Seeing Things: A Philosophical Journalist

Journalism is not philosophy. Which does not stop journalists from entering into areas where angels might fear to tread. There was a time when journalists were drawn from a different class than they are today. Both they and their readers took what they said about matters beyond mere reporting with a grain of salt. Oscar Wilde, as usual, had it right: “There is so much to be said in favor of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community”

But today’s journalists are usually college graduates, which means that they have usually adopted a large number of liberal assumptions about God, the world, man, and human societies. And actual experience of the world does little to dislodge those assumptions. The result is a kind of political analysis that is neither very realistic nor well-thought-out.

Western culture is by origin Catholic—universities, hospitals, organized philanthropy, the idea of human rights. It was the Catholic Church that preserved the patrimony of classical civilization and baptized it. Although parties in the Church, including popes, have not always behaved well (and so we followed John Paul II on our knees across the millennial divide), no institution has given so much to the surrounding culture. Indeed, for centuries after the fall of

Yet there are exceptions. And one of the most powerful—at least on international affairs—is Robert D. Kaplan, whose new book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House), will open more than a few eyes. Kaplan has produced a string of impressive volumes of reporting based on his experience in some very difficult parts of the world. Balkan Ghosts not only earned him recognition as a reporter but made him a valuable adviser to political and military leaders in this country. In The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, Kaplan took a broader view of the persistent human tendencies to violence and disorder. He counseled us to anticipate a future much more troubled than our easy life in contemporary America has prepared us for.

Warrior Politics goes several steps further. Kaplan explicitly sets out to connect his observations of turmoil in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world with some of the classics of political philosophy. He confesses at the outset that he is not a professional philosopher and notes that “philosophy is not necessarily instructive. It can be useless or, in some cases, even dangerous.” But the dangers we face in the modern world demand that we look at the broad sweep of human history. Kaplan draws on Winston Churchill, Thucydides, LINT, Sun-Tzu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and others in the realist tradition to suggest the kind of ethic of responsibility we need.

He begins by arguing that in international affairs, there is no modern world. Despite technological advances and the spread of democracy and human rights, relations among nations are still largely what they have always been. Our belief that we are better than our forbears is a foolish arrogance. Countries still seek to press their advantages, and we must assume they will always try to do so. And other threats are emerging. Writing before September 11, Kaplan notes that “the post–Industrial Revolution empowers anyone with a cellular phone and a bag of explosives. America’s military superiority guarantees that such new adversaries will not fight according to our notions of fairness: they will come at us by surprise, asymmetrically, at our weakest points, as they often have in the past…. Foolish dictators like Saddam Hussein who fight conventional wars against us are historically rare: more likely is a chemical and biological version of Pearl Harbor.”

Sentiments such as that have become commonplace since September 11, but Kaplan’s clairvoyance in advance of that event gives ample reason to take his other predictions quite seriously. The United States, for example, makes it one of its foreign policy goals to promote democracy and human rights around the world. This, Kaplan says, is all to the good—where people are prepared by history and habit to make use of these political instruments. Anyone familiar with the countries in the former Soviet bloc could have predicted that Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary would do well once they attained freedom. The relative failure of other Eastern European nations, however, suggests some limits to American idealism.

Far more worrisome, however, are places where local conditions make democracy not merely difficult but downright dangerous. We tend to believe that unrest is caused by oppression. In many parts of the world, the young populations now moving into cities are powder kegs just waiting to explode. Those nations may need strong government controls, however much that notion runs against our American idealism: “There is nothing more volatile and more in need of disciplined, enlightened direction than vast populations of underpaid, underemployed, and badly educated workers divided by ethnicity and beliefs.”

Paradoxically, giving voice to these masses might lead to more violence rather than less. For instance, we all hope for quick and substantial reform and development in Islamic nations as one way to fight terror. Kaplan believes we may be deluding ourselves: “Some say that only when the Arab world becomes democratic will it make peace with Israel: not necessarily. Liberalization in places like Egypt and Syria may unleash extremist forces that, in the near term, will further destabilize the Middle East.”

Kaplan’s response to all these problems is to advance not a set of policy proposals but a way of thinking about human affairs based on classical thinkers. That method takes very seriously the human propensity for evil and allows for the uncertainty of whatever knowledge we possess at the moment. To prevent catastrophe, we need leaders who are ever mindful of our own fallibility and potential vulnerability This is not a recipe for cynicism and immorality. Indeed, Kaplan thinks that to operate solely on the law of the jungle is both impractical and imprudent. But he points to the ways that Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, John Adams, Montesquieu, Bacon, and others have warned us to beware of treating public affairs as exercises in an abstract moralism.

Ideas like theirs influenced the American founding, which for all its faith in the American people, took steps to guard the new republic against factions and outright evils. Alexander Hamilton says in Federalist 6: “Men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” He and the other great founders took careful steps to balance competing interests, mediate power through representative republican institutions (rather than a direct democracy that might unleash popular passions), and establish checks among the branches of government to prevent any one branch from dominating.

Despite all these cautions, the best leaders have not succumbed to a passive fatalism in the face of human evil and social chaos. Churchill, Kaplan says, was blessed with moral passion, “a clean hatred” that was both more noble and more effective against Hitler than Neville Chamberlain’s fatalism and pragmatism. Ronald Reagan, too, had the kind of basic moral realism that enabled him to see further into the nature of the Soviet Union than many of the experts and to avoid the besetting sin of his critics—”that of being overly rational, a flaw to which policy analysts and other experts are especially prone.”

A philosopher or intellectual historian might quibble with Kaplan’s claim that all this should be thought of as a “pagan ethos.” Too many people— including the American founders, Churchill, and Reagan—whom he admires as effective leaders come out of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. It might be better to think of what he is driving at as basically natural law thinking or Christian realism, both of which have roots in and continuities with the great classical thinkers. But to make that point might have obscured his argument for some readers—and sold fewer books.

Kaplan’s argument is one to which we will turn often in the coming years. We will have to go to both the old philosophers and budding philosophical journalists with much experience of modern conflict if we are to have any hope of succeeding at the heavy work now confronting us in the real world.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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