Mark Blitz’s Plato’s Political Philosophy makes, and keeps, some large promises.
At the top of the list is Blitz’s intention to bring to light Plato’s depiction of the full range of human life by “articulating the realm of political philosophy,” the sphere of distinctively human existence, according to Blitz. It is a realm suffused by opinions about human life as a whole and about the whole itself, the cosmos of which man is but a part.
An understanding of these opinions can enable readers of Plato (guided by Blitz) to discern what is both distinctive and noble about human life by indicating how what is beyond politics is, in fact, above it. Human life is thereby elevated and enlarged by awareness of its place in the larger cosmos, rather than flattened out or reduced to insignificance.
An unstated motive here, it would seem, is to make plausible to our dogmatically skeptical age the idea that actions of moral beauty issue from excellent human souls. Our souls are open to a cosmos whose intelligibility is increasingly clarified the more we reflect on the world in which we live. And that world is the political world. Blitz offers a stunning reprise of the premodern dictum according to which man is the microcosm.
Blitz’s method, and his chosen audience, are capacious. He takes a “generalizing approach” that ranges throughout nearly the entire Platonic corpus, and he aims to benefit both beginners and scholars. He seeks to convince the former of the importance of Plato’s “more refined, complicated, or abstract thoughts” while still benefiting the “more advanced” through his own reflections on Plato’s ideas. Above all, Blitz wishes to remind both of “how Plato’s most abstract thought is rooted in ordinary political and moral questions,” and to demonstrate how “to uncover his practical answers to them.”
Blitz does not obtrude his ambition: He stresses, instead, the apparently more modest goal of “thinking together with Plato.” Yet one shouldn’t be misled into believing that Blitz’s aim is merely academic. When this book is read in conjunction with his Duty Bound (2005) and last year’s Conserving Liberty, it becomes apparent that Mark Blitz seeks to understand the limits of our political order as well as defend and ennoble it. He is as keenly aware of the practical importance of politics as he is of the theoretical significance of the political.
In Duty Bound, he developed the idea that responsibility is the virtue that guides and limits freedom in a democratic order founded on natural rights—an order that he, in keeping with the usage of political theorists, calls liberal democracy or liberalism. It is to be distinguished not from conservatism, but from orders founded on (or dedicated to) principles other than natural rights—such as moral virtue or the common good of ancient political philosophy. Duty Bound’s early parts show how stolid institutions like federal bureaucracies and seemingly staid and stale fields such as administrative law can be realms within which genuine human excellences can do their work, especially when seen through the prism of reasonable responsibility as a virtue.
In this manner, Blitz counters the complacency of those who think our political life is a machine that runs of itself, and others who look down on modern democratic politics with knee-jerk contempt. Blitz counters crucial challenges to liberal democracy in a manner that does full justice to the spirit of freedom.
In Conserving Liberty Blitz is at his most practical, even if theoretical considerations do not recede entirely. He makes the case that a conservatism founded on reason rather than tradition offers the best prospect for preserving our country’s core principles as well as its characteristic practices and institutions. America can continue to serve as the bulwark of a freedom that amply provides the conditions for human happiness.
In the final chapters of Duty Bound, however, Blitz identifies challenges to our liberal democratic order that can be met fully only by transcending liberalism, by seeing it from a higher, or more comprehensive, perspective. In those chapters, he places the theme of responsibility within the broadest context of human ends, goods, and choice.
Liberal democracies tend to flatten both aspirations for, and visions of, the human good. They also leave their citizens with little guidance regarding key questions of modern life, and the answers to some of these questions may well determine whether human beings will even continue to desire the good ends entailed in human happiness.