Did You Get Your Politics in My Philosophy? – The Promise of Politics

A Sort of “Introduction Into Politics”

Some may say that philosophy has no say in the political sphere or that it shouldn’t be concerned with such things. Some may say they don’t like politics or perceive a political sphere to be outside of their own experience best left to the talking heads on a television in an airport. For this discussion, we challenge these separations between a life of thought, social life, and the political sphere.

Please Read

To anchor our discussion about politics and philosophy, this event will focus on Arendt’s lecture “Socrates” as it is titled in The Promise of Politics.* This lecture is also published as “Philosophy and Politics” in Social Research Vol. 57 No. 1 (Spring 1990) by The New School. (If you need a pdf version, please email criticaltheorychicago@gmail.com)

The political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) is most famous for writing The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

*If you purchase a version of The Promise of Politics, you will have the collection of essays all in one book that we will be talking about at future events. Check your public library and used books stores.


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A Summary of Ideas in “Socrates”


Doxa: Opinion; Also splendor and fame; “of what appears to me” or “a comprehension of the world ‘as it opens itself to me’” (14). “To Socrates, as to his fellow citizens, doxa was the formulation in speech of what dokei moi, that is, ‘of what appears to me.’ […] It was not, therefore, subjective fantasy and arbitrariness, but was also not something absolute and valid for all” (14). For Plato, doxa is mere opinion as opposed to doxa destroying truth. Plural form is doxai.

Persuasion: Political speech as opposed to philosophical speech; opposite of platonic dialegesthai or dialectic. Persuasion always addresses a multitude to force “upon its multiple opinions one’s own opinion; thus persuasion is not the opposite of rule by violence, it is only another form of it” (13).

Dialectic: Philosophical speech as opposed to political speech, opposite of persuasion; A dialogue between two resulting in truth, not opinions. From dialegesthai meaning “talking something through with somebody” (14).

Politics: From the word polis; public life; realm of action as opposed to thought: A thinking activity that is “simply the calculation of means to obtain an intended or willed end” or action that decides and determines reality. The separation between the political and the philosophical “relegated [action] to the meaningless realm of the accidental and haphazard” (6); Arendt argues that the definition has and will continue to change, and philosophy of politics will need to do just that.

Philosophy: love of wisdom; begins and ends with a sense of wonder; concerned with eternal things as opposed to the affairs of men such as politics or science; All thinking concerned with meaning in the most general sense as opposed to the political or action; For Plato this is the realm of truth as opposed to the political realm of dangerous opinions; For Socrates, this is a way to bring forth truths in the polis, in the opinions of others.

Friendship: Aristotle’s understanding and use of the Socratic dialectic whereby friendships are formed comes to the conclusion that “friendship is higher than justice, because justice Is no longer necessary between friends. The political element in friendship is that in the truthful dialogue each of the friends can understand the truth inherent in the other’s opinion” (17-18). This idea of friendship as an important result of Socrates’ understanding of philosophy and its relation to the political is important for Arendt’s philosophy of politics where there is a construction of the political based on holding many truths from a multitude of viewpoints simultaneously. This is how we come to know the common world. “Socrates seems to have believed that the political function of the philosopher was to help establish this kind of common world, built on the understanding of friendship, in which no rulership is needed” (18). This addresses the question earlier in the lecture about how one can live outside of politics if one is to live in the polis. It seems that is not possible; we therefore build a philosophy of politics founded on friendship and intersubjective truth.

Summary of Major Points

“Socrates” (originally published as “Philosophy and Politics”) lays out an argument for contextualizing the beginning of Occidental Philosophy in the creation of the separation between philosophy and politics as practiced by Plato and Aristotle. The separation occurred “when the polis and the glory of Greek history were at their end” and Plato and Aristotle witnessed the failure of philosophic truth when pitted against the opinions of the polis: the death of Socrates (5). Plato and Aristotle were not the beginning, but the culmination of Greek philosophic thought. Though in a life of thought truth stands out as singular and unshakable, Plato and Aristotle found that such truth when brought to the polis, to the political sphere, was reduced to another opinion among many, and this proved to have fatal consequences.

Arendt argues that Socrates’ notions of truth, opinion, and the role of philosophy related to the political were very different from those later developed by Plato. Where a Platonic notion of truth is in opposition to opinion (thus philosophy is in opposition to the political which is a sphere of mere opinion), a Socratic truth was birthed from a dialectic between opinions and existed as a multiplicity of truths. The role of philosophy in the political sphere is to be a gadfly bringing out the truth in the doxa of the many in public life. Truth, for Socrates was not a single truth in opposition to the opinions of the many, but truth was instead found in the many viewpoints on our common world or in the doxa of the many.

This historical understanding of the relationship between philosophy and politics is brought forth to provide context for Arendt’s political philosophy as she explains it in many lectures, essays, and books. It is a philosophy of politics wrestling with the possibilities and the change that can come from the relationship between philosophy’s critical wonder and the political realm’s humanity and multiple points of view.

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