The Concrete Goods of Political Excellence

Mark Blitz has written a work of high political philosophy that is at once clear and accessible, if difficult and demanding. An insightful and compact book, Reason and Politics is, in the words of its subtitle, dedicated to the searching study of “the nature of political phenomena.” Blitz’s words are carefully chosen: “the ‘nature’ of something is its essence, what is always there that is important, not trivial, and that forms the thing’s other characteristics.” Reason and Politics is dedicated to uncovering reasonably that which “forms and directs” political phenomena, in a word their nature and everything that flows from that. While a product of unforced but altogether impressive erudition, Blitz’s book aims to stay as concrete as possible, eschewing the abstractions that largely inform and deform late modern thought. While contemporary philosophers speak rather theoretically or abstractly about “consciousness,” Blitz speaks more simply and classically about bodies informed by passions, reason, and motives—that is, bodies that are animate or ensouled, human beings such as you and me.

An indirect student of Leo Strauss, Blitz shares the Platonic-Aristotelian view that politics is at the center of human life. The careful and discerning study of political things is the best place to start in order to come to terms with the only “whole” that gives us immediate and concrete access to the ”whole” as such. It is in a political regime that we first learn about goodness and justice and the “contexts that form meaningful action are linked by a political way of life.” The “self-direction” made possible by first civic, and then liberal, education opens us up to the truth of things without leaving the political context of human life behind.  Blitz thus speaks a great deal about wholes and parts, about connecting and separating, but always in the context of freedom, passions, force, prudence, courage, and moderation as well as the political order or regime. In the spirit of the classics, he appreciates that the full range of intellectual and moral virtues are inseparable from well-constituted political orders. At the same time, he illustrates the various ways in which virtues such as courage and moderation can also be observed “somewhat apart from the orders within which we practice them.” Human beings can explore “the complexity of human experience,” the nature of the virtues, and “the relation between what is good and one’s own” in a theoretical or “cosmopolitan” manner, but only up to a point. Facile cosmopolitanism forgets that human beings are political animals who live in concrete political communities that are the home of any meaningful political common good.

The cultured despisers of traditional patriotism too often confuse peace with pacifism and the good life with an indiscriminate affirmation of the “global” at the expense of concrete human loyalties and obligations. There is no escaping the sempiternal dialectic of engagement in decent political life and openness to the truth or goodness as such. Human beings are not citizens of the world and even philosophers have political obligations that have little to do with the abstraction called “humanity.” We have no access to the universal independent of the particular. Political philosophy, and the most astute or self-conscious statesmanship, always invites and entails a mediation between the particular and the universal, what is one’s own and what is simply good. Political philosophy so understood, must avoid the “obfuscations” that are “passive relativism and self-righteous self-interest,” a cultural relativism and a misplaced fealty to a World Governing Authority that does not exist and that could only culminate in what Kant called “a soulless despotism.”

From High Liberalism to the Escape from Unease

If Blitz’s approach is broadly classical, it attempts to do full justice to the virtues and vices, possibilities and limits, inherent in the regime of modern liberty. He ultimately sees the philosophical life as the “highest possibility” available to human beings if they are to use their own powers in a way that is open “to the full whole” and respectful “of the variety in ordinary experience,” a life that allows “the greatest understanding of separate parts, and wholes as wholes.” But for Blitz, the philosophical life, or even the classical articulation of the full range of the virtues in a book such as the Nicomachean Ethics, does not exhaust virtue or decency as such. The liberal order has its own virtues such as responsibility and tolerance that are deserving of respect. To be sure, responsibility is less lofty than the magnanimity or noble pride so central to Aristotelian politics and ethics. But the liberal virtue of responsibility allows virtue to find a place in a much more egalitarian moral and political setting. And there is a certain nobility in the effort to find “the right balance of property, opportunity and rights” within a decent liberal order, one that does not confuse tolerance with vulgar relativism or the right and just with niceness and an undemanding sentimentality.

Human beings are not citizens of the world, and even philosophers have political obligations that have little to do with the abstraction called “humanity.” We have no access to the universal independent of the particular.

Yet there are dangers. The classics never identified the good with the pleasant even if pleasure accompanies the activities of contemplative reflection and moral virtue attuned to the true goods of life. As Blitz highlights on more than one occasion, modern liberal theory (think John Locke) identifies desire with escape from unease, and thus readily gives rise to a “pursuit of happiness” that knows no end or destination. This inevitably entails the “joyless quest for joy” that Leo Strauss so aptly named and described in his 1953 masterwork Natural Right and History. Virtuous or noble choice certainly is manifest in the liberal order but modern man has largely forgotten how to articulate, and thus truly live, these inestimable goods. Blitz sees undeniable nobility in the “reverence” for the individual person, and his or her dignity, that accompanies modern liberalism at its very best. We might call this high liberalism, a liberalism still open to nobility, reverence, and truth. In exercising noetic reason, the full power of souls, and not just pragmatic or instrumental rationality, we acknowledge the high human possibilities inherent in the soul as such. Reverence touches on the “holy things,” the sacred, the things that “are not simply to be used.” This is the closest Blitz comes to approximating Kant’s categorical imperative of treating human persons always as ends and not as means (and paying the numinous its proper due). But for the most part, he is critical of Kant for paving the way for a certain moralism that replaces high prudence as the true “star and compass” for the exercise of practical reason within a free political community.

In any case, this higher liberalism is all but forgotten today. Equal rights are more and more identified with an equal or identical treatment of every point of view, “value,” or “life-style.” The noble itself becomes an affront to democratic and egalitarian “values,” and relativism reveals its moralistic and coercive face. According to Blitz, “Liberty becomes simple self-assertion, with a diminishing grasp of its original limits, conditions, and justification.” To cite his teacher Harvey Mansfield, Blitz is not a liberal in any strict political or philosophical sense but rather “a friend of liberalism,” and sometimes its friendly critic, too (but with no discernable or sharp polemical edge). Blitz wishes to show the intrinsic connection between high liberalism and “industriousness, responsibility, and toleration” and to open it up once again “to earnest faith, genuine art, serious thought, and science, and to political deliberation.” The modest but genuine virtues at the heart of historic liberalism need the insights of classical political science to avoid degenerating into listless self-assertion and a poisonous subjectivism. A serious student of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, Blitz knows that the liberal virtues wither when they are confused with mere “assertions of power” as is the case with decayed late modern thought. From Machiavelli and Hobbes to Locke and Nietzsche, not to mention fashionable post-moderns like Foucault, “power” plays an excessive, even exclusive, role in modern discourse about the nature of politics.

The Full Range of Human Excellence

One of the virtues of Mark Blitz’s book is that it never confuses the superiority of the theoretical life with some willful negation of the great concrete goods that are morality, religion, art, and statesmanship. Philosophy is never for Blitz an act of prideful self-assertion. It is a way of life, a mode of approaching the myriad goods of life, which respects the phenomena, first and foremost the moral, political, and noetic, as they come to sight through attentive attunement to human experience and to the whole of things. Blitz brilliantly unpacks the human meaning of eros and spiritedness. One allows for the true ascent of the soul, the other (not without some accompanying dangers) gives us courage against real and present dangers. Philosophy is essentially erotic but is unthinkable without courage and moderation informing and giving spiritual ballast to the human soul and the human city. The ascent of the soul never leaves behind the precious inheritance that is civilization itself. Order in the soul is inseparable from order in the city, an order tied to the proper conjugations of eros and spiritedness, courage and moderation, liberty and virtue.  This is one reason why Blitz speaks so well of men like the American Founders, Lincoln, and Churchill: their greatness, their courage, and moderation, partake of noetic and practical reason on a high level. This allowed them to form and defend regimes of civilized liberty that are a truly precious acquisition of thinking and acting human beings.

Mark Blitz has provided reflective citizens and reflective students of human things more broadly with an invaluable “phenomenology” of politics and the human soul. I have a few caveats rooted in my conviction that reason must also carefully explore and delineate phenomena which came to light most fully in a biblical or Christian context. Conscience, and the palpable human sense that some acts violate the very order of things, and the dignity of the human soul, surely deserve a thoroughgoing exploration. Conscience is in important respects natural, even if it needs to be shaped and informed by habit, right reason, and education. The exercise of practical reason is hard to imagine without it. Evil, the “demonic” desire to destroy or negate the givenness of things, is palpable independently of the ultimate truth of revelation. It also seems to me that Blitz’s whole framework depends on some inchoate recognition that the good is ultimately not unsupported. There is an order of things that daily reminds us of sacred limits and restraints as well as human powers and possibilities. A true phenomenology of human things inevitably leads us to look up with humble awe, and with a sense of gratitude and indebtedness, whether we are believers or unbelievers. At the same time, it inspires reasonable action rather than willful self-assertion.

But let me end with a full endorsement of the final words of Reason and Politics, words that point us toward “permanent standards of excellence.” Blitz wisely adds that “[i]n the last analysis we do not require something new but, rather, attention to the permanent basis of justice, freedom, and beauty, to the powers of the soul, and to political excellence and the philosophical life. Perhaps what is radical today is not the exciting but the responsible, not the novel but the natural, not the immediate but rational, and not the arbitrary but the free.” Wise words that are the perfect capstone of this humane and fruitful dialectical search for wisdom about politics, the human soul, and the whole of things.