28 JUNE 1963, Page 16


To Instruct the King


rOLITICS arises wherever men live in stable and complex societies in which their conflicts cannot be settled within the intimate informality of the kin-group or through the direct physical confrontation of opponents, but have rather to be mediated through institutions, public offices and bodies of law. Respectably ancient as the activity itself is, reflection on it seems to be con- fined to some societies only, and, even then, to come rather late in their history. Plato and Aristotle appear in the twilight of the Greek city-state, Cicero at the downfall of the Roman Republic, Augustine at that of the Empire; Aquinas, Marsilio, Machiavelli write when con- siderably more than a millennium of Christian history has passed away; whilst among the moderns, Hegel is continually and creatively aware of the burden of European history. Sophisticated political speculation, then, is both localised and belated and a political tradition so powerful, so geographically extensive, and so durable as that of Oriental despotism seems to know little of it: 'Many societies have existed,' remarks Mr. Maurice Cowling in his spirited, authoritative essay on The Nature and Limits of Political Science,* 'in which self-conscious moral and intellectual culture has been thin, and philo- sophers would be wrong who, gifted with reflec- tive intelligence . ., pretend that those who are without it cannot lead lives as meticulously ordered, as well regulated or as morally appro- priate as any lived by the most cultivated citizen of the most cultivated State in Europe.'

Politics, then, and the study of politics have no necessary connection. The great point which Mr. Cowling seeks to expound in his book is that politics, so much of it 'irrelevance, inadvertence, ambition,' is within the realm of practice, while the study of it lies within the realm of explana- tion, in which the only victories are those achieved over the opaque and the obscure and the only mastery attained is that of the under- standing. To understand a diplomatic transaction, to explain a Cabinet decision, to enter into the spirit of an institution which has lasted for some centuries is, for a scholar, an arduous enterprise which settles nothing definite since no body of knowledge is immune from revision and no interpretation safe from the criticism of his peers. If explanation is so uncertain, and conclusions so much a matter of dispute, how can the scholar 'without abusing and denaturing his scholarly authority prescribe, so to speak ex cathedra, for 'action or inaction, for reform or conservation? Again, to explain the world as it is requires the Concentration and the stretching of all faculties 'to the utmost; if the mind is continually tempted by the ever-changing contingencies of pra.ctical life, by the urge to advise and the desire to reform, -the scholarly enterprise is, of necessity, impaired. It is a misiake, again, to think that the con- 'elusions of scholarship have power to guide prattice;, scholarly explanation, introduced into - raitit3fiage UniVetsifY fkrgss, 25s. the world of practice, must be bent and distorted to its exigencies, and the philosopher thinking to instruct the king may become instead an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool. Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse ...

The thinker cannot be the doer, and he who would understand must address him who would act in the language of Yeats:

You, that have not lived in thought but deed Can have the purity of a natural force. But 1, whose virtues are the definitions Of the analytic mind, can neither close The eye of the mind nor keep my tongue

from speech.

What is the use, then, of the study of politics? The temptation to imagine that professors should be 'useful' in the sense that plumbers or stock- brokers or computers are 'useful' must be very strong in a society whose rulers have not only taken powers to decide on the comparative worth of a lecturer and a mechanic, but have with admirable skill actually succeeded in investing the exercise with an academic aura. But, •in spite of misconceptions widely prevalent today, academics are not there to supply Kameralwissen- schaft to the rulers of a hire-purchasing, property- mortgaging democracy. The use of the study of politics is that of any other academic discipline.

'This,' says Mr. Cowling in his first sentence, 'is an academic work.' The statement is more than description; it is a challenge, a defence and illustration of the legitimate purposes of political study. Taking the view that the best approach to truth is through a study of error the author devotes the first section of his work to an exhibi- tion of specimens drawn from a wide range of• British academic writings on politics, designed to show the different and multifarious ways in which authors have succumbed to one illusion or another. Of these illusions, the most prevalent and the most powerful is that the academic study of politics is a preface to the efficient practice of politics; another, related to it, is that, by reason- ing, an academic can establish the proper goals of society and can decide whether 'welfare' or 'freedom' or 'equality' deserve to be realised; a third is that political ideas, the writings of a political philosopher, are sufficient to account for the character of a polity or for the actions of a statesman; a fourth illusion is that things are what they seem, that to understand the govern- ment of a country, the functioning of its insti- tutions, the policies of its rulers, it is enough to study the speeches of politicians and the formal description of their office's. • 'The cumuiativt results of such illusions, Mr. `Cowling argues,' is a political science curiously unable to account, for the gap imposed by the nature of the world between-desire and fulfilment, , between the dream -and the achievement. If

political science is the elaboration of rules for better government, or the definition of ideals to be pursued, then it becomes powerless to account for the very practice it wishes to dominate. The endless dialogue between a man and himself, the whisper of ambition, will locked in contest with will, not for any object, but so that will may triumph, the weariness that comes suddenly, ill- will slowly fermenting in obscure provinces, the habitual exercise of power, habitual obedience to it or the absence of such a habit, partiality

and prejudice, the deceptions of speech, the traps of consistency, the ambiguity of intention, the haziness of consequences, all these the pith and matter of politics are decently veiled over in the mild exercises of political science.

Mr. W. G. Runciman's Social Science and Political Theory[ is published at the same time as Mr, Cowling's work and may, in places. con- veniently serve to document some of his argu- ment. Mr. Runciman's book consists of a number of lectures originally given at Cambridge and then broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. He writes agreeably and on the whole lucidly. He reviews a number of authors such as Marx, Mosca, Pareto, Michels. etc., whose writings must serve to persuade us of Ecclesiastes' opinion that much study is a weariness of the flesh, and he tries to argue that here is a body of knowledge, new and exciting, of which we must take notice. But his attempt seems half-hearted, for again and again, having set out the doctrines and methods he desires to commend to us. he turns round and says that they have tackled none of the really important questions, that the results of the techniques are oddly disappointing, that they show a spurious apparatus of exactitude, that voting studies are by themselves useless to the understanding of politics. 'Even the most success- ful of formal analogues, or quantitative tech- niques, or comparative case-studies, or general explanatory theories cannot,' he writes, 'provide a solution by itself to the questions which philosophers of politics have raised since the time of Plato and Aristotle.' What then can such doctrines provide? It turns out, on inspecting Mr. Runciman's specimens, that on the whole, We may expect to be enlightened on the political leanings of Breton fishermen, Swedish lumbermen and Australian sheep-shearers, and to be in- formed with admirable concision that 'a washing' machine is a washing-machine is a washing' machine.' Apart from these trivia, we are bidder' to admire as a startling discovery made by the new sciences that democratic government will always be oligarchic! '

Great expectations, grandiose but shaky sYs- tems, 'science' ascending into illegitimate general' isations, or descending into obvious trivialitY, such seems the picture with which this author, wittingly or not, presents us. It is apposite to quote a comment made by G. M. Young on such attempts at system: 'Of historic method, indeed,' he wrote in an essay on Gibbon, 'nothing wiser has ever been said than a word which will be found in Gibbon's youthful Essay on the Stud} of Literature. Facts, the young sage instructs -115' are of three kinds: those which prove nothing beyond themselves, those which serve to illustrate a character or explain a motive, and those which dominate the system and move its springs. But if we ask what this system is, which provides our canon of valuation, I do not believe we can Yet go further than to say, it is the picture as the indivdual observer sees it. . . . History is the way that Herodotus and Fra Paolo and Tocqueville and Maitland, and all those people' saw things,happening.' And so, we add, is polities t Cambridge University Press, 22s. 6d.