Conversations With Great Thinkers

11. Politics

by L. James Hammond
L. James Hammond 2017
back to home page

1. My Land  Many political disputes begin with “That’s my land, and it was stolen from me.” But history teaches us that every country has been overrun by a series of invading peoples. Take England, for example: The Celts occupied the British Isles around 600 B.C., the Romans occupied England around 50 B.C., the Angles and Saxons occupied England around 500 A.D. (when the Romans had left), the Vikings occupied about half of England around 800 A.D., and finally the Normans occupied England around 1100 A.D. (after winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066).

Though Irish nationalists may see themselves as indigenous, and therefore as Ireland’s rightful rulers, their Celtic ancestors aren’t indigenous to Ireland or to any European country. The Celts came to Ireland quite recently (about 500 B.C.), dispossessing the previous inhabitants. Celtic languages are part of the Indo-European language family. The Celts have their roots in or near India, as do almost all European peoples.

Who is really indigenous? Are we not all usurpers?

2. Rationalism in Politics  I argued above that the most fundamental distinction in philosophy is the distinction between rational philosophy and non-rational philosophy. Does this distinction have any political import? Do rational philosophers, for example, tend to be liberal? Do non-rational philosophers tend to be conservative?

Traditional conservatives tend to be wary of reason, but today’s conservatives tend to be fond of reason. One traditional conservative who was wary of reason was Edmund Burke. Burke criticized the French revolutionaries for following reason, and for ignoring customs and traditions. In Burke’s day, The Left followed reason, and advocated revolution to overthrow regimes that didn’t live up to the dictates of reason. Burke cautioned against revolution, and the bloodshed that accompanied the French Revolution seemed to vindicate Burke’s attitude.

Like the French revolutionaries, Marx and his disciples followed reason, and advocated revolution. The bloodshed that accompanied Marxist regimes in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. seemed to vindicate the conservative view that reason was a dangerous guide in the political arena.

The English Radicals of the early 1800s — Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, etc. — were fond of reason, and advocated radical change.

In our time, however, a new tendency has emerged. The Straussian School, which includes prominent conservatives like Bill Kristol and Harvey Mansfield, is fond of reason but takes a conservative approach to politics. While Burke cautioned against revolution, today’s conservatives advocated regime change, revolutionary change, in Iraq. Now it’s The Right that talks about Universal Principles (as the French revolutionaries once did), and The Left that talks about respecting customs and traditions (as Burke once did).

Should we conclude that rationalism doesn’t necessarily lead to a particular approach to politics, that rationalism can be conservative or liberal? Or is the current situation an anomaly? Will the long-standing link between rationalism and The Left re-assert itself, and relegate the Straussian position to the status of a footnote?

3. Rationalism in Theology  The views of the Straussians are strikingly similar to those of Pope Benedict, as expressed by the Pope in a speech delivered on September 12, 2006. The chief organ of the Straussian school, Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, hailed the Pope’s speech as “astonishing.... moving and heroic.”1 Like the Straussians, the Pope believes in reason, and admires the rational Greek philosophers. The Pope argues that God Himself is rational. The Pope quotes the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Pope notes that “Word” is logos in the original Greek, and “logos means both reason and word.” The Pope applauds John for underlining the importance of reason: “John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God.”

The Pope says that the goal of theology is to correlate faith and reason, and he says that most Western theologians have worked toward this goal. The essence of European civilization, according to the Pope, is the convergence of Greek philosophy and Christianity. This convergence wasn’t the result of chance, says the Pope; doubtless he thinks that God arranged this convergence. Why God would choose to enlighten Europe, and leave the rest of the world in darkness, the Pope doesn’t explain.

According to the Pope, we must approach religion and morality as the Greek philosophers did — in a rational way. Otherwise, morality becomes merely subjective, and this is a dangerous situation. Like the Straussians, the Pope thinks that morality must be rational and objective, and that without such a morality, civilization is vulnerable to the worst excesses of decadence and despotism.

Strauss’s work was a response to Hitler and Stalin. Strauss tried to build a “philosophical firewall” against nihilism and genocide. He felt that modern philosophers had failed to build such a firewall — indeed, Heidegger had even supported the Nazis. Strauss argued that modern philosophy had gotten on the wrong track, so we must go back to Plato and Aristotle.

Strauss didn’t realize that we can go forward instead of backward, we can develop new approaches to religion with the help of Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, and the Hermetic tradition. Strauss wouldn’t admit that, if subjectivity can lead anywhere, so too reason can lead anywhere. Who respected reason more than the French revolutionaries, more than the Russian communists? “’Tis not contrary to reason,” said Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”2 As Kierkegaard said, “‘On principle’ one can do anything.”3 The Philosophy of Today is a better firewall against nihilism than Plato, Strauss, or Pope Benedict because it strikes a chord with modern man, it strikes a chord with the man on the street, not just the professional scholar, it speaks to the soul, not just the intellect.

4. Banfield and Kedourie  Liberals view human nature as a tabula rasa, and believe that government policy can mold society, while conservatives believe that human nature is shaped by cultural factors, and government policy can do little in the face of these cultural factors.

At the start of his career, the American conservative Edward Banfield studied a poor village in southern Italy. He argued that its poverty was due, not to a shortage of government assistance, but to cultural factors — a devotion to relatives, and an uncooperative attitude toward non-relatives. Banfield also studied Mormon communities that had become wealthy, that had “made the desert bloom,” not as a result of government assistance, but as a result of a culture of trust and cooperation.

A critic of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Banfield thought that many social programs harmed those whom they were intended to help. “Do no good,” Banfield advised, “and no harm will come of it.” Social programs, Banfield argued, are designed to satisfy the conscience of the upper classes, to satisfy their longing for service and progress, their longing to do something and to do good.

According to Banfield, urban poverty can’t be relieved by government spending because poverty is caused by cultural factors, especially the inability to sacrifice present pleasure for future good. “The lower-class individual,” Banfield wrote, “lives from moment to moment.... He belongs to no voluntary organizations, has no political interests, and does not vote unless paid to do so.”4 He noted that immigrants from Catholic countries were more present-oriented than immigrants from Protestant countries. He argued that the peasant cultures of Ireland, southern Italy and eastern Europe sent immigrants to America who lived for today, not for the future:

The idea of self-improvement — and even more that of community improvement — was unfamiliar and perhaps even unintelligible to them. They were mainly concerned about survival, not progress; how to get food, drink, and shelter for the day was what preoccupied them. Their motive in coming to this country was apparently less to improve their general condition than to escape the threat of immediate starvation.5

Banfield chided liberals for refusing to admit that “some children simply cannot be taught much in school,”6 for believing that any child can be educated if only enough government money is spent.

As Banfield was a leading conservative on domestic issues, Elie Kedourie was a leading conservative on international issues. Third World poverty, in Kedourie’s view, wasn’t caused by external factors such as colonialism, but rather by cultural factors — a tradition of despotic government, etc. Kedourie argues that colonialism was beneficial rather than harmful:

Colonial rulers... as much in response to their own political traditions as because they were accountable to home governments, established in these territories a Rechtstaat, in which judges and courts did not obey the whim of the ruler, and administration operated according to publicly-known rules which were designed to eliminate favoritism and corruption, and to a large extent succeeded in doing so.7

When colonial rulers departed, disaster ensued. Kedourie blames Western nations not for colonialism and imperialism, but rather for de-colonizing too rapidly; he blames the French for leaving Algeria too rapidly, the British for leaving India too rapidly, the Americans for leaving Iraq too rapidly (after the 1991 war), etc.8

Kedourie doubted that democracy could work in Third World countries. He felt that democracy required an electorate that wasn’t accustomed to passive obedience, an electorate that would sometimes put the public interest over private interest. Without such an electorate, Kedourie argued, public power would remain what it always had been in these countries: the private property of those who held office.

Kedourie grew up in the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad in the 1930s. He felt that the Ottoman Empire’s government of Iraq was preferable to Iraqi self-rule, and that the British Empire’s government of Iraq was preferable to Iraqi self-rule. When the Ottomans and British left Iraq, there was little respect for private property; Kedourie speaks of, “the utter defencelessness of property in the face of official greed and willfulness.... ‘Large estates were distributed among government officials and their friends.’” In Kedourie’s view, Iraqi self-rule meant rule by Baathist thugs. Kedourie felt that the dismantling of the Ottoman and British empires, coupled with the rise of nationalism, had made the Middle East “a wilderness of tigers.”

As a student at Oxford, Kedourie was asked to modify his Ph.D. thesis. Believing that it didn’t need modification, Kedourie left Oxford rather than modify it; his admirers called this his “defiance” of his thesis.

Kedourie’s books lack the ironic, sophisticated tone that is popular among the intelligentsia. One reviewer complained that Kedourie’s work gave him “a sense of having been held by the lapels and screamed at.”9 Kedourie was a man of strong character, strong convictions, and vast erudition.

5. Chaudhuri  Nirad Chaudhuri, a writer from India, lived under British rule for many years. He criticized the British for their rude, contemptuous behavior toward Indians. He also criticized the British for decadence. This decadence, Chaudhuri wrote, “consists in the refusal to acknowledge great achievements of great individuals. Disrespect for great achievements is a result... of the lack of courage to attempt them.”10

Though he criticized British shortcomings, Chaudhuri nonetheless believed that the British governed India better than it had ever been governed before. Chaudhuri was opposed to Indian independence; “I thought that power in Indian hands,” he wrote, “would be a calamity for the Indian people.” In Chaudhuri’s view, Gandhi’s independence movement had no positive content, it was based on hatred and xenophobia. Like Kedourie, Chaudhuri blamed the British for leaving India too quickly. In the 1930s, when Fascism and Communism were popular, Chaudhuri remained pro-British. Like Nietzsche, Ibsen, and other intellectuals, Chaudhuri wasn’t a patriot, but rather a citizen of the world. Inside India, Chaudhuri’s writings were controversial, and he was subjected to “raucous hatred.”

As a student at the University of Calcutta, Chaudhuri failed his Master’s exam, then refused to take it again — an episode reminiscent of Kedourie’s defiance of his thesis. For much of his life, Chaudhuri depended on hand-outs from reluctant relatives.

6. September 11  Political problems often have a religious dimension.

The 20th century was scarred by two movements, Communism and Fascism. Since Fascism is a subset of Nationalism, I should perhaps have said, “Communism and Nationalism.” Both Communism and Nationalism originated around 1800, when religious faith was crumbling in the Western world, and atheism was spreading. Communism and Nationalism were new religions, filling the void left by the decline of Christianity.

In the 20th century, the West’s crisis of faith became a world-wide crisis of faith; the sickness in the Western soul spread to other regions of the world, as Western civilization came into contact with other civilizations. Toynbee, the British historian, said that the key development in world history in the last two centuries was the coming together of the world. Civilizations that once had no contact with each other began to interact, often as a result of Western exploration and Western expansion.

Non-Western countries were faced with a choice: embrace Western influence, or slam the door against it. Until about 1860, Japan chose to slam the door against Western influence, then it did an about-face, and embraced Western influence. In the 1970s, the Shah of Iran attempted to Westernize, but he was driven from power by Islamic fundamentalism, which slammed the door against Western influence.

Many non-Western nations had living, functioning religions before they came into contact with the West. These religions had developed over thousands of years, they were well suited to the people that had developed them, and they embodied a deep wisdom. As a result of Western influence, however, many non-Western nations witnessed a disintegration of their age-old religions. Communism and Nationalism spread around the world, and Christianity made some converts, too.

Some non-Western nations, especially in the Muslim world, clung to their ancient religions, determined not to succumb to Western influence. In Iran, Islamic fundamentalism reached fever pitch, and became a state religion. Eventually, however, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and many Iranians now feel a deep aversion for Islamic fundamentalism, and a deep longing for Western ways. In Iran, fundamentalism is collapsing under the weight of its own success.

The current conflict between Islam and the West is part of the collision of civilizations that Toynbee discussed sixty years ago. During the first half of the 20th century, the collision of civilizations was overshadowed by the World Wars, which were essentially civil wars — wars within Western Civilization. When the World Wars ended, the Cold War overshadowed the collision of civilizations. When the Cold War ended, however, the Civilization War came to center stage.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington, who had studied Toynbee, predicted a “clash of civilizations.” Huntington argued that future conflicts will usually occur between civilizations. Huntington quoted an Indian Muslim writer named M. J. Akbar: “The West’s next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world.”11 Like Toynbee, Huntington argued that non-Western countries can embrace the West or reject the West. Huntington also mentioned a third possibility: steer a middle course, become a “torn country” like Turkey or Pakistan, in which the elite tries to Westernize, and the masses remain un-Westernized.

Those who carried out the September 11 attacks, and those who supported them (bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group), and those who supported Al Qaeda (the Taliban), and those who supported the Taliban (Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan) are examples of non-Western people who have chosen to reject Western influence, to slam the door against the West. Are they as deeply religious as they seem? Or is their fundamentalism a desperate attempt to establish an identity distinct from the West? Is their fanaticism an effort to suppress their own doubts? Are they afraid that, if they begin to question the Koran, their questioning will acquire momentum, and sweep away their ancient faith, leaving them without a religion, and without an identity?

Islamic fundamentalists have a narrow-minded, brittle, bookish religiosity, a religiosity that sticks to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. Religion should be an inner experience, an inner feeling, and it shouldn’t matter who controls Jerusalem. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” said Jesus; the kingdom of God is not of this world, it is within you. The Muslim poet Rumi often visited the temples of Jews and Christians, believing that all three religions are fundamentally akin. The religious spirit unites, the mystical spirit unites, but a narrow religiosity clings to the book, clings to the past, clings to the holy place, instead of finding God within oneself. A narrow religiosity often has a political dimension, often becomes nationalistic. Shouldn’t we give priority to spiritual and cultural pursuits over political goals, and treat politics as a necessary evil, rather than as the road to salvation?

It won’t be easy for Muslims to achieve a genuine religiosity, nor is it easy for Jews and Christians to achieve a genuine religiosity. We all find it easier to obey a clear-cut law (eat fish on Friday, don’t eat pork on Saturday) than to find God within us, and develop our inner life. The West is certainly not a model of genuine religiosity. Indeed, the West has experienced a collapse of spiritual values, a collapse evident in world wars, in the Holocaust, in Stalin’s Gulag, in recent mass-murders by American students, in violent movies, etc. Is it any wonder that Muslims want to slam the door against the West? Is it any wonder that Muslims believe that salvation/happiness/the-good-life cannot be found by embracing Western influence, but only by following ancient traditions and ancient books?

The quest for spiritual values, spiritual peace is a quest for all peoples in the modern world. Religions must change and evolve, just as individuals must change and evolve, hence we can never achieve perfect, permanent spiritual peace. All of us, therefore, should regard the spiritual values of others with a measure of toleration and respect, and all of us should be receptive to change in our own spiritual values.

7. Mutual Arising  Was the 9/11 attack the cause of the Iraq War? The 9/11 attack created a mood, a political climate, in the U.S. that contributed to the invasion of Iraq; the 9/11 attack made many Americans feel that we couldn’t be passive toward terrorist threats, we had to be pre-emptive. There were, however, many other causes of the Iraq War:

  1. Bush’s personality, his worldview, his religious and moral views, etc.
  2. Saddam’s personality, his penchant for military adventure, his penchant for cruelty and torture, etc.
  3. The previous Iraq war, the ending of which was viewed by many people as incomplete.
  4. Saddam’s history of developing WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), and his reluctance to allow international inspectors into Iraq.
  5. The conclusion of the CIA (and other intelligence organizations) that Iraq possessed (or was on the brink of possessing) WMD.

This is just a partial list; the causes of the Iraq War are innumerable. And each of these causes has behind it innumerable causes. For example, the 9/11 attack was one cause of the Iraq War, and there are innumerable causes of the 9/11 attack.

Events can rarely be traced to just one cause; close examination usually reveals a vast network of causes — innumerable causes. As Joseph Campbell said,

A great number of things round about, on every side, are causing what is happening now. Everything, all the time, is causing everything else. The Buddhist teaching in recognition of this fact is called the Doctrine of Mutual Arising.12

Perhaps the old puzzle, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” can illustrate the Doctrine of Mutual Arising. If one sees causality in a linear way (A causes B, B causes C, etc.), then the puzzle of the chicken and the egg seems insoluble (there can be no eggs without chickens, but how can there be chickens without eggs?). But if one sees causality in terms of Mutual Arising, then chickens and eggs are no longer puzzling — chickens and eggs arose together, “mutual arising.” The philosophers of India don’t see linear causality, they see everything as part of a huge net, everything inter-connected, everything causing and being caused by everything else.

If you look back at your own life, you can probably find events that resulted from Mutual Arising. When you look at such events, you see a vast number of causes, each of which contributed to the outcome. If you focus your attention on any one of these causes, it appears that this was The Cause — without this the event wouldn’t have happened. In truth, however, nothing is The Cause because everything is causing everything else.

Let’s look at an event from Proust’s life: the death of his beloved chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli, who died in an airplane crash in the south of France, on May 30, 1914. Proust felt responsible for Agostinelli’s death, he felt that he had “willed” or “arranged” Agostinelli’s death — unconsciously or semi-consciously. (One is reminded of Proust’s character, Swann, who longs for the death of his beloved Odette, in order to free himself from the bondage of passion.) But though Proust felt responsible, there were many causes of Agostinelli’s death besides Proust’s “will”:

  1. Agostinelli was something of a daredevil, who liked fast cars, etc.
  2. Agostinelli didn’t know how to swim, and could have survived his accident if he had known.
  3. Agostinelli’s wife seems to have encouraged him to pursue his flying ambitions.
  4. Agostinelli’s accident might have been averted if his training had been a little better, his plane a little better, etc.

Like the Iraq War, Agostinelli’s death has infinite causes, and many people, besides Proust, could say, “it was my fault.”

back to home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. “Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason,” by Lee Harris, 10/2/2006 back
2. Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Sect. III back
3. The Present Age back
4. The Unheavenly City, ch. 3 back
5. Ibid back
6. Ibid, ch. 11 back
7. See Kedourie’s essay, “The Prospects of Civility in the Third World,” in a book called Civility and Citizenship in Liberal Democratic Societies back
8. Kedourie didn’t live to see the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. back
9. A review in the New York Review of Books by a Mr. Geertz back
10. This is a quote from Edward Shils, Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals, ch. 3, “Nirad C. Chaudhuri” back
11. Huntington’s essay appeared in Foreign Affairs, Summer, 1993 back
12. Myths To Live By, ch. 7, p. 144 back