The Department of Government
The Department of Government

The Scholar’s Dilemma

Tue, February 1, 2011

Perhaps no more than usual, but these are challenging times for intellectuals, with revolution in the Middle East grabbing headlines for days, national judicial turmoil about the constitutionality of health care reform, and in Texas and elsewhere, controversial debate about the rule of law, expressed legislatively through draft bills on voter identification and illegal immigration. Can serious scholars objectively theorize about these issues without affecting them? Do the ancient political philosophers have any guidance for contemporary theorizers?

According to Thomas Pangle, the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies and co-director of the Center for Core Texts and Ideas, Aristotle certainly does, and his answer was that when scholars theorize about politics, they become a part of those politics. Published in the current issue of “The Journal of Politics,” Pangle’s article, “The Rhetorical Strategy Governing Aristotle’s Political Teaching,” explains that scholars who have interpreted Aristotle in the past have failed to capture the political antennae with which Aristotle sought to simultaneously guide political philosophers of the highest order and parents looking to steer their children along virtuous paths.

For Aristotle, theorists must question a society’s constitutional order and the ideas underpinning its laws, but also accept responsibility for upholding the rule of law and inculcating society to it. Aristotle pushes the idea beyond theorists, however, suggesting that any thinking person in society must walk the tightrope of simultaneously questioning and upholding society. This is in part because the thinking person will, upon reflection, soon realize that there is little possibility of ridding society of all its ills.

Pangle adds his greatest contribution by uncovering Aristotle as political animal. Aristotle believed that he and other political theorists were necessarily part of the political order and political debate – that what political theorists think, say and write are never politically neutral, but become part of the fabric of political life, and theorizing about politics therefore brings with it the grave responsibility and danger of potentially upsetting the applecart.

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