The Faces of Reason: An Essay on Philosophy and Culture in English Canada, 1850-1950

By Leslie Armour; Elizabeth Trott | Go to book overview

SIX
REASON, CULTURE, AND POWER

Jacob Gould Schurman, The Philosopher as Office-holder

PLATO THOUGHT THAT things would go badly with the world until philosophers became kings or kings philosophers. The record, however, has not been promising. Plato retreated speedily from his own attempt to help the tyrant of Syracuse mix philosophy and politics. The emperor of Rome quickly snuffed the--perhaps half- hearted--attempt of Plotinus to establish Platonopolis. St. Augustine's city of God is still some distance from Hippo. Boethius' diplomatic success ended with his execution. After the Middle Ages philosophers expanded their worldly pretensions but mostly they had little to show for them. Leibniz meddled in European politics, but he was left at home when his master became king of England. Hobbes frightened both the roundlieads and the cavaliers in the English revolution. Locke eventually found it prudent to live in Holland. Hume held minor offices but he found them scarcely profitable and not very edifying. Hegel trifled in constitution-making without much success. In our own time, the record is even less promising: Alfred Rosenberg may not have been a philosopher at all, but he was hanged for being a bad one. Gentile seems, in incredible innocence, to have become Mussolini's minister of education-an office he resigned two years later. Heidegger recoiled from his political friends--but not soon enough.

Philosophers, of course, have been successful in influencing the course of events. The American constitution might almost have been written by John Locke. Marx and Engels share the praise and blame for much that goes on in the world though they are frequently damned for what they themselves would have praised and praised for what must have been distant from their minds. Here and there the philosopher as king has almost emerged. It is only convention that prevents Thomas Jefferson from being wholly accepted as a philosopher. Nicholas of Cusa, while recognized as a philosopher, was an efficient and powerful church diplomat. Mostly, however, these philosophers who have come close to power have struck sorry figures. Against the background of such a record, modest success is worth studying.

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