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  • Professor Steven Smith: Let me start today by asking the

  • question, "what is political philosophy?"

  • Custom dictates that I say something about the subject

  • matter of this course at its outset.

  • This in some ways might seem a case of putting the cart before

  • the horse, or the cart before the course maybe,

  • because how can you say, how can we say what political

  • philosophy is in advance of doing it?

  • Anyway, let me try to say something that might be useful.

  • In one sense, you could say political

  • philosophy is simply a branch or what we call a subfield of the

  • field of political science. Yes, all right.

  • It exists alongside of other areas of political inquiry like

  • American government, comparative politics,

  • and international relations. Yet in another sense,

  • political philosophy is something much different than

  • simply a subfield; it seems to be the oldest and

  • most fundamental part of political science.

  • Its purpose is to lay bare, as it were, the fundamental

  • problems, the fundamental concepts and categories which

  • frame the study of politics. In this respect it seems to me

  • much less like just a branch of political science than the

  • foundation of the entire discipline.

  • The study of political philosophy often begins as this

  • course will do also, with the study of the great

  • books or some of the great books of our field.

  • Political philosophy is the oldest of the social sciences,

  • and it can boast a wealth of heavy hitters from Plato and

  • Aristotle to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel,

  • Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and so on.

  • You might say that the best way to learn what political

  • philosophy is, is simply to study and read the

  • works of those who have shaped the field--yes,

  • right? But to do that is,

  • I recognize, not without dangers,

  • often severe dangers of its own.

  • Why study just these thinkers and not others?

  • Is not any so-called list of great thinkers or great texts

  • likely to be simply arbitrary and tell us more about what such

  • a list excludes than what it includes?

  • Furthermore, it would seem that the study of

  • the great books or great thinkers of the past can easily

  • degenerate into a kind of antiquarianism,

  • into a sort of pedantry. We find ourselves easily

  • intimidated by a list of famous names and end up not thinking

  • for ourselves. Furthermore,

  • doesn't the study of old books, often very old books,

  • risk overlooking the issues facing us today?

  • What can Aristotle or Hobbes tells us about the world of

  • globalization, of terrorism,

  • of ethnic conflict and the like?

  • Doesn't political science make any progress?

  • After all, economists no longer read Adam Smith.

  • I hesitate to... I don't hesitate to say

  • that you will never read Adam Smith in an economics course

  • here at Yale, and it is very unlikely that

  • you will read Freud in your psychology classes.

  • So why then does political science, apparently uniquely

  • among the social sciences, continue to study Aristotle,

  • Locke and other old books?

  • These are all real questions, and I raise them now myself

  • because they are questions I want you to be thinking about as

  • you do your reading and work through this course.

  • I want you to remain alive to them throughout the semester.

  • Yes? Okay.

  • One reason I want to suggest that we continue to read these

  • books is not because political science makes no progress,

  • or that we are somehow uniquely fixated on an ancient past,

  • but because these works provide us with the most basic questions

  • that continue to guide our field.

  • We continue to ask the same questions that were asked by

  • Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and others.

  • We may not accept their answers and it's very likely that we do

  • not, but their questions are often put with a kind of

  • unrivaled clarity and insight. The fact is that there are

  • still people in the world, many people,

  • who regard themselves as Aristotelians,

  • Thomists, Lockeans, Kantians, even the occasional

  • Marxist can still be found in Ivy League universities.

  • These doctrines have not simply been refuted,

  • or replaced, or historically superceded;

  • they remain in many ways constitutive of our most basis

  • outlooks and attitudes. They are very much alive with

  • us today, right. So political philosophy is not

  • just some kind of strange historical appendage attached to

  • the trunk of political science; it is constitutive of its

  • deepest problems. If you doubt the importance of

  • the study of political ideas for politics, consider the works of

  • a famous economist, John Maynard Keynes,

  • everyone's heard of him. Keynes wrote in 1935.

  • "The ideas of economists and political philosophers,

  • both when they are right and when they are wrong,

  • are more powerful than is commonly understood....Practical

  • men," Keynes continues, practical men "who believe

  • themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual

  • influences, are usually the slave of some

  • defunct economist. Madmen in authority,

  • who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy

  • from some academic scribbler of a few years back" .

  • So this course will be devoted to the study of those "academic

  • scribblers" who have written books that continue to impress

  • and create the forms of authority with which we are

  • familiar. But one thing we should not do,

  • right, one thing we should not do is to approach these works as

  • if they provide, somehow, answers,

  • ready-made answers to the problems of today.

  • Only we can provide answers to our problems.

  • Rather, the great works provide us, so to speak,

  • with a repository of fundamental or permanent

  • questions that political scientists still continue to

  • rely on in their work. The great thinkers are great

  • not because they've created some set of museum pieces that can be

  • catalogued, admired, and then safely

  • ignored like a kind of antiquities gallery in the

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art; but rather because they have

  • defined the problems that all later thinkers and scholars have

  • had to use in order to make sense of their world at all.

  • Again, we still think in terms of the basic concepts and

  • categories that were created for us long ago.

  • Okay?

  • So one thing you will quickly note is that there are no

  • permanent answers in a study of political philosophy.

  • A famous mathematician once said, "Every question must have

  • a correct answer, for every question one answer."

  • That itself is an eminently contestable proposition.

  • Among the great thinkers there is profound disagreement over

  • the answers to even the most fundamental questions concerning

  • justice, concerning rights,

  • concerning liberty. In political philosophy,

  • it is never a sufficient answer to answer a question with a

  • statement "because Plato says so,"

  • or "because Nietzsche says so." There are no final authorities

  • in that respect in philosophy because even the greatest

  • thinkers disagree profoundly with one another over their

  • answers, and it is precisely this

  • disagreement with one another that makes it possible for us,

  • the readers today, to enter into their

  • conversation. We are called upon first to

  • read and listen, and then to judge "who's

  • right?" "how do we know?"

  • The only way to decide is not to defer to authority,

  • whoever's authority, but to rely on our own powers

  • of reason and judgment, in other words the freedom of

  • the human mind to determine for us what seems right or best.

  • Okay?

  • But what are these problems that I'm referring to?

  • What are these problems that constitute the subject matter of

  • the study of politics? What are the questions that

  • political scientists try to answer?

  • Such a list may be long, but not infinitely so.

  • Among the oldest and still most fundamental questions are:

  • what is justice? What are the goals of a decent

  • society? How should a citizen be

  • educated? Why should I obey the law,

  • and what are the limits, if any, to my obligation?

  • What constitutes the ground of human dignity?

  • Is it freedom? Is it virtue?

  • Is it love, is it friendship? And of course,

  • the all important question, even though political

  • philosophers and political scientists rarely pronounce it,

  • namely, quid sit deus, what is God?

  • Does he exist? And what does that imply for

  • our obligations as human beings and citizens?

  • Those are some of the most basic and fundamental problems

  • of the study of politics, but you might say,

  • where does one enter this debate?

  • Which questions and which thinkers should one pick up for

  • oneself? Perhaps the oldest and most

  • fundamental question that I wish to examine in the course of this

  • semester is the question: what is a regime?

  • What are regimes? What are regime politics?

  • The term "regime" is a familiar one.

  • We often hear today about shaping regimes or about

  • changing regimes, but what is a regime?

  • How many kinds are there? How are they defined?

  • What holds them together, and what causes them to fall

  • apart? Is there a single best regime?

  • Those are the questions I want us to consider.

  • The concept of the regime is perhaps the oldest and most

  • fundamental of political ideas. It goes back to Plato and even

  • before him. In fact, the title of the book

  • that you will be reading part of for this semester,

  • Plato's Republic, is actually a translation of

  • the Greek word politea that means constitution or

  • regime. The Republic is a book

  • about the regime and all later political philosophy is a series

  • of footnotes to Plato, and that means that it must

  • provide a series of variations, so to speak,

  • on Plato's conception of the best regime.

  • But what is a regime? Broadly speaking,

  • a regime indicates a form of government, whether it is ruled

  • by the one, a few, the many,

  • or as more common, some mixture,

  • a combination of these three ruling powers.

  • The regime is defined in the first instance by how people are

  • governed and how public offices are distributed by election,

  • by birth, by lot, by outstanding personal

  • qualities and achievements, and what constitutes a people's

  • rights and responsibilities. The regime again refers above

  • all to a form of government. The political world does not

  • present itself as simply an infinite variety of different

  • shapes. It is structured and ordered

  • into a few basic regime types. In this, I take it to be one of

  • the most important propositions and insights of political

  • science.

  • Right? So far?

  • But there is a corollary to this insight.

  • The regime is always something particular.

  • It stands in a relation of opposition to other regime

  • types, and as a consequence the possibility of conflict,

  • of tension, and war is built in to the very structure of

  • politics. Regimes are necessarily

  • partisan, that is to say they instill certain loyalties and

  • passions in the same way that one may feel partisanship to the

  • New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox,

  • or to Yale over all rival colleges and institutions,

  • right? Fierce loyalty,

  • partisanship: it is inseparable from the

  • character of regime politics. These passionate attachments

  • are not merely something that take place, you might,

  • say between different regimes, but even within them,

  • as different parties and groups with loyalties and attachments

  • contend for power, for honor, and for interest.

  • Henry Adams once cynically reflected that politics is

  • simply the "organization of hatreds,"

  • and there is more than a grain of truth to this,

  • right, although he did not say that it was also an attempt to

  • channel and redirect those hatreds and animosities towards

  • something like a common good. This raises the question

  • whether it is possible to transform politics,

  • to replace enmity and factional conflict with friendship,

  • to replace conflict with harmony?

  • Today it is the hope of many people, both here and abroad,

  • that we might even overcome, might even transcend the basic

  • structure of regime politics altogether and organize our

  • world around global norms of justice and international law.

  • Is such a thing possible? It can't be ruled out,

  • but such a world, I would note--let's just say a

  • world administered by international courts of law,

  • by judges and judicial tribunals--would no longer be a

  • political world. Politics only takes place

  • within the context of the particular.

  • It is only possible within the structure of the regime itself.

  • But a regime is more than simply a set of formal

  • structures and institutions, okay?

  • It consists of the entire way of life, the moral and religious

  • practices, the habits, customs, and sentiments that

  • make a people what they are. The regime constitutes an

  • ethos, that is to say a distinctive

  • character, that nurtures distinctive human types.