One of the most amusing moments in the run up to this election came when a reporter asked George W. Bush the name of his favorite political philosopher. No one, not even the most rabid Bush supporter, remotely supposed that the Texas governor has spent much time with the works of John Rawls or Leo Strauss. The reporter intended to make trouble. And he did when Bush answered: “Jesus Christ.”
Now, this is the kind of answer that the liberal and partly educated press believes confirms its worst suspicions about a claque of politicians and a whole sector of America. The rubes do little thinking and put their faith in a book and set of teachings they probably barely know. Ronald Reagan was the perfect president for this crowd. At one point in his first term, he held up a Bible at a public event and proclaimed: “It’s all in there.”
Of course, the critic is partly right that it is not all in there. The Bible cannot tell us whether to intervene in Kosovo or what the Federal Reserve interest rate ought to be. Political philosophy—like all the wisdom we cherish under the honorable name philosophy—has had eminent practitioners who flatly disagreed with each other. Rousseau believed human beings good by nature; Machiavelli thought them bad. Yet political philosophy might help us toward some of these difficult decisions. And if we are earnest, not malicious, about knowing a potential future president’s tendencies, his political philosophy, properly speaking (if politicians have such things today), is of some interest.
But if we ask a politician about his political philosophy in a different way, Bush’s response may not be so laughable. Philosophy covers a lot of territory in our popular culture. As in: “Coach Bowden, do you think it says anything about your coaching philosophy that so many of the young men in your Florida State football program ended up in jail last season?”
Or, some of us still remember that around 1993, before reality caught up Bill Clinton, our president used to tell the press that the stern Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was his favorite philosopher. Staffers reported that Bill and Hillary would throw a bunch of books into a bag when they went on vacation: novels, histories, a couple volumes of Plato.
Clinton—and even more certainly Al Gore—could probably give a rough-and-ready account of American philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick, Richard Rorty and Alasdair Maclntyre. They move in those kinds of circles. But does this mark them as superior or even preferable in any way to a man like George W. Bush?
It depends. Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus, was not as twisted as the movie Gladiator portrayed him. But as a human being, he was somewhere between a corkscrew and an ice pick. His father, the greatest philosopher ever to rule, has to share some of the blame for that.
And a man who claimed to be a modern admirer of Marcus, a reader of Plato, a man of many talents, introduced practices into the Oval Office rarely seen outside porno houses.
His vice president, perhaps our next president, did not come under criminal investigation because their attorney general, a creative philosopher in her own right, concluded that the controversy over illegal campaign funds was a matter of differing terminology. Where a nonphilosopher would see Buddhist nuns being used as a cover for illegal contributions, a philosopher sees “community outreach.” The naive realist thinks coffees at the White House are illicit fund-raising on federal premises; the man of large views knows, when the iced tea does not take him down the hall, that many different things transpire over coffee but mostly building friendships for his future.
Those of us who spent much of our youth memorizing Latin paradigms occasionally find that they have their later uses. When we hear “Marcus Aurelius,” it also reminds us of his predecessor, Seneca, who was murdered by the tyrant Nero. As a young man, Nero had been Seneca’s student. There is no accounting for philosophy’s effects in politics. A canny Spaniard, Seneca once remarked to the kind of person with whom we are now quite familiar “You’re not just lying now—you’re philosophizing.”
When the more sophisticated thinking in our public life becomes set in this mold, calling Jesus Christ your favorite political philosopher may not be just an answer for the rubes. It just might be a declaration of simple honesty that many—even non-Christians–can recognize we desperately need.