Postmodern Conservative

A Philosopher’s Fall

The record of the forays by philosophers into practical politics is less than stellar. Plato made no headway in his efforts to moderate the tyrant Dionysius and put his liberty at risk; Machiavelli was expelled from Florence by the Medici and sent into exile; Richard Rorty visited President Clinton at the White House and (according to Benjamin Barber) ineffectually “held forth as if he were addressing a graduate seminar in political theory.” He was compelled to return to Charlottesville. And the list of philosophic failures could go on and on.

All this must have been in the back of President Obama’s mind when he summarily dismissed Charles Hagel, the well-known thinker of German origin. True, Hagel had not displayed all of his brilliance at the time of his confirmation hearing. But it was already well known at the time that Hagel’s lectures and speeches could sometimes be notoriously difficult to follow. Famous for his dialectical perspective on reality, Hagel nevertheless proved unable to overcome or sublate (aufheben) Obama’s conflicting demands to be known as the President who ended all wars and the President who by kinetic action succeeded in degrading and destroying ISIL. In Hagel’s defense, as Peter Spiliakos has pointed out, he was perhaps being asked to reconcile the irreconcilable. Chalk it up as a Dialectic too far.

Never mind. In the end, in the master counselor conflict, it is the counselor who must yield. Hagel will no doubt now return to his native Nebraska to contemplate these and other matters of greater moment. Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug. (The owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.)

James Ceaser — Mr. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976.

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