The Magazine

Believing Is Seeing

History unfolds beneath the Ivory Tower.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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But heroic thinking, at least when it comes to the social sciences, is much more the province of the left than the right. “Intellectuals” made their first appearance among us more or less simultaneously with the revolutionary impulse to refashion society according to some ideal model, and the shaping of that model was self-evidently a job for the brainy sorts who were the first to adopt the name of “intellectual” to describe themselves. Obviously,  somewhat less in the way of brainpower was required of those who merely wanted to keep things more or less as they were, or who were inclined (like Napoleon and Zhou Enlai in their mellower moments) to trust to the wisdom of time and experience rather than any theorist, however brilliant.

To some extent, Glendon offers us an alternative to Wilson’s dream team of heroic revolutionaries by bringing forward what could be seen as the conservatives’ first-string lineup of philosophers and legal theorists to bat against them, even though some, especially Rousseau, might seem more at home on Wilson’s team than on hers. The others are, from the ancient world, Plato and Cicero; from the Middle Ages, Justinian, Tribonian, and Irnerius, who between them preserved Roman law and the Roman legal tradition for modernity; from the Renaissance, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke; and from more modern times, Burke, Tocqueville, Max Weber, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and—perhaps because she needs a woman for the honor of her sex—Eleanor Roosevelt together with her collaborator on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik.

It’s not so easy to see what these thinkers have in common, certainly not in comparison with the socialist and anarchist thought of those we almost can’t help thinking of as their rivals. Indeed, the comparison gives us the best hint as to what is the common element in this otherwise diverse lineup. If Vico to Trotsky are the Revolutionary Giants, Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt are the Skeptical Dodgers. Some are conservatives and some liberals, and one is three-quarters of the way to being a revolutionary himself; but all of them (it could be argued) orient themselves towards reality and away from the utopianism into which political idealism is always slipping.

Glendon’s subtitle is “How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt,” but to the Skeptics, the imagining part would be of little interest in itself without its impact on practical politics, which is why she takes as her theme the difficulty of reconciling theory with practice.

She quotes, for example, Cicero’s advice to philosophers with political ambition to the effect “that if they put their talents at the service of the polity, they must learn what the wise statesman knows: how to operate within the limits of the possible.” And yet it is surely a subject worthy of some more investigation that few of those on her team actually succeeded in doing this. Cicero and Burke are, perhaps, the main examples of thinkers who also had important, if not quite successful, political careers. Indeed, they could be said to have lived parallel lives. Machiavelli and Tocqueville had brief and fairly undistinguished political careers, which don’t seem to have had all that much to do with their political thinking, while Plato’s brief foray into practical politics nearly got him executed by Dionysius of Syracuse. Justinian, of course, was an emperor, but that’s not quite the same as a politician. The rest had little or no political experience of their own.

More important, in this lineup of intellectual heavy-hitters, there is no Montesquieu or Bentham, no Mill or Macaulay, no Carlyle or Cobbett. Hume is no more than a bit player in Rousseau’s strange story, and Adam Smith hardly even gets a mention. Most remarkably, the American Founding Fathers, who on any reckoning must have a claim to be the most successful combination of political thinkers and political doers in history, have no place in her story. How does Rousseau find a place here when they don’t?

Here’s what Glendon writes about the connection between the two: “The legacy of the most influential political thinker of the eighteenth century is thus at odds with the era’s greatest political achievement.” I wonder if she doesn’t see their very success as slightly scandalous? Maybe she envies Edmund Wilson and Tom Stoppard and their cast of tragic but romantic failures. Or maybe it’s no more complicated than the fact that, like most intellectuals, Glendon is simply more interested in thinking than she is in achievement. Hence her view that “Rousseau and his most discerning readers, especially Tocqueville, served the world’s democratic experiments well as sources of constructive criticism.”