Mark Blitz Transcript

Taped December 20, 2013 

Table of Contents

I: Plato’s Political Philosophy 0:15 – 14:52
II: The Ancients and How We Live Now 14:53 – 24:12
III: Character Virtue in Aristotle 24:12 – 43:57
IV: John Locke’s America 43:57 – 56:22
V: Hegel and Marx 56:22 – 1:05:38
VI: On Liberal Democracy 1:05:38 – 1:18:13
VII: The Allure of Nietzsche 1:18:13 – 1:24:18
VIII: Studying with Harvey Mansfield 1:24:18 – 1:30:48
IX: Teaching and Practicing Politics 1:30:48 – 1:45:13

I: Plato’s Political Philosophy (0:15 – 14:53)

KRISTOL: Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol. Joining me today is Mark Blitz, professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, author, recently, of a book, Plato’s Political Philosophy, and, earlier, of works on Martin Heidegger and on American liberal democracy. Welcome, Mark.

BLITZ: Thank you, Bill.

KRISTOL: Mark, you’ve been teaching and writing on political philosophy for 40-plus years, I guess?

BLITZ: Forty plus years, indeed. Yes.

KRISTOL: Why political philosophy?

BLITZ: I took the introductory government course at Harvard when I was a freshman. Back then it was called Gov 1A and 1B. It’s now inflated. All the numbers inflated up along the way, everything inflates up.

And the section man, as it was called then, teaching assistant, basically – a fellow named Morton Horowitz – indicated that political philosophy was the most important subject and the whole second half of the course was political philosophy. So, that’s how I first became interested in it.

Then what happened is sophomore year, Harvard had a system where you have a tutorial that you take connected to the house in which you are living and the tutorial to which I was assigned was on a subject in which I was completely uninterested.

I was walking across Harvard Yard, ran into a friend of mine who had been in Harvey Mansfield’s Gov 1B section. I started moaning and whining and complaining to my friend and he said, “Why don’t you come on in and see Professor Mansfield?” I did, I told him what I was interested in.

He asked me who my section man was and what my grades had been, and that was all satisfactory. And then I entered his sophomore tutorial, and it’s from that point on that I became especially interested in political philosophy. What we did in that tutorial was to read a limited number of books, Plato’s Symposium, among them. And it was fascinating what he was able to bring out of the text and teach about all sorts of important subjects. So, really from then on I had and developed and continued this interest.

KRISTOL: And any one thinker sort of attracted you from the very beginning, or has that changed over the years?

BLITZ: Yeah, I was interested really in all of them. But as I continued along with my education I became particularly interested in Plato and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on one of his dialogues called The Statesman.

Plato was the originator, and, of course, his teacher/character, Socrates, the originator of political philosophy, of kind, of unbridled thinking about all of the important human questions and that connection between the kind of deepest philosophical questions and the most urgent and immediate human questions, how should I live, how should we govern ourselves, what is justice, what is happiness?

That connection is something you see most powerfully in Plato and then subsequently in Aristotle as well. So, Plato really has been the thinker with whom I’ve spent the most time during my career.

KRISTOL: Well, let’s talk about Plato.

BLITZ: Absolutely.

KRISTOL: So, I mean, there are all these different dialogues. Socrates is a character in most of them, not all of them, should people begin to study Plato, would you recommend to someone in college or not in college who sort of would like to get some sense of what it is to study Plato, how to go about it?

BLITZ: You know usually people begin with in a way his most famous dialogue, The Republic. The Republic is a difficult dialogue. But it’s also not such a bad place to begin because it’s so clearly about this decisive question of justice and also about the question of human happiness.

And the other thing that The Republic does and is famous for doing is to defend the intellectual or theoretical or the philosophic or the scientific life itself. That life did not always exist. The full use of the human mind in the freest way did not always exist.

So, The Republic is a marvelous defense of that and as a defense of that it’s one place to begin. Although as with everything else, once you started yourself, it’s good to have someone reading it together with you and helping teach it to you.

Other good places to begin are any of the dialogues in which Plato deals with ambitious young men and turns them, or tries to turn them, from some of their craziest wishes to a concern with virtue of character, a concern with philosophic questions, those are very good places to begin.

If one’s particularly interested in one of the virtues, courage, moderation, piety, there’s a separate dialogue in each one of those and that’s another good place to begin. So, the place to begin, in one sense, The Republic; in another sense, these dialogues about virtue with ambitious young men.

If you’re a father and you’re concerned about the plight of your children, there dialogues which begin exactly that way, as well, and those are other places to be in. So, you can begin with any one of these basic dialogues in which Socrates is a major figure.

Another dialogue where people often begin with is the Apology of Socrates. Socrates was on trial for his life, found guilty, and is executed, and that’s a dialogue to be read carefully, but it’s a bit misleading in a sense because the real Socrates as Plato portrays him aggressively questions, aggressively searches for knowledge and understanding. And that’s not something that you do when you’re on trial for your life.

There’s a little section in the Apology, which is a version of that, but only a little section. So, the Apology is another thing clearly to look at and to study, but in a way not as characteristic as some of the others I’ve mentioned.

KRISTOL: Yeah, and it does seem like the dialogue – when I first encountered Plato, the dialogue style or form – sure has many things to recommend it, and you should say what they are, why he chose to write dialogue? He could have written treatises like Aristotle and, like, I guess, pre-Socratic writers had done or epigrams or all kinds of things.

BLITZ: Poems. These kind of philosophic poems they write –

KRISTOL: But I do think one obvious reason is that there are these characters and one can identify with and get interested in, not just Socrates, I mean, it is sort of watching life as opposed to doctrine being preached to you.

BLITZ: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right and in each – the dialogues enable you to take a subject, courage, for example, and work it through and talk about it, but talk about it not merely in an abstract, though also in an abstract way, but in a manner that is directed to a particular character. All the dialogues have this ad hominem atmosphere and you can really see courage or justice or moderation at work, forming someone’s mind, explaining their experiences to them.

So, the dialogues have this dramatic aspect to them that treatises don’t. Dialogues also enable you to see people thinking. It’s easier to portray the kind of dance of thought, the movement of thought, the ups and down, the hypotheses suggested and then rejected – easier to do that in a dialogue than when you’re talking to yourself in a way in a treatise.

Aristotle tries to do some of that in a treatise, and, of course, he’s Aristotle so he’s successful in doing it, but it’s never as dramatic and compelling as Plato’s dialogues are.

KRISTOL: And, so the philosophy professor way of reading Plato seems to be to basically ignore the interlocutors who are not as smart as Socrates and just take the Socratic statements and string them together, it’s not right?

BLITZ: Yeah, it’s a mistake and – the major mistake of current philosophy professors is to take the dialogues and, in fact, take any of the classic works and force them to be about whatever questions contemporary philosophers happen to have on their mind.

So, you look through these books and pick out some sentences, pick out some suggestions, pay no real attention to how seriously they’re meant, pay no real attention to their place in the dialogue or in the treatise, and just play around with them.

So, you know, that has its interest but it doesn’t teach you enough about the thinkers themselves and these great thinkers such as Plato are superior intellectually to us and we have to remember that. They’re there for us to study; we can learn from them.

It’s a great mistake to impose on them the limits of one’s own intelligence, and that’s really, I think, the major difficulty when your contemporary philosophy professor dealing with Plato or any of the ancient texts. Of course, you don’t think they’re superior to you, not really, whatever you’d say, but the truth is they are superior. And one has to recognize that.

KRISTOL: Why did you choose to write your Ph.D. thesis on the Symposium, not the most obvious dialogue to take if you’re getting a degree in political science, I suppose?

BLITZ: The Statesman.

KRISTOL: I’m sorry, in The Statesman.

BLITZ: Well, The Statesman was a dialogue that was largely undiscussed, because it’s a very difficult dialogue. It’s somewhat more abstract than many of the others. And, also, it’s one of these dialogues, which does not feature Socrates as the main character. It features a stranger from Elea.

The first reason I chose to write about it is in many ways a central reason that governs everybody’s choice of a dissertation: “Is there room for me to say something that someone else hasn’t said?” And in The Statesman that was certainly the case. And it’s the third great political dialogue. The Republic is the famous one. There’s a long dialogue called The Laws where he lays out a somewhat more practicable regime than in The Republic. But The Statesman is a serious study of political science – what is it actually to know something?

So, I also thought it would be amusing to contrast the knowledge and the political science in Plato’s The Statesman with political science as it was taught in the Harvard government department by then and everywhere else as well, where the goal seemed to be to ignore all of the important political problems in order to discover this, that, or the other thing.

Whereas Plato’s political science is always only about the important political problems: what is virtue, what is excellence, what is happiness, what’s the degree of knowledge one could have of political matters, how much do you need to recognize that a successful political community depends on the consent of the governed, who will understand many things, but won’t understand the full aspect of political and human things that a political philosopher can uncover?

So, The Statesman is about all of those issues. The Statesman also gives you a good sense of how Plato as he’s moving beyond simply politics to thought generally conducts himself largely by classifying, by dividing, by combining, by reasoning in that way, and The Statesman is an excellent introduction to that as well.

KRISTOL: Let’s talk about the relation of politics to what’s beyond politics. What is striking when it comes to Plato – I remember being struck by this a little bit when I was in college – is, on the one hand, clearly he’s interested in human life in general, and not just human life in general, but sort of the whole of things.

And, yet, politics is pretty central to his most famous dialogues, his longest dialogues, really almost all of them in some way or another. As you say in The Statesman, it’s really central. Why does, sort of – if you’re interested in politics, you might think you’d just be interested in politics. If you’re interested in beauty or truth or whatever, you’d be interested in those things. What’s the relation?

BLITZ: Truth, beauty, the good, justice. Plato’s understanding of the most fundamental matters is very much connected to his understanding of political things. Any political community is a kind of whole. It puts together various elements into something which is meant to fit, doesn’t fit perfectly, but it’s meant to fit.

Governed usually by some understanding of human excellence, happiness, and justice, so that the American regime is governed by ultimately – for the purpose of securing individual natural rights. And everything else, in some way or other, is organized around that.

Plato understands all of the fundamental things to be parts of a whole and one wants to understand each of those parts individually – courage, justice, moderation. But also wants to understand how they fit together. And the political community is a wonderful image or example of that.

Most people have heard of Plato’s ideas or forms, and that’s also part of the question of how do particular things become connected to what’s general. How is what is general what forms particular things? And you see that in the political community, and you see that with the kind of things that Plato thinks about.

Every particular attempt to act courageously ultimately intends to be fully courageous, ultimately has its meaning from what courage is simply, and that connection which is the fundamental connection among things generally also becomes particularly clear when you look at political matters and when you look at matters of human character.

So, I think for Plato the deeper questions and the political questions are in some ways much more connected than they would be for other thinkers. And I think you learn this more and more as you study Plato, what it is you think about Plato.

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