A Note to Plato, or, On the Importance of History to Political Thought



In your brief sharing I see the shadows of my path to, and sometimes away from, philosophy. More than once did I say to myself: What is philosophy, but an ingenuity to say trivial things in very obscure ways? More than once did I return to philosophy, realizing that the former answer might well be wrong. It then gradually dawns on me, that to understand the world, even if just our world at present, there are more than one way, and philosophy need not always be the most effective one.

It is the hallmark of philosophy--and here I must generalize boldly--to deal with abstract thought: concepts, propositions, theses, systems, arguments and counter-arguments; before long one has the feeling of being trapped in some immense theoretical structure, that it is far from clear whether one is looking at the world or only at mutually-reflecting mirrors. Read Karl Marx in the way Louis Althusser read him; read also Lire le capital and Pour Marx and many other pieces by this theoretical writer. By and by the reader might have learnt a theoretical language, a set of words--words, I stress--whose sole function in pages and pages of writing seems but to signify other words. That, I would say, is the trap of philosophy, or at least certain kinds of philosophy, philosophy that, while proclaiming to shed light on the real world, aspires to rid itself of all--or all but the most trite and trivial--reference to concrete events, past and present. Some writers rejoice in this sort of philosophy; I have elsewhere termed it High Parisian Talk. But it is not only a matter of Paris; it is chiefly a matter of how philosophy is done in certain quarters nowadays.

Aversion to this sort of philosophy caused me to go backwards in time, to seek inspiration from writers who wrote philosophy, or wrote philosophically, because they had a concrete event in mind to comment on: who articulated a set of concepts and propositions because they attempted an answer to buttress or demolish certain political views. I read many of these writers, Western writers mostly, not in order to discover what is universally true--Machiavelli's republicanism may not point to the best form of polity, may not be even practicable in present-day China on the national scale--but to expose myself to various answers to concrete political situations, to diverse ways to discern and to formulate what might be the most fundamental political visions, dilemmas, predicaments, aspirations, etc. Political thought, in this regard, is not a Prolegomenon to Positive Analysis, nor a Hall of Mirrors ever waiting for the true potentates to come; but a series of arduous interventions that are intimately connected with that other discipline which I am increasingly persuaded to regard as the most illuminating of the actual world. I mean History.

From political philosophy as a set of concepts and propositions, to political thought as a series of historical interventions, to history itself, there is in me, you may even say, a tendency to turn from deduction to induction, from seeing concepts as primary objects of investigation to seeing them as but convenient means to express certain thoughts, the ultimate referents of which being necessarily concrete events. I am not trying to promote a crude form of empiricism; but it is re-assuring to realize that many political writers, whose works we still read in learned settings today, are also historians or, if not, at least deeply interested in history: Marsiglio of Padua, Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes, Selden, Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Smith, Rousseau, Constant, Herder, Herzen, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, Nietzsche, Arendt, et al. One might even venture to say, that for the most part of its existence, political thought in the Western tradition is historical thought. (NB. Malcolm Schoffield's book on Plato's political thought should fully convince you how deeply influenced the alleged founder of Western political thought was by the vicissitudes of Athens and Sparta.) In Antiquity, history WAS the bearer of political reflection: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch; and it WAS these ancient historians, their comments on historical events, that had given political thought in the West, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond, much of its inspiration.

It will be natural, then, to pose the question: What kind of writing today most follows this tradition of historico-political thought? It is in fact not easy to say. I can only suggest, that books like Tony Judt's on post-war Europe, or Chalmers Johnson's on the development of Japan and the expansion of the US, or George Kennan's on the causes of the First World War, or Samuel Huntington's on political order in changing societies, or Geoffrey Parker's on the grand strategy of Philip II, or Kevin Phillips's on American theocracy, or Niall Ferguson's on the fall of the British Empire: this sort of books, and there are of course tons of others, might, in resembling Machiavelli's Discourses or Hobbes's Behemoth--or sometimes even Selden's historically-informed Table-Talk--offer ways to think about the world in at least some degree of conceptual clarity, without yet falling into the trap of technical babbling.

There are also many ways to look at politics, let alone the world at large. If Charles Tilly teaches his reader how to look, historically, at social movements from the bottom up, then Henry Kissinger (I shall have no qualms in citing AND recommending this author) shows his how to survey the world, and potentially to rule it, from the top down. Having read quite a bit about empire from the pens of Noam Chomsky, Immanuel Wallerstein, and David Harvey, one would do well, I think, also to consult the writings of Parker, Ferguson, and Johnson, for complementary views. Of course, the world is not only about "to rule" and "to rebel"--nowadays we have much talk about energy, climate change, epidemics, poverty, IT and terrorism and all that: just as the Renaissance writers had to confront the newly-invented cannon, the early modern writers had to reconceive the meaning of empire and international relations in the Age of Navigation, etc. That said, I shall nonetheless maintain the importance of history to our understanding of the world: Timothy Ash's recent review of the German film "Das Leben der Anderen" (The Lives of Others) in the New York Review of Books shows clearly how indispensable a knowledge of the past is to deciphering the deeper cultural significations of a film which, some would say, seems to carry but an obvious message.

History has a grandeur on which political thought should feed: it has as well a minuteness to which political thought should be sensitive. In moments of despair, in times when you think that reading too much philosophy only dulls your mind, do turn to history, my friend. For there are countless treats and treasures awaiting your discovery.

*For Plato's original post, see: http://www.inmediahk.net/public/article?group%5fid=270&item%5fid=223125