NL XXVIII: The Forms of Political Action

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): Continuing a thought from the previous chapter, we observe that to condemn political discussion is also to wish for tyranny. Though the ruling class need not share their deliberations with the ruled class, it is better if they do. As our understanding of the reason for an action evolves from utility to conformity with a rule, so ruling, originally by decree, has evolved to include legislation. However, law does not require a formal structure to be enforced, and international law is an example. The best reason for an action is duty. Though the German Treitschke says our highest duty is to the state, he gives the state no duty, and so his politics are entirely utilitarian.


In Plato’s Republic, Socrates seeks understanding of the just human being through examination of the just state. In the New Leviathan, the order is reversed. What we first considered in somebody, we now look at in the “body politic.”

Narthex of the former Taksiyarhis Church (now museum), Ayvalık, Balıkesir, Turkey, August 30, 2018

In the last chapters of Part I, “Man,” we examined choice: simple or irrational choice, namely caprice, and then increasingly rational choice, from the expedient and the regular to the dutiful. Expedient choice, or choice on a utilitarian principle, concerns individuals, but indefinite individuals: you do this for the sake of that, but really it is this kind of thing, for the sake of that kind of thing. There is also no account of why that kind of thing should be desired. In regular choice, we obey a law or rule; but a rule is general—do this kind of thing in that kind of situation. Also, a rule is not self-justifying: it gives no account of why it should be respected. Only dutiful action is entirely rational, for leaving nothing to caprice.

In the final chapter of Part I, on theoretical reason, our approach to nature and the world reflects the development of our reason in the sense just discussed: utilitarian in ancient times, regularian in the middle ages, and historical today. History is connected to duty because both are entirely specific. Only through knowing history can we know precisely what we must do here and now. As Collingwood puts it now in Part II, “Society,”

28. 9. The idea of action as duty, as we have seen, is inevitable to a person who considers it historically. History is the science of the individual; the individual is the unique; the unique is the only one of its kind, the possible which is also necessary. The more a man accustoms himself to thinking historically, the more he will accustom himself to thinking what course of action it is his duty to do, as distinct from asking what it is expedient for him to do and what it is right for him to do; and the more he will accustom himself to thinking in the same way of other people’s actions explaining them to himself not by saying ‘this person did this action in pursuit of such and such an end’ or ‘in obedience to such and such a rule’ but ‘because it was his duty’.

A choice is an act, and an act is willed. In the quotation that I made in my last post, about the Iliad, of David Bolotin, on Thucydides,

political wisdom is primarily good judgment about unprecedented, particular situations.

In Part II of the New Leviathan, we consider political action. Action is willed; political action is jointly willed (28. 14). Thus it requires discussion (28. 15), and this requires language (28. 16).

Those who ridicule political discussion are said to betray a wish for tyranny instead (28. 2–21). To put it more mildly, what do you prefer? An eristic polity does not require discussion; it is convulsed with civil war instead, as the Aegean polity is, when Jove sends Eris to sing her song, at the head of Book XI of the Iliad,

And presently was bitter warre, more sweet a thousand times
Then any choice in hollow keeles, to greet their natiu climes.

Interesting that Chapman should introduce the word “choice,” which refers precisely to our topic now; it is not in the Greek, which is

τοῖσι δ᾽ ἄφαρ πόλεμος γλυκίων γένετ᾽ ἠὲ νέεσθαι
ἐν νηυσὶ γλαφυρῇσι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,

or in Murray’s literal translation, “And to them forthwith war became sweeter than to return in their hollow ships to their dear native land.”

Growing up in the capital of the United States, going to school with sons of politicians and of persons whose business involved politics, having a mother who worked in the Senate, I myself detested politics; but really, I did not understand it. (Professional sports was something else I did not understand.) When I took the Langdon Adult Intelligence Test, as it appeared in Omni magazine in 1979, I had the opportunity to join a high-IQ society whose newsletter, called Vidya, featured a short article on the “guesstimated” value of different fields of inquiry to the “totality of fields.” Physics was rated highest, mathematics lower down, and politics at the bottom. The last rating confirmed my prejudices, but I like to think I knew in my heart that they were only prejudices. At any rate, I did not join the society.

Strictly speaking, in their discussions of policy, the ruling class need not involve the ruled class (28. 24); indeed, the division between the rulers and the rest is based on who is able to enter into such discussions. However, since “the barrier between the two classes is permeable in an upward sense” (and this is the Second Law of Politics, from 25. 8), it is desirable that all should be involved in the rulers’ plans as much as possible.

28. 27. For unless Schiller is right to describe stupidity as the strongest thing there is (the thing against which even the Gods fight in vain), we are justified in thinking that as in other cases an intelligent body politic is likely to be stronger than an unintelligent; one ruled by will, with will diffused throughout it as widely as possible, than one ruled by desire-ridden or passion-ridden stupidity.

We may ask the extent to which the strength of leaders like Donald Trump lies in their stupidity.

At Troy, the leaders of the opposing forces do allow their followers some discussion of policy; but if the leaders don’t like what the people suggest, they may be ridiculed and stricken, as Thersites is by Ulysses in Book II; they may be threatened with death, as Polydamas is by Hector in Book XII.

We have reviewed the analysis of choices into irrational and rational, and rational choices into expedient, regular, and dutiful. In politics, irrational or capricious choice is rule by decree (28. 3), something that can happen today. By and large, ancient politics was expedient, or utilitarian. Though the word legislation comes to us from the Romans (28. 66), we see the concept “as a normal political activity” only in the Middle Ages (28. 63). The Romans themselves did not clearly distinguish between legislation and rule by decree (28. 66).

Our notion of government has evolved. Just so has our acquisition of knowledge evolved. Now we make great use of the scientific method. It is anachronistic at best to suggest that therefore all knowledge is acquired by this method. I refer now to the suggestion, in my discussion of Book X of the Iliad, that the original form of knowledge is interpersonal knowledge, and this is not achieved by framing and testing hypotheses. See also the discussion in Chapter XVIII of the New Leviathan of how science has to work at avoiding anthropomorphism, precisely because this is ingrained in us.

It is likewise anachronistic, and dangerously so, to suggest that international law needs a legislature and executive (28. 78). International law is customary law, preceding any such framework.

28. 79. International law in the modern European world is the customary law of a very ancient, international, nonsocial community. Its condition resembles the condition of law in the Iceland of the sagas, where men were to be found who knew, and would tell an inquirer, what the law was, but where there was no person or class of persons professionally charged with the business of enforcing it: where most men for the most part obeyed it, and thought the worse of the bad men (most of whom, according to the sagas, seem to have been women) who habitually broke it; but where the only way of enforcing it was for men who wanted it obeyed to get together and smash a man notoriously given to breaking it. All these conditions are fulfilled (some more than fulfilled) in the twentieth century with regard to international law except the last. We seem to prefer that international law should not be respected rather than that we should do anything so crude as to smash notorious offenders against it.

Recalling how I wrote about warfare in considering Book XII of the Iliad, I must ask whether Collingwood is willing to put his money where is mouth is about “smashing” people. He was in his fifties and dying as he wrote, so he himself could not go to war to “smash” anybody. However, both his son Bill (according to Fred Inglis in History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood, page 308) and his nephew Roger Altounyan did serve in the Royal Air Force.

I question also the belligerent language of my grandfather, who wrote concerning the Vietnam War,

we were too squeamish, even in Johnson’s time, to pulverize Hanoi and take the other brutal measures that might have changed the outcome.

Squeamishness is not an admirable trait, and sometimes we must overcome it. However, I find repugnant the suggestion that what exercised war protestors was akin to reluctance to crush a cockroach. In principle, I cannot object to Collingwood’s assertion that civilized countries should smash violators of international customary law. Barack Obama should not have threatened to do this to Assad for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if he (Obama) was not prepared to fulfil the threat. On the other hand, by invading Iraq, George W. Bush had rendered any future “humanitarian” invasions practically impossible.

Within our countries, there are now usually legislatures to enact laws, and executives to carry out and enforce them. But we have said that lawful action retains some irrationality. Only dutiful action is entirely rational.

What is the corresponding organization of the body politic? Collingwood seems to be about to provide an answer when he brings up somebody with a German name.

28. 93. The doctrine that duty is a form of political action, indeed the only form, has been energetically expressed by Treitschke in his lectures on politics; whose merit it is to repudiate with some violence the doctrine that political action is essentially utilitarian and to assert that it is ‘subject to the universal moral law’.

Heinrich von Treitschke is an anti-Semitic German nationalist. His words belie their meaning, as Collingwood goes on to explain: “the noisily moralistic language of Treitschke veils a doctrine which is squalidly utilitarian” (28. 95), although Treitschke professes to be “Outraged by the way in which liberals, especially in England (a country for which he is never tired of displaying his contempt and of whose history, I will add, he is never tired of displaying his ignorance), take an ostensibly utilitarian view of political action” (28. 94). Collingwood quotes Treitschke himself (28. 97):

When we apply this standard of deeper and truly Christian ethics to the State, and remember that its very personality is power, we see its highest moral duty is to uphold that power. The individual must sacrifice himself for the community of which he is a member, but the State is the highest community existing in exterior human life, and therefore the duty of self-effacement cannot apply to it.

Treitschke is wrong here, “if by ‘self-effacement’ he meant self-discipline, self-control, self-denial (13. 32)” (28. 98). For the state rules not only others, but itself. More precisely, the ruling class rule themselves and therefore have a duty to themselves. Deny this, and you turn the state into a non-social community.

Treitschke’s politics are utilitarian for giving the people to the use of the state and stopping there.

28. 99. Behind the Tartuffe-snivel about ‘deeper and truly Christian ethics’ lies a lust for power (not power to do this or power to do that, but power in the abstract) which is as nakedly utilitarian, in the lowest and most contemptible sense of the word, as a miser’s lust for money. To say that the state’s ‘highest moral duty’ is to uphold its power is, ceteris paribus, the same as saying that a firm’s ‘highest moral duty’ is to get richer than its rivals. Such was the doctrine on which the Professor of History at Berlin was feeding the mind of young Germany towards the close of the nineteenth century.

Thus ends the chapter. In An Autobiography, Collingwood has berated his compatriots for abusing young minds with the “realist” doctrine that “nothing is affected by being known.”

If the realists had wanted to train up a generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen expressly as the potential dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics, commerce or religion, who should appeal to their emotions and promise them private gains which he neither could procure them nor even meant to procure them, no better way of doing it could have been discovered.

This is from a longer passage quoted in “Fascism As Abetted by Realism.”

3 Trackbacks

  1. By NL XXX: War As the Breakdown of Policy « Polytropy on September 6, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    […] the account in Chapter XXVIII, policy is itself […]

  2. […] (the last chapter of Part I of the New Leviathan). The theme is recalled in Chapter XXVIII, “The Forms of Political Action.” In the post called “Writing Rules,” I looked at and exemplified the ire that […]

  3. By NL XXXVI: The Essence of Civilization « Polytropy on September 18, 2018 at 8:56 am

    […] kinds of practical reason, introduced in “Reason,” and applied to communities in “The Forms of Political Action.” We may explain a choice as expedient, right, or dutiful; at least, this is what we always […]

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