Can Politics Be Reduced to a Science?

Monday, 01-23-2017


I don’t think much of David Hume’s philosophy, but he was an astute observer of government.  If he was right in his famous 1742 essay “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” then the prospects of applying the sort of science he had in mind to our own country should be rather dimmer now than formerly.

Hume’s argument was that in the bad old days, the study of politics could never be scientific, because too much depended on the whims and quirks of those who held unchecked power.  It isn’t that one cannot form any generalizations about chaotic processes, but they are chancy.  Consider the difference between the sciences of chemistry and weather.  It is easy to guess that iron will rust, but no one knows for sure whether it will rain on a given future day.  Old-style politics was more like weather.

However, now that we have learned to construct systems of checks and balances, he thought political events would be more routine, more subject to inertia -- therefore more susceptible to scientific generalization.

The reason I say the prospects of the sort of political science that Hume favored are growing dimmer is that although the system of checks has not collapsed, our executives are becoming more autocratic.  Obama and Trump are conspicuous examples, but the trend has been a long time in the making.

Hume’s analysis does need to be updated.  The sort of checks he had in mind were checks among social orders represented in the legislature.  A roughly stable balance among the Lords, the Commons, and the Crown kept things from becoming too volatile.  However, he left out of account a number of other things that enter into the mix.  Consider the rise of willful courts and enormous, sclerotic bureaucracies.  Consider the change in the practice of patronage, in which instead of bribing just individuals and small groups for political support, parties seek to bribe entire social classes at once.

Yet he was right that insofar as rule devolves to individual strong men – especially strong men of unstable character -- generalizations about what may happen become very difficult.

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Spoiler Alert

Monday, 01-16-2017

I had not learned until recently that George Orwell, the author of several dystopian stories, had also reviewed C.S. Lewis’s supernatural thriller, That Hideous Strength.  Though he conceded that the novel was worth reading (and it is), he finished by complaining that supernatural elements “weaken” a story because “in effect they decide the issue in advance.”  One has the impression that he may have written the review just to have an opportunity to say so.  “When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict,” he goes on, “one always knows which side is going to win.  The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.”  Although Orwell also suggests that supernatural agencies are implausible, his main complaint isn’t that he doesn’t believe in them, but that they take the steam out of the story.  Including God, he thinks, is like building in a spoiler alert.

One may call this attitude methodological naturalism.  Orwell doesn’t ask that we disbelieve in God, but he thinks we should write as though we do.

Methodological naturalism in literature is much like methodological naturalism in science.  According to Orwell, believing in God squeezes out suspense, because the same party prevails in every struggle; God always wins.  According to materialists, believing in Him squeezes out scientific wonder, because everything has the same ultimate cause; God does everything.

Both complaints are naïve.

As to stories, it is enough to point out that God created free and rational beings, not puppets or divine beasts.  Though He cannot be overcome by evil, human beings can be.  Though He offers aid, they may not accept it.  The drama of the story is not that we do not know what will happen to God, but that we do not know what will happen to men and women.  To find out, we have to keep reading.

And as to science, notice that God works through secondary causes.  Although He is the origin of the whole causal order, that order is nonetheless real.  Knowing that water is His idea does not tell us why it boils; knowing that gravity is of His doing does not tell us the geometrical properties of the space-time manifold.  To find out, we have to investigate.

So rather than depriving stories of their drama, God’s reality increases it:  For what could be more thrilling than the fate of souls?  And His reality increases the wonder of scientific inquiry, for now we can ask not only how things happen -- but why!

The Revenge of Conscience Is Now an Ebook

Thursday, 01-12-2017

My book The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man is now available electronically, as a Kindle.  Among other things, that makes it much cheaper.  Here is the link.


What it Really Means to Be Great

Monday, 01-09-2017

In a conversation with one of the Athenian bully boys, Socrates suggested that what makes statesmen great is not whether they are good or bad at doing things and at giving the people what they want -- but whether, by their conduct and rhetoric, they leave the people better or worse than they found them.

Making allowances for the fact that today, statesmen practice rhetoric chiefly by tweeting and playing the fool on late night talk shows rather than by orating, the question is still a good one.  Socrates posed it about recent Athenian statesmen.  We ought to pose it about recent presidents, and it is not too soon to begin posing it about the president-elect.  For although he has not yet entered upon his rule, he has certainly begun to influence the character of the people.

Here is how Socrates presented his suggestion, in the great Platonic dialogue Gorgias.  I am using the well-known translation of Benjamin Jowett.

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Socrates:  I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts; one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience; but have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?

Callicles:  But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.

Socrates:  Well, then, can you mention any one of a former generation, who may be said to have improved the Athenians, who found them worse and made them better, from the day that he began to make speeches?  For, indeed, I do not know of such a man.

Callicles:  What!  Did you never hear that Themistocles was a good man, and Cimon and Miltiades and Pericles, who is just lately dead, and whom you heard yourself?

Socrates:  Yes, Callicles, they were good men, if, as you said at first, true virtue consists only in the satisfaction of our own desires and those of others; but if not, and if, as we were afterwards compelled to acknowledge, the satisfaction of some desires makes us better, and of others, worse, and we ought to gratify the one and not the other, and there is an art in distinguishing them — can you tell me of any of these statesmen who did distinguish them?

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Callicles:  But surely, Socrates, no living man ever came near any one of them in his performances.

Socrates:  O, my dear friend, I say nothing against them regarded as the serving-men of the State; and I do think that they were certainly more serviceable than those who are living now, and better able to gratify the wishes of the State; but as to transforming those desires and not allowing them to have their way, and using the powers which they had, whether of persuasion or of force, in the improvement of their fellow citizens, which is the prime object of the truly good citizen, I do not see that in these respects they were a whit superior to our present statesmen, although I do admit that they were more clever at providing ships and walls and docks, and all that.


Trusting in Princes

Monday, 01-02-2017


Commenting on CBS This Morning on the end of her husband’s term of office and the election of a rival, the outgoing First Lady said “We feel the difference now.  See, now, we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

It is said that in Washington, she and her husband attend an Episcopalian church.  I guess the following passage has never been discussed during worship.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.  When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.  Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

-- Psalm 146:3-7 (RSV-CE)

The Infant’s Voice

Sunday, 12-25-2016


Yesterday I displayed a few gems from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.  These are from a pair of his sermons for Christmas Day.  I have taken a few liberties with the translation, which is a bit dated.

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Christ is born in a stable, and lies in a manger.  Yet is He not the same that said, The earth is mine, and the fullness thereof?  Why, then, need He choose a stable?  Plainly that He might repove the glory of the world, that He might condemn its empty pride.

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I have already said that He preaches to you even in His infancy:  “Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  The Stable preaches this penance to us; the Manger proclaims it to us.  This is the language which His infant members speak; this is the Gospel He announces by His cries and tears.

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And lest thou should say even now, I heard thy voice, and I hid myself, behold, He comes as an Infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror.  If He is terrible to any, yet not to thee.

More Than Long Ago

Saturday, 12-24-2016


These rubies are from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.

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Let no one be so indevout, so ungrateful, so irreligious, as to say:  This is nothing new; it was heard long ago; Christ was born long ago.  I answer:  Yes, long ago and before long ago.

No one will be surprised at my words if he remembers that expression of the Prophet, in aeternum et ultra, “for ever and ever,” or “for ever and beyond it.”  Christ, then, is born not only before our times, but before all time. ...

That this mysterious Nativity might to some extent be made known, Jesus Christ was born in time, born of flesh, born in flesh, the Word was made flesh.

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Tomorrow, therefore, we shall see the majesty of God, but with us, amongst us, not in Himself.  We shall see Majesty in humility, Power in weakness, the God-man. ...

He chose a stable and a manger – yes, a despicable hut, a shed fit only for beasts – that we may know that He it is “Who raises up the poor one from the dunghill” [and] Who said, “Unless you be converted and become as this little child, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”