Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Politics and Poetry

One can change the language of poetry but not the language of politics. The language of politics has its own universal grammar and syntax which is always the same. Every city (or 'polis'), city-state, state, must have a way of deciding who gets what and who pays the bills. That's what politics is at bottom all about: money and power; history is politics writ large which is why the deep structure of historical narratives is always the same. Don't get me wrong: I don't say that history is not worth studying; history is not bunk as Henry Ford is supposed to have been fond of saying. The ways of money and power, like God and Nature, are deep down mysterious; if you don't know that you don't know anything. You are an ignoramus: one who disdains the study of history.

New ideas are rare, especially philosophical ideas. The last five hundred years have been exceptional. Not all new ideas are good ideas, however. I am thinking of one in particular, which has proven to be especially catastrophic. During the 18th century, the ancient Christian doctrine of the end of history (at the last judgment, when the books would be closed on the human experiment) got partially secularized: we may not be able to end history (just yet: Karl Marx would figure that out) but maybe we can escape it. Or, as Stephen Dedalus would say ever so grandly(in either Ulysses or Portrait of The Artist, I'm not sure which),"History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

The idea that we can change the deep structure of politics and history--that we can escape from history, awake from that "nightmare"--is a romantic idea, and a fateful one. The French Revolution was the first of the Romantic political revolutions which convulsed Europe and the world for two hundred years.

1 comment:

  1. The essential idea of democracy is that history will never end; people will go on exploring, disagreeing, and inventing forever. Marxism is anti-political, since Marx looked forward to a world when the state would wither away, meaning that there would be no more thought and no more disagreement. Jefferson and Madison, on the other hand, created a state with recurring elections and separation of powers, which means everlasting disagreement.

    If liberty is viewed as partially synonymous with power, then one can say that politics is about money and power. Liberty has been expanding. The most brilliant idea in the American Constitution is freedom of religion. The gradual aceptance of this idea has changed the world. It led, logically, to such concepts as women's rights and gay rights—both of which are expansions of liberty and therefore of power.