Teaching Political Philosophy: Thinking in Action

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Michael Henry, in his contribution to this volume, reports on the experience of James Rhodes, whose life changed when, as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, he walked into the classroom of Gerhart Niemeyer:

“Like Socrates [Niemeyer] exerted such a magnetic attraction on those of kindred spirit that many can still vividly recall the first encounter with him as a sudden, electrifying realization of being in the mind-expanding and life-changing presence of an extraordinary man. James Rhodes, for instance, reports that his life changed forever when as a chemistry major he “wandered into” Niemeyer’s course in Political Theory in 1959 and found a professor “thinking, luminously, about the ultimate questions of human existence,” something he had never encountered before. He abandoned chemistry because, as he put it ‘…I realized soon that I wanted to spend all my years doing what he did, in the way he did it.’”[1]

The experience of meeting a teacher who expands one’s mind and changes one’s life is common to all the great thinkers discussed in this book. Indeed, the capacity to instill such transformation is central to the art of teaching, as recognized by teachers and students going back to Plato’s discovery of his “elder friend,” Socrates and to the turning-around of the soul (periagoge) that Plato describes as the essence of education.

Which is that education is a quest shared by persons, with the entirety of their personalities engaged. Unlike Socrates, the thinkers discussed in this volume were scholars and, as such, each left behind a considerable amount of written work detailing their ideas concerning political order and disorder, wisdom and ignorance, virtue and vice, and liberal education. But the focus of this volume is as much on their activities as teachers as on their writings. Socrates left behind no writings. Plato’s (and Xenophon’s) account of Socrates presents him, though, as a teacher and, when read dramatically, one is reminded that learning is not merely a matter of receiving doctrine (which would be the viewpoint of the sophists), but is also an embodied experience whereby the teacher’s presence is perhaps equally important as the ideas that he or she is communicating. Of course, none of the contributors express the sort of dramatic (or salacious) excitement that an Alcibiades expresses for Socrates. Though at least one thinker examined in this volume, Stanley Rosen, compares with Plato insofar as both came to their respective teachers first as poets, and then ended up studying philosophy.

This volume considers the political philosopher in action, namely, as a teacher. The critique of ideology, in one form or another, forms the focus of the writings among most political philosophers of the twentieth century, which distinguishes these thinkers from Socrates, as ideology is a particularly modern phenomenon. We shall not here attempt to provide a definition for it; each contributor defines it in accordance to the way his or her political thinker understood it. Even so, each thinker considered in this volume analyzed ideology, denounced it, criticized it, and attempted to find ways of transcending it in the form of a more authentic way of thinking. While many of the thinkers considered here were active in the twentieth-century, their resistance, as teachers, to the ideologies they confronted illuminates our current experience.

For example, the criticism of Marxism or historicism by Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss illuminates our own efforts as teachers to assist students confront cognate ideologies, including political correctness, Islamism, conspiricism, virulent anti-Americanism, and technicism (or technology) and scientism. Indeed, for many thinkers under review, including Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss, technology and scientism are at the core of modern ideology. Ideology, then, seems to represent a distortion of political philosophy, which each these thinkers attempted to recover.

Together, but a way of being in the world or a way of life. While intellectual biography offers one mode of considering the action of political philosophy, considering their activity of teaching is another. This volume of essays considers their activity of political philosophy as exhibited in their teaching as well as how, in their writings, they understood ideology and political philosophy.

Contributors to this volume each consider a number of questions in their presentation of each thinker as teacher. What is the nature of liberal education? What is the nature of ideology? To what extent, or how, can liberal education be pursued in an age of ideology? To what extent is the modern university a place of learning? What are the obstacles to liberal education in the modern university? How does the thinker embody liberal education? How did he/she get students to learn? What is teaching? What is learning?

This volume is divided into three main sections. Section One, “Thinking and Teaching Against Ideology” considers the teaching efforts of a variety of political thinkers and philosophers, including Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, and Bernard Lonergan. On the surface, these thinkers share little in common. Indeed, neither Husserl nor Lonergan are usually considered political thinkers. Even so, the essays on these thinkers demonstrate a common understanding of the art of teaching in an ideological age and the challenges of transcending ideology into philosophical thinking.

In her essay, “Edmund Husserl: Transcending Ideology,” Molly Flynn sets the tone for the volume by providing a careful analysis of Husserl’s critique of ideology in the form of historicism, as well as in the form of scientism which for him, as for several other thinkers treated in this volume, forms of the core of the “crisis” of modern intellectual and political life. While Husserl was not a political thinker in the sense of offering a political philosophy that studies political forms, virtues, justice, and so forth, Flynn argues that by teaching his students how to think, he understood himself as contributing to a re-founding of European culture, and in that sense he was a political thinker in a grander sense. Flynn shows that Husserl was hardly a charismatic teacher, but that his lack of charisma had in fact pedagogic value because his students “were convinced by a man’s thoughts, not by a man.” Like an ironic Socrates whom Kierkegaard notes “must magnanimously will to annihilate himself,”[2] Husserl served as midwife to his students who learned to think for themselves. As Flynn reports,

“being a disciple of Husserl could not mean being a mere follower. By disappearing behind the thought, by displaying sincerity and dedication to the truth, Husserl at his best drew out of his students a desire to be like him in crucial virtues without impressing on his students the desire to become another him or to act as his dummy.”

Husserl’s influence on subsequent thinkers who were more ostensibly political cannot be overestimated. It is difficult to imagine Leo Strauss’s critique of historicism without the precedent of Husserl, and Eric Voegelin acknowledges his own intellectual debt, in developing his understanding of consciousness, to Husserl. Hannah Arendt, in her Human Condition, picks up Husserl’s critique of modern scientism, with its Galilean roots, as one of the main sources of modern ideology. The mathematicization of reality is a form of will to power over reality, it is a mode of making, not of thinking. Thus, in her essay, “How Thinking Saves Us,” Leah Bradshaw considers Arendt’s understanding of the activity of thinking as an antidote to ideology whereby (quoting Jerome Kohn), Arendt “was reviving the Greek distinction between theoria and theoremata, between the activity of thinking and its outcome in ‘true’ theorems.”

This distinction is crucial for her understanding of totalitarianism and ideology: “the ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the committed party loyalist, but ‘people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Bradshaw suggests that modern life today is too mediated and confused by technology, which makes it fertile ground for new ideologies. Thus, Arendt tried to retrieve that sense of experience in the activity of thinking. Like many other thinkers in this volume, Socrates serves as a prime example for thinking (as opposed to philosophy), which “means not being out of harmony with myself.” Socrates exemplifies the “two in one” activity of thinking of an individual who lives in the world and is responsible for herself and for her world (like one of Arendt’s mentor’s, Karl Jaspers, and unlike her other mentor, Martin Heidegger). And the “two in one” character of thinking means, ultimately, that one must be friends with oneself; one must take responsibility for one’s life and for one’s actions.

Responsibility for political thinking is at the core of Raymond Aron’s thinking and teaching. As Bryan-Paul Frost explains in his contribution, “Raymond Aron’s Pedagogical Constitution and the Pursuit of Liberal Education,” a humiliating experience Aron suffered in his early academic career, in 1932, made a profound mark upon him. An undersecretary in the French Foreign Ministry, Joseph Paganon had invited Aron to deliver some remarks on the rising tensions with Germany and he had been critical of the French Prime Minister’s handling of the situation. However, Aron’s remarks seem to have been too abstract and theoretical for the politician to gain any benefit. Paganon bluntly asked Aron: “what would you do if you were in his place?” Paganon’s query, which was simple enough, caught Aron flat footed because until then Aron had approached political thinking in the “literary” way typically conducted by most ideologues, of offering critique but without attention to the prudential concern that political knowledge is about what should be done.

This concern for practice, and taking responsibility for one’s prudential decisions, forms the hallmark of Aron’s brand of liberalism and his critique of ideology. Frost shows how Aron combined the wisdom of Aristotle and Machiavelli to transcend ideology. First, Aristotle’s perspective allows the thinker to understand all competing political demands and that “no claim (or party) in politics is either completely wrong or right, and that no side has a perfectly just cause…: politics is not about good versus evil but about choosing between ‘the preferable and the detestable.’” Next, Machiavelli’s perspective is not altogether dissimilar in that it offers the government’s perspective “of what it could most reasonably expect to accomplish under the prevailing circumstances.” Most ideologues reverse the order and importance of these two perspectives and end up promoting some utopian evil: they end up refusing to think politically. Frost uses the example of Aron’s response to the crisis of French universities in 1968 to show Aron the teacher in action, which consisted largely of reminding his compatriots of the mission of the university and why it is not the same as the radical egalitarianism, which the students demanded.

In his essay, “Bernard Lonergan: Towards a Pedagogy of Political Thinking,” Lance Grigg addresses how responsibility for thinking is central to Lonergan. With his “transcendent method,” Lonergan teaches us to be fully conscious of what we are doing when we are thinking. “What am I doing when I am thinking,” is the central question for the method, which issues four basic imperatives: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, and be responsible. Not surprisingly, the ideologue fails to think authentically because it discourages the formation of political questions and insights following them. For Lonergan, “ideological thinking suffers from an oversight of insight,” which restricts the scope of thinking. Conversely, insight “comes as release to the tension of inquiry… and comes suddenly and unexpectedly.” While Lonergan did not develop a systematic political philosophy, his focus on the activity of thinking, as well as his own practice of teaching within the setting of the Catholic church, provides insight into political thinking. For Lonergan, thinking depends on the capacity to develop “well-phrased questions” that arise with direct attention to the setting or community in which the thinker’s action takes place. As with Aristotle, political thinking is prudential and rooted in one’s regime, which conditions the sorts of political questions one must ask. This setting is crucial also to understand Lonergan as teacher, who somehow managed to teach students to think during his years at the Gregorianum in Rome, with classes as large as 650 students and with oftentimes overbearing oversight of his insight by his superiors.

Section Two consists of essays on Eric Voegelin and teachers influenced by him, Gerhart Niemeyer, Ellis Sandoz, and John Hallowell. This group does not so much consist of a school as opposed to a set of scholars animated by a set of concerns voiced primarily by Plato and Christianity.

In “The Art of the Periagoge: Eric Voegelin as Teacher,” John von Heyking examines the centrality of the turning around of the soul (periagoge) for Voegelin by considering Voegelin’s assessment of ideology, both in its soft forms (positivism) and hard forms (i.e., Marxism, Gnosticism, pneumopathology), and how Voegelin regarded, Socratically, education as the enlargement of common sense, not as displacement, as ideology has it. The task of education in age of ideology consists in the effort to regain reality, which requires the cultivation of pretheoretical virtues, and so consists in a reorientation and bringing-to-consciousness of one’s philosophical eros. Education consists of becoming conscious of man’s restless quest for order. Because this is both a personal and a political activity, the essay concludes with a consideration of Voegelin’s effort in his “Hitler and the Germans” lectures to refound the German spiritual community.

In “Gerhart Niemeyer as Educator: The Defense of Western Culture in an Ideological Age,” Michael Henry reflects on the profound impact Niemeyer had on his students, mostly at the University of Notre Dame. His “defense of western culture” consisted in cultivating “sons” (though not disciples) who “would pass on the heritage of the wisdom of tradition and the love of truth ‘in God.’” He regarded the student-teacher relationship as a “species of friendship,” though one in which the student was required to meet very high standards of thought and scholarship. “Ontology was at root of everything for Niemeyer” because the good life consists in the proper ordering of our entire selves to the whole amplitude of reality, whereas ideology has its roots in modernity’s rebellion and commitment to “substitute realities.” Education therefore is the cultivation of the “existential virtues,” which in Niemeyer’s approach includes reflections on the role of the Catholic university in society, where “the pursuit of truth and the transmission of knowledge are systematically kept open to the presupposition of a divine creation and the reliance on divine salvation.”[3]

In “Ellis Sandoz as Master Teacher: Consistent in belief, Steadfast in Purpose,” Charles Embry considers Ellis Sandoz’s influence on a wide array of students…Embry describes the turning around of the soul (periagoge) that Sandoz instilled in numerous students, and that Sandoz himself experienced under the master teacher, Eric Voegelin:

“In the past of many teachers and political philosophers there stands an existential encounter with another philosopher and teacher, in many cases a master teacher, whose character, insight, erudition, intellect, and presence inspires the student to become who he is already. In other words, the future teacher in the present student is evoked from the encounter with the master teacher. In a sense this existential encounter gives form to the pre-existing, inchoate, unformed teacher, identifying the vocation that student and future teacher is destined to follow. This existential encounter is sometimes so “drastic” that it effects a change in the student, a change that challenges and/or inspires that student to fulfill his potential both as a teacher and as a human being.”

Evoking “what is already present” is the key to periagoge, of which Sandoz was master artist. As with Voegelin, education is an enlargement of common sense, whereas the Socratic “look and see if this is not the case,” is spoken frequently because it invites students to look at “what is already present” within their own souls. Sandoz’s focus in political thought pushes him further into the soul of American republicanism. He teaches human beings and American citizens, and encourages “the development of a civic consciousness that grounds liberal democratic political systems in ‘self-evident truths.’”

Rounding out this section is Timothy Hoye’s “John H. Hallowell: Principled Pragmatist.” Hallowell’s “principled pragmatism” rested on a Christian humanism that was also a “classical realism” according to which there is a “meaningful reality,” “cosmos, not a chaos,” that human beings are endowed with the dim capacity to understand it, that “being and goodness belong together,” and that abiding by these principles makes life in society possible. Hallowell had personal experience in a tyranny that failed to abide by them, namely pre-Nazi Germany. After his undergraduate studies, Hallowell went to the University of Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers (a teacher of Hannah Arendt noted above). While there, he noticed the effects of totalitarian ideology among the students: “speaking in whispers huddled over a coffee table, for example, mindful that the children in the house were rewarded at school for sharing what their parents discussed at home; watching indigenous, German students stop coming to lectures by Jaspers… because SS agents in the hall outside of class periodically looking in and writing down names.” For Hallowell, the ideological undercurrents of modernity had corroded our sense of the moral foundations of democracy, of which the collapse of Weimar Germany is the most vivid example. Throughout his career he sought to resist “decadent liberalism” by promoting an “integral liberalism” that is characterized by 1) rule of law, 2) belief in natural order that sustains society and individual, and 3) belief in natural rights which the state not only cannot deny but must protect.

Section Three considers Leo Strauss and two scholars working in the natural rights tradition he set forth, Stanley Rosen and Harvey Mansfield.

In “Liberal Education, Philosophy, and Politics: Leo Strauss as Teacher,” Michael Zuckert describes Strauss’s “two-fold intention” of education, the one being aimed at cultivating political life, and the other aimed at cultivating the activity of philosophy. Zuckert focuses on two essays by Strauss on liberal education to focus on the question: the one addresses liberal education in light of politics, whereby liberal education cultivates gentlemen (the Aristotelian intention), and the other essay addresses liberal education in light of philosophy (the Platonic intention), whereby liberal education (i.e., the study of great texts) prepares the way for philosophy. Regarding politics, liberal education resists the tastes and mores of mass culture and gives citizens a sense of the good and beautiful; regarding philosophy, liberal education resists historicism and technicism and introduces potential philosophers to the perennial questions of political order. Addressing Strauss as a teacher at the University of Chicago, Zuckert shows how Strauss emphasized the latter intention: “nearly every course began with a demonstration of the self-contradictory character of the historicist position, as prerequisite to opening the minds of his students to the possibility of that bold and even presumptuous act of judging that constitutes the step into philosophy.” He goes on to describe Strauss’s pedagogy of close readings of texts, and how Strauss the teacher rarely offered his own interpretations of texts because “he modeled for students the idea that one had to understand a thinker properly before one could judge him.”

In “Stanley Rosen as an Educator,” Nalim Ranasinghe explains the centrality for Rosen of common sense for philosophy. His extensive studies of nihilism and modern philosophers document the gap between thought and common sense, which Rosen’s Platonism always strove to keep together. This insistence on common sense is what makes Rosen a great teacher, who never “’hermenutered’ his students and left them incapable of reading for themselves.” Indeed, his insistence on common sense drives Rosen’s criticism of his Leo Strauss, his teacher, and his esoteric readings of texts. Esotericism, Rosen thinks, is irrelevant for the modern age. The crisis of nihilism and ideology makes today’s students “unlettered, thoughtless and thoroughly exoteric.” “By contrast, Rosen’s account of the essential connection between Reason and the Good provides a richly comprehensive erotic Platonism that is agreeable to the generous heart and fevered temperament of modernity.”

In “Teaching Not Differently, But Further Than the Parties,” Travis D. Smith describes the liberal education that students at Harvard receive from Harvey Mansfield, though Smith also extends his analysis to show how Mansfield is a public intellectual who teaches America about self-government. If Rosen emphasizes the Platonic intention of Strauss, it seems Mansfield emphasizes the Aristotelian. Mansfield shares the concern of Strauss and many others presented in this volume with modernity’s flattening of the human soul, and its political expression in technology, or rational control. Responsibility is the focus of Mansfield’s liberal education, as responsibility is what rational control and the shallow egalitarianism brought about by modernity attacks. Smith details the various ways Mansfield, through close readings of the texts of political philosophy, teaches responsibility: “To combat the prevailing ideologies of modernity, part of Mansfield’s teaching is to tenaciously affirm the truth of various ‘facts’ that problematize the wishful thinking characteristic of his opponents. It is irresponsible not to take the facts into account and try to engineer the impossible, or succumb to utter defeatism or destructive nihilism just because perfection is unattainable.

A genuinely philosophical or scientific theory of politics takes into account the whole of human nature, including an acknowledgment of its limitations. A responsible political regime likewise respects the limits that nature imposes, bounding the realm of the possible, cognizant that ‘law cannot control nature.’” Responsibility, of course, requires the willingness to take risks, in thought and in action. Smith explains how Mansfield’s pedagogy echoes his political teaching of responsibility, where rule seems invisible to the citizen/student: “His supervisory authority is left ambiguous in its particulars but ever-present in the backdrop, leaving it to the imagination of any student to guess at where they stand, supposing that he worries about them at all. Training graduate students to rely on themselves, he trusts that they will figure out what they need to, and if they cannot or will not, that’s on them. Practicing political theory requires courage, self-assertion, self-examination, resilience, and risk-taking.”

This collection celebrates the works of extraordinary individual thinkers who have tried to comprehend and to improve their political communities by turning the souls of their students away from ideology and towards their understanding of the truth. Although each of these thinkers approached the question of teaching differently, they all embodied the experience of a teacher’s presence in the education of his or her students. Thus, the theoretical contributions of their scholarship remain not only in print but in the lives and practice of their students.

By no means is this volume comprehensive in its covering of the major political philosophers and thinkers of the twentieth century: it is merely a start of what we hope becomes a larger conversation about teaching and truth in an age of ideology. We also realize that written exposition will always fall short of the actual experience when the student encounters the teacher in periagoge. Our hope then is that this volume will be a record, albeit an imperfect one, of outstanding teachers who boldly sought to evoke wonder and to pass down truth to their students.

Before we conclude, we also want to thank our teachers who have influenced us in this project as well as people who have assisted us in its completion. Specifically, we would like to thank James Harrison, director of the Southern Utah University Tanner Center, who hosted a symposium on this topic in 2011 which allowed some of the participants to present their ideas for critique and criticism; Donald J. Bachand, Provost at Saginaw Valley State University for his support; and Ann Garcia, the university’s technical writer. On a personal note, we would like to acknowledge the love and support of our families: MiJung, Sonya, Geoff, Evie, Audrey, and Sebastian. As our teachers have showed us the importance of truth, our families have demonstrated the need for love.



1. Michael Henry, “Gerhart Niemeyer as Educator: The Defense of Western Culture in an Ideological Age,” this volume.

2. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, trans., Howard and Edna Hong, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 276.

3. “Gerhart Niemeyer as Educator: The Defense of Western Culture in an Ideological Age,” in this volume, citing Gehart Niemeyer, “The New Need for a Catholic University,” in Within and Above Ourselves: Essays in Political Analysis, (Wilmington: The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996), 250.


This is the introduction of John von Heyking’s and Lee Trepanier’s Teaching in the Age of Ideology (Lexington Books, 2012). Also available are works about teaching: Introduction, Eric Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz, Gerhardt Niemeyer, John H. Hallowell, Leo Strauss, Harvey Mansfield, Stanley Rosen, and the Conclusion. Available excerpt from Teaching in an Age of Ideology is Ellis Sandoz; also see Brendan Purcell’s “Eric Voegelin as Master Teacher” and Thomas Holloweck’s “Eric Voegelin as Master Teacher.”

John von Heyking and Lee Trepanier

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John von Heyking is a Board Member and Book Editor of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge; Lee Trepanier is a Board Member and Editor of VoegelinView as well as a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. They are co-editors of Teaching in an Age of Ideology (Lexington Books, 2012).