Commentary Magazine


“The Philosopher Deals with Truth; the Statesman Addresses Contingencies.”

In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, Henry Kissinger wrote:

For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems.

I thought about this passage while reflecting on the tension that often takes place between activists, academics, and commentators on the one hand and lawmakers and policy makers on the other. They inhabit, if not different worlds, then different continents in the same world.

Writers, intellectuals, and those commenting on daily events have the luxury of judging those in power against the standard of perfection, often forgetting that those in authority have to make difficult judgments in imperfect conditions, where opposing parties exist and one’s will cannot be imposed.

Those in positions of political power, on the other hand, need to be held accountable by those who are not. When you work in the highest reaches of government the dangers of insulation and self-justification are enormous, and it’s perfectly legitimate for commentators to offer critical critiques. But in doing so analysts should admit that it’s not all that difficult to offer up harsh judgments about public officials when you’re sitting behind a camera, a microphone, or a keyboard. It’s harder to run a campaign than to comment on one; it’s more difficult to govern than to eviscerate those who do.

Near the end of Memoirs, Aron, in a chapter that is both sympathetic and critical of Secretary Kissinger’s tenure, writes, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

This didn’t keep Aron, a philosopher and journalist of great insight and intellectual courage, from offering powerful and necessary criticisms over the course of his life. (When Marxism and anti-Americanism were in vogue in France, Aron refused to be swept up into those powerful currents.) Yet his assessments were tempered by his appreciation of the different roles played by public intellectuals and those who are in the arena. Here, like in many ways, the qualities Aron possessed are worth emulating.