Harrison Hall in winter

Dr. Steven DeLue's Last Lecture

Last class in POL 302 and Career, December 5, 2014 

Thanks to all, faculty and students, for your kindness, for being here today.

So, Pat, aka Dr. Haney Department Chair, says this is an opportunity for me get some things off my chest. Ok, I will take it, but I will do so in the context of the course that I have just taught, POL 302, Classical Political Thought. My students are here, and I want to make sure that my message is for them as well as for the broader audience. My intention, overall, as I review some of the main themes of this course for the students in this class, is to use some of these themes to speak about the degraded politics of our times! I will speak from a prepared text for about 30 minutes because given that this is the last time I will speak here after 31 years of doing this day after day, there is a chance I will go wobbly at times, so I need something to steady me--a crutch-- and the text is far more appropriate for this purpose than a series of stiff drinks! -----

We live by a different creed than the one common in this course. Today, the governing idea of our social and political culture is that liberty--both political and personal--is to be assured to each citizen. Without this public good, the major purpose of our society would not be achieved and the core objectives of each of our lives could not be realized. Yet, as we perused the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli we have had no occasion to focus upon liberty. The ostensible or on surface theme in this course is that whereas the first five philosophers discussed the key place of civic virtue and justice, the last--Machiavelli--talked about how during the course of getting and keeping political power the concern for civic virtue and justice is laughable. After all, he taught us that political power is obtained and protected by violence and deception!

In this course, seemingly, we built up what represents the best of what we may hope for in the human condition only to mercilessly destroy it with what we know is the worst of the worst in the human condition. This was not a course governed by the narrative in which good triumphs over evil, but quite the contrary: evil becomes a permanent fixture in our politics and the good a distant hope. And even though we ended with Machiavelli seeming to lament in the Mandragala the use of the same tactics of violence and deception in personal relations that are prominently featured by him in the political sphere--and all this in the name of the pursuit of freedom--he leaves us puzzled in the same way he appears to be as to what we must do to ensure that freedom works for the enrichment of the world rather than for its diminishment.

Now, if you share this synopsis of the course around the dinner table with friends and family at the holidays, I fear that they may wonder what all the time and money put into your political science degree has gotten you! So let me qualify a bit the message of this course, in the hopes of making those holiday dinners places to celebrate the best of the human spirit, especially at this time of year when that is precisely what we are supposed to do!

The message of the course, qualified to make it possible for you and parents and friends to enjoy your holiday dinners, is this: liberty is a good of the highest importance only when it is integrated into a social fabric that embeds many of the teachings of the classical tradition.

So I contend that we have talked about liberty in a way that the classical tradition says that our culture should discuss it, but often does not. Here is what I mean. Those who seek freedom will suffer only its harms--not its benefits--unless the free life is integrated into a politics dedicated to achieve a good, that is to say, moral life. Yes, freedom is vital, but so too is ensuring a moral order to life. In fact, each depends on the other. Take away a moral order and freedom becomes a detriment to decency. Maintain that order and freedom becomes integral to a just world, a world in which, to paraphrase Socrates, people do not just live, but “live well.”

It is in this context that we can understand the purpose of politics as the classical Greeks saw it. In Plato’s Protagoras the story of why politics was invented makes clear what it involves. Plato tells us that Zeus was afraid that the human race could not survive all of the dangers facing it unless people could “found cities” and create a language for thinking about, for discussing, and arriving at the basis for social cohesion around the common good. Politics is the art of discussion, then, by which the path to a good life is made clear and the path to preserving freedom through living well is made possible.

Thus, when we talk as we often do today about a degraded politics, we have to be clear about the standard against which our political world is measured such that it can, justifiably, be called “degraded.” And that standard is simple. Politics in the classical tradition enshrines the idea of people from different understandings deliberating together, and using careful reasoning to reach an agreement with respect to how to best advance human flourishing, collectively as a society and personally as individuals. A politics that steps down from this endeavor is truly “degraded.” A politics that steps up to this challenge is not unusual in the sense that it is heroic or unique, but just plain normal. What we seek if we pursue the classical vision is what ordinary people crave, a politics that works for our thriving, not against it! Anything else is abnormal, degraded.

What are the components of a “normal” politics, or of a politics dedicated to living well, and how would achieving this approach to politics ensure us the full blessings of liberty and not the onerous burdens of its liabilities? Believe it or not, that is what we actually talked about the whole semester! Let me elaborate.

The classical tradition nudges us--no perhaps a better word “commands” us--to make the art of politics the primary dimension of our lives. To this end, the classical tradition warns us not to place private liberty in terms of importance and significance ahead of political liberty. We should be wary about making the pursuit of private interests predominant over the political liberty by which we do more than just vote and criticize the President, to use modern references, but in addition employ reasoned critique in discussions with fellow citizens during the search for the common good. To do otherwise, means that each of us will inevitably advance our own conception of what is best for ourselves ahead of what is best for our society as a whole. And, as we get used to prioritizing personal over political liberty, the second simply blurs into and becomes indistinguishable from the first.

For proof of this point, Plato and Aristotle, were they to magically reappear in this room now, would say that we only have to look at our society. We have given a much higher priority to personal liberty and a far reduced status to political liberty. In the process, politics is limited to a very narrow set of activities--the quest for power on behalf of self-interest alone--and this scenario excludes the use of politics for the attainment of the broadest of shared purposes.

Signs of this reality emphasize ideological approaches to political issues--those that bolster the positions of certain interests against others--even at the cost of reasoned arguments that authentically and legitimately incorporate regard for the common good. Nowhere is this point more dramatically manifested than in arguments about atmospheric warming from the burning of fossil fuels. All of our fortunes in this society and the world in general--from health and welfare of our planet to avoidance of horrific future wars from incessant warming--depend on getting this issue solved in the interests of all. But our politics, which emphasizes personal over political liberty, makes this result nearly impossible.

Plato and Socrates, Aristotle and Aquinas, would not be surprised by this outcome were they to somehow return and assess our society today. Each would no doubt say that the exercise of political liberty is not the sine qua non of our lives today because most of our time is spent in activities associated with personal liberty. And here they would point to things like consuming all manner of goods, or to things like finding ways for full immersion into our private lives, always focused on the pursuit of self-chosen conceptions of happiness.

But the classical tradition, already in Plato’s Crito, maintained that political liberty is a central factor in what makes possible a life well lived. When Socrates discusses with the Laws of Athens the question of whether Athens is just, the Laws tell him that the benefits of society make clear why Athens is a just society. The Laws--which symbolize the ruling regime--have educated Socrates so that he can engage in philosophy, the art of critique by which all beliefs can be assessed, with careful argument, for their truth value. Further, the Laws have allowed Socrates to use this mode of critique in arguments with them, all with the intention of persuading them that they need to change course. And if he persuades them, they will.

In this discussion, we find the essence of what is involved with, and with what is invoked by, the idea of political liberty: the capacity of citizens to petition government on behalf of their grievances, to be heard, to be considered, and, as a consequence of employing the best reasoning of which they are capable, to cause profoundly necessary changes in laws and policies, changes that serve the common good. There is no justice without political liberty, and we see this argument repeated in Aristotle’s view of the just polity, in Aquinas’s conception of natural law, and even in Machiavelli’s demand that a republic enable citizens to take part in the open discussion of the law, a free and unfettered discussion.

Now, the exercise of political liberty is largely predicated on--indeed it is made possible by--the presumption of something called, civic friendship. Plato in the Laws had made civic friendship the lynchpin of a normal politics and in the Ethics and Politics Aristotle builds on Plato’s view to establish the foundation of a politics of the common good. Let me explain how. (Note, for purposes of full disclosure, the following is taken from my book Political Thinking, Political Theory and Civil Society.)

For Aristotle, friendship is a virtue “most necessary for our life.” Without friendship, life would be missing a major dimension and in consequence our lives would lack real significance. Moreover, as a virtue, friendship is only possible among people who practice other moral virtues, such as courage, truthfulness, and temperance. Here Aristotle replicates Plato and says that people who practice virtues like these are more likely to enable themselves to find ways to accommodate each other’s needs and thus to become civic friends.

Civic friendship is thus a source of community because it suggests a basis for people to collaborate for common purposes. Indeed, the experience of friendship for Aristotle contributes to concord among people with respect to the major questions facing society. For Aristotle, then, “concord,” a “feature of friendship,” is a condition in which the citizens in a city “agree about what is advantageous, make the same decisions, and act on their common resolution.” Concord suggests agreement not just on “anything,” but on what Aristotle referred to as “large questions” or when, as a result of the agreement, the members of the society all “get what they want” on issues of critical importance to the society. Here, Aristotle, in talking about “large questions,” referred to issues such as whether to make alliances with other city-states or whether to make all offices elective.

What makes possible agreement or concord on large questions of this sort is that, underlying these agreements, are shared moral values, which have the highest importance to the society. For the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle the underlying shared moral value is for people to contribute to a well-ordered society in which each person performs assigned functions that when taken together contribute to the overall social welfare. Doing well what one can do well brings one honor and recognition. For us in the modern world, underlying our contemporary commitment to provide rights to all is the shared moral value that orients us to respect equally the full dignity of each individual. This means more than simply doing well one’s assigned functions, although it could mean that. More significantly though is that to have dignity is to have the freedom to determine one’s own course in life. To this end, each person has freedom and rights to do as one pleases on the condition that similar rights and liberty are provided to others. Whereas the contemporary view preferences individual freedom and the provision of rights to enable people to define their own ways of life, the classical tradition emphasizes obligations and if people have rights at all they are defined in terms of what is needed for members of society to achieve assigned tasks.

In either case, the presence of common moral values is presumably the basis for civic friendship. The logic of the argument is that because shared moral values are prevalent in the social and political culture, people may disagree about many things--it is the nature of politics to accept that people will--but for the sake of sustaining the shared moral values of the community they seek to find ways to reduce conflict over their disagreements. In consequence, there can be agreement on important questions (and arrival at the conception of the common good) so that the society is not torn apart by disagreements over major issues. It is for this reason that “political (or what I call civic) friendship…is concerned with advantage and with what affects life [as a whole],” is possible. Moreover, people who are friends, politically or civically speaking, contribute to social stability. The existence of political friendship helps us understand why Aristotle could say as he did that friendship “would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice.” As friends, people avoid all forms of “civil conflict” that are associated with “enmity,” and the members of the society are able to deliberate together to achieve common ends. Indeed, the quest for the middle ground, an idea made so prominent in Aristotle, is rooted in a deliberation sustained by civic friendship and, in consequence, all participants are accorded the political freedom with which to achieve enduring political agreements.

So Aristotle, looking at our shared moral values, and the potential for civic friendship inherent in them, would wonder why we are unable to support a common good approach to public policy and law on a host of issues. Why has concord escaped us? Or, in other terms, why do we have a degraded politics? He would have an answer at the ready.

For Aristotle, more is necessary than civic friendship to make possible the political liberty that advances the politics of the common good. The political framework, or what he referred to as the Constitution of a good society, must accommodate a view of citizenship, which connects citizens to their government in a close way; in a way which instills the view that the government is us and we are the government. Without this prospect, it will be exceedingly difficult to use the shared moral values of society as the foundation to sustain the political liberty that makes possible a politics of the common good.

Now, Aristotle discusses many things that go into a good constitution. I will mention only two of them. The first is that the political structure of a good society rotates people between two roles; on occasion people are citizens in the Assembly deliberating together on the nature of the best law or policy, and at other times some of these same people take their turn as rulers who carry out the policy and laws of the Assembly. By experiencing both standpoints intimately, citizens and their leaders understand each others’ circumstances. The citizens can have a bird’s view of the problems leaders face, and the leaders an intimate knowledge of the issues that pulsate through society. Obviously, no democratic society can in full measure achieve this objective for all of its citizens and Aristotle knew this as well. But what he hoped to make clear through this idea is the need for political structures, for constitutions, that create bridges of trust and connection between citizens and their government. It is precisely this linkage that gives voice and strength to an enduring tradition of political liberty. And, this is because citizens and governmental leaders know that neither can thrive without constant communication--without the back and forth between both of reasoned critique. Here, the existence of political liberty depends exactly on avoiding the sense of estrangement and the absence of trust that is common today between today’s leaders and today’s citizens.

Ferguson, Missouri is a good example of this problem. The citizens have no relationship to those who rule over them and the rulers no relationship to those whom they rule. Indeed, due to various political failures the people in power are not representative of the citizens, and so a great gulf and sense of alienation has grown between them. That gulf became even more exaggerated when issues pertaining to the best approaches to policing were ignited by the stark and tragic instance of an unarmed Black man shot dead in the streets by the police. (The same thing is happening in New York as I speak.) In this context, the citizens believe they are helpless because their government is far too removed and alien from them for any constructive reforms with respect to the policing issue or any other matters.

One more point from Aristotle on the way to shape a political structure so that it advances the politics of the common good. If citizens are to deliberate together to determine the common good, an essential element that makes this discourse possible is reasonable (not absolute) economic equality among citizens. The difference in wealth between people cannot be so huge that economic differences separate people into warring classes. This situation turns political discourse into nothing more than a quest by some to gain political power for the sake of their own interests by locking out people with different interests. In this context, authentic deliberation among citizens to find laws and policies that benefit all is beyond the reach of society.

For the fact of the matter is that to deliberate well and with an intention to incorporate all the needs of society into laws and policies means a willingness on the part of each person to consider other views, to agree to give and to take, and to reach compromises on behalf of the common good. And for this to be possible the distance between people economically speaking must be reasonable so that the discourse about what needs society should support and what ones it should not takes place in a context in which people listen to each other carefully, and in which they each dutifully work to devise common ends.

Aristotle would no doubt say in his commentary on the Citizens United case that allowing unlimited wealth to have its way in the political process in the name of freedom of speech serves to undermine political freedom. Here, what is really happening is that private liberty is advanced to the point making political liberty next to unachievable. And, then so, too, is the deliberation of the common good. Indeed, this is one major reason why Plato and Aristotle were suspicious of private liberty. Political liberty, yes; but, be careful with private liberty. It can be a subterfuge for the rich to trounce the poor and to undermine normal politics. Or, just as bad, in the name of combating the rich, the poor will seek to throw overboard any concern for a politics of the common good, as the poor turn themselves into a mob without boundaries, without reason, motivated only by rage and a forever deepening spiral of resentment. We see the extremes of both positions today, from the top one percent funding our elections to the angry protestors who demand that this end.

In the view of normal politics presented here, when people avoid the reaction inherent in protecting money and the rich, or, in rebelling against money and the rich, society can find a basis for careful, considered deliberation that reaches for the common good. Aristotle made this clear. He knew that extreme passions, especially those stoked by huge wealth differentials, spell the end of civic friendship and author, at the same time, the demise of political liberty.

In contrast, a politics that defeats these tendencies--a normal politics--always seeks to eliminate rage by striking essential balances among key dimensions of society. Indeed, every important issue can be understood in terms of its polarities, each of which represents an important political truth. As we know from our politics, liberty and equality are polar opposites. More liberty means less equality and vice versa. What is the proper proportion? Political reasoning, and its search for the common good, seeks not one or the other end of a polarity but the right mix, not too much of one or the other, but just enough of both. Like Goldilocks, the porridge must not be too hot nor too cold, but just right!

Political liberty is always associated with well-reasoned approaches to politics, and, in consequence thereof, with the search for what is, proportionally speaking, a just combination of competing, but equally worthy views. Indeed, political liberty’s greatest legacy is to enable a politics by which citizens find ways to accommodate a deep appreciation for diverse ways of life. And, it is precisely this circumstance that contributes in important ways to personal freedom. After all, a life built on personal freedom can only take place in a society where people have choices, and these exist only in a society that honors social and political pluralism. Personal liberty and political liberty, then, may co-exist without conflict, but in concord. This is only possible, however, as long as personal liberty is subordinate to and supportive of the moral environment that arises from the use of political liberty to achieve an understanding among citizens of the common good.

Now, by way of concluding I wish to say something about the modern conception of liberty and its relationship to the classical view. The modern conception of liberty--which permits us to do what we please, but only within a commitment to assure similar liberty to others--is based on the highest priority given to autonomy and to what it makes possible, which is personal liberty. But from the classical point of view when the latter is pushed too far it may eliminate the political liberty that grounds the normal politics through which communities search for the common good.

I have in general advocated during my career the position that liberty is the chief good of society, and I largely support the modern conception of liberty—personal liberty for each on the presumption that similar liberty is accorded to all. But, as I have considered arguments on behalf of this principle I have always made sure to consult carefully and to interrogate meticulously the voices of the classical tradition. In which case, the question is if an emphasis on personal liberty may harm political liberty and, through its dismissal, contribute further to a degraded politics. In this regard, I have always asked if we can find a way to ensure both types of liberty, together? It is in keeping with this question that I have read many who write in defense of liberty, both personal and political, including among others John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and John Rawls. And even if I end up not embracing classical arguments in my answer, I nonetheless consider their positions, and depart from them only with great caution. I have done so throughout my teaching and scholarship and thus my books on political obligation and on civil society and the articles in the American Political Science Review on Rawls and the Journal of Politics on Socrates all are based on this theme.

The classical tradition, then, does have practical importance to our lives today, an importance that we dare not deny, lest we do harm to the political liberty we revere.

I hope this message has justified your time and tuition dollars in this course, and ultimately, as well, provides a basis for a nice time at the holiday dinner table with friends and family! Happy holidays!