Value of Political Thought.Political theory has been accused not only of being barren in practical results but even of being fertile with disaster to actual politics. Burke said that one sure symptom of an ill-conducted state was the tendency of the people to revert to theories. Leslie Stephen believed that political philosophy was generally the offspring of a recent, or the sign of an approaching, revolution.
Professor Dunning observed that the crystallization of a political system into political philosophy usually sounded the ‘knell of that system. It is true that theories that have outlived their usefulness have often stood in the way of progress, and that the fanatical ideas of ill-informed and unbalanced zealots have worked confusion.
Against these criticisms may be set the fact that revolutions furthered by political principles have usually been of ultimate benefit to mankind, and that progress toward democracy, individual liberty, and international justice owes much to the doctrines of a long line of able thinkers.
It is sometimes urged that political’ philosophy, like all speculative thought, ignores reality, cannot be applied in practice, and utilizes legal fictions and absolute concepts which are untrue and dangerous. As with all social theory, the complexity of the problems with which it deals prevents exactness. Political theories express tendencies rather than absolute principles, and when applied in practice must take into consideration modifying circumstances. Likewise political concepts, such as the absolute sovereignty of the state or the equality of states, useful as working hypotheses, must not be pushed to extremes against obvious limitations in actual facts.
It is also said that political theory is incapable of giving definite answers to disputed questions, and that if one holds strong views concerning the rights of the individual or the best form of government, he cannot prove his position with any degree of finality. First principles in political theory, as in ethical theory, cannot be proved. They are the results of intellectual judgments or emotional intuitions.
What the study.of political theory can achieve is to bring men together in a common enterprise of reflection and discussion so that they can define their terms and understand one another view point. If the result is mutual respect and toleration, the study of political principles is justified.
On the positive side, political theory may justly lay claim to certain values. It gives precision and definiteness to the meaning of political terms, This is a necessity for every science, but is especially valuable for political science, since its fundamental concepts, such as liberty, independence, democracy, nationality, and the like, are used freely by the average man as well as by the student of politics.
Moreover, political thought examines the actual meanings behind these terms, and this i conducive to clarity and honesty of thought. It is a common device o demagogues to influence men’s minds by the use of words that have acquired desirable or undesirable associations.
Thus at present to call thing democratic is to praise it, whereas to accuse a thing of being radical or none-American is, in the minds of most persons, to attach to it a-certain stigma. Many a word which has now become common place was once the embodiment of a great political passion; others are still effective forces in shaping history.
Political theory is valuable also as an aid to the interpretation of history It gives an insight into the intellectual atmosphere of the past, and explains the motives underlying important political movements. In order to understand the past, one must know not only what men did, but also what men believed and what they hoped for. In so far as the events of the past were shaped by human will, it is necessary to know the ideal: which guided the will.
Institutions are what they are in virtue of the idea: they embody. No one can understand the Middle Ages unless he is familiar with the controversy in political thought between the rival claims of emperor and pope. Nor can one appreciate the middle period all American history unless he understands the issue between the North and the South in terms of the political theory of sovereignty.
A knowledge of past political thought is also essential to an understanding of present-day politics and international relations. The problems of the present have grown up out of conditions in the past, and the political principles that are now being applied are the result of the evolution of past political thought. The theory of separation of powers has had a constant effect on actual government in the United States, and the principle of the balance of power remains fundamental in international politics.
Every state must have its political theory. Some general principles will guide the statesman and the citizen; every readjustment of governmental organization and every policy of governmental action will be based on some general scheme, more or less definite and systematic. The study of political thought, therefore, has practical value in that it aids the formation of habits of more thorough and candid examination of the meaning and tendency of our political undertakings. To a large extent, the future is in the present, as the present was once in the past, as a hope or ideal. Any successful attempt at constructive political progress must rest upon sound and comprehensive political theory, applicable to present-day conditions and needs.
Finally, political thought represents a high type of intellectual achievement and, like other forms of philosophic though has an interest and a value entirely apart from any practical application of its principles. Intelligent men naturally wish to understand the authority under which the live, to analyze its organization’ and its activities, and to speculate concerning the best. form of political existence. The fact that many of the greatest thinkers of all time Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and others were concerned with the political aspects of philosophy is an indication of its importance as a form of intellectual effort.
There have long been two conflicting theories concerning the nature of political evolution. According to the one theory, government is not a matter of human choice, but is an inevitable natural growth in which the deliberate purposes of man have little part. After making some effort to untangle the bewildering facts of social life,
“I doubt whether the history of mankind is yet complete enough, if it ever can be so, to furnish ground for a sure theory on the internal causes which necessarily affect the fortune of a state.”
We are therefore obliged to deliver up that operation to mere chance, or more piously, perhaps more rationally, to the occasional interposition and irresistible hand of the Great Disposer. If this be true, the study of political theory, aside from its academic interest, is futile.
According to the other theory, government is merely a problem in human ingenuity, of determining what is best and adapting the means to the desired end. If this be true, no study can be more valuable than political theory. Each of these doctrines is untenable if pushed to its logical conclusion, yet in some compromise between them lies essential truth. Long the victim of material forces, man has, by taking thought, made himself master of wind and wave and storm. May he not, by taking thought, lift himself above the social conflicts that destroy civilizations, and make himself master of his social destiny?
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