Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Philosopher Presidents are Not for Us

Plato and Aristotle

A recent book by Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama, argues that the president is philosophically driven, coming from the tradition of American pragmatism. In other words, we have a philosopher president, the closest thing we can have in America to a philosopher king. Whether or not, he certainly does the royal aloofness thing well, and the I-can-run-your-life-better-than-you-can part of the job.

A couple of weeks back, I posted "Philosopher Kings and Our Republic" on Worldmag.com. I argue that the notion of a philosopher king, a person so outstanding in wisdom and moral virtue that he should simply have authority over everything, is fundamentally antithetical to republican government. "Because of his unparalleled wisdom and public-spiritedness, he would, of course, govern without the restraint of law."

Regardless of what Prof. Kloppenberg says in his book, it is remarkable what an emphasis President Obama has placed on the rule of science in his administration. (Modern science is the only form of philosophy that we recognize as having any legitimacy these days.) He first signaled this in his inaugural address:
“We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”
Then, just before the election, he looked with pity on the poor benighted and angry voters for being so hostile to science in their hostility to his administration:
“Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does [sic.] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we’re hardwired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country’s scared.”
Then there are all those big initiatives by which he has tried to centralize large chunks of American life, viz. health care, home financing, college loans, the auto industry, the financial sector. Central administration is the mark of a scientific society.

I conclude that he has been working (albeit unwittingly) from the wrong model: Plato, instead of Aristotle.

"In The Politics, Aristotle holds that, for a free people, i.e., a law-abiding people who are capable of participating in government intelligently and responsibly, the best form of government combines a strong executive, a selection of the best citizens, and an active role for the people at large. Under those circumstances, the benevolent but autocratic rule of a philosopher king would be unjust because it would deny capable citizens the chance to govern themselves."

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