NL XXIX: External Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 13, 2018, edited July 19, 2019): Dealing with other bodies politic is the third stage of political life, after societies’

  • formation (as if by marriage),

  • dominion over non-social communities (as if by having children).

Having been used in the first two stages, dialectic can be used in the third. Being the eristic of external politics, war has no psychological cause. War is a state of mind, which does not think non-agreement can become agreement. Pacifism has this state of mind.

External politics are international relations. These represent the third of the “stages” in political life (29. 1), which we enumerate:

  1. The joining of wills into a society, which rules itself (29. 11).

  2. Such a society’s ruling over a non-social community in a body politic (29. 12).

  3. Dealing with other bodies politic (29. 13).

Strictly speaking, the second stage may also be the ruling of parents over the children in a family. In any case,

29. 2. Each of these three stages has a dialectic of its own. Each is a Heraclitean world in which everything moves and nothing rests (24. 64). Each involves constant change from a ‘not-x’ into an ‘x’; but the values of ‘x’ and ‘not-x’ are different in each case.

Apparently Collingwood uses “value” here in the mathematical sense, not the moral sense.

There is also an eristic of each stage of political life. The eristic of the third stage (29. 61) is making war (29. 62). The key idea of the chapter is that war has no “psychological” cause, such as a “pugnacious instinct” (29. 8). If there is such an instinct, we have already learned twice how to overcome it, in forming first societies, then bodies politic (21. 82). War is a failure to do what we already know how to do, which is to solve problems dialectically.

The theme will continue in the next chapter, “War As the Breakdown of Policy.” Meanwhile, let us recall the cited paragraph and others from Chapter XXIV, “The Body Politic, Social and Non-Social,” concerning the recurring terms eristic and dialectic:

24. 57. All logic is concerned with discussions; but Plato distinguished two kinds of discussions, ‘eristical’ and ‘dialectical’ (Meno, 75 c-d).

24. 58. What Plato calls an eristic discussion is one in which each party tries to prove that he was right and the other wrong.

24. 59. In a dialectical discussion you aim at showing that your own view is one with which your opponent really agrees, even if at one time he denied it; or conversely that it was yourself and not your opponent who began by denying a view with which you really agree.

24. 6. The essence of dialectical discussion is to discuss in the hope of finding that both parties to the discussion are right, and that this discovery puts an end to the debate. Where they ‘agree to differ’, as the saying is, there is nothing on which they have really agreed.

Dialectical discussion is superior to eristic, because there is also a “dialectic in things” (24. 61), as discovered by Heraclitus (24. 62).

24. 63. Plato’s discovery was how the intellect could find its way about in a Heraclitean world. The answer is: think dialectically.

24. 64. A Heraclitean world is not a world of compromise; there might be compromises in a non-Heraclitean world; it is a world of change. Change implies a pair of contradictories (call them x and not-x) so related that the positive term is gradually gaining on the negative term: there is something that was not-x, but whatever was not-x is turning into x. Think of a pot of paint in which you are mixing more and more white with some other colour, say black. The paint was never either pure black or pure white; it is always turning into a paler and paler grey.

24. 65. And if you settle upon any standard of light-greyness with which at any moment it conforms, you must be ready to give that up as a standard which by now has been left behind. This readiness to give up something which at a certain time you settled upon as true is dialectical thinking.

The dialectic of society is conscious (29. 35). We form societies because we decide to. However, we “can never eliminate all traces of the non-social community” from which we began (29. 31). I would call this an instance of the Law of Primitive Survivals (9. 51); but Collingwood’s reference is to Chapter XXI, “Society As Joint Will”:

21. 5. The reason why no actual society can be the universal society is that no actual society can ever lose all trace of the non-social community out of which it has emerged. To be a universal society is the same as to be a society; to exist only because its members, by freely embarking on a joint enterprise, constitute it a society. But every society that actually exists comes into existence because its members do partly achieve this social consciousness.

The League of Nations failed, not because of its non-social elements, but for failing to recognize that these elements would always be there (21. 46). We shall return to the League below.

You could try to eliminate the non-social elements of a society, but the attempt would be eristic:

29. 34. It would mean working not for an agreement with ‘the forces of reaction’ (as the engine called the brake, 27. 93) but for their annihilation.

Collingwood’s phrasing may be ambiguous. Probably he means that an engine might refer to a brake as a force of reaction. Conceivably he means that the brake itself is a kind of engine. In any case, the paragraph that he refers to (but that I did not quote in summarizing Chapter XXVII) reads,

27. 93. The Conservative who described his party as a brake on the vehicle of progress understood that the vehicle must be propelled. Did any Liberal understand that it must have a brake?

27. 94. I speak under correction, but I think not. From what I remember of Liberals, and from what I know of the literature of Liberalism, I think they pictured themselves as dragging the vehicle of progress against the dead weight of human stupidity; and I think they believed Conservatives to be a part of that dead weight.

The dialectic of internal politics—of ruling within a family or body politic—may be unconscious (29. 41). The rulers need not think about what they are doing; as long as they just do it, and do it freely, this freedom with “percolate” through the whole community.

The rulers may not be free:

29. 42. But if the act of ruling is not an act of will but an involuntary act due to irresistible passion or desire, what percolates through the body politic will be not freedom but servility; the Third Law of Politics will operate negatively (25. 95).

Collingwood does not now speak literally of an eristic of internal politics, but he did in the chapter already quoted, Force in Politics,” when considering the failure of the Liberal party in Britain:

27. 92. In a dialectical system it is essential that the representatives of each opposing view should understand why the other view must be represented. If one fails to understand this, it ceases to be a party and becomes a faction, that is, a combatant in an eristical process instead of a partner in a dialectical process.

As we noted above, the eristic of external politics is war.

When there are several bodies politic, then, simply because they differ from one another (29. 55), there will be non-agreement among them (29. 54). The dialectic of external politics is the conversion of non-agreement here into agreement (29. 5).

Collingwood finds it important to emphasize that we are talking about non-agreement rather than disagreement (29. 52). He does however use the latter word when speaking of its inevitability:

29. 57. It is sheer Utopianism to think that any expedient whatever could remove the causes of such disagreement. To think, for example, that it would disappear if the ruling classes or their diplomatic representatives were drawn from similar strata of the population, such as feudal aristocrats or large-scale manufacturers or working men or wearers of the same old school tie or party uniform, is to display political imbecility in its most exaggerated form.

This is part of a general theme. There are no excuses and no short-cuts.

  • You have formed societies and bodies politic.

  • This means you know how to use dialectic.

  • Now you can use it in your international relations.

The constitution of your bodies politic has been a long difficult process; world peace may be the same.

When George H. W. Bush threatened war with Iraq, I agreed with those who said sanctions ought to be relied on instead. I was young enough to be drafted to join an invasion. Older friends, with much experience of politics, asked what I would do if this happened. I could not imagine taking up arms, even if obliged by law. I had to acknowledge what my friends said, that many people had thought the same thing, but ended up fighting anyway.

Now Collingwood points out that sanctions are also an act of war. “To propose the supersession of war by economic sanctions was one of the most transparent insincerities of the League of Nations” (29. 69). But Collingwood also says:

29. 63. War is a state of mind. It does not consist in the actual employment of military force. It consists in believing that differences between bodies politic have to be settled by one giving way to the other and the second triumphing over the first.

However, if people believe that war is theoretically necessary, but the bombs are not actually dropping, is that not better than the alternative? Collingwood condemns pacifism for being “pro-war”:

29. 95. It is to acquiesce in the findings of war as the only valid solution for differences between bodies politic as regards their external relations, and to cast yourself, or rather the body politic to which you happen to belong, in the role of defeated party.

Collingwood praises “Lord Russell and Mr. Joad” for recanting their earlier pacificism in the summer of 1941, the year before publication of the New Leviathan (29. 92).

In the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement, non-violence was effective, because there were publics in Britain and the United States that could be shamed by violence committed in their name. Non-violence could not have worked in Nazi Germany: this seems to be Collingwood’s contention. Modern war is “a neurotic thing” (29. 97).

29. 88. If A attacks B because he is afraid of B and is convinced that he must hit first, the blame is shared. A is acting, admittedly, like a criminal lunatic; but B is to blame for having been so foolish as to frighten him into a fit of aggressiveness.

“I agree,” says Collingwood’s pacifist; “the aggressor is frightened. We must eliminate the fear by disarming.” No, you have missed the point: the fear is neurotic and does not concern something so simple as armaments. Collingwood does not refer back to Chapter X, “Passion,” but he could, since passion there is described as having two forms, fear and anger (10. 2). “Passion is the power of the not-self” (10. 18).

10. 33. Fearfulness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The object of fear, the terrible object, is made such by fear itself: which (like love) is a form of consciousness arising spontaneously in the mind of man and creating for itself appropriate objects: for it is not the object’s being alive (10. 3) that frightens you but your thinking it alive, whether it is or not.

I detect Collingwood’s themes (though not necessarily his understanding) in the words of a thoughtful conservative writer, Rod Dreher (in The American Conservative, July 18, 2019):

Many of those drawn to Donald Trump are Christians—Christians who correctly see that the forces aligning among progressives against us really do hate us, and wish to see harm done to us. Personally, I have no time at all for progressives who tell themselves that social and religious conservatives are nothing but paranoids. We see what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will do if you are not stopped. We see this even if, blinded by self-righteousness, you don’t. These Christians—on some days I am among them—are drawn to Trump not out of any respect or affection for him, but solely out of self-protection. It would be a near-miracle if progressives who are mystified by Trump’s popularity would ask themselves, in all honesty, if they have given conservatives reason to fear them such that they (conservatives) would see a manifestly bad man like Trump as the lesser evil.

That said, when I look at Trump’s crowds, shouting, “Send her back!” about Ilhan Omar, I instinctively take the side of the dissenter. From what I know of her, Omar is an appalling figure, and I hope everything she touches in politics fails. But I know the demonic when I see it, and a US president stoking a crowd to chant that kind of thing about an American citizen is demonic.

I leave the reader (if only myself) to contemplate these things. (Thus this essay ended originally, before the addition of the Dreher quotation.)


  1. mwgold
    Posted January 17, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “I leave the reader (if only myself) to contemplate these things.*”* Being in the same boat, I appreciate that! This one of yours though, finally, *was* readable…and good reading (I learned a few things)! Having said which, I am emboldened to ask you a few things…like Where are you from? How did you slip into this erudite bent of yours? When were you at St. John’s? How did you wind up there? Did you get an advanced degree? How did you wind up in Turkey? and…which is none of my business…Are you married? What are your plans? goals?

    …only fair that I reciprocate…which I do by way of the attached (do note, please, as I had to remind a severe critic of mine, that it is a *Jeremiad*.

    Best wishes, Mike

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