Back to the Future: Politics in the Past

Posted on February 20, 2014 by


After a few weeks of being immersed in arcane historical reading and teaching, I have concluded it isn’t so arcane as we think.  Of course, I knew that already, but there is nothing like being away from blogging to remind one.  What I mean is this:  Many or most of the political thinkers and ideas of the past, particularly from 1520 to (as of now) 1800 are so remarkably similar to those of today.  As Solomon wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  But besides that, it is also remarkable how similar the contexts were in which these thinkers were articulating their ideas.  For example, it is a bit (but only a bit) funny to read Bolingbroke, and eighteenth century British thinker and politician, who wrote about corruption in parliament, about the problems with parties, in that case, Whigs and Tories (I wish we had such great names now), and about following the “constitution.”  Of course Machiavelli is one of the most interesting.  In the sixteenth century, he gave advice to princes (presidents?  congressmen?  senators?) that was almost exactly described what is taken as good political advice for current times.  A classic:  “Is it better to be feared or loved?”  Well, we all know the answer to that, or do we?  It is better to be feared, and contemporary public officials seem to have gotten that lesson right, unfortunately.  But of course, sometimes we all want to be loved, and besides, we can’t go to far with fear-mongering.  So, true to Machiavelli, we also have to “give goodies” to our constituents.  And as for this common eighteenth century talk of constitutions, you could always find others who would say, “What constitution? We have a monarch here.”  Sound familiar?  

Aside from all, that practical talk one can also find some really wacky utopian types, like Robert Owen or Gracchus Babeuf, or Condorcet, or Robespierre, who was able to fulfill two criteria–wacky utopian and cruel fear-monger, for the sake of the Revolution of course.  It would be nice if we could consign these characters and others like them to the historical dustbin.  But unfortunately we can’t.  It is a strange thing, but wacky utopian fear-mongerers have a way of gathering followers, who carry on the work of their intellectual masters to greater “heights.”  Witness, Marx in theory, Lenin and Stalin and Mao in practice and a few other “wannabees.”

So before I close, besides the lesson that there is indeed nothing new out there, at least not in the realm of ideas, the other lesson here is about the nature of humans.  While we can do some pretty good things, we also have this sinful disposition which, if unchecked or unchanged, leads to very evil results.  When sometime in the eighteenth century, intellectual life began in earnest to separate itself from orthodox (or even unorthodox) theology, the trouble began to brew on a larger scale.  It is the human condition, and it ought to give us pause before we begin to love the state a little too much, or even more that God Himself.

At any rate, it is good to be back in the blogosphere.