Friday, May 20, 2005

Truth, politics, and rationality.

I was reminded by this article by the American realist John Mearsheimer of Hans Morgenthau. Morgenthau was something of an anachronism, to my mind, straddling several eras intellectually and fitting in none neatly. His influences ranged as far as Pascal, Niehbur, Arendt and Nietzsche; he could quote Machiavelli and Marx in the same breath and have it make complete sense.


It set me to thinking. Much wrong has been done to political thought in the name of the Realist School, not least in the form of Kenneth Waltz’s parsimonious and utterly unelucidating state/anarchy theory.


Yet Morgenthau’s thought is still as cogent today as it was 40 or 50 years ago, as this round denunciation of the war in Vietnam shows – just substitute ‘The Middle East’ for ‘China’ and ‘Iraq’ for ‘Vietnam’ and think of Iran’s nuclear programme (and before anyone suggests otherwise, even the Iranians themselves have no illusions about the true purposes of the programme).


Much of his intellectual power seems to reside in the fact that he admitted no moral or intellectual absolutism:


"Politics must be understood through reason, yet it is not in reason that it finds its model. The principles of scientific reason are always simple, consistent, and abstract; the social world is always complicated, incongruous, and concrete. To apply the former to the latter is either futile, in that the social reality remains impervious to the attack of that one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth; or it is fatal, in that it will bring about results destructive of the intended purpose. Politics is an art and not a science, and what is required for its mastery is not the rationality of the engineer but the wisdom and the moral strength of the statesman. The social world, deaf to the appeal to reason pure and simple, yields only to that intricate combination of moral and material pressures which the art of the statesman creates and maintains.


"Contemptuous of power politics and incapable of the statesmanship which alone is able to master it, the age has tried to make politics a science. By doing so, it has demonstrated its intellectual confusion, moral blindness, and political decay. A book such as this can picture the disease but cannot cure it. More especially, it must leave the production of neat and rational solutions to those who believe in the philosophy against which this book is written. It must deprive the reader of that exhilaration which the rational solution of an oversimplified problem, from the single tax to the outlawry of war, so easily imparts. Yet, if it might lift the veil of oblivion from a truth once known, it would do for the theory and, in the long run, for the practice of politics all that a book can do."


From this review of a biography of the man.


Later, the reviewer quotes Morgenthau quoting Pascal:


Morgenthau quotes Pascal - "Man is neither angel nor beast and his misery is that he who would act the angel acts the brute" — only to add:


"It is only the awareness of the tragic presence of evil in all political action which at least enables man to choose the lesser evil and to be as good as he can be in an evil world. Neither science nor ethics nor politics can resolve the conflict between politics and ethics into harmony. We have no choice between power and the common good. To act successfully, that is, according to the rules of the political art, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nevertheless, is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment. In the combination of political wisdom, moral courage, and moral judgment, man reconciles his political nature with his moral destiny. That this conciliation is nothing more than a modus vivendi, uneasy, precarious, and even paradoxical, can disappoint only those who prefer to gloss over and to distort the tragic contradictions of human existence with the soothing logic of a specious concord."


As with many of the best thinkers that I have come across, Morgenthau never claimed to have a perfect map of the world – only the understanding that our understanding was necessarily flawed, and a healthy scepticism of those who, however earnestly, claimed to have all the answers – who, as Pascal noted, often cause more grief than joy.



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