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Delightful Instruction

By: James V. Schall
August 11, 2011

A review of Political Philosophy: An Introduction, by Richard Stevens.

Richard Stevens has not written one of those popular "how to" books that aim to explain something so even the least intelligent can understand. This is not "political philosophy for dummies." The political philosophy that Stevens introduces requires everything—study, wit, work, good teachers, iron will, and patience. And Stevens is refreshingly blunt. Political philosophy as it appears in his book is by no means always edifying; it is sometimes downright frightening. Every student, especially the best, wondering what this discipline is about, will be grateful to have its many strands brought together in one consideration.

This is not a textbook. It is a philosophic reflection on the essentials of political philosophy as such. Stevens was Leo Strauss's student at Chicago, and is himself professor emeritus of political science at the National Defense University. He does not think he was Strauss's best student, but he comes across as a most perceptive and diligent one. He found in Strauss a brilliant teacher devoted to the truth who spent his life seeking it in places most scholars had ceased considering. Most Straussian themes make an appearance in the book, including the passionate love of study as a lifetime enterprise. Stevens admonishes the student to labor over texts, to find good teachers, to be patient. Political philosophy as he presents it, though never easy, is exciting.

The book is charmingly autobiographical. Stevens's personal pursuit enlivens often difficult ideas. As a young student fresh out of the navy he enrolled in a Los Angeles community college. He did not know what he was looking for. Students since Plato will be familiar with this feeling. After some good teachers—call it chance or providence—Stevens encountered Strauss. He learned how to learn and, more importantly, why. His anecdotal recollections make his points, and they are often amusing. As G.K. Chesterton said, no reason can be found why the truth cannot be funny. Stevens draws some of his philosophic conclusions from reviews of lousy movies. The book also is provocative. Many popular ideas are attacked head-on. We also have here a "magisterial" book. The author betrays the tell-tale marks of a liberally educated man. We cannot study political philosophy without thinking of philosophy, revelation, history, poetry, science, economics, and metaphysics. All these themes are found here in due order.

Strauss had said that the history of political philosophy has replaced the study of political philosophy. The study of truth has been replaced by the study of a series of more or less "brilliant errors." This shift is why students of political philosophy logically become skeptics and begin to think there is no truth. It is one thing to know what, say, Machiavelli "held," but another to judge whether it is true or not. Stevens recognizes that the point of much modern thought, especially postmodern thought, is that there is no truth. Students are brought up on this doctrine as if it is "self-evident." Only by encountering the classics or medievals might they begin to wonder about this unexamined assumption.

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Stevens includes Jewish, Muslim, and Christian revelation, though he is not quite sure what to do with it. He understands the primary importance of philosophy. He defines it as the quest of unaided reason for knowledge of the truth. The adjective "unaided" distinguishes reason from a religious, particularly Christian, philosophy that, as Strauss said, was unavailable to a natural philosopher. Such a restriction of philosophy needs to be treated gingerly. It has become a justification for not considering the content of revelation in philosophic terms.

This restriction, as Joseph Pieper pointed out, would have surprised Aristotle, who was considered the prime example, along with Plato, of what the human mind "by itself" can know. Aristotle did not consider revelation because he never was exposed to it. But nothing in his system would have prevented him from considering it.

Stevens does not think that revelation, which he acknowledges as important, is the heart of political philosophy. He sees the discipline rather in terms of ancients and moderns: he wants the student to understand the radical difference between the ancient and modern understanding of politics. Stevens is a classical philosopher reborn. He explains what it would be like to be one against the background of modern and postmodern thought, and he makes a persuasive case.

Political Philosophy: An Introduction is a remarkable contribution. It does what Strauss asked his students to do, to distinguish the moderns in light of the ancients. In doing this as he does, Stevens shows why the classical authors are still necessary both for our philosophy and our Richard G. Stevens.