Some Thoughts on Political Idealism and Prudence

There is a tendency for activists and ideologues to try to apply their political ideal to every society, no matter what conditions that society finds itself in. I will claim that it is problematic to apply a political ideal to a society through political action without confirming that this change is sustainable for the society given its culture, customs and the dispositions of its citizens. That this seems to be the case can be accounted for both by an examination of history, as well as through a theoretical examination. From a historical perspective one tends to see that when a political ideal is applied without recourse to the actual conditions of a society the consequences tend to be poor. In the case of the French Revolution the Jacobins tried to apply a political ideal based on popular sovereignty onto a society of peasants who had little experience with political activity and being viewed as a singular collective body that ruled itself. The people recognized that they were in some sense sovereign, but what that sovereignty meant in institutional terms was not clear. The results of the French Revolution (The Terror and the Rise of Napoleon) were terrible in part because revolutionaries had tried to apply a political ideal that was quite unrelated to the experiences, culture, and dispositions of the French state at the time. Thus, this example seems to suggest that there is something problematic about applying a political ideal to a society without ensuring that this society has the resources (culture, virtues and customs) to support this change.  Furthermore, examples of this sort are manifest throughout history.

On a more theoretical level one can see how problematic it is to apply a political ideal to a society without recourse to thinking about the actual conditions of the society by referencing the assumptions underlying this activity. In order for it to be a prudent course of action to apply a political ideal to a society without referencing that society’s ability to make that ideal sustainable all societies would need to be able to support all forms of politics, and all societies would need to be obligated to practise the same form of politics. Or political activity would need to have the capacity to make any political ideal sustainable society within any form of society. The first option seems implausible as differing sets of civic dispositions are necessary to support differing forms of constitutions. A commercial, liberal democracy requires civility, industriousness, and compassion while a martial aristocracy like Sparta required courage and harshness. Trying to make Spartans out of Canadians would certainly be ill-conceived. We might try to encourage Canadians to be more courageous by learning about the courage of the Spartans, but to try to apply the Spartan ideal to Canada would be dangerous and imprudent. The second option seems implausible because it exemplifies a perverse form of hubris. Man is not completely under the sway of fate or providence, but to suggest that any ideal can be applied and sustained in any society seems to put too much faith in the human ability to control nature and society.  

None of this suggests that ideals are bad. We are moved by them, and they give us something by which we can critique the present. But it displays a great lack of mindfulness to apply them without asking if a society can support that ideal and make it sustainable. This lack of mindfulness may be accompanied by a pure heart, but this pure heart does not make the lack of mindfulness any more excusable or legitimate. We certainly should devote our energy to improving society, but this should always be done in a way that tries to ask what future is sustainable for this political community at this particular point in history.



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