Commentary Magazine


The Nobility of Politics

William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

My intention is to eventually focus on each of the conversations, which are fascinating. But I want to start with the discussion Kristol had with his former teacher, Dr. Mansfield, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Harvard.

Professor Mansfield started out intending to be a political scientist but moved to political philosophy. A teacher of Mansfield’s, Sam Beer, convinced him that political science needed a theoretical background, a foundation underneath it. As an undergraduate, Mansfield concluded that:

political science was not enough by itself because it doesn’t judge. When you study facts, facts ask to be judged. A fact presents itself as something, which is either good or bad – and people who deal with facts either deserve to be praised or blamed.

It doesn’t seem really possible to stop and say, “I’m not going to be concerned with evaluation.” Political philosophy is concerned with evaluation because political facts aren’t sufficient by themselves and they ask to be judged.

This is quite a crucial point; it is what’s known in philosophy as the facts-value distinction, in which facts are considered “what is” and values are “what ought to be.” Facts may be true and explain the material world, but they can’t see beyond the material to help us understand the good, the beautiful and the true. They can’t elucidate what is justice and why human beings have inherent dignity. Facts alone can’t impart wisdom or explain what is right and moral. They can’t quite make sense of statements like “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

One of the distinctions between the ancients and the moderns–with Machiavelli being considered the founder of modern political philosophy–is that the former, most especially Plato and Aristotle, were more concerned with “the invisible standing behind the visible and necessary to it,” in Mansfield’s words. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics, for example, we’re told about the primacy of the good of the soul and that “the best way of life, both for states and for individuals, is the life of goodness.” Moderns, on the other hand, begin from what is visible and are never really able to transcend it.

To be sure, in politics, as in life, facts matter. We can’t operate in our own universe; we have to lead our lives within the four corners of reality. Politics, then, is about respecting facts and being empirically minded. But politics rightly understood is also about ascertaining what the good life and the proper end of the state are. Political philosophy should not aim for the “transvaluation of values”; its aim should be promoting virtue (arête) and human flourishing (eudaimonia).

In speaking about Aristotle, Professor Mansfield says this:

he much more criticizes Plato than, I think, is necessary for him to do. And this too is perhaps a kind of stance on Aristotle’s part to show that Plato had this failing – or maybe it isn’t altogether a failing – of giving too low a view of politics. Politics deserves – there’s a certain nobility to it, in fact, a terrific nobility to it.

And, so Aristotle wanted to bring to our attention the splendor of politics and of the moral virtue that people show in politics. And he thought that Plato had not done this sufficiently. And, so on every page, so to speak, there is a kind of critique of Plato and then Aristotle’s Ethics – there’s an, actually, statement of disagreement with his revered teacher, which he says that he loves his friend, but he loves the truth more, the most beautiful kind of criticism you could give or get.

The nobility and splendor of politics is often obscured; that is the product of being broken people, often passionately holding competing points of view, imperfectly trying to order our lives together. Yet at its deepest level, beneath all the conflict and noise and triviality, there is–there has been, there can be–an ennoblement to politics. From time to time it can bend the arc of the moral universe a bit closer toward justice, make life a little more decent, treat people somewhat more humanely. And that’s actually something worth reminding ourselves about now and then, as Professor Mansfield and his former student Bill Kristol do in their splendid conversation.

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2 Responses to “The Nobility of Politics”


    So far, the Kristol interviews are among the best of their type that I have seen on the internet. They are well worth the time, but, if one is unable to view the entire interview, each has been conveniently divided into subject segments. Based upon his TV appearances, Kristol is a better interviewer than I would have thought.

  2. CHERYL WALKER says:

    While reading your very esoteric discussion of Politics, quoting the long-gone gods of the concept, Plato and Socrates, I’ve got the television on with the discussion of the current White House resident and his response to the shooting down of the commercial airliner over the Ukraine. Politics today is now nothing more than pigs rolling in the mud funded by ignorant voters. The porcine promises of those holding public office to alleviate the so-called inequalities of everyday life have served to do nothing more than to guarantee more of the same, in spades. Nobleness, and politics have nothing to do with one another. The conversation between Mr. Kristol and Professor Mansfield, not withstanding, seeks to elevate the mud into a castle wherein justice and mercy hold sway. Until there is a moral people demanding truth, and, holding themselves as well as their leaders to that truth, politics will continue to be a very corrupt, dirty business designed by those who rule by power to continue. It provides an income and lifestyle to those who hold that power over the body of society by promising to give them something they do not have, but can only take from those who do, emasculating all in the process.

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