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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



The Enlightenment and Rationalism



Pangle argues that this case should be reopened as common criticisms and patronizing endorsements leveled against the great moral and political philosophies of the Enlightenment do not adequately account for the fuller meditations of Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, or the authors of the Federalist Papers. In reopening this debate, Pangle also draws our attention to the necessary recognition of the limits of this debate, “the reacquisition of intimate familiarity with the grounding treatises of modern republicanism only makes the shortcomings of the Enlightenment’s conception of human freedom and excellence more apparent.”[19] This realization helps us to see the strength of modernity’s critics. Pangle says it is on these great opponents, specifically Heidegger, that “postmodernists” rely for whatever impact their deconstruction of rationalism may have.[20]


Pangle’s goal is not simply to return to the authority of eighteenth-century philosophy but instead to provide an authentic critique of modernity. This critique requires and culminates with the “other” political rationalism, that of Socrates and the Socratic tradition.[21]


Pangle says that Socratic political rationalism has little to do with the “Platonism” and “Aristotelian teleology” that respectable scholarship has produced for the last two hundred years, which views classical philosophy through the categories of modern rationalism—notably formed through such figures as the Kantian Edmund Zeller—and points us instead in the direction of a more accurate representation of the Socratic tradition. This is available due to Leo Strauss’ rediscovery of a careful reading of Plato, as found in the Islamic and Judaic Middle Ages in such works as Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed.[22]


If our account of reason is crucial to the political regime, and as Pangle says a more careful reading of Plato, a foundational thinker to the West, is available through Alfarabi, then the Mideast has recourse within its own philosophical tradition to evaluate the best possible version of a modern Western political regime that is yet sympathetic to the claims of the prophetic religion of Islam. Similarly, the West can raise its understanding of reason through investigating Alfarabi.


The Socratic political rationalism presented through Alfarabi and Maimonides is at significant odds with modern rationalism and the republicanism modern rationalism supports.[23] Pangle says this gap is not unbridgeable as both use rational argument as the basis for discovery of truth regarding the human condition. A practical compromise between the two is possible but only if the debate is taken seriously, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides considered, and one position is brought to its conclusion in its subordination to the other.


Pangle reminds us that previous attempts at attempted synthesis, such as the best known and most thoughtful by Benjamin Franklin, have subordinated classical republicanism to the republicanism of the Enlightenment, Socratic to modern. Pangle suggests we might consider the opposite:


By reappropriating classical civic rationalism, we may be afforded a framework that integrates the politically most significant discoveries of modern rationalism into a conception of humanity that does justice to the whole range of the human problem and the human potential, in a way and to a degree never achieved by modern rationalism.[24]


Pangle writes his book to provoke the reader to serious consideration of this end. This investigation is significant to not only the West or the Mideast but to anyone interested in virtuous governing.


Pangle presents as both undesirable and impossible an unqualified return to classical political rationalism. Impossible because our mass-society is fundamentally different than mass-society as the subject of classical political theory, especially as depicted in the treatises of Xenophon; undesirable because of advances modern republican theory has effected over ancient republican theory.[25] Pangle says the unprecedented political horrors of the twentieth century, i.e., Marxist gulags, fascist death camps, or the shadow of nuclear holocaust, need not eclipse modern advancement. Pangle states:


I have in mind, not only the defeat of Marxism and fascism and the abolition of slavery, but more positively, the achievement of dignity and political organization for free labor; the enormous improvement in basic provisions and healthcare for the mass of humanity; the growth of recognition of universal human dignity in the doctrine of human rights; and, perhaps most important of all, the protection of human rights and of self-government in constitutional mechanisms and civic practices unknown to classical republican theory.[26]


Pangle quotes Publius, Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers, no. 9:


The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own elections: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress toward perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellencies of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. To this catalogue of circumstances that tend to the amelioration of popular systems of civil government, I shall venture, however novel it may appear to some, to add one more, on a principle that has been made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution; I mean the ENLARGEMENT of the ORBIT within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State, or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy…. The opponents of the PLAN proposed have, with assiduity, cited and circulated the observations of Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory for a republican government. But they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work…. So far are the suggestions of Montesquieu from standing in opposition to a general Union of the States that he explicitly treats of a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC as the expedient for extending the sphere of popular government and reconciling the advantages of monarchy with those of republicanism.[27]


Pangle says the great question that looms over even the high-water marks of modern republican theory is this: Did not theorists like Hamilton and Montesquieu depend upon, and yet inadequately account or provide for, certain absolutely crucial moral and educational foundations of civic republican culture, the exploration of whose problematic nature was the central theme of Socratic republican theory?[28]




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