Political Thought Research Paper

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Political thought reflects and debates about the functioning of the state, or processes within it, that provide a state’s structure and impact the public it serves. Traditionally, according to ancient Greek political theory, the term politics has been considered the highest realm of human affairs, the art that integrates all other pursuits.

Politics as a sphere of human concern has typically been understood in two ways. In a minimalist definition, politics is the realm of the state, of the institution that in complex societies enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in the territory it controls. Politics thus revolves around efforts by individuals and groups to gain control over the state, and to exercise the state’s ultimate power on behalf of public peace, and some interests rather than others. This minimalist definition, dating back to the German sociologist Max Weber a century ago, tends to hold sway in contemporary political science.

A more substantive, traditional definition has its origins in classical Greek (especially Aristotelian) political theory. That view holds that politics is the highest realm of human affairs, the art that integrates all other pursuits. This means that the state, since it orders society as a whole, also has the ethical purpose of relating the various social functions and kinds of human flourishing to one another, and promoting sound character development among its citizenry. Political thought, more specifically, is normative thinking that goes beyond what politics is to what it should be. Political thinkers put forth visions of an ideal state, against which one might measure the realities of human self-interest and power-seeking.

World Histories of Political Thought

Various important points of contact lie between political thought and world history. One involves world-historical treatments of how political thought has developed in different settings, and how its unfolding reflects broader influences across space and time. Such treatments can occur on the level of either history of ideas or intellectual history. History of ideas traces the influence of thinkers and modes of thinking upon one another over time, often in isolation from larger social contexts. World histories of ideas might deal with the transmission of doctrines over large expanses of space and time, or with the influence of thinkers in different settings on one another. Intellectual history, by contrast, deals more with the social context and imprinting of ideas. Ways of thinking and the social forces that generate them are probed as layers of social reality, as expressions of or at least responses to larger historical circumstances and processes.

One example of world intellectual history is treatment of the so-called Axial Age, the period of Eurasian history between roughly 800 and 600 BCE. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term to refer to the common flowering of classical thought that happened during those centuries in the major centers of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, India, and China. Whether in religious or philosophical guises, the era saw the emergence of complex “second-order thinking,” or what one might call “thought about thought.” In contrast to the mythical worldview of earlier cultures, new intellectual elites that had come to power began referring to transcendent sources of truth—God, Natural Law, Heaven, the Dao, and so on—that existed apart from mere tradition. With this opening of a gulf between the mundane world and a higher order, cultures were reoriented away from imitating the past and toward a critical engagement with the example of pioneering creative personalities: prophets, philosophers, and state founders. In the political realm, the new civilizations began measuring the realities of state and society against ostensibly universal ideals of public virtue and cosmic order. From the standpoint of world history, the Axial Age is a framework for thinking comparatively about intellectual processes that occurred almost entirely independently of one another. The overlap in timing also reflects common world-historical conditions, like the emergence of complex urban societies that could support the kinds of stratification needed for such an intellectual breakthrough.

Notably, the emergence of much of this higher-level thinking, especially on a political plane, involved a kind of exercise in world-historical reflection. Early in the Axial Age, two core areas that generated classical political thought—the eastern Mediterranean and north-central China—were divided into many polities. Leading intellectuals like Plato and Confucius posed questions about politics and human flourishing in a comparative way, using the experience of often radically different political communities as raw material for their reflections. They thought broadly about political diversity and historical evolution, using the Greek city-states and the decay of the Zhou Empire into the warring states as illustrations. This comparative approach gave rise to insights into universal truths about human nature and well-ordered states.

Two main types of sophisticated political thought emerged from the Axial Age, from this new Eurasian experience of complex agrarian societies. One, which we might call virtuocratic, reflected the worldview of high-culture intellectuals who were committed to certain orthodoxies of religion or philosophy. Such groups included the Hindu Brahmans, the Confucian literati, the Greco-Roman Stoics, and the priests of the Middle Eastern monotheistic faiths. While their conceptual frameworks differed, they overlapped in seeing society as an arena for the pursuit of virtue and human flourishing. The state had a crucial role to play as the keystone of a just social order, which placed people in positions suited to their natures. The ideal statesman was a kind of philosopher-king, who held himself to a transcendent standard of ethical truths and cosmic order. The ethical activities of the state unfolded on a plane higher than mere functional performance.

A second stream of political thinking that emerged at about the same time can be called atomist. Examples include Legalism in China and Sophism in Greece. From the fact of diversity across communities and eras, atomist political philosophers drew quite the opposite conclusion from their more virtue-minded counterparts. They held that diversity showed there was no objective truth or standard of virtue. Human nature amounted to no more than individual self-interest, the rather pedestrian desire to seek pleasure and safety and avoid suffering. Emptied of any moral content, the atomist vision of the state involved only efficient management, preservation of peace, and practicing hard-headed skills of statecraft. This stream of thought, with its social base in the mercantile and bureaucratic classes, endured until modern times but largely below the surface of respectable political discourse. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English political theorist of absolutism, was a more recent voice of atomist statecraft, and paved the way for the more mundane and less virtue-oriented character of modern Western political thought.

All these are examples of how world history can situate the emergence of the major traditions of political thought, inform comparisons across those traditions, and trace long-term continuities and ruptures in thinking about politics.

Political Thought as a Lens for World History

In reverse, political thought can also influence the telling of world history. As a mode of imagining the ideal political community and making sense of large-scale social processes, any system of political thought implies a lens through which its adherents view the past. The term metanarrative often describes a story of world history colored by political thought. A metanarrative integrates the happenings of the past into one simplified tale filled with meaning and with lessons for the present.

Metanarratives often have a religious bent. Religious metanarratives date back to the beginning of the so-called world religions, those universal systems of spiritual insight that emerged from the Axial Age. Since each world religion professes to speak to humanity as a whole, to represent a cosmic order not confined to any one territory or culture, it has had to grapple with the problem of religious diversity. Given its superior access to truth, in other words, how should it think about other world religions? The Hindu approach has typically been to treat religious diversity as merely a variety of paths to the same divine essence. This perhaps avoids the need for a metanarrative about the relative worth of religions, but still integrates doctrinal diversity into one overarching system of meaning. In the social realm, however, premodern Hinduism still saw the hierarchies and ritual practices of the caste system as a superior context for spiritual self-cultivation. Non-Hindus who sought true human flourishing would have to enter the Hindu social order over several generations. In practice, some conquerors and potentates were brought into the Hindu caste system by tracing back fictitious Aryan genealogies for them. The traditional Confucian worldview had some similarities to this system. While the absence of caste purity made entrance to Chinese civilization easier for outsiders, entry was still very much a one-way process of laihua, of “coming to be transformed.” As the ideal Confucian social order was the supreme expression of virtue, and the emperor the point of contact between heaven and earth, the Chinese polity was seen as radiating outward and potentially encompassing the tianxia, the “world under heaven.” “Barbarians” could improve their standing only by ascending the cultural gradient of Confucianization.

Religious metanarratives were most developed in expansionist missionary religions like Christianity and Islam. Founded against the background of earlier Middle Eastern faiths, and colliding with still other religions as they spread around the world, Christianity and Islam have had sophisticated visions of world history and how religious diversity fits into it. Both are narrative religions, that is, religions with a sense of historical development centered on events of significance to a spiritual community. Both share a metanarrative of human creation, fall, prophecy, covenants, and eventual redemption, all unfolding within world history. And both draw on this metanarrative to make sense of other belief systems. Other religions that preceded them, like Judaism, have been seen as legacies of earlier stages in God’s intervention in the world. Islamic theology has proved quite accommodating in extending this basis for coexistence to all the major world religions. In the medieval period, when Christian theologians first struggled to find points of contact with revived classical thought and with the newly encountered cultures of the Americas, they fell back on Natural Law. Natural Law, while only truly fulfilled with knowledge of Jesus Christ, still could be seen as informing all religions and ways of life. It denoted the innate sense of ethics and the striving toward God that even non-Christian societies and religions reflected. For both Christianity and Islam, these metanarratives tied in with practical political arrangements of tolerance and coexistence. In medieval custom, nonbelievers often enjoyed toleration as residues of life before the true religion, though the grand vision of history implied their eventual absorption once their consciences allowed it. Islamic civilization developed elaborate mechanisms of incorporation, in which non-Muslim minorities enjoyed a good deal of social and political autonomy, resting on the idea of a contract of protection that dated back to the early conquests.

Metanarratives of world history have also served political purposes in modern times. Four in particular deserve mention. The first has been called a “Whiggish” theory of history, after the liberal Whig party of eighteenth-century Britain. The gradual constitutional development of the English monarchy, and the growing power of merchants and others of liberal temper, gave rise to the notion that history had been unfolding toward a built-in goal of liberal enlightenment. This metanarrative was transferred to North America, including the United States after its founding as a “great experiment.” As Whiggish historians would have it, the story of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, both in medieval and early modern English experience and in the triumph of the colonies, was one of divine favor and ever-expanding liberty. In the twentieth century, this metanarrative gained a broader scope, in western Europe and even beyond. During the Cold War, the Whiggish view of history merged into a “Plato to NATO” metanarrative. This saw the contemporary West as heir to a continuous heritage of human freedom over two millennia, and its defender against world Communism. In the present day, an example of Whiggish history is Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, which predicts the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy everywhere in the world, as the political system best suited to human nature.

A second modern metanarrative has been Marxist. As Karl Marx (1818–1883) first argued in the nineteenth century, history is driven by class struggle. When technology advances, the economic possibilities it opens up come into tension with older patterns of social and political organization. Eventually societies rupture in revolutions, and new ruling classes rise to power. Thus the major phases of world history succeed one another: slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and eventually socialism and communism. This focus on economic structures and vast impersonal forces can give quite comprehensive and compelling interpretations of world history. One of the strengths of Marxist thought in the early twentieth century was its ability to encompass and explain everything, or at least profess to do so. But it bears noting also that treating the contours of world history as basically inevitable denies much room for human agency. Everything unfolds in its own good time, so hurrying along history as those of a more inspired temper might wish cannot achieve much. Moreover, the eventual triumph of communism rests more on inevitability than on any absolute moral desirability. According to the Marxist metanarrative, all moral standards are products of their time, of the circumstances and interests that they serve.

A third kind of metanarrative is that which affirms a large-scale political identity, typically of a civilization or a nation-state. This use of world history became especially important in the twentieth century, as non-Western parts of the world began finding their feet within the modern international system. Certain Indian and Chinese metanarratives of world history illustrate this pattern well. To take their place in the world, large and internally diverse countries like India and China have to develop a coherent sense of self and a claim to preeminence despite the momentary triumph of the West. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1944 book The Discovery of India, the future prime minister laid out what amounted to a metanarrative of Indian history. All currents, no matter how different on the surface, merged together in a single stream of Indian identity, which eventually flowed into the secular, socialist, internationalist India he envisioned. Likewise, Chinese nationalists reflected in the 1920s on what China could keep and what it must abandon in its march to modernity. Many concluded that the Confucian high culture and other traditions had to go, to ensure the modernization and survival of the Chinese race in a Darwinian world.

Whatever the details of these kinds of national or civilizational metanarratives, they have some features in common. They project back onto the past some forerunner of the cultural identity that is supposed to triumph in modern times. They play down internal diversity for the sake of unity. They play up distinctiveness from other cultural centers so as better to affirm a sense of self in the present, and a pride in self-contained accomplishments. Often, the metanarrative comes forward into the last century or two, as a tale of how outsiders (European imperialists in particular) encroached upon a once glorious community. Despite oppression and humiliation, the indomitable spirit of that community eventually broke through again in the mid-twentieth century, and began a process of self-renewal. Sometimes the metanarrative looks forward to a future national or civilizational redemption as a new power center in the world, restored to its proper place by its own efforts.

Postmodernism and the New World History

Finally, a fourth kind of contemporary metanarrative is loosely postmodern. At first glance, it may seem odd to talk of such a thing, since postmodernism is suspicious of metanarratives and stresses that all identities and meanings in history are constructed and perpetually in flux. But “world history” as largely practiced in Western academia today is heavily influenced by some aspects of postmodernism, and tells tales of the past through a political lens much as the writers mentioned above do. One prevailing emphasis of contemporary world history has been on encounters among cultures, on hybrid identities and transgressions, and on the mixing and matching of cultural packages. Partly this reflects what inevitably would be a theme in any global history, simply given its scale, and the issue for this discussion is less one of accuracy than of relative emphasis. The emphasis goes as far as it does partly because of skepticism toward rival metanarratives of national unity or civilizational superiority. From the past, world historians of this bent strive above all to extract illustrations of pluralism and to call into question any essential boundaries that others might take for granted. This aim maps loosely onto political sympathies for present marginality and the hybrid identities that liberal globalization is producing. Diasporas and transnational migrants and ethnic minorities and the like have not been fully accommodated by the homogenizing national polities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This new approach to world history provides a perspective that serves two complementary purposes, therefore. On the one hand, it undermines what its practitioners see as dominant narratives of exclusionary national identity, thereby opening space for the excluded. On the other hand, it grounds alternative pluralistic social arrangements in a wider range of historical experience, and in doing so adds legitimacy to certain political perspectives in the present. As with all other metanarratives, what we think of as world history also engages profoundly with political thought.


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