The Two Sides of the Same Coin: Political Realism and Political Philosophy

HomeArticlesThe Two Sides of the Same Coin: Political Realism and Political Philosophy

If you have the privilege, or assigned job, teaching a course on the “History of Political Thought,” you might think that most students of political science would be interested in the course. But it is not the case at all. If you were to ask them why you think that this course is mandatory for them, there would likely/inevitably be at least one quite outspoken response saying that it is completely redundant. We can safely say that most students today regard history of political thought as a necessary evil rather than a necessary condition of understanding the political ideas of the day. What this attitude suggests is that politics belongs to the present, and the past does not have any bearings on the future. It is as if they have read Tom Paine, who also belongs to the dead hand of the past, although he adamantly rebelled against the viability of old ideas.

Beyond the lecturer’s frustration one can sadly say that what is “historical” in our culture is no longer regarded as pivotal or crucial. This is not a novel observation, but it seems more and more obvious that philosophy, as understood today,  aspires not to wisdom, but to the understanding of the remnants of the whole including politics. Political philosophy seems outdated, and today’s political scientists study only particular aspects of politics seriously. From whence comes this problem?

The disinterest in the history of political thought is part of a distinct, positivist-rationalist epistemological position. It sees politics in terms only of logical inferences, and as something completely within the reach of man’s conscious and planned action. As a consequence of this view, both fate and unexpected events are eliminated from political action. This perspective assumes political action is human rationality at its best, which is able to achieve high level of certainty in its judgments. This assumption has been behind a renewed attempt of modernity by ushering in a complex system of institutions often called “liberal constitutional order,” and eliminating the personal elements of politics as much as it is possible.

The overemphasis on rationality in politics has become a prop to justify that whatever seems “recommended by expertise” or “in accordance with progress” must be approved. Thus, political action can be extracted from the realm of the will, and be controlled by pure reason indifferent to particular interests or views supposed “of the world,” or as they are oftentimes called, “neutral” institutions. The major question is whether the history of political thought should or could serve political action or political thought as such. What if political action can only rely upon advice, and political thought is only an intellectual hobby or casual activity? Certainly there is a gap between political action and political thought. If they have a relationship at all, this is only an indirect one, as I would not suggest that political agents do not think about politics.

One might say that the relationship between action and thought is ever present in other fields of life. Surely this is true, but in politics the connection between what is private and what is public has much more comprehensive practical meaning. Human conditions are tormented by the tension between what is private and what is public in many ways, but in politics it is a matter of understanding of our natural stand and rationally allotted place. Politics is unique among many other stances in life because it fuses various aspects of human existence: rationality, emotions, faith, intellect and action, private and public. It is full of characteristics of the existence of human life including issues of individuality vs communality, rationality vs emotions, necessity vs desires.

So the instinctual or visceral rejection of the history of political thought can be attributed to the difference between political action and political thought.  Reflection on political action is often taken to be a realist point of view of politics whereas political thought is something adjacent to political utopianism. The idea is not unjustifiable, because this is one of the ancient issues of political thought. Should political thought serve political action? If yes, in what way? Or if political thought is so independent that it should not heed particular political needs, then what is the actual role of political thought? Or political realism that is in direct connection with political action is the ultimate source of wisdom in terms of political reality, we have to ask ourselves if political philosophy has any consequences at all.  Is there a bridge between “what there is” and “what there should be”?

The Utopian Character of European Political Thought

European political thought has always been utopian. What is more, it has been incurably utopian. It means that a political order or change is regarded desirable either rationally, emotionally, or “necessarily” whatever the conditions or possibilities allow, but undoubtedly preferable to what there is. Partly it is due to sincere or actual deprivation or sufferings but sometimes it is grounded on the confusion of the public and the private. There are always people who happen to be unable to distinguish between the personal hardships of life, or human existence, and those which are caused by public mismanagement or simply due to the priority of the public to the private.

We have some definite evidence that the split between the actual understanding of the public contrasts with the intellectually possible or best, or later, ideal public order. The first explicit reflection on the difference between order and disorder can be located in Hesiod’s Works and Days. The morally grounded account about the bad and good government is the political framing of the idea that there is order and disorder, and the previous should be eliminated:

“But they who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus never decrees cruel war against them. Neither famine nor disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly they tend the fields which are all their care. The earth bears them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns upon the top and bees in the midst. Their woolly sheep are laden with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents. They flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit.”

“But for those who practice violence and cruel deeds far-seeing Zeus, the son of Cronos, ordains a punishment. Often even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises presumptuous deeds, and the son of Cronos lays great trouble upon the people, famine and plague together, so that the men perish away, and their women do not bear children, and their houses become few, through the contriving of Olympian Zeus. And again, at another time, the son of Cronos either destroys their wide army, or their walls, or else makes an end of their ships on the sea.”[1]

The whole description is modeled on the distinctions between peace and war, justice and injustice, perishing and flourishing, good and bad. It means that human life has always been on the brim of two opposites. Between something what “there is,” and a possibility of “what there can or should be.” The distinction between what there can be and what there should be bears relevance because it underlies the difference between ancient or classical utopianism and modern utopianism, which takes the rationally possible as either “necessary” or inevitable. In other words, modern utopianism explores a future that is independent of human nature and past experience, narrowing human progress to seeking laws of time or man-made history usually or basically attributed mainly to Hegel’s philosophical inventions.

Thus the history of political thought can be viewed as the opposition of what there is, which is usually identified with a very simple political realism, and what there can or should be. Three different political authors’ teachings effectively highlight how aware they were of this core issue of political thought, the tension between what there is and what there should be. The first example is Plato’s Republic. The key sentence in this work is this with regard to the distinction between political realism and political utopianism: “Let’s construct our theoretical community from scratch.”[2] This statement is framed after a long and thorough common sense discussion of what justice is among interlocutors, with Socrates as the pivotal figure. Dissatisfied with different realistic views on what is justice, Socrates calls forth his partners to found a republic in words, or in theory—that is, in a speculative way, but not in action. This is the moment when there is a chance for the rise of political philosophy. This approach also means that action and words, the given and the possible, are contrasted, thereby providing a favorable context for what we can label as utopian.

Similarly to Plato’s treatment, Thomas Hobbes declares in his Leviathan that “I speak not of the men, but (in the Abstract) of the Seat of Power”[3], or the nature of the state or commonwealth. Even more explicit is Rousseau’s side-remark at the beginning of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: “Let us therefore begin by putting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on the question.”[4] We could certainly find other less explicit statements of the nature of political philosophy by other authors both ancient and modern. John Rawls’s theory of justice exemplifies what we can call pure utopianism, particularly when he introduces the idea of the “veil of ignorance.” It seems that political philosophy as such is a kind of negation of what is real, and has only relevance intellectually as if what political philosophy has to say should not have any direct relationship with what is factual.

Obviously this would be wrong. So far the history of political philosophy has been carrying an internal tension, which can be described as the conflict of the realist and the normative approach to political life. Since political action is often under pressure to conquer the future, compounded by an expectation that political agents be able to form the future, political philosophy by nature offers a tool with which to capture the future. Thus the notion that political philosophy is utopian is misleading, for the primary of function of political philosophy is to give advice and present direction, in an effort to secure various desirable future goals, which can only be implemented by political action. We have, therefore, differences among utopias but utopianism in general is not a flaw of political philosophy. Instead of criticizing utopianism, we ought to focus on the normative aspects of political philosophy and its realist assessment.

Normativity and Political Philosophy

But what can be the guide toward quenching our insatiable thirst for finding our way to the future, or more precisely to the world of “what there should be”? First it was nature; later, in modernity, it was history; and finally, in recent times, it is rationality characterized by the logical-analytical approach. Our age is the peak of the human effort to replace what there is by what there should be, but this time without reservation, by a solution rooted in pure reason – which focuses on institutions of the most progressive kind. Not unlike previous ages, today’s idea of human progress believes that no other response has any justifiable or reasonable arguments behind it. In the contemporary moment, Truth is understood as a logically unchallengeable position, in contrast to earlier claims of truth based on some transcendental norm. The modern solution to man’s basic problems is to cut man from his cosmic or transcendental extension. Today, man is what he thinks he is able to become.

To avoid being lost among the various sets of norms, it is worth fixing the initial point of departure for all political philosophy. This refers to the question that paves the way for later variations on interpreting the reality of politics, and the distinction between politics and philosophy. We have to recall Aristotle’s initial lines in his Politics, Book VII: “He who would duly inquire about the best form of a state ought first to determine which is the most eligible life; while this remains uncertain the best form of the state must also be uncertain; for, in the natural order of things, those may be expected to lead the best life who are governed in the best manner of which their circumstances admit. We ought therefore to ascertain, first of all, which is the most generally eligible life, and then whether the same life is or is not best for the state and for individuals.”[5] Prior to raising the issue of politics we have a philosophical problem that cannot be settled by any particular form of knowledge other than philosophy – which is the knowledge of the whole. With respect to the whole, we must put the question of “how should we live?”

Although this question is easily linked to the knowledge of politics, since we are unceasingly communal beings, it cannot be answered on the basis of political science. Philosophy precedes any other forms of knowledge, because the question of “how should we live?” is a purely philosophical issue: philosophical in the sense that you can only say anything if you are capable of integrating aspects of experience, interest, faith, judgment and wisdom in one statement in the name of living a happy life. There is a hierarchy, thus, between levels of understanding with respect to the individual and the communal aspects of what good life might mean. Wisdom is the most sound judgment what a human being can achieve.

Already Aristotle tackles the problem of whether the individual should participate in public life, or if he should refrain from it by resorting to philosophy. As a result we have a number of tensions in terms of political participation: first, should the individual partake in public matters?; second, if he does, should he follow precepts of ancient customs, or he should invent new ways and methods? And here we are again at the threshold of all political problems, namely that whether political action should be grounded on custom or on novel ideas or suggestions. To be sure, the ever present suggestion is that we should live according to our ancestors’ precepts or find out new ways of life. The problem is that political action is restricted to solving very direct needs or necessities. From the perspective of the political actor, any regrets or indecision are more likely an impediment to political action than the preparation for sound choice.

Political realism today is usually linked to the available precepts, therefore mistakenly taken to be a conservative position. But it is not. Realism may have conservative qualities or strengths, but realism is not the same as conservatism. Realism simply recognizes the complexity of a given situation, exercises caution in decision-making, and stresses the firm belief that either an old method must be applied or a completely new one borrowed from contemporary political philosophical insights. The purely utopian always solely focused on the political barring out of other aspects of individual judgments: faith, interest, pain, pleasure, birth and death.

The realist takes all possible aspects of human behavior seriously. The purely utopian or modern solution is adamant on excluding the many allegedly irrational aspects of human behavior from the treatment of the political. This is why the discussion on the political is reduced to either commenting on political action or describing institutions – both of them are rude realism. But two things cannot be neglected while interpreting the political, despite even our wish to be normative or dogmatic: religious and moral aspects. Both of them are normative in their very essence. These norms are to dictate how any individual as the member of a community should live and behave accordingly. Political philosophy, while persistently seeking to understand the whole of the political, has never abandoned the faith or transcendental and moral ingredients of how we and/or an individual should live.

Political Action and Realism

The topic of political realism appears explicitly first in the history of political thought only with Machiavelli. Those who focused on actual political events were historians like Thucydides or Livius and not political thinkers, and what they had to say does not fit the idea of political thinking or political philosophy. They do not directly address the issues of “the best regime” or “most eligible life,” and remain silent about what to do in order to conquer either nature, history, or the future. They do not present their ideas in a context of eternity (or utopian rationalism).

Machiavelli was the first who tried to take the concept of time seriously, therefore he was the first modern political thinker. Relatedly, he also believed that the most relevant feature of politics was action. Action is creating the methods that ensure the desired outcome of a political decision or necessity or will. Thus the core of political inquiry must be about the conditions given, the nature of political agents, the structure of power, and last, but not least, action. Politics as a distinct human phenomenon can be the subject of logic, psychology, law, morality, or even arts, but it will remain what it is: a bundle of decisions and actions in order to control or secure a desired outcome in the future. Machiavelli’s realism is nothing else than shifting the focus to political action as opposed to other aspects of the political realm.

But why has Machiavelli become a subject of contempt? Why has be become an outlaw in political discourse? Let us turn very briefly to Eric Voegelin’s assessment of the problem of political realism. Eric Voegelin devoted a couple of pages to the problem of realism in his History of Political Ideas, when exposing his views on Renaissance and the early modern period. He suggests: “These three thinkers [Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes] were realistic, and a realist is always in danger of incurring the displeasures of his contemporaries, because he is inclined to pierce the evocation of the cosmion and to destroy its magic.”[6] The realist is a public nuisance because he is out to destroy man’s hard-earned view of himself as part of the cosmic, and the notion that his cosmion is under the eternal law, yet his free will allows him to choose from among alternatives. Voegelin firmly believes that man’s world is subsidiary to something higher, the cosmos, and cosmion, that he has an access to, is always subordinate to the higher measure. Therefore he judges political realism in terms of how big the gap is between the cosmic and the cosmion. He also claims that the distinction between the private and the public has a decisive relevance – and the private will dominate when there is a disintegration in the political community. This happens when the cosmic and the cosmion come into conflict, which is demonstrated by the fragmentation of reality: “The erection of fragments of reality into cosmic absolutes has for the realistic thinker the consequence that his larger world becomes a private world.”[7]

Strangely, Socrates seems to be depicted as a realist, too, if we go on reading Voegelin: “The question of what is public is always determined by the socially dominant evocation of the time. The realistic thinker becomes a private person because he has no public before which he can display what he observes in his larger world without incurring fierce resentment that may lead to disgrace, persecution, and possibly death, as in the case of Socrates.”[8] Two realities compete all the time; one, that of the realist thinker; and the other, that which is based on faith: “The thinker, however, is a piece of reality, too, and probably a more solid and forceful one than his surrounding society, for it requires more vitality and strength of soul to look at the world unflinchingly than to take refuge in a cosmion.

The conflict between the two realities is inevitable. Those who are living in their cosmion will find that the thinker is not realistic at all but holds an absurd view of the world because he sees things beyond the boundaries of the cosmion, which for them is the realissimum enclosing their horizon.”[9] In this respect, all thinkers are realists compared to the majority who live within the boundaries of a cosmion based on faith, desire, hope, and understanding of his plight. Is it too courageous to say that Voegelin represented a special kind of political realism that can be qualified that sound political thinkers are realists because they see beyond the boundaries of the cosmion? I do not think so. Voegelin was also a realist as all sound political thinkers are – bearing in mind that a realist is someone who presupposes order in the world.

The same applies for the judgment of Machiavelli. One of the everlasting effects of Counter Reformation is the denigration of Machiavelli’s ideas. He seems to be the embodiment of political evil in modernity, an author who is the initiator of modernity, obviously beyond his intent. I cannot agree more with Dante Germino’s poignant words about the later judgment of Machiavelli:

“My friends, remember this: MACHIAVELLI WAS NOT A VULGAR REALIST. Indeed, like a giant vacuum cleaner, Eric Voegelin in his History of Political Ideas sweeps up the debris deposited by the majority of political scientists by showing that the Florentine Secretary was ‘a healthy and honest figure’ – at least compared to the contractualists and their ‘swindle of consent,’ a man who did NOT – and I repeat NOT – teach that there are two moralities, one for private and the other for political life, a man who was NOT a mere technician, NOT a cynic, NOT a nihilist, NOT a reincarnated Callicles on his knees before the god Power, did NOT think ‘might is right,’ and of course, did NOT separate politics from ethics.” [10]

Germino suggests that there is a third way between vulgar realism and idealism, which he calls “Spiritual realism.” He wants to avoid the one-sidedness, or I would add to it, the ideological character of political thinking. Political realism, tellingly, has always been more suspicious than a search for a new response. I wish to cite Germino again:

“Using Plato’s Parable of the Cave, I compare the Vulgar Realists – whose ultimate answer to political problems is to build more prisons – to prisoners themselves, shackled to the floor on the Right side of the Cave. The Idealists, –whose ultimate answer to political problems is “education, education, education” (without knowing what education is) are the prisoners shackled on the Left side. The Spiritual Realist is the ex-prisoner who has been helped to accomplish the periagoge and who returns to work on improving the lighting.”[11]

So a political realist is the one who realizes his position according to the Platonic parable, and makes his way as close as possible to the entry of the cave. Plato with his Cave metaphor is a realist thinker, someone who is craving for truth and knowledge which is reality itself. The situation is somehow similar to art – it is either sound or nothing. Political philosophy is either sound or nothing. Political philosophy is either realistic or normative-moralizing.

Why Do We Need, Then, Political Philosophy?

Do we need political philosophy at all even if it offers “sound knowledge of politics”? The mere description of what has happened or been done by statesmen and people — that is, history – could provide us with the reality of politics, yet we would miss understanding the political reality. Understanding the whole requires more than seeking the natural, historical or logical aspects of man’s actions, but it incurs unavoidably a normative aspect, that is a utopian claim. Adding a normative aspect is basically (if not completely) redundant compared to reality. Norms do not constitute reality, if it do, then we arrive at the world of human psychological realm.

This is the key to the final judgment of political philosophy, too. If the human soul is the primary constituent of human existence, as Plato suggests, then the political is about the order of the human soul. If man’s soul is helpless, as it is in itself, it will not be able to identify itself with a role, through which to dictate what should be done. Thus political philosophy is indispensable because it keeps a distance from direct needs, and can offer an analytical tool through which to view prospects beyond the physical capabilities of man. This is why the moment that philosophy, shedding its original meaning of “love of wisdom,” wishes to become one of the modern sciences, it will lose its existential ground. The same follows for political philosophy: either it comes to serve ideological purposes (direct political interests), or it preserves its outstanding position, secured not by its politically neutral stance, but instead by its commitment to seeking the truth of reality.

As illustrated above, we locate three distinct approaches to political reality, always with a tinge of normative aspects. The first is the natural law tradition, the second is the historical tradition, and the third is the still developing logical-analytical tradition-to-be. Each of them had its dominant era in the history of political thought, characterized by variants often inimical not only to other traditions, but also to variants within its own tradition. Ideas belonging to the natural law tradition are based on the concept of the Greek physis; the fundamental political ideas like justice, equality, liberty etc., all of them suggesting norms, are derived from the constructed meaning of nature, for instance, natural right or laws of nature like natural obligation. The idea of history as a philosophical invention was meant to bridge the gap between what there is and what there should be. Therefore its central concept is progress which supposes that the lapse of time could mitigate the tension between what there is and what there should be. This shift towards to progress in the focus of political thought produced a new political science grounded on a novel conception of political knowledge.

There were, however, a few political thinkers in the 20th century, like Leo Strauss or Eric Voegelin, who targeted this new kind of political thought and knowledge and indicated that there is strong linkage between modern tyranny and the anti-philosophical, reductionist, value-free political science. By dint of their efforts, we are capable of putting forward political ideas that relentlessly criticize the now dominant positivist and logical-analytical approach to understanding political issues. This positivist and logical-analytical trend, which deprives the classical human rights teaching of its natural law basis, tries to work out and constantly enlarging a pure system of human rights solely derived from logical-analytical skills or use of rationality. Human rights can only multiply randomly because they are no longer founded in the natural. Human rights arguments today constitute an ideology because unlike most of their predecessors (classical natural law and history-focused thinkers) their representatives do have an intention to interfere with political action, and to establish societies on a particular network of political institutions usually called constitutional liberal democracies balancing on the brim of the real and the utopian. To question the truth of this view, however, leads one to be viewed as an impostor, only pretending to act politically.

The central question then whether we still have political philosophy or only its degenerate form: ideology. The major distinction between political philosophy and ideology is not just that political philosophy does not claim a direct role in pragmatic political life, but that it is justified only if it is capable of preserving its original intent to understand the world as a whole, under a law. In the words of Voegelin: “The order is, indeed, cosmic.”[12] In terms of love of wisdom, political philosophy aims to integrate epistemology, morality and judgment into its universe; it is guided by a wish to seek truth as a whole. Political wisdom is nothing more than sound judgment.

Today’s democratic fervor and persuasion contrasts democracy and philosophy, and as described by Richard Rorty, favors the former.[13] This perspective concludes that there is no need for political philosophy — that is, unless we do indeed want to respect political reality, and do not want to be lured into seeing a world dictated simply by the untenable and the desired, which explicitly profess that human nature is conquered or about to be conquered in the long process of conquering nature in general. It is a utopia, and irresponsible when it comes to behold and identify evil, or simply to understand a world that refuses to heed logically intact norms, and instead creates new forms of faith, hopes, friendships and hostilities, love and hatred, wars and cruelty. The loss of reality has always had its bitter price.

European or Western political thought has been deeply involved in utopian activity for a long time. Political philosophy, in its search for the truth of reality, has a long tradition. What we are doing here is creating or resuming this tradition. We all wish to transmit something that we regard precious and we deem not to be perishable with our own limited existence. What we inherit from the past, is unavoidably filtered through our own experience and judgments. It is, however, extremely difficult to judge what is worth preserving and transmitting, since man’s life is always under constraints, and reluctant to changes and novel ideas as we all seek security. The only way of escaping the past, is to create something new, either in words or in actions. Most people think that arts and literature are that which are capable of capturing and transmitting man’s experience with reality, and of implicitly hinting at directions of change.

Another, somewhat narrower group of thinkers, would turn to past events and people’s deeds. Historians wishing to grasp man’s intentions and actions fix themselves to follow what has already been accomplished, and thus create a firm ground upon which all current decisions and judgments can find an ultimate reference point. In order to ascertain our findings, we badly need a reference point, lest our efforts to rationalize our existence be altogether doomed. It is very easy to be got lost among the myriad contradictions in life. Rationality is the human’s attempt to make order out of an experienced chaos, resulting from a lack of understanding. We are surrounded by conflicts and contradictions. This is what we see all around us. Very few are able to transcend the direct impacts and conditions of our existence, but we have to notice that the largest contest today is who is capable of providing all of us with a promise of meaning of life. Christianity has a say in this, when it promises eternal life in exchange of devoted life.

This is where philosophy comes to the view. Philosophy today should not be confused with the love of wisdom. Put briefly, wisdom is to be distinguished from philosophy, at least in Western culture. Today’s philosophy is subordinate to modern science, which is geared by standards alien to the direct experience of humans, and which succumbs to norms created by scientists, who themselves claim to scrutinize human experience. This claim to factuality is obviously not true, because it cannot be true. Modern science is based on statistical averages between the particular and the general. Is it the truth? Hardly so. The average serves to prove that human instruments may replace man’s earlier submission to fate or to God. The statistical average is but the pure replacement of God’s action and intention. Today’s embracement of the average is a mere capitulation to the lost of hope of seeking truth as a meaningful activity. The loss of reality is often highlighted by rationally intact constructions.



[1] Hesiod: Works and Days.  ll 238-247

[2] Plato: Republic 369b

[3] Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. Epistle Dedicatory.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In: The Basic Political Writings. Hackett Publishing Company, 1987. p. 38

[5] Aristotle: Politics. Book VII. 1323a

[6] Eric Voegelin: History of Political Thought.  The New Order and Last Orientation. University of Missouri Press, 1999. Ed. and introduction by Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck. Vol. VII.  p. 59

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid p. 60

[9] Ibid

[10] Dante Germino: Was Machiavelli a “Spiritual Realist”? EricVoegelin Society Meeting 2000.

[11] Ibid

[12] Eric Voegelin: History of Political Ideas. Renaissance and Reformation. Vol. IV. Ibid. Ed. And introduction by David L. Morse and William M. Thomson.  p. 62

[13] Richard Rorty: Cf. Richard Rorty: The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy. In: Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 175-196.

Andras Lanczi

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András Lánczi is Director of the Political Science Institute at Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary. He is author of Political Realism and Wisdom (Palgrave, 2015).