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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Mary Ann Glendon begins her chapter on Rousseau by recounting the story of Napoleon’s visit to the grave of that worthy on the estate of the Marquis René Louis de Girardin at Ermenonville and saying, “It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never lived.” When the marquis sensibly pointed out that, without the impetus given by Rousseau’s writings to the French Revolution, Napoleon himself would not have existed, at least not as Napoleon, the first consul replied that only the future would tell if it would have been better if neither he nor Rousseau had ever lived.

Photo of Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd in 1917

Lenin arrives at the Finland Station, Petrograd (1917)

The association of Napoleon—himself as real as a heart attack, as we would say today—with this kind of intellectual speculation calls to mind the famous saying of Zhou Enlai about the results of the French Revolution: “Too early to tell.” Except that now he is generally supposed to have been referring to les événements of 1968 and not 1789.

But very often, time does not tell, whether it is two years or two hundred. History rarely if ever provides an unambiguous and definitive confirmation or refutation of theories—even theories of history like Marxism. Most people simply assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union amounted to a refutation of Marx’s theory, and yet there still seem to be plenty of Marxists around, at least on American and European university campuses.

This is all part of the more general problem of finding a way to reconcile theory with practice, and that is Glendon’s subject. She undertakes to shine a light into what some might describe as the central problem of our political culture, which is the gulf between a fundamentally utopian approach to political problems by our “intellectuals” and the often messy realities of political and everyday life which so often thwart and humble their elegant projects of social perfection.

Her insight, at least in my way of reading her, is that, historically, the successful unification of theory with practice has required a rigidly and unsentimentally non-utopian approach on the theorists’ part, and a humility before the unbending truths of experience. See, for example, Plato’s disdainful portrait in the Theaetetus of the ivory tower type

who is unaware what his neighbor is doing, hardly knows indeed whether the creature is a man at all; he spends all his pains on the question, what man is. .  .  . Only his body sojourns in his city, while his thought, disdaining all such things as worthless, takes wings .  .  . seeking the true nature of everything as a whole, never sinking to what lies close at hand.

Yet how few, really, are her shining examples of those in our own time who are said to have bridged the gap between scholarship and statesmanship: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and—er, that’s about it for our fair republic. Václav Havel and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) are mentioned along with Abba Eban, Marcello Pera, and Rocco Buttiglione among foreign worthies; but it’s a pretty limited collection, given the numbers of political leaders of the world who might fall into the same category and don’t. And none even of these could really be said to rival Plato or Machiavelli or even Rousseau. I would wish she had given some more attention to the question of why this might be, except that that would itself be idle theorizing.

Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station may be the first great example of a literary tribute to heroic thinkers—in his case, the thinkers who brought about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. His book appeared at a time (1940) when many if not most Western intellectuals were disposed to regard that revolution as a more lasting achievement than anyone can today. Some of Wilson’s heroes—more tarnished by the subsequent history of that revolution, to be sure, but still with a portion of their glitter intact—featured in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays called The Coast of Utopia which, differently from Wilson, paid these intellectual heroes homage for their good intentions and for their human foibles and sufferings, rather than the actual content of their theorizing.

Judging by the reviews, Mary Gabriel’s recent Love and Capital about the life of Karl Marx is following the same well-trodden path.