Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Student's Guide to Political Philosophy

Professor Harvey Mansfield
Professor Harvey C. Mansfield was commissioned to write A Student's Guide to Political Philosophy.  It is an excellent introduction to the discipline of Political Philosophy that contains an excellent list of some of the best books in the history of political philosophy:
Here are a few of my favorite passages from this introduction to Political Philosophy (for a more in depth discussion of the history of Political Philosophy, click here):
  • "Political philosophy is found in great books- those by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and others of the highest rank- and in books by professors.  You should spend much more time with the great authors than with the professors, and you should use the professors to help you understand the great authors; you should not allow yourself to be diverted or distracted from the great books by the professors.  Why not go for the gold?"
  • "The political philosopher knows for sure that politics will always be debatable, whether the debate is open or suppressed, but that fact- rather welcome when you reflect on it- does not stop him from seeking a common good that might be too good for everyone to agree with."
  • "But evil has a finger on the good; though it cannot grasp the good, evil cannot help admitting that the good is superior because that is what even evil wants."
  • "No society, not even one as free as ours, can proceed on the assumption that every custom and law is open to question, yet Socrates makes us see that every social practice is indeed questionable."
  • "Nature may incline us to what is good, but it does not tell us unambiguously what that is, or move us toward it without hindrance or distraction, as it does with other animals.  We humans are by nature political, but there is no single, programmed way of life as with bees.  Human nature includes both the freedom and the necessity to construct a regime, for we could not have freedom if nature had done everything for us."
  • "Which is more important to human life, the fact that all humans have reason, or the fact that they have it very unequally?"
  • "Jewish and Muslim political and religious traditions are often considered not to be Western, and that view of them makes sense.  But from the standpoint of the philosophical tradition, one may hold that any nation having had contact with Greek philosophy or science belongs to the West.  Certainly Muslim and Jewish philosophers were essential to that tradition not only for what they said but also for transmitting ancient philosophy to the medieval or modern West (in the political or geographical sense)."
  • "Just as for Plato the only true virtue is philosophic, so for Augustine, true virtue is Christian."
  • "It is thus of the utmost importance to understand what modernity is, how the moderns opposed the ancients (and the Christians, who in the moderns' view derived from the ancients), how modernity developed in stages, the history it experienced, and the crises it has suffered."
  • Machiavelli wondered whether he might not adopt this method himself, and oppose Christian ends with Christian means.  This was the germ of the Enlightenment, a conversion of peoples away from faith in God to faith in human control, led by philosophers (of the type we now call "intellectuals") and oriented against priests."
  • "We may be intrigued and impressed by Machiavelli, but I am obliged to say it would be wrong to approve of him.  The real remedy he provides is a cold bath for those- most all of us at one time or another- who are guilty of complacent moralism and find it easy to condemn others and hard to examine themselves.  But doesn't the Bible say some such thing?"
  • "The ancients tried to consider things from all points of view and to consult all opinions; they tried to understand and they aimed for wisdom.  Anyone who reads them now may question their relevance to today's issues, but one can hardly fail to learn from them unless one is entirely preoccupied with those issues.  But the moderns produce theories; they have a project and an aim for change or reform.  They would rather be right according to their theories than wise without a theory."
  • "Hobbes never gave much of a proof that all men are equal, but he launched the assumption that they can be taken to be equal.  The assumption is still unproven, but it has become immensely successful."
  • "It must not be forgotten that America- the 'regime' America, as Aristotle defines that word- began with a revolution, and one not merely for Americans but ostensibly on behalf of all mankind.  It must also not be forgotten that in comparison to the revolutions that followed, this was a moderate one, and perhaps for that reason it has proved more lasting."
  • "Boredom is a modern affliction that comes with modern rationality.  As life is made more predictable and secure, it becomes mediocre, uninteresting, and lacking risk or challenge."
  • "Science can enslave us as well as liberate us.  How obvious!  How could we have missed that point?"
  • "Thus the tendency of modern thought is to improve on itself and not to question itself."
  • "A fact is how things have turned out; nature is about how things have to be."
  • "Plato and Aristotle thought that facts come and go, but nature remains; nature is what should be studied."
  • "Peaceable liberal democracies, for whom wars over religion are now inconceivable, still have parties- the liberals and conservatives we know so well.  Actually, we would know them better if we studied John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) and Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), the political philosophers who explain each the best.  Make sure you read both Mill and Burke, not just the one you like."
  • "This guide is not intended for other professors, so it is not equipped with footnotes.  I have written it to tell you what I really think (up to a point), but that is less important than the fact that it contains some of the most valuable information there is."
For other books by Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, click here.

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