The Magazine

See Things as They Are

Mark Blitz on politics and philosophy.

Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By CHRISTOPHER LYNCH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Blitz neither indulges in vague formulas about balancing desired outcomes, nor reverts to claims about the dignity of the human person rooted in revelation. Rather, Blitz explores what is required for us to pursue human goods, especially moral and intellectual goods. Moreover, he does so without being moralistically or legalistically prescriptive: He deftly distinguishes his arguments from those on both left and right which have “an atavistic ring” in their flight to simple traditions, poetic imaginations, or “prescientific worlds.” 

In Duty Bound, he writes: 

These standpoints .  .  . threaten to give away what one most wishes to protect, our rational powers. .  .  . Genuine reflection on what makes our goals good and on the place of thought in enriching or even threatening these goods is a central task if we are to govern technology responsibly, especially given the emergence of biotechnology. Post-Heideggerian thought can contribute to this.

Plato’s Political Philosophy is a signal instance of such genuine reflection. Among its most satisfying aspects is the significance of its reflections on specific virtues in both their common, conventional guises and their rarer, natural, and, ultimately, philosophical versions. Blitz shows how careful reflection enables one to follow the movement from courage as a virtue of the body to courage as a virtue of the mind. Courage first comes to sight as the most bodily virtue, the activity of standing one’s literal ground with brute spiritedness; under Blitz’s guidance, we see how that primitive version naturally points to the
paradoxical philosophic definition of a knowledge ennobled by its connection to truly good ends. 

Blitz pushes this standard account one dialectical step further. On the one hand, such intellectualization of courage does reveal the truth that courage is only a part of the whole of virtue understood as knowledge; on the other hand, it conceals the truth that courage is a part of virtue that stands apart as a relatively stable whole in its own right. 

Similarly, the reverence entailed in religious piety reproduces what natural piety does when, for example, Socrates stands in awe of what is best in himself, especially insofar as that part of him imposes hard demands for precise knowledge of things as they truly are. And as though to make clear that he means to maintain the distinctiveness of piety itself, Blitz later gives piety its due by suggesting that “we cannot simply split the pleasure of virtue, of moral beauty, from fearful awe.” 

The conventional and natural versions of each virtue bear more than merely formal similarities to one another. Each can also actualize the potential of the same part of the soul—and without such virtues, the souls that possess them would be smaller and less whole. A link between the conventional and natural versions is imitation, intended by the virtuous person or not. So, for instance, Blitz’s conclusions would allow one to account for the superiority of Socrates’ courage to Achilles’ without having to deny the nobility of Achilles or the reality of his courage. The courage of each stands out as a striking part of the whole he is most truly a part of, even while it necessarily appears tarnished from the perspective of the whole to which he is a
relative stranger.

Achilles’ courage on the Trojan battlefield shines forth; but as a human being within the whole of things, his limits become apparent. To Athens, Plato’s Socrates appears as a true stranger, even and especially while performing his proper function as a part of the whole of things which stands apart and opens itself moderately to that whole. We could not see Socrates’ nobility as clearly without seeing Achilles’ first.

Thus, Blitz can help us ascend from the political to (as he calls it) the “co-philosophic” world that supervenes upon those phenomena without requiring us to look back on politics with contempt. Instead, we can do so with a greater ability to see the political community as a whole, some of whose parts are splendid. Blitz’s perspective on politics allows us to see Socrates and the likes of Pericles as similar in their splendid hardness, in that each (as Blitz says of Socrates) is “noble by being himself in defending his own.” 

Blitz’s concluding comments on the Platonic work on knowledge, the Theatetus, apply just as well to Blitz’s own emphasis on the centrality of politics for knowing in general, and for knowing the ends of human life in particular.