Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms

Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms

Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms

Political Theory: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary and Classic Terms

Synopsis

Liberty. Justice. Nature. Law. First formulated millennia ago by the founding philosophers of the Western tradition, these basic concepts of human thought remain central to our conception of ourselves, our place in the world, and our relationships with others-that is, our politics. Readers encountering such broad political concepts, their practical expressions in political movements and systems of government, the ideas of influential ancient and modern political thinkers--or simply familiar or unfamiliar catchphrases for which they would like a succinct yet informative explanation--will welcome this accessible encyclopedic guide.

Excerpt

Ideas matter. What we think, the values we embrace, and the principles we affirm all help to shape and reshape the contours of life within the human community, in ways that can either illuminate and ennoble the human spirit or drive us toward unspeakable and soulless inhumanity. Not every idea is so marked, not every ideal lies at the pole of a dichotomy between hope and despair. Without hesitation, one can suggest that many and perhaps even most ideas are for the most part neutral, their consequences benign and easily forgotten. But it only requires one great idea or one twisted design to elevate communities toward the realization of their highest potential or to ensnare the whole of humanity itself in a cruel and meaningless fate. Political ideas are capable of being so decisive, of inspiring us toward the realization of the truly good city or tempting us toward tyranny and death. Although the adage has become a cliché, the power of the pen indeed exceeds the power of the sword; the pen can turn the blade aside or tilt it back against ourselves. At the confluence of large ideas and visionary politics, we become aware of the importance of the principle, the necessity of values—of the right kind of love.

Therein lies the problem. To say that principles are important, values necessary, and some things more worthy of love than others is not, in itself, likely to provoke dispute. But to say that my principles are more important than yours, that your values are more reflective of what is necessary to human living than mine, or that love is more than a subjective response is provocative and will, more likely than not, stimulate dispute. Political life is marked by such distinctions at every turn, and it is here that ideas, great and small, come to influence and motivate. This is why, as Isaiah Berlin once admonished readers, referring to the German poet Heinrich Heine, we must be wary “not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy civilization.” Ideas do have consequences, and this is why it becomes a matter of utmost concern which ideas and values we adopt and which ones we recognize as less worthy of our embrace. In many cases it is not a difficult decision, for there is an obvious, and one can say with confidence, objective preference for the “dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal” on the one hand over the assertion, on the other hand, that “the greater the lie, the greater the chance that it will be believed.” For the most part, however, we seldom are afforded a choice between such clearly disparate alternatives. To understand what principles and values are important and why one may be good and the other bad usually comes with greater effort and may never be fully resolved even by the most penetrating of intellects. Perhaps this is why philosophers “love” wisdom, for under the spell of such a love, it might be possible to stumble upon the secret of what it really means to love the best things in the right way.

In a sense, such a stumbling through the love of wisdom constitutes the real distinction between political theory, characterized by its openness to transcendence and its affection for conversational inquiry, and ideology, crisply delivered to us as a set of conclusions that . . .

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