Christians as Political Animals, Part II
March 13, 2012
Marc Guerra writes: “Unlike modern social science, Socratic philosophy squarely opposes ‘crypto-materialistic’ accounts of statesmanship which seek to explain political actions on merely ‘hedonistic or utilitarian grounds.’ The actions of true statesman are guided by a genuine concern for the common good and cannot be reduced to mere calculations of self-interest.” [pp. 30-31]
That this view of statesmanship is problematic is evident insofar as even the most inhuman of rulers have been motivated by “a genuine concern for the common good.” That is, those who are most ambitious see themselves as “statesmen” in this sense, as having “a genuine concern for the common good.” In fact, such a concern with the common good, unrestrained, leads human beings to commit the most inhuman acts imaginable. Certainly a genuine concern for the common good has led many American presidents into situations that result in inhuman acts, such as dispossessing Native Americans, enslaving millions of Africans, killing millions of Vietnamese, thousands of Iraqis, and thousands of Afghanis, many of them innocent civilians, not to mention the use of atomic weapons in Japan and other heinous acts.
To the extent this is accurate, modern social science doesn’t understand the “depth” of political ambition. It sees it as, say, the pursuit of “success” whereas it is actually a desire to achieve “fame,” or a kind of immortality. It is then a desire to god-like. Hence, modern social science does not grasp what might be called the political phenomenon of the greatest importance: How to prevent tyranny by “deflecting” those who are drawn into politics to do great things and, thereby, achieve everlasting fame, to be deemed god-like.
And this helps to make sense of Guerra’s next observation that, based on Socrates' view of “the right ordering of the soul,” “Socratic political philosophy replaces the prudent statesman with the wise philosopher as the highest human type.” [p. 31] The philosopher is “wise” in that he knows that “a genuine concern for the common good” needs to be restrained, that it can – and will – lead human beings into inhuman acts. The “wise” philosopher challenges all political, social, and divinely based orders/regimes, challenges all political actions but especially the those political actions that seek greatness. The “wise” philosopher is always a “gadfly,” that is, his behavior resembles an irritating pest, and those genuinely concerned for the common good just want him to go away.
“A genuine concern for the common good” blinds human beings to the injustice that is always present in the political arena. Hence, what might be called “Socrates’ mantra,” “Do no injustice,” changes the character of political life as it acts as a deterrent to action and especially to great actions.