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Can Philosophy Make Our Politicians Better?
A review of Massimo Pigliucci's "The Quest for Character"
Can the study of philosophy make better political leaders?
That’s the question Massimo Pigliucci, professor at the City College of New York and one of the leading lights of the movement to apply the wisdom and insights of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy to modern life, asks in his new book The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us About Our Search for Good Leaders. It’s a question that goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, where philosophers from Socrates on down dwelled on the proper relationship between politics and philosophy – and many tried to advise the political leaders of their day, almost always without lasting success.
It's a question that we all ought to ponder given the crop of incoming elected leaders that will assume office after yesterday’s mid-term election. But it’s also a subject that interests us here at The Liberal Patriot, where we hope to build bridges between intellectual traditions and improve the way we all discuss politics and public policy – from the average citizen to think tank denizens and elected leaders at all levels. That’s admittedly a tall order, and we’ll certainly take good advice wherever we can get it.
As Pigliucci reminds us early and often, it’s important to remember that the ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of philosophy in a much broader and deeper sense than we often do today. Where we might think of philosophy as an arid and abstract subject fit for esoteric seminars held in university lecture halls, the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed philosophy as a way of life – a set of principles and practices that constituted the art of living. From Socrates on, the ancient Greeks and Romans thought a philosopher was anyone “who attempted to live in a particularly mindful and ethical way.”
Socrates and Alcibiades
The relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, the cocksure and conniving Athenian politician and general, forms the heart of the book and serves as its core framing narrative. Socrates tries to put Alcibiades onto the path of virtue and wisdom, telling his young and ambitious pupil that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know – an especially dangerous form of ignorance, all the more so in a person who (like Alcibiades) hopes to steer the ship of state. Despite his love and affection for Socrates, however, Alcibiades never truly heeds the philosopher’s counsel – with disastrous results for himself personally and his home city of Athens.
In order to win martial glory for himself, Alcibiades convinced his fellow Athenians to embark on a military expedition to conquer Sicily – a story recounted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Accused of committing sacrilegious acts after the invasion force sets sail, Alcibiades absconds when the Athenians send a ship to take him back to Athens for trial. Sentenced to death in absentia, Alcibiades winds up in the court of Sparta – the archenemy of Athens – where he gives the Spartans military advice that ultimately allows them to defeat Athens. More twists and turns follow, but in the end Alcibiades’ scheming catches up with him and he’s killed by the Persians at the behest of the Spartans. It’s a complicated and convoluted tale, one involving multiple betrayals and allegations of adultery – but it makes clear that Alcibiades failed to absorb much of anything Socrates tried to teach him.
But the spectacular failure Socrates endured with Alcibiades didn’t deter other philosophers from trying to steer political leaders to the straight and narrow. If Socrates couldn’t do it, what hope would his followers and successors have? Still, they tried – though with only marginally greater and always temporary success.
Trying to Teach Philosophy to Politicians…
Plato, for instance, attempted to advise the tyrants of Syracuse – the city-state in Sicily the Athenians tried to conquer during the Peloponnesian War – on multiple occasions. His first effort ended in abject failure, with Plato sold into slavery and requiring his Athenian benefactors to ransom him. Though he had somewhat more success his second time around, Plato still wound up under house arrest after the new tyrant’s court grew suspicious of his influence. He later returned to Syracuse a third time but met with no more success than before; as Pigliucci notes, “Plato was lucky to survive the experience unscathed.”
Aristotle had better luck tutoring the young Alexander of Macedon, later known to history by the sobriquet “the Great.” While Aristotle certainly influenced Alexander’s intellectual development, Pigliucci argues, the general and king ultimately pursued a more “uniquely cosmopolitan” political vision of a Hellenistic empire than that offered by his more provincial mentor. Where Aristotle viewed Greeks as exceptional and had little use for non-Greeks, Alexander “tried to forge a syncretic path forward” that blended Greek and local cultures together. It’s a far rosier assessment of Alexander than that offered by the Roman Stoics, who saw him as a courageous but insatiable conqueror ultimately unable to control his own desires and impulses.
Then there’s the case of the Stoic philosopher, writer, statesman Seneca and his attempt to guide the emperor Nero. Pigliucci gives readers a judicious evaluation of Seneca’s political career, observing that he did his best under exceedingly difficult circumstances and performed about as well as could have been expected – particularly early on in Nero’s reign. But Nero grew increasingly paranoid and deranged, leaving Seneca with very few options to exercise positive or constructive influence on the emperor. He ultimately tried to buy his retirement from Nero’s court – but the emperor would have none of it, eventually ordering Seneca to commit suicide. “Whatever [Seneca’s] political mistakes,” Pigliucci astutely observes, “he paid for them with his life.”
That’s not something that really happens in modern American politics, though intellectuals of various stripes have attempted with varying degrees of success to influence politics and policy. For the most part, these intellectuals haven’t been philosophers in the mold of Socrates but historians, economists, and journalists – think the so-called “brains trust” that coalesced around Franklin D. Roosevelt early on in his first term, or the roles the historians Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Eric Goldman, and Henry Kissinger played in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations in the 1960s. More recently, “grown-ups” like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster attempted with mixed success – Mattis eventually resigned in protest – to prevent President Donald Trump from translating his worst impulses into policy.
…Or Political Leaders Taking an Interest in Philosophy?
What of politicians who took an interest in philosophy? Here the record appears at least somewhat better.
Cato the Younger, Pigliucci’s first case study, was a famously incorruptible and upright Roman politician noted for his adherence to an austere version of Stoicism and opposition to Julius Caesar. But for all his personal virtues, Pigliucci observes, Cato’s constitutional inflexibility prevented him from building “the sort of political coalition that might have turned the fortunes of the [Roman] Republic and avoided its disintegration into empire.” Or as his friendly rival and contemporary Cicero put it, Cato conducted himself “as though he was in the Republic of Plato, not in the scum of Romulus.”
Emperor Marcus Aurelius, by contrast, stands as one of history’s few true philosopher-kings. Picked for supreme political leadership of the Roman Empire at a young age, Marcus developed an intense interest in philosophy and Stoicism in particular. Pigliucci succinctly details how Marcus balanced “his duties as emperor and his vocation as a philosopher,” and makes a convincing case that he did so quite successfully. Marcus enacted legislation and promulgated decrees that ameliorated the status of slaves, eliminating a number of the worst abuses permitted by Roman law. Nor did he persecute the empire’s Christian minority, as has been alleged, and his decision to appoint the unstable Commodus his successor as emperor is mitigated by a plethora of extenuating circumstances that made disinheriting his son and presumptive heir perhaps the most dangerous and destabilizing option available.
There’s less for Pigliucci to discuss about the fourth century CE Emperor Julian, dubbed “the Apostate” by Christians who resented his attempt to revive traditional Roman religious practices. Julian reigned for less than a year and a half before dying in battle against the Persians, and his Christian successors quickly reversed his religious and administrative reforms. As a result, it’s hard to make solid judgments about Julian as either emperor or philosopher – but he nonetheless makes for an intriguing case to ponder.
Again, most modern American political leaders have been more intellectuals than philosophers. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were accomplished writers and academics in their own rights before ascending to the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy possessed deceptively acute intelligences of their own, while Barack Obama may well have been too abstract and academic for his own good. Former Secretary of Defense Mattis is perhaps the most recent example of a high-ranking public official who’s taken an interest in philosophy, having kept a copy of Marcus’s Meditations with him during his military career and recommending every American read the book – but Mattis wasn’t a political leader, at least not in the sense most people would understand.
Overall, then, Pigliucci paints a pretty bleak picture: philosophers seem to have only temporary success at best when it comes to teaching virtue to rulers, while political leaders who take an interest in philosophy appear to be fairly uncommon and possess mixed track records when they do happen to materialize. Still, it’s better to count on statesmen to dabble in philosophy of their own volition than to expect philosophers to successfully tutor politicians. That’s not exactly an encouraging conclusion in this day and age given the caliber of politicians found in most democracies, and in particular the United States.
There’s more in The Quest for Character, including a brief digression on Machiavelli and an inadequate discussion of modern political philosophies and international relations theories like realism and liberalism. But these tangents do lead into an important point that Pigliucci doesn’t quite do justice in the book itself: the Roman notion of mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors” that laid out informal guidelines intended to keep society functional. As Pigliucci observes, “a society functions only insofar as its members and leaders follow accepted principles, models of behavior and social practices.”. But when these models and practices – the mos maiorum – break down, as they did in the Roman Republic of Caesar, Cato, and Cicero and in the United States of the early twenty-first century, “then there is no system of law that is sufficiently resilient to guarantee a functional society.” Constitutions and laws only go so far; in other words, they may be necessary, but they are far from sufficient.
The book ends with the unsatisfying though undoubtedly true conclusion that working on our own character represents “the most consequential contribution each and every one of us can make to eventually build a better world.” After all, Pigliucci reminds us, “most of us are unlikely to have a chance to tutor the next Alexander [the Great] or Marcus [Aurelius].” He then gives readers some strategies and practices to help them improve their own individual characters, including a thoughtful self-directed course of philosophical study largely focused on the major Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus – as well as other ancient Greek and Roman writers like Xenophon, Plutarch, and Diogenes Laertius.
We certainly do need more virtuous citizens – especially in America, and especially now. That much seems obvious given the state of contemporary American politics, with its elevation of manifestly unfit individuals to the highest offices in the land and the privileging of ideological rigidity over dialogue and thought. If Pigliucci doesn’t quite connect the dots between the character of citizens and the character of our shared public life as strongly as he could have, he’s at least made it quite easy for readers to draw this conclusion for themselves. It’s hard to say The Quest for Character provides us with a clear or direct path out of our current political predicament, but it does show us the first steps we can and should take as individuals concerned about the fate of our societies. Every journey begins with small steps, after all, even if they’re fundamentally as personal as what Pigliucci recommends in his final chapter.
As the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, put it, “Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” That’s as true for societies and nation as it is for individuals.