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The Philosopher and the Politician by Attila Károly Molnár

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Philosophy

The Philosopher and the Politician

Since antiquity, the ideas of truth and justice have been connected with peace and harmony on a political as well as on an individual level. However, the contentious effects of claims of truth or justice have also been well known. Since the Investiture Controversy of the Middle Ages—and in particular Marsiglio of Padua’s Defensor Pacis—European thinking has reflected the contradictory claims of peace vs truth and justice. In this paper, I am not interested in the well-known, sceptical critique of truth and justice claims which questions their existence, or their knowable and communicable character. However, beside these epistemological points, we have a long list of socio-political calamities generated in the name of justice. Rather often, those who speak in the name of justice are in fact motivated by hubris; their words are senseless—at least in terms of practical sense, as Hume put it—generating personal and political calamities, tragedy, tumult, or, in the modern age, totalitarianism. Here, I am interested in the personal price paid by those who try to act justly and effectively in politics.

The archetype of the just or moral man

is found in the Platonic allegory of the philosopher turning back into the cave from the light, transgressing a boundary and making trouble there. Socrates’s story shows how easily just people can fall into misfortune in politics. Does this mean that improving the world is hopeless and that those who seek to follow moral principles should avoid politics? Both Plato’s Academy and the setting for Socrates’s dialogue on the ideal republic were located outside of the city. My question, inherited from antiquity, is whether one can be successful in politics without transgressing borders and committing violence, or violentia in its original sense, that is, a rupture. Ever since Plato reinterpreted the meaning of tyranny, it has referred to misrule, the wrongness of which originates from the tyrant’s shameless transgression of moral limits—human or divine.

Can violentia, that is, ‘dirty hands’, be avoided in politics? And if not, is there a morally satisfying solution for problems, or should morally minded people leave politics? The harder question is why politics is morally absurd, and why wrong means can result in right effects (and vice versa). Does the human condition allow for perfectly just and right actions? What are the characteristics of politics which make it impossible for effective actors to attain the necessary moral requirements? Why is it hard to perform correct, and at the same time efficient, actions in politics, and why is there often no correct solution to these dilemmas? Why should the actor desiring a good conscience and happiness have to move back into private life? Can someone, regularly performing morally solicitous actions and making questionable decisions, be a good person? Are all successful politicians necessarily corrupt or dishonest? Can the successful politician be differentiated from the tyrant? Finally, is not immoral politics more endurable than a morally perfect one, which seeks to solve problems once and for all by forming some radical or totalitarian world, but which causes more harm than a system adapted to the human condition?

According to Plato’s Protagoras, after Prometheus took fire to humankind, the humans started to fight against and kill one another. Therefore, Zeus sent Hermes to provide them with justice (dike) and shame (aidos), and politics was born from both. In Plato’s Alcibiades I, in the conversation between the philosopher and a young, ambitious warrior-politician, Socrates says that knowing justice is politically useful and makes one happy. The just and the useful are connected. Although one may read in Plato’s Alcibiades I that just things are expedient, and ignorance is a cause of evils, his allegory of the cave and the scandal caused by the returning philosopher complicates the relationship between justice and the existing political order. The returning (transgressing) philosopher’s talk of justice may demolish order and peace by stirring up emotions. The returning philosopher, the just person knowing justice and acting according to it, commits not only violence—meaning in its original sense, as we have seen, a rupture— but he is shameless as well. He is not forced, from fear of shame, to behave himself when he starts speaking about truth and justice for the cave dwellers. He provokes outrage because the people are not interested in truth and justice, so he may be expelled, molested, or even killed. So for the philosopher, a just person, happiness and an undisturbed life (eudaimonia) can be achieved only far away from public life. ‘A man who really fights for the right, if he is to preserve his life for even a little while, must be a private citizen, not a public man.’ The city is not a proper place to speak about justice and truth. Speaking about justice or acting in the name of justice, although it usually aims for peace and harmony, can cause actions which are ‘violent’ in the original sense of the word (violare), but also in the modern sense of conflict.

The dilemma is very political;

worldly dangers may come from both the loss of transcendental standards of humans and human relations, and also from the penetration of transcendental claims into worldly affairs. Without such transcendental necessities as the concepts of justice and liberty, how would people know whether their order is good, just, and free, or not? While transcendental claims mean obvious danger for the existing immanent order, it may sink into tyranny without these standards. These transcendental ideas, and the chaos usually generated by them, seem to be at the very core of the European tradition and a potential explanation of its dynamic. The ambiguity of crossing boundaries is a characteristic dilemma within our tradition, and no certain measure or method can be seen to solve this ambiguity, to separate pure chaos from perfect order and eternal peace. The yearning for a world beyond politics—which entails conflict, enforcement, and the need for decisions—is self-destructive, and results in more hardship.

Thomas More wrote his Utopia and Richard III between 1513 and 1522, when Machiavelli’s Prince was penned. Machiavelli wanted to return to politics; his text was written as a job application for a post in a court without moral scruples. He failed, however. The founding father of secular politics was, in many respects, unsuccessful. More, on the other hand, was invited by the king, but was hesitant. Finally, he became the first lay chancellor of England, the highest political position available for a common man. Utopia and Richard III share common themes: should More, a good Christian, become involved in politics? A large part of the First Book of Utopia is More’s dialogue with Raphael Hythloday concerning service to the king, and the relationship between justice and politics. Does a philosopher, a principled Christian, take part in politics? Can successful political action be performed with good conscience? Can the political and moral requirements be reconciled? And finally, is it a good man’s duty to seek to improve this wicked world, even if he loses his good conscience because he has to commit morally problematic actions?

Utopia was written by More during his first official posting to Antwerp, serving the interests of Henry VIII, who as a young man was considered by many the ideal philosopher-king of England. As described in Plato’s Seventh Letter and embodied in King Utopos, the founder and first king of Utopia: ‘the ills of the human race would never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy.’ However, Socrates teaches in The Republic that a philosopher-ruler in the existing world would, without divine intervention, be the worst of leaders. One question of Utopia is whether it is possible for political leadership and (Platonic) philosophy to overlap. King Utopos provides a counterargument to Hythloday’s cynicism. Utopos was the philosopher-king empowered to remake a land in his image, while Hythloday was asked about the philosopher’s activity in real European politics. Utopos embodied the philosopher-king of The Republic, and in the Second Book of Utopia one can see the beneficial effects of the philosopher-king, or, to take another possible inspiration, of Xenophon’s enlightened tyrant

The debate between philosopher and politician on the compatibility of moral and political requirements

is described in the dialogue between More and Hythloday. Hythloday, the philosopher, left Europe, the cave, and saw the truth in Utopia. Then he returned to Europe. What should he do? He refers to Plato when he says that the philosophers should rule, but they should keep away from real, existing politics: ‘philosophy had no place among kings’. The Platonist philosopher refuses service to the king (political action) because kings and their counsellors are corrupt by nature. Like Plato, Hythloday describes political actors as, in general, tyrants: they always start wars, claim more and more money, and subjugate people.

Hythloday’s other argument against service to the king, that is, political activity, is that it means service. Thirdly, he refers to Plato’s failure in Syracuse. His conclusion is that in spite of benevolent and improving motivations, politics cannot be made more moral and just than it already is. Finally, he mentions the argument of the Republic that wise people do best to stay away from politics, because it only disturbs the peace of their soul. He insists that counselling is meaningless, because the world is morally corrupt and makes everyone corrupt. Therefore, honest people—if they want to save the peace of their soul—are best advised to avoid political action. Politics cannot be better, just people involved in politics cannot improve it all, and they will have only failures there. They will even lose the peace of their soul, because they cannot follow their moral principles—justice—in the moral perplexities of political action and in the moral absurdity of the world: ‘For that crafty wile and subtle train of yours, I cannot perceive to what purpose it serveth, wherewith you would have me to study and endeavour myself, if all things cannot be made good, yet to handle them wittily and handsomely for the purpose, that as far forth as is possible they may not be very evil. For there is no place to dissemble in nor to wink in. Naughty counsels must be openly allowed and very pestilent decrees must be approved. He shall be counted worse than a spy, yea, almost as evil as a traitor, that with a faint heart doth praise evil and noisome decrees. Moreover, a man can have no occasion to do good, chancing into the company of them which will sooner pervert a good man than be made good themselves, through whose evil company he shall be marred, or else, if he remain good and innocent, yet the wickedness and folly of others shall be imputed to him and laid in his neck. So that it is impossible with that crafty wile and subtle train to turn anything to better.’

Hythloday supposes that the corrupt counsellors will infect the philosopher in the council, but he cannot imagine that the philosopher—a morally principled, just actor—would be able to improve these counsellors by his example and arguments: ‘Wherefore Plato by a goodly similitude declareth why wise men refrain to meddle in the commonwealth. For when they see the people swarm into the streets, and daily wet to the skin with rain, and yet cannot persuade them to go out of the rain and to take their houses, knowing well that if they should go out to them they should nothing prevail nor win aught by it but with them be wet also in the rain, they do keep themselves within their houses, being content that they be safe themselves, seeing they cannot remedy the folly of the people.

Hythloday declares rather categorically that the philosopher—the morally principled, just man—cannot give good advice, but he gets involved in the others’ folly, while he adores the philosopher-king, the enlightened tyrant. Does this mean that for the just man, who could reform the world, there are two options in politics: either he should be an enlightened tyrant to implement reforms by transgressing customary borders, or should stay away from politics where he has to debate with others and convince them, make coalitions and compromises with them, and adapt his principles to a morally absurd world?

Hythloday, a sailor abhorring water and leaving his ship for the sake of Utopia, is averse to politics and political community. He, the sailor-philosopher leaving his reality, that is, the sea and political world, is the example of utopian or perfectionist thinking. He left the world when he was not able to dominate it through his own ideas. Because he could not calm the sea, he sought a safe harbour, as Michael Oakeshott called it, to keep his moral integrity and peaceful soul. Leaving the world is an escape from responsibility and care. Not being a moralist tyrant—a radical or totalitarian political actor—trying to morally improve humanity and the human condition, Hythloday does not want to change the people and the world around him. However, he insists on keeping his own peaceful soul. He is not a moral hero, but at least not a tyrant. Hythloday seems to seek stoic and Epicurean imperturbability (ataraxia) much more than Platonic purity (katharos). Hythloday’s spirit is far away from that of Socrates or More, who died for their principles, when he says, ‘Now I live at liberty after mine own mind and pleasure’.

The philosopher’s life can be dangerous and troubled

if the politician starts to deal with issues of justice and morality, or if the philosopher seeks to actualize the best city. In the second case, the politician has to defend his city from those that would make a mess by referring to claims of justice and morality. Utopia, as we well know, is a peaceful, harmonious, and apolitical world without practical dilemmas. Therefore, there is no need for counsellors or a cunning seaman. However, Hythloday argues, in our corrupt world, counselling is meaningless for a philosopher, since rulers would not listen to their just but probably inefficient counsels. The philosopher’s counsel is useless in both cases. In Utopia, the reconciliation of the just and the efficient is not a problem—there are no dilemmas. In our world, this reconciliation is impossible, as one has to sacrifice either political efficiency or morality. In a case where politics has been obliterated—as in Utopia—there is a moral and just world, without ambitions or conflicts, but there is no need for counsellors because there is no political action.

In More’s and Hythloday’s dialogue, politics is the world of conflicts, troubles, and torture. Hythloday’s picture of politics is similar to Machiavelli’s: the human condition cannot be improved by human efforts. Hythloday, the Platonist philosopher and social critic, arrives at the same—let me say, realist—conclusion as Richard III, the tyrant, and Machiavelli in his Prince: justice and politics, justice and the human condition cannot be reconciled, and a good conscience cannot be kept in this world—and especially not in politics—if someone wants to act effectively. The Platonist philosopher shares Machiavelli’s and More’s views on the confrontational dichotomy between moral requirements and the necessities of successful political action. The ‘recognition of this permanent tension in human experience’ has recently been referred to as political realism.

Hythloday, the philosopher, insists proudly on finding happiness and an unmolested mind, but More does not accept this position. More argues that every good man has a duty to provide counsel, and to use his knowledge for the public good as best he can. More refers to Cardinal Morton, clerical chancellor of England, whose counsel was taken by the king and aided in improving the condition of the country. He argues that political activity is meaningful, and a duty, but that politics requires prudence and tactics. As The Letter of Paul to the Romans teaches, evil cannot be defeated with evil, but telling the truth is madness and disturbs the human comedy. Therefore, there is a need for persistent human efforts, permanent readiness and decisiveness, risking failure in spite of the best intentions.

Hythloday refuses practice—‘I had rather be good than wily’—which is against truth and plain talk. As he says, the philosopher, a just person, speaks plainly and nothing can be improved indirectly: ‘For if I would speak such things that be true I must needs speak such things; but as for to speak false things, whether that be a philosopher’s part or no I cannot tell, truly it is not my part… And I truly should prevail even as little in kings’ councils. For either I must say otherways than they say, and then I were as good to say nothing; or else I must say the same that they say, and (as Mitio saith in Terence), help to further their madness.’

Hythloday, as a good Platonist, argues against prudence.

‘I had rather be good than wily.’ More argues against Hythloday that political prudence, moral dilemmas, perplexity, failures, imperfection, and frustration should all be accepted. Hythloday argues that a philosopher’s just and plain action is ineffective and makes only trouble in politics. More accepts this and says that because of this the just political actor has to use detours to achieve his aims indirectly by strategic actions, as in battle or in sailing. He has to be a ‘gamester’ or a ‘cunning player’. As More puts it, ‘No, nor you must not labour to drive into their heads new and strange information which you know well shall be nothing regarded with them that be of clean contrary minds. But you must with a crafty wile and a subtle train study and endeavour yourself, as much as in you lieth, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose; and that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad. For it is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good. Which I think will not be yet this good many years.’

In the tradition of rhetoric, for Aristotle and Cicero it was not a question of ‘we have to take part in the state affairs’. Both of them defended the moral value of rhetoric. What is more, in the case of Cicero, moral action is akin to rhetoric, because both adapt morality to the exigency of a political situation, and both try to manage the problem of plurality and differences. Hythloday refused this compromise, instead choosing to depart from a world which he could not make perfect in terms of his ideas. More argues for political activity, but not in the vein of Ciceronian stoic optimism. For Cicero the right and effective (honestum and utile) can be united in political actions. He did not think politics was necessarily evil, nor that people were demi-gods. More followed the thinking of Lactantius and Augustine; he thought that Christian and pagan Roman thinking could not be reconciled, because of the sin of decorum—the reconciliation of honestum and utile—could not be found in action. Shall a Christian, or one having any worldview, accept Hythloday’s conclusion to save his moral integrity and good conscience?

Christians were traditionally taught to live in an ill-natured world, in this vale of tears, and they were aware of the misery of human life and the limit of world dominance. However, More does not want to fly away from this world: ‘God, I say, give us the grace so wisely torule ourself here.’ He takes upon himself the cares and annoyances—dilemmas, confusion, failures—connected to action in the political world. This commitment goes against the pagan optimism of ars/decorum/mesotes. This optimism can envision the reconciliation of opposite requirements, but More was closer to Thomas Kempis’s view: ‘Patience, O Lord God, is very necessary for me, I see, because there are many adversities in this life. No matter what plans I make for my own peace, my life cannot be free from struggle and sorrow.’

Hythloday justified his politically aloof stance by referring to the personal price that a just man has to pay for acting in politics: he will lose his peace of mind, because he has to make moral compromises by picking the lesser evil. More accepted that political actions and life in general in this corrupt and rotten world led necessarily to confusion and dilemmas. However, Hythloday rejects More’s indirect, cunning, and adaptive (obliquo) actions to achieve any good change in human affairs, because there is no clear line between them and dishonest ones. More used the theatrical metaphor to support his argument. He compares the political actor to a stage-player, adapting to the scene and playing the proper role: do your best, and do not abandon public life! The effective actor adapts himself to his condition and maintains scenum, the world of appearance. This accommodation requires a knowledge of the audience, the other players, and their roles. He explains, ‘these matters be kings’ games, as it were, stage plays, and for the most part played upon scaffolds. In which poor men be but the on-lookers. And they that wise be, will meddle no further. For they who sometimes step up and play with them, when they cannot play their parts, they disorder the play and do themselves no good.’

The scaffold refers to the bloody theatre of politics, risky because of the vanity and ambition of players. More called politics the game of kings. Following Lucian’s Menippus, he equated politics with stage theatre. ‘If the political world is a grand play, then political action is a theatrical behaviour and the skilful politician is the skilful actor.’ Politics is a play, a theatre, which cannot be changed, so one has to adapt oneself to the play. The world without politics is hopeless, or as he called it, outopos or Nusquama. Machiavelli saw politics as the world of illusion, just as Erasmus, in The Praise of Folly, saw illusion and the theatre-like character as the essential elements of the human condition. But for them, unlike Plato, the theatrum mundi is not an eradicable problem. More took their position, emphasizing that it was not folly but vanity and ambition that dominated politics. Erasmus had a different argument for keeping philosophers out of politics than the Platonist Hythloday. Erasmus defended the stage-play, while Hythloday cared only for the peace of his soul and life. However, More claimed that even if politics dealt with folly, jealousy, and sinful people, that was not a good enough reason to avoid involvement in messy politics. As he says: ‘if all things cannot be made good, yet to handle them wittily and handsomely for the purpose, that as far forth as is possible they may not be very evil.’ Because of the corruption of the human condition, the just man will be a victim or plaything of politicians—according to Hythloday. He left his ship. Instead of sailing, he looked for a safe harbour in Utopia where there are no waves, streams, or stormy weather—and therefore no need for navigation or making decisions. As such, there is no chance of moral or any other failures. More does not search for watertight solutions; he accepts the playful and risky character of the human condition, and advises accommodation, and finding the most proper action in the play. It is clear for More that there is hardly any real chance to act effectively and morally at the same time in politics, but he would not leave either of them because of the moral price he will probably pay for political action. A just man has to pay the moral price; he cannot be a moral free rider. ‘That is it which I meant’, says Hythloday, ‘when I said philosophy had no place among kings.’

More answers as follows: ‘Indeed, this school philosophy hath not, which thinketh all things meet for every place. But there is another philosophy more civil, which knoweth, as ye would say, her own stage, and thereafter, ordering and behaving herself in the play that she hath in hand, playeth her part accordingly with comeliness, uttering nothing out of due order and fashion. And this is the philosophy that you must use. Or else whiles a comedy of Plautus is playing, and the vile bondmen scoffing and trifling among themselves, if you should suddenly come upon the stage in a philosopher’s apparel, and rehearse out of Octavia the place wherein Seneca disputeth with Nero, had it not been better for you to have played the dumb person, than, by rehearsing that which served neither for the time nor place, to have made such a tragical comedy or gallimaufry? For by bringing in other stuff that nothing appertaineth to the present matter, you must needs mar and pervert the play that is in hand, though the stuff that you bring be much better. What part soever you have taken upon you, play that as well as you can and make the best of it. And do not therefore disturb and bring out of order the whole matter because that another which is merrier and better cometh to your remembrance. So the case standeth in a commonwealth, and so it is in the consultations of kings and princes. If evil opinions and naughty persuasions cannot be utterly and quite plucked out of their heartsif you cannot even as you would remedy vices which use and custom hath confirmed, yet for this cause you must not leave and forsake the commonwealth. You must not forsake the ship in a tempest because you cannot rule and keep down the winds.’

Not acting because of the certainty of moral imperfection, partial wrongs and/or political ineffectiveness is a greater sin than acting imperfectly,

and causing a disturbed soul, because not acting will encourage evil people. As More puts it, ‘and mistrusting the aid of God in holding them upright in their temptations, give place to the devil in contrary temptations. Whereby for faint heart, they leave off good business wherein they were well occupied, arid under pretext (as it seemeth to themself) of humble heart and meekness, and serving God in contemplation and silence, they seek their own ease and earthly rest unaware, wherewith (if it so be) God is not well content.’ The cave cannot be left, as the philosopher did, and the hope for creating a utopia or finding a safe harbour is ridiculous. The just person has to act because he is responsible not only for himself but for the world, too. His personal, moral perfection cannot be separated from his responsibility for his world. More suggests a third option: accepting politics as it is and paying the tragic and moral price of political action. In More’s Utopia and his political epigrams, politics appears as a world of troubles, where effective action cannot be performed with a good conscience. That was Hythloday’s argument, too, and More does not refute it in Utopia. Instead, he argues that a responsible Christian has to act under these conditions, even if he knows well that he will lose his integrity and good conscience.

In conclusion, being politically modern means the hope that people are able to take their own life into their hands and be their own masters, and that the human condition can be completely understood and controlled. Consequently, anything that resists human understanding and control—because it is opaque and unintelligible—is arbitrary and oppressive. Modernists are rationalists because they are not able to accept piety: the sense that humans must trust something that is out of their control. The acceptance of this human condition requires humility, a basic attitude of religion. And tranquillity is fleeting at best: human beings are not rocks. Conflict and instability are perennial possibilities. Because of the unforeseen and often unpleasant consequences, understanding the human condition entails a certain piety toward the human world: an acceptance of its uncertainty or ambiguity and that our knowledge of human world is rather limited. Pointing to the imperfect nature of political epistemology involves the tragic view of political action and the morally absurd nature of the human condition. The non-rational and unknowable nature of the human world involves the necessary imperfection of politics. The famous dialogue—between Hythloday, the Platonist philosopher, and More, the politician— in the first book of More’s Utopia, ends with More’s statement on his heroic interpretation of the responsible and wise politician who tries to do his best on the ‘stormy’ sea.


Attila Károly Molnár, historian of ideas, director of the Thomas Molnar Institute for Advanced Studies at the Eötvös József Research Centre, Budapest, as well as the Századvég Publishing House. He has done research in the history of political and social thinking with special focus on religion.

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