leaders brought us to the brink of nuclear extinction. The total destruction of our way of life by an act of war seems so strange and irrational to us now that it is difficult to grasp. Perhaps that’s because, in the years since the Cold War, at least some of us have enjoyed lives of relative prosperity, stability and distraction. Lives of iPhones and social media, of “reality” television shows and YouTube stars, of housing booms and successful IPOs.
But the project of building a rational, liberal society is faltering, a point well made in Adam Curtis’s spellbinding, polemical documentaries, including the recent Hypernormalisation (2016). The major signs have been there for some time: in the extraordinarily divergent life prospects of the rich and the poor, and the myriad brutalities, indignities and injustices inflicted on some citizens in their dealings with the state (especially, in America, if they are black). In the stupid and deceitful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most obviously in the financial crisis of 2008. Now the sheer madness of politics reveals itself with even greater frankness. If you don’t believe me, just check Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
What is to be done? As darkness closes in again, it remains our responsibility to continue to press the case for thinking, even as the sky falls around us. To implore students, wherever on the ideological spectrum they may be, to care for the world, which once again seems to be teetering on the edge of oblivion. To warn them that the fragile political achievements that allow us to live together peaceably are just that, fragile. And to remind them that we are never very far away from the sort of crisis that threatens to destroy everything.
Arendt, Hannah. “Socrates.” In The Promise of Politics. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.
— — “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. Edited by Jerome Kohn. London: Penguin, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, Counter-Memory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Edited by Donald F Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Geuss, Raymond. “A World Without Why?” The Point 2 (2010). Available at: https://thepointmag.com/2010/examined-life/a-world-without-why
Machiavelli, Niccolo. Selected Politics Writings. Edited by David Wotton. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994.
Marantz, Andew. “Becoming Steve Bannon’s Bannon.” New Yorker 13 February 2017. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/becoming-steve-bannons-bannon
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings. Edited by Walter Kauffman. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” In Essays. London: Penguin, 2000.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
Weber, Max. “The Profession and Vocation of Politics.” In Political Writings. Edited by Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Williams, Bernard. In the Beginning was the Deed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
— — Truth and Truthfulness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Wolin, Sheldon. “Political Theory as a Vocation.” The American Political Science Review 63, no. 4 (1969): 1062–1082.