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Why Precisely Political Philosophy?

Why Precisely Political Philosophy?

Philosophy is to remind us of the necessity in things: not just to the necessities to which we have to resign ourselves, but those we can find splendid.

– Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study.[1]


Now classical political philosophy has held that it is not any natural power that is first and properly the concern of the political art, but on the contrary, rational powers that are not determined to one particular action but are inclined indifferently to many. It is precisely their specification by free action—which cannot rely upon or imitate a principle of natural operation—that constitutes the proper art of politics.

– Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought.[2]


‘Political philosophy’ means primarily not the philosophical consideration of politics, but the political, or popular, treatment of philosophy, or the political introduction to philosophy—the attempt to lead the qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life.

– Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy?[3]



In the dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates, the philosopher, in Athens, the best actual (not theoretic) city of its time, we recall two unforgettable themes. The first, from the Crito: “It is never right to do wrong.” This principle is the cornerstone of the city and civilization that received their vitality and order from this affirmation. It recognizes a radical distinction between what is good and what is evil, a distinction that is not simply man-made. It is, however, capable of being recognized by man. It is the most significant and basic distinction within cosmic existence, the one that gets closest to the reason why anything at all exists. Its ontological category is found in the objective nature of moral things. They reveal an order not of their own making, but one to which all human actions ultimately refer for their meaning.

This order can be recognized by the human mind. Subsequent to this recognition, the distinction can either be affirmed or rejected. Such is the scope of the free nature given in human existence. It constitutes the drama and need for judgment that is manifested in each human life. This affirmation or rejection of a given order is seen in how we judge the multiple activities of a given human life. This issue is what the last myth in the Republic was about. Still the distinction of good and evil presumes that what is, including matter as such, is good.

Evil is always the privation or lack of a good that ought to be there. Moral evil is a privation in some otherwise good act or thing effected by acts of free will for a purpose. The moral and political world is filled with choices that ought not to have existed but do. Once they do exist, from them, as the Latin adage put it, sequitur et bonum et malum. (Either good or evil can follow from either a good or evil thing). That is, evil choices do not prevent the world from going on. Without de facto evil choices, contrition, forgiveness, and just punishment would be meaningless.[4] Paradoxically, the scope and depth of existence is expanded when evil is allowed to happen within reality.

Evil is not another substantial being in the universe. The fact of evil existing in ontologically good things opens the possibility of intellectual and sacrificial forces that can redeem the good found in the being that lacks something that it ought to possess. Things can also become worse unless the evil is recognized and counteracted. Aristotle was right to look carefully at vice and at tyranny as examples of how bad things might eventually turn out. He was also right to see them as habits that were freely allowed to form in our being.

Aristotle’s Politics described the souls of the citizens who constituted differing forms of polity—monarchy, aristocracy, polity, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, with mixed regimes capable of combining some of these into one regime. Regime distinctions were based on the citizens’ conduct, on their habits and character, and ultimately on their relation to this principle that it is never right to do wrong and its origins. Thus, good and bad regimes reflected the deliberately-formed souls of the free citizens who made up any particular city. All good regimes sought a common good that was inclusive of the good of everyone, the human good that was found in nature. All bad regimes sought the good of the ruling principle over against a common good.

The end and, hence, the definition of a regime guided the number and configuration of the subordinate structures and offices within a given polity. A civil constitution was designed to bring about the options manifested by the actions flowing from the souls of its citizens. The Ethics of Aristotle was a detailed explication, seen through their moral actions, of why and how individuals belonging to the same human species differed in things falling under their power of choice. Basically this difference was manifested in the degree of virtue or vice that motivated the citizens in their varied actions within their polities and in their foreign relations.

Modern civilization since Machiavelli and Hobbes usually denies this principle that it is never right to do wrong. It claims the “freedom” to do wrong if needed. The classical city stands in constant conflict with the city in which this supposedly exhilarating liberty to do wrong is an option of the politician. The possibility of doing wrong is implicit in the nature of freedom. Its right ordering occurs through the acquiring of virtues. This “liberty” to do wrong, however, was postulated to assist the politician or the citizens to achieve their own chosen purposes, not those discovered to be good in the order of things. Glimpses of this recurring controversy were already found in the First Book of The Republic. The current culture is best defined as the political effort to remove all natural relationships and institutions as impediments to a city wholly constructed by human choice subject to nothing but itself.

The second memorable and solemn passage, also from Plato, tells us that “Death is not the worst evil.” Doing wrong, not just abstract wrong, is the worst evil. Thus, no evil can befall a good man. Death is not the worst evil. The ultimate power of the politician, the arbitrary power to inflict death on anyone, including the philosopher and the prophet, is rendered useless if fear of death is not effective, if one accepts death rather than does evil. When the good man says to the unprincipled politician, “Kill me then,” the power of the politician is undermined. The power of the philosopher transcends his city and becomes known in the city of the world as the alternative to absolute power.


Political philosophy is designed to understand this situation, this neglected relationship of philosophy to the city. As we learn in the Gorgias, the only defense the philosopher possesses before an armed politician who is not limited by the distinction of good and evil is the philosopher’s power of speech, his power to speak the truth. All tyrants, even democratic ones, recognize their need to control speech. Once the politician no longer consents to examine his own soul, to listen to argument, the philosopher is dead. How we speak and how we listen are both moral activities by which we are judged.

But the philosopher’s death is not the worst evil. By his stance, the philosopher has avoided that alternative of doing evil to save his life and his truth. His death results in upholding, before the public, the principle that it is never right to do wrong. This latter principle governs the city in “speech” to which the life of the philosopher haltingly points. Political philosophy seeks to turn, even slightly, the soul of the statesman towards the good of the philosophic life, to an awareness at least that more than politics is found even in politics.

Political philosophy has the happy burden of justifying itself before both philosophy and, more particularly, before political life itself. Its prime function is to convince the statesman, whose active life leaves him little real time for philosophy as such, that a realm beyond politics does exists and does include what goes on in the political life of its citizens. Music, poetry, history, literature, and art, along with tragedies and comedies can prepare and direct the statesman beyond immediate interests. The virtues, and, yes, the frequent crimes of everyday life seen by the statesman also serve as a preparation for and intimation into the philosophical truths that the statesman has little time to contemplate.

In this philosophical realm, finally, all political acts, all moral acts, are judged in the light of what is good and what is evil. A polity without philosophy is a polity in which its own self-defined well-being takes the place of philosophy. Political philosophy wants to know: What is the place, if any, of philosophy within the polity? Why does the issue need attention? How do we go about establishing that philosophical issues are vital to the well-being of a polity?

Political philosophy initially must show why politics is normal for man, the political animal. Having granted this truth, though it is involved with things human, with things of this world, politics is still limited in such a way that it is not itself the explanation of the origin and meaning of everything human. Though it is the highest of the practical sciences, it does not explain everything that needs to be explained. It is this issue, when unaddressed, that allows politics to conceive itself as a metaphysics, as itself competent to explain and construct in its own image all that is. Politics deals with man as mortal while he is in the condition of mortality. It is no accident that the subject brought up at the end of The Apology of Socrates was not mortality but immortality. This issue directly followed from experience of the city’s killing the philosopher.

Secondly, political philosophy must reveal, in an intelligible manner, how politics by being what it is, leaves open realms, the consideration of which are the proper subject matter of both philosophy and a theology directed back to both. Politics and philosophy, in other words, by being what they are, leave open perplexities that still need to be considered. Neither politics nor philosophy on their own terms explains everything that is. Political philosophy guarantees the legitimacy of both politics and philosophy by addressing itself to the reasons why politics is tempted to become itself metaphysics and, simultaneously, why philosophy seeks to become visible by incorporating mind into a city designed by philosophers.

Along with both philosophy and politics, political philosophy also must account for itself before various different theologies, themselves often tempted to imitate philosophy by building the holy city in this world. The statesman recognizes the dangers of philosophers who do not understand the practicalities of the actual human condition. In particular, why in practice it is so difficult for most citizens to be virtuous? This concern always brings up the mystery and pertinence of the doctrine of original sin.

Anything that calls itself “philosophy”, moreover, must also indicate where it fits in the whole that philosophy purports systematically to explore and whose truth it brings to light. What calls itself “political” must identify what it considers the metaphysical status of the polis to be. What exactly is that corporate entity that identifies itself as an organized body politic designed to foster the good of its citizens, who are certain kinds of beings by nature? The city is certainly not another substantial being with its own existence.

Man does not make man to be man, as Aristotle said, but taking him from nature as already man, makes him to be good man. But this “making” him to be good man is not conceived as a necessity that must happen. His goodness follows upon his freedom. But as McCoy noted, his freedom does not constitute the essence of his goodness. This later view is the “modern project”, the effort of man to give himself his own goodness apart from the given-ness of his already constituted nature as man.

Ontologically, the polis falls into the Aristotelian category of relation, ad aliud. It is not a substance.[5] As an ongoing ordered relation manifested in the actions of its citizens, the polity as such is immortal. But as a relation it depends on individual living substances that are themselves political animals, each one of them.

The individual citizens who ground the being of the polis are each immortal, as least in their souls (Plato). The question of the resurrection of the body relates both to the completeness of what a person is and to the possibility of a reunion. This consideration is what revelation is about and why it relates indirectly to political philosophy which in its own order is unable to do anything but speculate on this possibility and see that it is not in principle incoherent. Logically, this will mean that Christian revelation does not contradict reason in its proposals about the location of a final end or happiness for each person in a gathering called classically The City of God.

Man is a political animal in two senses. In this life, to complete the potentialities found in him he needs a common good in which a wide variety of goods may be discovered and developed. In the beginning, man does not have any idea of the riches and complexity of what is available to him when he works and thinks about the world. Following the Ethics, his happiness even in this life consists in acquiring and practicing the virtues which enable him to rule himself. Laws are necessary to inform him in more detail what is just and unjust in his practice of virtue or lack of it. The virtues are concerned with the passions, to those natural things found in us that need to be ruled in the light of reason.

The acquiring of habits, of virtue or vice, indicates the kind of material the polity has to work with in the formation of its constitution and way of life. Thus, we have the distinction of good and bad regimes and those in-between. The discussion of continence and incontinence relates to the level most people will have in the status of their inner control. That is, few are virtuous or bestial, most fall in-between. For the most part they are good or evil; sometimes they are the opposite of what we expect.  The coercive aspect of civil society arises when virtue is not acquired or practiced in individual or group cases. In that sense, it ought not to exist but is reasonable to do something about it in the order of pleasure or pain to see that others are not hurt by our vices.

Politics concerns man as a whole being. Hence, it is related to his sensory side as itself an instrument to his knowing and well-being. Man is the mortal. It is genuinely good that he is what he is. His ultimate life is not an effort to escape from body as a preparation for its return in a transcendent order. The establishment and life of human cities, with the variety of goods that they can manifest is what the polity is for. Things and institutions related to health, knowledge, beauty, and prosperity are what should come forth from his mortal existence.

The notion of democracy as the best and only legitimate regime is dubious. Aristotle’s mixed regime is not the modern democracy, even when it contains separation of powers. In Aristotle’s best regime, the continuing sequence of begetting, infancy, adolescence family old age and death continues. Thus, the regime stays the same, if the order of virtue or vice remains more or less the same. If it changes, the regime changes. This phenomenon is why in modern regimes we can have the same constitutional forms over time but with an inner personal order of citizens that passed from virtue to vice in the very definition of personal virtue.

The purpose of the actual political order is to manifest the level of virtue actually found in a given citizen body, as seen in the deeds, works, and speeches of its citizens. Each individual is thus, by being a political animal that needs to rule himself, able to reach a steady habit that defines his character or personality. Once this stage is reached, the question arises about what else is there to live for? Does the practical life,  the life of arts and mechanics, of trade and technology, itself, at its best, point to something lacking not in the political life but in the lives of those who do politics?


It is here that political philosophy as such most connects with mortal life and points to something that transcends it. The life of leisure, the contemplative life, is properly divine, as Aristotle said. This life wants to know just for its own sake. Political philosophy is not a substitute for philosophy or revelation.[6] What it does is to explain to the politician why certain transcendent questions must be faced for the good of the polity itself, even though they are not as such political questions. But they are pertinent to every citizen and will eventually destroy any polity if they are not properly addressed.

Political philosophy explains to the prudent politician (that is, to the one who has acquired the highest practical virtues) why he must not kill Socrates or Christ. In turn, the politician explains to the philosopher that there are ideas and habits among the philosophers that are truly disruptive of any good life among the citizens. A certain healthy degree of good sense usually is found among normal citizens. Aberrant ideas, the statesman understands, need to be shown for what they are not just in their effects but in their own order. This is why good politics usually depends on good philosophy.

This making good philosophy present should be what a university is for. It is an institution both within and outside of the political order if it is true to what it is. When a university betrays its vocation, serious consequences follow for the body politic. The worst tyrants in this sense are usually philosopher kings gone wrong, not dolts who just are greedy or vicious. All tyrants set up disordered civic orders in this world. All philosopher/kings lead men to virtue and through that allow them to be open to truths for their own sake.

The question of death, whether that of Socrates, Christ, or of ordinary old age is not finally answered by politics or philosophy. But that does not mean that this concern is irrational. It is not a vice, but a duty, a hope, to seek to find some final answer. This openness to questions that cannot be answered by human philosophy or politics is the indirect reason why revelation is legitimately related to these two areas of human life. Politics awaits the City of God. Philosophy awaits the encounter with the Logos.

As David Walsh showed in his After Ideology, these deeper questions arise most vividly in disordered politics when the good man is killed in them.[7] Is this injustice, this torture and inhumanity, simply in vain? To suspect that it is not is precisely one of the primary realizations we have when we see good men refuse to go along with specific evil. But in some form such experiences occur in every human life at its end, even the most peaceful one. The question of death is thus also a question of both politics and philosophy. We are the mortals trying to understand what we are, what it means to be mortal.

The common good is that good of order that allows and encourages all other goods to come forth. It is a witness to the fact that abundance is more characteristic of our being than penury. But the historical experience of politics is replete with disordered regimes rooted in disordered souls. The mission each person is given at conception is that of reaching the final end for which he was created. This end is transcendent and is best described in the annals of revelation. It is the answer to the wonder about why we cannot be and are not completely happy in this life.

But Augustine was right. It is a very good idea not to expect too much in this world. Augustine was at the same time the greatest realist and the greatest revealer of our personal transcendent destiny. Political philosophy, hence, ought to be, if it is complete, a study of both the  best and worst regimes, and all more or less good ones in-between. The political life is the natural end of man while he is in this world. Philosophy is what goes on in this world when we realize that politics, though good, is not everything. Revelation is a knowledge that points to the limits of both politics and philosophy. In a sense, it confirms the validity of each in its own order.

Philosophy and revelation both limit politics. Politics is an extension and completion of ethics. It indicates how citizens in various ways deal with virtues and vices. Virtue makes it possible for us actually to be free enough from our own inner disorders to deal with what is there for its own sake. This is why the best actual regime is the one regime in which the mind of the citizens and philosophers is not turned to themselves, to their own self-glory but to the wonder of what is. In this sense philosophy depends on ethics and politics. Both the statesman and the philosopher need first to rule themselves for them to see the good of what is not themselves.

But politics recognizes that some things are not in its capacity to resolve. This is why Carens Lord said that the politician needs to know music and poetry.[8] The statesman is too busy to be a philosopher and too modest to think that he can build the kingdom of God in this world, which latter seems to be, in one form or another, the major enterprise of political philosophy since at least Machiavelli.

In conclusion, what finally is the answer to the initial question—Why precisely do we have political philosophy? Political philosophy exists in speech firstly to protect the philosopher from the raw power of the politician. But more importantly, it exists to explain to the prudent and intelligent statesman why the life of philosophy is itself a good of the polity, the good of its knowing why it is not everything. But political philosophy does have a subsidiary function of protecting the polity from the aberrant philosopher. The statesman has to know enough of what is normal to see the damage that comes from the abnormal.

Both politics and philosophy, though open to what is good and indeed to what is, remain at a deep level perplexed. What is it all for and why do we not have the ready-made tools to answer our own enigmas? At least one conceivable answer to this line of thought comes from revelation. Basically, it informs us that none of us is created simply for this world. That is why we cannot find our end, our telos, within it. Secondly, it tells us that the significance of our lives, what we do to ourselves and to one another, is the field in which what we finally will be is manifested. In the end, it says that we are not made to be souls alone but complete persons, body and soul, who have reached the end for which they were created.

What is remarkable about these three aspects of revelation is that they are formulated in such a way that they answer our own most perplexing questions about ourselves if we succeed in formulating and asking them. That is, we succeed in being citizens and philosophers who have actually addressed in our own experience and minds the curious insufficiency of our own reason to explain why we do not fully know ourselves. We do not fully know ourselves because we must first know what is not ourselves. This knowing what is not ourselves is precisely why we have minds.

The solution to the mystery of what we are is ultimately a gift to us. But it is a gift wholly in accord with what brings everything together and holds it together. It is a Logos that is addressed to our own minds when we are prepared and willing to receive it. Political philosophy is precisely what opens the city to what is beyond it. It is what keeps it open so that it can hear and accept the gift that explains to it why each citizen in any polity exists at all.



[1] Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 2017), 189.

[2] Charles N. R. McCoy, The Structure of Political Thought (New York: McGraw-Hill 1963), 248.

[3] Leo Strauss, “On Classical Political Philosophy,” What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Glencoe, Il.: The Free Press 1958), 78.

[4] See James V. Schall, A Line through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven (Kettering, Oh.: Angelico Press 2016).

[5] See James V. Schall, “The Reality of Society according to St. Thomas,” The Politics of Heaven & Hell: Christian Themes  from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, Md.: The University Press of America 1984), 235-48.

[6] See James V. Schall, Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic View (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 2013).

[7] David Walsh, Beyond Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco: Harper 1990)..

[8] Carens Lord, Education and Culture in the Thought of Aristotle (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press 1982).


Originally published at Telos (Summer 2018) 183: 203-12.

James V. Schall, S.J.James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J. was a Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is author and editor of over thirty books, the latest being Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught (St. Augustine's, 2016).

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