The Limits of Politics

HomeArticlesThe Limits of Politics

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).


Human nature encompasses both the rational and the emotional. Modern political science has segregated these two concepts while promoting the supremacy of rationalism. This manner of study reduces the multidimensionality of humans which further reduces how we view and address problems through political means. To the attentive reader this book will demonstrate how the incorporation of literature can inform our understanding of politics and guard against the scientific positivism that pervades much of our current political study.

The segmentation of academia, and the rift between the social sciences and fine arts in particular, has caused political science to lose the insights offered by literature and the arts. For those concerned with normative aspects of politics literature is irreplaceable for its ability to focus our attention on the qualitative variations and normative aspects of human interaction more than conventional political science inquiry encourages.  “True civilization implies a mixture of developed understanding and reflection with a full capacity to perceive, one must both see things as they are and react to them appropriately. Texts and images must go together as a natural unity” (Bloom 1981, 26). Politics is dependent upon images and myth. No less than Plato understood the importance of using imagery to engage the imagination to capture the distinction between right and wrong in an attempt to shape those who would in turn shape the political order.

The manner of literature—its form and style—is helpful for getting people to see the world differently, and be open to competing claims, that otherwise remain closed in didactic engagement. “Because it summons powerful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful confrontation with one’s own thoughts and intentions” (Nussbaum 1995, 5). Literature is not a luxury, it is a requirement for a humane politics in which one’s fellow man is recognized as more than an obstacle or one-dimensional being that is only present to enable a transaction. The size and scope of our nations and cities makes it near impossible to establish meaningful connections with those we confront, pass by, or interact with throughout our days. We must develop a sense of connection through our imagination by understanding the deeper connections, shared sentiments, and dependencies.

To overcome a political climate in which competing interests think of politics as a zero-sum game the players must begin to see the humanity of their opponents, to understand them as more than enemies or impediments. Politics needs to be grounded in an ethic of human dignity in which humans are not viewed as means or obstacles. To accomplish this task actors must be “made capable of entering imaginatively into the lives of distant others and have emotions related to that participation” (Nussbaum 1995, xvi). To connect our lives and experiences with those different or distant from us we must cultivate a moral imagination that will allow us to connect with the humanity of others who we may never know or come into contact with except for understanding their needs and positions as being opposed to ours.

And if we simply view the Other in demographic terms, as mere statistics or collection of interests, we risk painting an incomplete picture of who and what that other person is, motivated by, or wants. Literature nurtures the development of a moral imagination to an extent and in a manner traditional political and philosophical tracts do not. “The exemplarity of the novel as a source for moral reflection lies in its ability to create counterfactual worlds that, through allegory, illustrate potential forms of living other than the ones immediately available to the reader. This, in short, is the ethical power of fiction that ‘the plainness’ of traditional texts in moral philosophy can’t live up to” (Panagia 2006, 12). Literature, more than formal political treatises, “produce pleasure and the function of the great poet was to teach what is truly beautiful by means of pleasure” (Bloom 1981, 6).

Teachers can lead students to the good by giving them a picture of it, by making it attractive. Literature can do this while political treatise make a rational argument in favor of desired ends. While I may find John Locke’s defense of private property appealing, it may be more persuasive to show a film about what happens in societies where people are stripped of this right. John Stuart Mill makes a compelling case for free speech, but Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four makes the consequences of losing that right visceral and gives one a personal attachment to those rights rather than consider speech, and threats to it, in the abstract. The five chapters of this book try to convince the reader this is the correct manner by which to progress.

Books such as Terry Christensen’s Reel Politics or James E. Combs and Dan Nimmo’s The Comedy of Democracy are valuable in that they analyze the content of films that deal explicitly with politics; movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or All the President’s Men. But this book proposes to show the political message that can be taken from books and movies that do not put politics center stage, books that do not expressly deal with a political theme in an obvious way. This book tries to draw connections between political analysis and literature and film in order to explore the value added to political knowledge by looking outside the traditional cannon. The goal is to expand the political imagination, and demonstrate the benefit of doing so, by employing texts and film that encourage one to consider politics from a fresh perspective.

The five chapters in this book will build upon and refine the thesis that to have a better understanding of politics we must recognize and address the rational and the emotional aspects of human nature. This book will provide a discurisive argument in support of the thesis and a demonstration of how one can study politics in this way by drawing on literature, movies, and political texts.

The first chapter addresses the just war theory. I will take Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” as the literary touchstone for this chapter. The chapter uses Twain’s story, in addition to Plato’s Alcibiades II and Euthyphro, to demonstrate the hubris associated with the decision to go to war and how the humility undermines the normative basis of just war theory as presented by Aquinas and Augustine. What Twain’s short story exposes is how hubris blinds us when making fatal decisions as it blinds us from appreciating the consequences of our actions. Only those who are certain in their convictions, indeed in their righteousness, can lead a nation into war.  Twain would have us look more deeply into our assumption of certainty and pause before—if not refrain from—granting righteousness upon ourselves or our decisions. The requirements of just war theory are beyond those that can be met by individuals in charge of making decisions with regard to war. Rather than an empirical assessment, introducing humility as a political virtue provides a normative rebuttal while demonstrating the how unlikely it is that the requirements laid out by just war theory to make war just will be met.

The democratic man seems to lack humility, at least in Tocqueville’s account. The equalizing nature of democracy, and its emphasis upon the material, practical and instrumental, shifts the individual’s focus away from the transcendent and spiritual. This is not a question of whether democracies are instrumentally good but whether they have an intrinsic good that gives normative support to their instrumental benefits. To make this argument I do not concern myself with the language of rights, liberty, consent, or non-interference/non-domination. Rather, I seek to understand what effect democracy has on the soul of an individual and the character of a people. Tocqueville, Stendhal, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and Rene Girard will prove useful guides in this regard. Tocqueville and Ortega y Gasset are usual suspects with regard to this topic but Stendhal and Girard are not. Chapter 2 will draw on Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to develop a literary critique of egalitarian societies while Girard’s concept of mimetic desire allow for one to develop an understanding of why humans need something beyond themselves as a guide. Democracy assumes that man, as expressed through the majority, is the measure of all things. The utility of humility within the political context is explored in this chapter as well.

Chapter 3 takes up the issue of speech, and rights more generally. Rights have corresponding responsibilities that must be adhered to if the rights are to maintain their value. Speech alone, and in the absolute, is not a behavior deserving of special protections; rather, good speech, speech that elevates human existence and comprehension is deserving of special status. Debased speech which directs thoughts and behavior to the base is undeserving of protection. I will critically assess John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech by suggesting that not all speech does not rise to the level worthy of protection. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Aristotle and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”

Similar to chapter 1, chapter 4 takes up the issue of how we ought to make decisions when the consequences of an action are irreversible. In the case of the death penalty the state is authorized to embark on a behavior that is irreversible which means the decision must be based upon unimpeachable facts interpreted by people with unflawed judgment. This seems unlikely and therefore the practice of putting people to death should be suspended for it is only through hubris that a people can think they are beyond making mistakes. The chapter examines this question through the movie The Life of David Gale and the play The Crucible. The chapter concludes by introducing humility into the discussion and its application to contemporary social psychology and criminology research.

The final chapter takes up the question directly of what are the limits of politics. Rather than establishing unrealistically lofty expectations for politics this chapter sets up an argument that embraces realistic theories of politics that have served as a basis for governments prior to modernity’s run of dominance. By integrating pre-modern concepts into modern realities we can see where realistic adjustments can be made as well as how badly they are needed. This chapter begins with a critique of modernity, then establishes a general idea of the purpose of politics by drawing on The Lord of the Flies and John C. Calhoun, followed by a section that defines the limits of politics, and concludes with a section that develops the concept of limited government through a discussion of Althusius and subsidiarity.

What comes out of this chapter is the idea that human intellect is limited. To reach beyond where rationality will take us we must incorporate other aspects of human nature into our political discourse and manner of thinking to ignite the imagination to form a more complete picture of the human condition and how it can be addressed properly within the political context. But imagination alone is not enough, it must be an imagination formed through a conversation with the greatest minds throughout history regardless of discipline. “For while imagination is an innate human capacity, it needs nurture and cultivation” (Guroian 2005, 65). When combined with traditional texts in the political canon, and then situated within politics, literature and the arts can expand and deepen our imagination so that we can more fully connect with our fellow man and rehumanize the political order.

This book is an attempt to bring together a diverse body of literature in order to illuminate possibilities and limitations within the political world. The book is intended to interest those with a general interest in politics and those who sense that there is a better way of dealing with political matters than we currently do. For this latter group this book will provide a general structure for examining politics from a fresh perspective. Given the intended audience and breadth of the topics covered I abandon the academic practice of extensive literature review beyond what is necessary to situate the argument. The nature of this text does not require a consideration of all that has been written on a particular argument but only enough to show there is not straw man invoked and that the arguments presented here are arguments that exist within the scholarly literature in some way. This is also consistent with the polemical nature of the text as well as the what this text aspires to be; which is, a scholarly consideration of important matters with relevance for those beyond a narrow subfield.



Bloom, Allan. Shakespeare’s Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Guroian, Vigen, Rallying the Really Human Things: The moral imagination in politics,

literature, and the everyday life, Wilmington: ISI Books, 2005.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Panagia, Davide, The Poetics of Political Thinking, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.


This excerpt is from The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature in Political Analysis (Lexington Books, 2016)

Kyle Scott

Written by

Kyle Scott is a principal at 3BK Shepherd Investments, LLC, where he is Director of Marketing & Sales Strategy, and Strategic Planning & Operations. He is author of The Limits of Politics: Making the Case for Literature for Political Analysis (Lexington Books, 2016).